Rembrandt, Bruce, and I

Some of life’s most pleasant moments, I think, are those that happen to us without planning or expectation.  Yesterday I had such an experience.

As an American citizen who has a public role in Amsterdam, every year I receive an invitation to the US Consulate General’s 4th of July celebration.  This year, much to the chagrin of my Canadian wife, the party was held on July 1 (if you don’t know why an American celebration held on that date would bother a Canadian, well, shame on you).  Last year’s event was held on a US Navy vessel which happened to be in port on July 4th, but this year the Navy didn’t oblige so we were requested to come to an evening reception at the Rijksmuseum.

My friend Bruce, by virtue of being an interim chaplain at Schiphol airport, and an American, was also invited.  So a little past 6 p.m. we met up on our bicycles near the Bagles and Beans, and cycled together the rest of the way.  I had purposefully underdressed for the occasion (light short sleeve shirt, chino trousers) because it has been warm and – after overdressing for the past 5 years or more – I have a couple of underdressing tabs to use up on my account.

The usual crowd was there: locals who have a lot to do with the consulate throughout the year, including senior police officers, politicians, business people, the airport’s Homeland Security detachment (someone’s gotta check those No Fly Lists!), and the sprinkling of ordained clergy – two of us, to be exact.  The speeches were of the usual variety too, except that the Consul General, Marjorie, quoted much more than in previous years from the incumbent US President.  It helps SO much to have an eloquent President!

After the singing of the national anthem and a welcome by the museum’s curator, we were free to hang out in a nice big room, surrounded by paintings and sculptures, enjoying drinks and hors d’oeuvres and just mingling.  Bruce and I chatted with a good number of others, but after a bit we decided to go exploring.  We headed up a staircase and what we soon discovered was almost unbelievable: the entire museum was ours to move around in!  There before us was a vast collection of world-class paintings, worth millions and millions of dollars, just waiting to be examined in the unhurried quiet.  Only a handful of other guests had made the same discovery, and so as we moved from room to room there was often just the two of us (along with an unobtrusive security guard in the corner, naturally).

I have never before had such an opportunity, and the experience was exquisite – taking in all the wonderful Dutch masters: Rembrandt, Steen, Vermeer, Maes, Cuyp  – being able to put my face right up to the canvas, take my time to marvel at the detail, or alternatively to stand back and take in the full scene without a single other person barging into my frame of view.  Rembrandt’s self-portraits and Biblical scenes, Vermeer’s Milkmaid and street in Delft, pastoral scenes, group scenes, on and on.

We rounded a corner and there was Rembrandt’s Night Watch, the crowning piece in the museum’s collection.  Actually, I’m not that keen on it.  Too big.  Not a terribly interesting subject matter.  Give me Isaac and Rebecca any day.  Or the early self-portait, not bigger than a standard letter-sized piece of paper.  But here by the Night Watch a veritable crowd had gathered – 8 people?  Not more.

Maybe that’s why I don’t like the painting; there are always so many people hanging around it.

What a night!

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