Amsterdam Getaway (cont’d) Museums

You can see those keyhole views for yourself in Amsterdam’s premier temple of art, the Rijksmuseum, the must-see museum for any first-time visitor.

At the moment (and until 2008!), the Rijks (as its is affectionately known) is in the midst of a major renovation, prompted by the discovery that the contractor responsible for an earlier revamping had left most of the asbestos intact. In the interim, the museum is presenting “The Masterpieces” in the compact Philips Wing.

What you get is sort of the Rijks’ (rhymes with bikes) Greatest Hits, which has its pluses and minuses. For the casual tourist, there’s a chance to gawk at “The Night Watch” and see a few Vermeers, Rembrandts, and Hals without wasting a lot of time. What’s missing, alas, is the context.

My fondest memory of an earlier visit to the Rijks was the revelation of what an extraordinary avant-gardist Rembrandt was, an insight that never would have dawned on me had I not been able to see room after room of the quite wonderful (and extremely flattering) portraits turned out by his contemporaries.

“You’ve hired Rembrandt!” I imagined one burgher saying to another. “You’ll look like you’re at death’s door. Get van Hempfeldunken. Made my brother-in-law look twenty years younger!”

Still, an abbreviated Rijks is better than none at all and this selection will do nicely while we count down to the grand reopening.

Practically next door is the Van Gogh Museum, an ultra modern affair that houses the world’s largest collection of works by this astonishing artist. The most famous works may be elsewhere but what’s here is arranged chronologically, allowing you to fully savor the magnitude of van Gogh’s accomplishment.

He didn’t even decide to be an artist until he was 26 and then, in a career that lasted barely longer than a decade he managed to absorb a wide variety of styles, from the Old Masters to the Impressionists, transforming them and making them his own. Talk about a quick study!

The museum does a good job of putting van Gogh in context by exhibiting various works alongside similar work by his contemporaries. Less successful are pairings of van Gogh works with riffs on them by lesser present-day artists.

Outside these two major museums is a spacious and open park whose outdoor cafes offer a welcome chance to sit and sip before tackling the famous canals.