For once, being late paid off.
Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum was uncharacteristically serene on a recent Friday evening as about 100 guests mingled in the majestic lobby sipping cocktails. The Dutch national art and history museum was open after-hours for a special showing of its "Late Rembrandt" exhibit, billed as the first major retrospective of the Dutch painter's later work.
The show, which runs through May 17, includes more than 90 Rembrandt paintings, drawings and prints from the last 18 years of the artist's life culled from museums and private collections around the world. Normally, the show is something of a zoo, swarming with an estimated 13,000 people a day, the museum said, stretching their necks to glimpse the self portraits and lushly lighted depictions of 17th century life.
Once a week, however, the museum sells tickets to a late-night showing of the exhibit. A maximum of 1,100 guests are allowed into the vast museum to wander freely through uncrowded galleries for the evening.
So it came to be that, only hours after arriving in the Netherlands last week, my boyfriend and I showed up at the Rijksmuseum around 10 p.m. -- late to the late-night "Late Rembrandt" show. But no matter. We had enough time to check our fog-slicked wool coats and grab a complimentary drink in the lobby before heading into the galleries.
The cavernous lobby was evocative of a Rembrandt painting itself: dimly lighted, with shards of moonlight spilling through the glass ceiling and illuminating the glossy marble floor. A tall, lanky Dutchman in a tweed jacket leaned against a red brick wall stroking his goatee; young couples canoodled on the marble steps, taking in a nearby jazz trio; tuxedo-clad waitstaff bussed trays of drinks. Low-level chatter in Dutch, English and Japanese prattled in the background. It was mannered and low key, a far cry from the typical, late-night, DJ'd art events so common at U.S. museums nowadays.
Inside, Rembrandt's self portraits, from different periods of his life, greeted visitors. The gallery was eerily quiet but for the sound of a couple's shoes shuffling on the hardwood floor. The room was so sparsely populated, it felt almost illicit to be alone with the masterpieces. In his "Self Portrait With Two Circles," the artist stared down at passersby, as if warning them not to run off with the seemingly unsupervised artwork.
Around the corner, six black-clad, grim-looking men in "Syndics of the Drapers' Guild" echoed the sentiment.
Nearby, a lone man stood stock still in front of "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Joan Deyman," in which a doctor dissects the brain of a deceased prisoner. When we left a half-hour later, just before museum closed, he was still standing there, transfixed.
The gallery housing the museum's showcase piece, Rembrandt's "The Night Watch" -- not part of the "Late Rembrandt" show -- was closed. So we pledged to get back later in the week to see it.
After long days of biking through the city's narrow, canal-adjacent streets, taking in flea markets and street art, savory pancakes and punk shows, we ran late, again -- and never made it back to the Rijksmuseum. Which, of course, is reason to return to Amsterdam.