Filming Great Art in Amsterdam

One of the great joys of producing our TV series is the chance to be all alone in Europe’s greatest museums when they’re closed (usually early in the morning). In Amsterdam, we were in both the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum from around 8 a.m. until 10 a.m., when they open to the public.

While we have the place to ourselves, the clock is ticking — we generally have about 90 minutes before the public pours in. An escort from the museum sticks with us every minute, making sure we stay within our permitted bounds. The cameraman shoots the art every which way to cover the script. It’s wonderful to have the privacy with the art to get the fine work done, and then have a few minutes with the public to get wide shots that show these temples of art filled with the faithful.

Invariably, I don’t know exactly what I’ll be saying on camera until I’m there and we survey what we’re about to shoot. Then I scramble to write and memorize my lines. Writing all alone in front of Rembrandt’s fabled Night Watch was a treat. Here’s the bit I just wrote — first off camera (because it’s easy to “cover” the content by showing details from the painting), then on camera (for material that’s harder to illustrate, so it makes more sense for me to say it directly to the camera):

[28] In Rembrandt’s Night Watch, we see another group portrait. But rather than the standard stiff pose, this one bursts with energy. It’s the local militia, which was also a fraternity of business bigwigs — a kind of Rotary Club of the 17th century. They tumble out of their hall, weapons drawn, ready to defend the city. While it’s creative and groundbreaking in its composition, some of those who paid the artist — like this guy — were probably none too pleased.

[27, on camera] This art is really all about money. The Dutch worked hard and were brilliant traders, and the wealthy had plenty of money…to match their egos. Here, artists earned their living not working for the Church or a king, but by painting portraits for local big shots.


Rick-Steves-Nightwatch-RijksmuseumSitting all alone in front of a great work — like Rembrandt’s Night Watch — the words come easy to this travel writer.


Filming-Vincent-van-GoghThis is the typical scene when filming in a great art museum. Our lighting floods old paintings with brightness, making colors and details pop like even local guides and museum art historians have never seen. But I’m always on pins and needles that someone will come and say “no lights.” When necessary, Simon holds a big piece of black cloth up to stop any glare — especially important when glass covers a canvas.


van-gogh-crows-in-wheat-fieldIn Wheat Field with Crows, one of Vincent van Gogh’s last works, the canvas is a wall of thick paint, with roads leading nowhere and ominous black crows taking flight. Overwhelmed with life, Vincent walked into a field like this one… and shot himself.


van-gogh-roots-amsterdamMost guides and guidebooks love to perpetuate the idea that Wheat Field with Crows was Van Gogh’s final work. It just fits with the story of his suicide. But art historians now believe that this painting, Roots, was Vincent’s last work.


3 Replies to “Filming Great Art in Amsterdam”

  1. How lucky to have the Van Gogh and Rijks to yourself. I made the mistake of getting up early and hitting the Van Gogh museum when it opened. I had purchased the IamAmsterdam card so I did not have to stand in line to enter. Arriving early was a big mistake since it was also the arrival of the tour buses. I realized if I started from the upstairs and worked my way down I didn’t have the school of fish to swim through.

    Arriving early to the Rijks museum totally worked I had took a break to get a bite to eat around 1 at the Rijks restaurant and the crowd was complaining about waiting over an hour to enter. This was the end of May before tourist season.

    When I’m in the museum I check out the restaurants since I spend hours looking at the exhibits and people watching. My favorite was the little cafe in De Oude Kerk gardens. They have the best homemade soups, breads and pastries. Made by women who are learning a new trade when leaving the sex industry.

    I also found the best Subway restaurant in the world. If you can imagine. I don’t do chain restaurants but I stumbled on it taking the ferries behind the Central train station. I think it was a coffee shop build in the early 19th century. Built to look like a ship with port holes and the most amazing views of the active port. Very busy with the locals. I think you should check it out.

  2. Thanks Rick for such fun blogs about Holland! Inspired by your early morning trip to the Rijksmuseum, I went today 10 minutes after opening, and had the place all to myself, even in July.

    Normally, Vermeer’s Milkmaid is nearly impossible to see with so many people holding their phones and cameras in front of it. But today I had it all to myself, and it was a true pleasure.

    Besides the Great Hall with the Vermeer and the Rembrants, a small section of the museum, 1.11, has a few delightful landscapes of typical Dutch villages 200 years ago, with people building boats and repairing houses. There are also some of Amsterdam, when it was small but strong. This is my favorite section, as it is usually empty and the paintings allow me to imagine the old world vividly, and feel close to it.

    Looking forward to your new shows on The Netherlands!


  3. I thought the latest take on Van Gogh’s death was that he was accidently shot by a youth. I think the New Yorker magazine had an article about this last year.

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