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The Director's Guide: the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

John O'Ceallaigh
Almond Blossom (1890), from the permanent collection of Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum - Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

An unparalleled tribute to Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum provides the most comprehensive insight possible into the work and influences of the enduringly popular Dutch painter. 

But with the museum's collection incorporating some 200 paintings, 500 drawings and 800 letters, there's a lot to take in. Here, museum director Axel Rüger gives his insider guide to the best of the attraction. 

How should first-time visitors structure their visit?

It actually starts at home: before visiting, you should order your entrance tickets online for a specific time slot. Our main collection consists of four floors, and it is structured in thematic and chronological order, based on the life of Vincent van Gogh. If visitors start on the ground floor in the self-portrait gallery and continue up, they will finish their visit by seeing work by artists who were inspired by Vincent van Gogh.

Sunflowers (1889) Credit: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

What should visitors ensure they see?

A few of the masterpieces in our collection are, of course, Sunflowers, Almond Blossom and The Potato Eaters. We are very proud that we can share these impressive and special pieces with our visitors. Twice a year, we also show a temporary exhibition in our exhibition wing.

From March 1 to May 26 this year, Hockney – Van Gogh: The Joy of Nature will be on show. It will demonstrate the unmistakable influence that Vincent van Gogh had on the work of David Hockney. Visitors will learn about both artists’ fascination with nature, their use of bright colours and their experimentation with perspective.

David Hockney's Woldgate Vista, 27 July 2005' will be displayed at the Van Gogh Museum this year Credit: David Hockney, Photo Credit: Richard Schmidt

For visitors with limited time, which rooms should be prioritised?

The room on the first floor, which includes Sunflowers, pictures of blossom trees and other paintings by Vincent that were inspired by Japan. You can also find works by contemporaries of Vincent such as Signac and Degas, both of whom he admired.

Which works best give insight into the Netherlands?

The Potato Eaters (1885). At the start of his career, Vincent van Gogh was very interested in painting country life: the hard-working people, the peasants. This painting and the room it is in give the visitor a little insight into Dutch rural living at the time.

The Potato Eaters (1885) Credit: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

What are your favourite works?

If I have to choose, Wheatfield with Crows (1890). I really like the contrast of the blue and yellow, and the ominous feeling it gives you. But at the same time, it exudes a lot of energy.

Wheatfield with Crows (1890) Credit: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Which work has the most interesting history?

There are two currently: View of the Sea at Scheveningen (1882) and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen (1884) were stolen from the museum in 2002 and returned to our collection in 2017 after an absence of 14 years. They were found in Naples, something we never imagined would happen after such a long time; we feared they were lost.  

Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen (January-February 1884 and autumn 1885) Credit: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

What is likely to be the most controversial work?

We recently found out that a photograph that was long thought to be of the 13-year-old Vincent van Gogh is in fact a portrait of his brother Theo van Gogh, aged 15. This discovery was the result of new, in-depth research conducted by the Van Gogh Museum and Yves Vasseur, and was confirmed by forensic examination.

Can you share a little-known fact about Van Gogh?

Vincent always signed his works using his first name instead of his surname. He may have done this because when he worked as an art dealer outside of the Netherlands, he might have noticed that people from abroad often had difficulty pronouncing his family name.

But, it could also be that he did this out of ambition. By only using his first name, Vincent might have wanted to follow the tradition of renowned artists. For example, Rembrandt also only used his first name.

Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum Credit: Jan-Kees Steenman

What is the greatest challenge the Van Gogh Museum faces?

Vincent van Gogh is very popular all over the world. It is a challenge to respond to this global demand of seeing his works, learning about his life and trying to inspire as many people as possible in the context of the limited capacity of our museum, a vulnerable collection that cannot travel that often and the fact that not everyone that is interested has the possibility to travel to Amsterdam. We try to think of other possibilities, like ways we can present Vincent’s stories digitally.

A display inside the Van Gogh Museum Credit: Jan Kees Steenman

What's unique about the institution?

The institution focuses on one sole artist and, as well as some of his aforementioned masterpieces, the museum’s collection also includes his letters. These are very valuable to us, since they tell us a lot about Van Gogh and his life. We display them every once in a while, and then let them rest in storage, as they are very fragile.

What is interesting about the building the museum occupies?

The museum's main building, on Paulus Potterstraat, is designed by the famous architect Gerrit Rietveld and opened in 1973. Rietveld was an important member of De Stijl, a group of progressive artists and architects active in the 1920s.

Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat (1887) Credit: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Rietveld’s modernist vision stressed geometric shapes and light, open spaces and this approach is particularly evident in the staircase in the museum's central hall, where the daylight streams into the galleries through a high skylight. 

What else do you recommend visitors do in Amsterdam?

I'd recommend exploring the canals by boat, or visiting smaller museums located in canal houses, like Ons' Lieve Heer op Zolder (a well-preserved 17th-century house with a church in its attic) or the photography museum FOAM. The NDSM-Werf, a former shipyard turned cultural centre with bars and restaurants, is also worth a visit.

How to visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam

  • Address: Museumplein 6, 1071 DJ Amsterdam (telephone +31 (0) 20 570 5200)
  • Opening times: the museum is open daily from at least 9am to 5pm, and until 9pm on most Fridays; opening hours are extended during the city's peak tourist seasons - check the website for details.
  •  Ticket prices: €19; under-18s free