The Hidden Masterpieces of the Rijksmuseum

Artsy Editors
Oct 11, 2019 4:42PM

Most visitors to the most popular museum in the Netherlands are lured through the Gallery of Honor and the 17th-century galleries, absorbed in important paintings like Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (1642) or Johannes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid (1660). But with over 1 million artworks and historical objects in its collection, the Rijksmuseum has many more treasures to offer.

The Amsterdam museum, long housed in an 1885 Gothic Revival building designed by Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers, has been transformed since its inception in 1800. As a small, government-run institution dedicated to preserving national heritage, the collection expounds on the history and culture of the Dutch Golden Age, but has grown to encompass jewelry, furniture, photography, prints, and 20th-century works of art. Despite a focus on Europe and the Netherlands, the museum also houses an important collection of Asian art. Many renovations have been undertaken to the Cuypers building to make room for the expanding collection—most recently the Asian Pavilion, unveiled in 2013, and the Philips exhibition wing, in 2014.

There are untold, overlooked masterpieces in the museum, passed in haste on the way to the “must-see.” Whether you’re a regular or preparing for your first visit, you’ll find plenty of surprises in our alternative guide to the hallowed institution. The list below, presented in chronological order, offers photo-worthy, rousingly puzzling, unknown chefs-d’œuvres selected by the people who know the museum’s holdings best: its curators.

Dish with scalloped rim (ca. 1000–99), Northern Song dynasty, China

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Dish with scalloped rim, ca. 1000–99. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.


Due to its simplistic form and plain white color, this dish is easily overlooked by visitors in the gallery. The dish is a product of Ding ware, one of the five most famous kilns of the Song dynasty (960–1279)—the others are Ru ware, Guan ware, Jun ware, and Ge ware—and the most outstanding white stoneware of its time. Its use in the imperial household during the Northern Song (960–1127) demonstrates its high quality. It was the most distinctive among the many white wares in China.

This dish is thinly potted, with very gently curved, flared sides that rise at a wide angle from the chamfered edge of the flat base to a lipless rim that is divided into six lobes by shallow notches. The elegant shape of this dish is exquisitely refined. Its minimal shape reflects the excellent aesthetic taste of its owners.

The glaze of this piece, at its best, is white-bodied but not translucent ware, which has a transparent, ivory-colored glaze. If one looks more closely, one notices that there are some “tear drops” (leihen) on the surface. A tear drop is caused when the glaze is applied unevenly and flows down the surface. This may be seen as an imperfection of the ware, but according to a 14th-century account, Treatise on Collecting and Assessing Antiques (Gegu yaolun, published in 1388), written by the connoisseur Cao Chao, all genuine pieces of Ding ware have tear drops on the outside.

— Ching-Ling Wang, Curator of Chinese Art

Aquamanile in the form of a lion with a mounted female figure (ca. 1220–30), German

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Aquamanile in the form of a lion with a mounted female figure ca. 1220–30. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

At first, the ensemble of a lady sitting on top of a tree on a lion’s back looks like an ordinary sculpture. But looking closer, you can see a small spout in the lion’s left ear. This is not a sculpture, but a special kind of medieval ewer, called an aquamanile. The term “aquamanile” derives from the Latin words for water (aqua) and hand (manus). This example in the form of a lion was filled with water through an opening in the animal’s head, which is covered by a lid. The water was poured out by the small spout in the ear.

I always like to tell visitors about aquamanilia and the surprising effect they must have caused when they were used in the Middle Ages. The spectators must have been astonished by the water unexpectedly flowing out of the lion’s ear. Aquamanilia were used only occasionally. In a secular setting, they were used for washing hands before dinner at important events, like a wedding. In a liturgical context, aquamanilia were utilized by the priest during mass. At other moments, they were placed on top of an altar or in treasuries, together with other precious and rare objects. Aquamanilia were clearly objects to show off.

— Lucinda Timmermans, Junior Curator of Metals

Circle of Geertgen tot Sint Jans, The Tree of Jesse (ca. 1500), Dutch

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Circle of Geertgen tot Sint Jans, The Tree of Jesse, ca. 1500. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.


Visitor’s reactions to this beautiful and colorful painting, made around 1500, are always positive. Everyone loves the colors and fancy costumes. Yet the picture is filled with so many figures and other details that at first sight, it might be difficult to appreciate the beauty of it.

On a small patch of garden enclosed by a low wall rests Jesse, the ancestor of Christ. As prophesied by Isaiah 11:1, “there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.” The 12 kings of Judah sit on the branches, starting with King David with the harp on the lowest branch. High up in the tree, on the lap of his mother Mary, is the Christ Child.

Looking through the branches past the figures, we catch a glimpse of several buildings, a church tower, and a refectory, perhaps. This biblical scene has been set in a peaceful, late-medieval courtyard of a monastery. The nun, clad in white, probably a member of the Whiteladies Convent in Haarlem, might have been the donor of the painting.

— Matthias Ubl, Curator of Early Netherlandish and German Painting and Stained Glass

Attributed to Jan Provoost, Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Saints Jerome and John the Baptist and a Carthusian Monk (ca. 1510), Dutch

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Attributed to Jan Provoost, Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Saints Jerome and John the Baptist and a Carthusian Monk, ca. 1510. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

Often, when I am in the galleries, I stand in front of this intriguing painting, looking at all the beautiful details and fabrics. Painted in Bruges around 1510, probably for the Carthusian monk who is kneeling in prayer in front of the Virgin and Child sitting on a throne, the scene is situated in a late-medieval interior. After looking very closely, one notices that the throne is made of metal and stone columns.

One can also see many tiny, beautifully sculpted figures in niches in the pedestal.

The monk is accompanied by two saints: Jerome and John the Baptist. The latter is often recognizable through his attribute, the lamb. Here, he is shown in a ragged cloth, referring to his stay in the wilderness. Carefully held by his mother on her lap, the Christ Child cautiously turns a page in a precious, handwritten book, and simultaneously presents a rosary to the monk. Through a door and the tracery of a window, we look outside, probably onto monastery buildings and a beautifully tended garden with flowerbeds framed with bricks. Behind the fence an old man is sitting on a turf seat in front of a hedge of vine. Could that be Joseph, Jesus’s father?

— Matthias Ubl, Curator of Early Netherlandish and German Painting and Stained Glass

Jan Jansz Mostaert, Portrait of an African Man (Christophle le More?) (ca. 1525–30), Dutch

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Jan Jansz Mostaert, Portrait of an African Man (Christophle le More?), ca. 1525–30). Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

This portrait by Jan Jansz Mostaert is very special to me, because this is the only individual portrait of an African man of color to have survived from the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. It is not clear who this sitter is, but his clothing suggests that he had a considerable position and probably would have been a soldier. The historian Ernst van den Boogaart suggested that this portrait might have been of Christophle le More, an archer who was a member of Emperor Charles V’s elite corps. The name Christophle is found in numerous documents. The first time his name appears is in 1501, on the payment list of the Spanish Dutch rulers, and for the last time in 1521, when he was in Aachen as a member of the bodyguard for Charles V’s coronation as emperor.

People of African descent, with the exception of this work, are not present in European portrait paintings of that period. Africans were predominantly depicted in biblical works, such as the figure of the African magi in an Adoration of the Christ Child or as Saint Maurice,which meant that the representation of Africans during that period lacks individualized characteristics. The special thing about Mostaert’s portrait is that we are looking at a real person who exudes a very dignified and proud attitude, if you ask me. It is encouraging to be able to look into early Netherlandish history and encounter a real person with African roots.

— Stephanie Archangel, Junior Curator of History

Lock in the form of a classical portico (1587), Dutch

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Lock in the form of a classical portico, 1587. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

One of the places in the museum I like the most is our Special Collections presentation. Many treasures can be found in these darker rooms. One of the most overlooked displays is a group of locks and keys at the beginning of this area in the museum. One of the oldest locks shows a small classical portico with two columns on either side and a Roman head on top of the tympanum. Between the columns appears the coat of arms of Arkel, a nearby Dutch city, with the year 1587 underneath.

Most locks and keys are made from iron, an undervalued material. This is regretful, since many iron artworks are true masterpieces. The last time these locks were shown in the museum was during World War II, when many artworks were removed to keep them safe. The iron works were considered to be very strong, though, and therefore they were chosen to decorate a large part of the galleries. It is only since the reopening of the museum in 2013 that these locks are back on display and serve an important role, symbolically opening our Special Collections.

— Lucinda Timmermans, Junior Curator of Metals

Anselmus Boëtius de Boodt, Historia Naturalis van Rudolf II (ca. 1596–1610), Dutch

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Anselmus Boëtius de Boodt, Snapdragon Plant with Seed Pods (Antirrhinum majus L.), 1596–1610. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

Anselmus Boëtius de Boodt, Bumblebeeophrys (Ophrys bombyliflora) and anemones (Anemone), 1596–1610. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

On permanent display in our Tapestry Gallery at any one time are 6 of the 12 volumes of 750 watercolors that constitute the Historia naturalis, an exquisitely illustrated encyclopedia of the world’s plants, animals, and birds. This extraordinary compendium—generously placed on long-term loan from a private collection—was compiled at the turn of the 17th century for Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II of Prague by his personal physician, the extraordinary late Renaissance polymath Anselmus de Boodt.

When Emperor Rudolf died, leaving many bills unpaid, the frustrated De Boodt took all 750 watercolors back to his native Bruges. In his will, he left them to two nephews, who were allowed to sell everything except the portfolios of drawings of “dieren, vogels, en bloemen” (“animals, birds, and flowers”). These, he instructed, were to remain together and pass to each generation’s male heir. They did just that for nearly two-and-a-half centuries. Since then, they have changed hands, other than by inheritance, only two other times!

If knowledge of God’s kingdom—every plant, bird, and animal—was the goal of the scholars at the intellectual Prague court, it is surprising to find dotted among the watercolors a few fantasy images of mythical beasts, including sea monsters, plants that grow out of snakes, and a dragon drawn from “the one in the possession of Rudolph.” Yet beware of seeing fantasy where there is none! The latest rotation includes what was previously described as an “unidentified plant” with little skulls. Yet the inscription, Antirrhinum, provided the clue to identifying the shrunken heads as the seedpods of the common snapdragon. The next rotation, scheduled for December 2019, will include another one of nature’s little jokes, an orchid with little green birds’ or ducks’ heads, which I was able to recognize as a Laughing Bumblebee Orchid (Ophrys bombyliflora).

— Jane Turner, Head of the Rijksprentenkabinet

Pendant in the shape of Death (ca. 1600), German

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Pendant in the shape of Death, ca. 1600. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

Most visitors to the Rijksmuseum wander through the Gallery of Honor and the 17th-century galleries looking at Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Frans Hals, totally unaware of the treasures we have in the Special Collections on the ground floor of the museum. Among ship models, ceramics, weapons, glass, and textiles, a collection of 250 pieces of jewelry is on display, from early medieval times up until 1970.

One piece is easily overlooked due to its size. This pendant in the form of Death, which stands just over an inch tall, is personified as a human skeleton holding a scythe. It is a memento mori, a constant reminder for the wearer of their mortality. When you look closely, you can marvel at the craftsmanship of the goldsmith and the enameller. I am always amazed to see how the white enamel is sculpted around the golden framework. This technique is called en ronde bosse enamel and is typical for this period. Everyone who has ever worked with enamel understands how difficult this is. Nowadays, we can set an enamel oven to a specific temperature. Working in this small scale and judging the oven fire on color by experience only makes this pendant even more admirable.

Hidden on the underside of the pendant is a seal or cachet. In mirror writing, it reads “atent leure,” reminding the wearer once more to beware of time, emphasized by the hourglass. The seal could be used for red sealing wax, of which remnants are still visible in some of the letters.

— Suzanne van Leeuwen, Junior Curator of Jewelry

Frans Jansz Post, Landscape in Brazil (1652), Dutch

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Frans Jansz Post, Landscape in Brazil. 1652. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

This painting was made by the printmaker, painter, and draughtsman Frans Post, who was born in Haarlem. He, along with Albert Eckhout, became one of the most famous painters to have made depictions of the short-lived Dutch colony in Brazil between 1630 and 1654. Post was commissioned by Johan Maurits van Nassau, the governor general, and remained in Brazil for seven years. Back in the Netherlands, he settled in Haarlem and continued to paint and sell this type of “exotic” Brazilian landscapes.

This is the largest painting that Post made and offers a grand view of a river landscape. The arch form of the frame resembles that of the window frames used in Brazilian colonial architecture and gives the onlooker the illusion of looking through a window down on a plantation with a sugar mill. Post traveled with the Dutch West India Company when it conquered parts of Brazil and ousted the Portuguese settlers who were based there. Foiling the enemy was a main task of this trading company, and the Dutch took over the profitable sugar production that the Portuguese had started.

This piece is an important painting in our collection because it is rare for such works to depict the actual activities of the Dutch in the colonies. However, this painting still depicts these activities in an idyllic way and therefore disregards the hellish reality of enslaved people, who were forced to work under inhuman conditions on similar plantations like this. Despite this European perspective of the colony, it does allow us to hold a conversation on this important part of Dutch history.

— Stephanie Archangel, Junior Curator of History

Willem van de Velde the Elder, The Battle of Livorno (Leghorn) (ca. 1659–99), Dutch

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Willem van de Velde (I), The Battle of Livorno (Leghorn), ca. 1659–99. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

On permanent display in our marine gallery are four “pen paintings” (penschilderijen) by Willem van de Velde. I often tease my paintings colleagues by suggesting that these extraordinary works really belong in the Print Room. They are actually enormous “drawings” executed in pen and ink on a primed canvas!

It must have taken the artist weeks and weeks on end to make these works, which resemble meticulous, accurate engravings. As a visitor, be careful of the security barrier, but get as close as possible so as not to miss the incredible detail (e.g., the victims of the burning ship plunged into the sea; the survivors raising their arms in surrender). The details are so accurate that naval historians have been able to reconstruct historical events from the works. Van de Velde achieved this degree of verisimilitude because he witnessed the battles firsthand from a little boat, seen in the foreground of one of the paintings.

The Rijksmuseum’s series of pen paintings, some still in their original frames, was commissioned by the family of the Dutch naval commander Admiral Maerten Tromp to commemorate his victories; they were displayed at Trompenburg, the family’s manor house near Hilversum. Tromp’s son had this built in the shape of a ship. Almost completely surrounded by water, it even had decks and railings inside. The series of pen paintings was hung around the “galley.”

— Jane Turner, Head of the Rijksprentenkabinet

​Moses ter Borch, Self-portrait (ca. 1660–61), Dutch

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Moses ter Borch, Smiling self-portrait, from the front, ca. 1660–61. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

​Moses ter Borch, Self-portrait, ca. 1660–61. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

Sadly, the talent of Moses ter Borch, the youngest of a family of artists from Zwolle, was never allowed to develop. He died at sea at the age of 22, fighting with the Dutch fleet during the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665–67). As an artist, he had a lot to offer and would probably have rivaled his successful half-brother, Gerard ter Borch the Younger.

In this painted self-portrait, Moses was barely 15 years old. He is not looking at us, but rather examining his reflection in a mirror. Thatthe young artist—inspired by Rembrandt—frequently studied his own face, recording different expressions and emotions and pulling funny faces, is known from a group of drawn self-portraits. The Rijksmuseum holds a dozen of these intriguing and personal studies. They were part of the Ter Borch studio estate, acquired by the museum from the last heirs of the family in 1886.

— Maud van Suylen, Junior Curator of Drawings and Prints

Attributed to Jan van Mekeren, Cabinet with floral marquetry (ca. 1695–1710), Dutch

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Attributed to Jan van Mekeren, Cabinet with floral marquetry, ca. 1695–1710. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

Most people know the Dutch still-life paintings depicting flowers in a vase. Jan van Mekeren was a master cabinetmaker who produced cabinets and tables with flower bouquets made from veneer instead of paint. The veneers were made by cutting thin slices of woods of many different colors, ranging from white (holly) to brown (walnut), yellow (burberry), purple (purpleheart), and black (ebony). Other colors like green, red, and blue were made by staining light veneers with dyes that were also used for coloring textiles. The flowers, leaves, stems, butterflies, and birds were cut out of these different veneers with a fine fret-saw and assembled like a jigsaw puzzle. Individual pieces of each flower were partly scorched in hot sand to create a shading effect, and, as a result, a three-dimensional image. The whole pattern was glued onto the oak carcass of which the actual cabinet was constructed, scraped, and sanded until the surface was smooth and finished with several coats of beeswax to obtain a glossy, protective finishing layer.

The Rijksmuseum has a table by the same maker, and similar furniture is found in Amerongen Castle, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Research by the Rijksmuseum furniture conservators into the manufacturing process revealed that the flowers, birds, and insects on all these pieces are cut using the same designs, but that the flower arrangement is always different—similar to how one would arrange flowers into a vase.

Despite some fading of the original colors, the cabinet with flowers is still striking and a wonderful example of the craftsmanship of the Dutch Golden Age.

— Paul van Duin, Head of Furniture Conservation

Calendar (ca. 1725–60), Dutch

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Calendar, ca. 1725–60. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

This earthenware calendar is hardly the most monumental piece of Dutch Delftware in the collection of the Rijksmuseum, but it has an unassuming charm that I find irresistible. It would have been quite a technical feat to make the container at the back that holds the dial with numbers indicating the days of the month. By turning the knob at the center of the calendar once a week, the dial was moved to indicate the dates corresponding with the days of that week. A small pin (now missing) was placed in the holes indicating the appropriate month.

The slightly naïve style of the small scenes representing the four seasons adds to the charm of the object. The almost geometric motif of four repeating petal flowers with larger flowers superimposed in the center of each side is reminiscent of decorations on Asian ceramics, but had become commonplace in Delftware by the middle of the 18th century. When we were installing the calendar gallery, I couldn’t help myself and put the dial on Saturday the 13th, the day in April 2013 that the Rijksmuseum reopened after an extensive renovation.

— Femke Diercks, Head of Decorative Arts

Collector’s cabinet with miniature apothecary (1730), possibly Dutch

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Collector's cabinet with miniature apothecary, 1730. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

With the mirrored doors closed, this cabinet appears to be a writing cabinet. Opening the top doors, a miniature pharmacy is revealed. It shows us how an 18th-century apothecary’s shop looked and what it contained—real-size apothecaries of that period have not survived. On the many shelves, we find 92 Delftware pots and jugs, the contents labeled on the outside but unfortunately dried up. The 148 glass jars and bottles are still properly sealed and contain their original ingredients, as is shown by the colored powders such as cinnabar (red) and viride aeris (a copper compound that is blue). Behind this uniquely preserved shop, much more is to be discovered. By opening the doors further, removing the niche with the antique bronze figure of Pallas Athena, and subsequently moving the whole rear wall with pots and jars up through the top of the cabinet, 55 secret drawers can be revealed.

Each drawer has a unique geometric pattern of compartment walls, gilded on top. The drawers contain over 2,000 different specimens, ranging from flowers, seeds, fruits, and roots to parts of animals like bone, feather, and eggshell, as well as minerals, fossils, precious stones, and even uranium-bearing minerals. (The latter are now securely and safely stored elsewhere.) The other contents remain within the cabinet but are unfortunately not visible to the spectator, unless he or she acquires the extensive catalog that was recently made by a multidisciplinary team of experts from the geological, botanical, and pharmaceutical sciences. The cabinet is displayed in a showcase in the museum, with the doors wide open to show the apothecary and some of the secret drawer-fronts.

— Paul van Duin, Head of Furniture Conservation

Teapot (théière Calabre), Manufacture de Sèvres (1775), French

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Teapot (théière Calabre), Manufacture de Sèvres, 1775. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

When one thinks of the Rijksmuseum’s collection of ceramics, French porcelain is not the first thing to spring to mind. Indeed, Delftware and Meissen porcelain often outshine the small group of Sèvres porcelain on display in the 18th-century galleries. The collection of this most exquisite French porcelain might not be big, but it contains some wonderful pieces. One of my personal favorites is this teapot. It’s relatively small and has a simple but elegant shape. The oblong body forms the canvas for two oval paintings, one of Leda or Venus bathing, the other of two girls by a stream. They were made by the leading painter of the Sèvres factory, Charles Nicolas Dodin.

When you pay close attention to the paintings, you see that the detailing is quite spectacular, from the shading in the flesh tones of the skin of the female figures to ruffles on the girl’s garments and the petals on roses, heightened with white. As is often the case with paintings on porcelain, the composition derives from a print source—in this case, two engravings by Demarteau after François Boucher. However, where prints are inevitably monochrome, Dodin gave both scenes a wonderful palette that is quite vibrant, but does not compete with the rich green ground and intricately tooled gilding on the body of the pot.

— Femke Diercks, Head of Decorative Arts

Laura Theresa Alma Tadema, Anna Leafing Through a Portfolio of Prints (1874), British

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Laura Theresa Alma Tadema, Anna Leafing Through a Portfolio of Prints, 1874. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

Anna—the 7-year-old stepdaughter of the artist Laura Alma Tadema-Epps, the second wife of the Dutch-British painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema—holds up a large print with both hands. I find the detail of her outstretched little pinky, which emphasizes the effort of the task, quite touching. She is just about able to peek her head around the sheet in order to register the onlooker’s reaction to what might be her favorite work from the pile. Her sweet and attentive gaze is also what draws our attention to the small, oblong-format panel (it’s only about 4 by 12 inches). Trained by her father, Anna later became a credible artist herself, exhibiting her work at the Royal Academy in London.

The important role played by works on paper in this recently acquired painting is what makes it all the more appealing to me. Not only do we witness the little girl’s fondness for prints (with their broad margins, the kind one would hang on a wall), it also shows how these fragile works were safely kept: in a portfolio. This one is opened, the cover propped against the wall on the left. Moreover, there is a large drawing or sketch hanging in a narrow gold frame on the back wall. At the Rijksmuseum, the small presentations of drawings and prints in our so-called “cabinets” are changed every four months due to the fragility of these works.

— Maud van Suylen, Junior Curator of Drawings and Prints

Anonymous, Doorway of a Private House, Stiftgasse 5, Vienna (ca. 1894), Austrian

On requst at the Rijksmuseum Research Library

Anonymous, Doorway of a Private House, Stiftgasse 5, Vienna, ca. 1894. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

Curating a collection of some 150,000 photographs and 17,000 photobooks, it is impossible to know or remember every single image. So every now and then, you are struck by photographs that have been part of your collection for a long time, but escaped your attention. When preparing the show “New Realities. Photography in the 19th Century,” which took place in the summer of 2017, my colleague and I went through a lot of boxes and books to make a selection for both the exhibition and the catalog.

One day, I leafed through a book that had been published in Vienna in 1894, Albert Ilg’s Portale von Wiener Profanbauten des XVII. und XVIII. Jahrhunderts. Its sole purpose was to reproduce portals of secular Viennese buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries. It had become part of the collection for the simple reason it was photographically illustrated. Some books in the photographic library were meant as photo books as such; most, however, include photographs that merely document and illustrate the book’s subject. Those in the latter category consist mostly of books that do not even mention the photographer’s name.

But what amazing photographs! Some are a bit spooky, like the one of the Stiftgasse, where we can look through the doorway. After a while, you will notice a woman is leaning out of the window; she also seems to wonder what is taking place. In some images, people are standing in front of their shop or restaurant, like in one that depicts an ale house. All of a sudden, I realized this was very much like an Atget photograph but was made in Vienna, not Paris, and before Atget started working. These anonymous Viennese images have the same atmosphere as those by the now-famous French photographer.

— Hans Rooseboom, Curator of Photography

Lucien Gaillard, Comb in the form of two dragonflies (ca. 1904), French

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Lucien Gaillard, Comb in the form of two dragonflies, ca. 1904. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

Jewelry and the representation of animals has been a golden combination for centuries. One of my favorite pieces in our collection that is hidden downstairs in the Special Collections is a comb made of horn by the famous French jewelry artist Lucien Gaillard. The comb consists of two entangled dragonflies fighting over a delectable substance, perhaps honey, represented by a large orange citrine.

In the early 20th century, horn was a favorite material for jewelry artists working in the Art Nouveau or Jugendstil style. Under the influence of Japanese works of art and the love for nature, this period is well-known for its intricate and daring combinations of cheaper materials such as horn and the more traditional goldsmith materials of gold, enamel, and gemstones. All these elements combined served a greater design principle. The amount of gold or diamonds was not important; they were not used for their intrinsic value, but had a specific function in the design that was aimed at the perfect imitation of nature. Horn was ideal to mimic the translucent wings of the dragonflies that were further emphasized by the transparent light-blue plique-à-jour enamel that sparkles beautifully together with the small diamonds when you turn the comb in the light.

Combs like this are small works of art, but at the same time, they were designed to be functional, as well. I always wonder which fashionable French lady dared to wear this comb. I think I prefer admiring this delicate piece in the showcase from a safe distance.

— Suzanne van Leeuwen, Junior Curator of Jewelry

Artsy Editors

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed Matthias Ubl’s job title as Curator of Medieval Art. He is the museum’s Curator of Early Netherlandish and German Painting and Stained Glass.