This weekend, we made the journey to Amsterdam. Although the weather was bleak, we bundled up, and woke up in the morning ready to make the most of the day. Before I begin my usual account of historical events, I would like to give a small shout-out to the Amsterdam public transportation system. With frequent buses and trams and a ticket that allows you to swipe on any mode of transportation, my companions and I never had any trouble finding our way around the canal city.
Now, to the history part! Ever since I was a child, I have always been drawn to Vincent Van Gogh, the famous Dutch painter with his bold brush strokes and distinct style. When I was about 7 years old, my family took me to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. When I visited this weekend, I messaged my parents: “This museum was honestly life changing.” To which my mother replied: “It changed your life in elementary school too! You went from a perfectionist to ‘Oh, just get it done!’ It was after you saw the bold brush strokes.” So I guess I owe my adult personality to this painter.
Everything about Van Gogh is inspiring to me. He struggled with mental illness, didn’t begin painting until 27, and had the courage to challenge the social and societal norms of his time. The museum itself is in a modern glass building, where well-displayed galleries take you through his whole painting career from his earliest painting to his last days. His impressionistic style was quite revolutionary, and he is considered today the most famous painter in the world. The museum was thorough and excellent, displaying everything from Vincent’s letters to his brother, with whom he had a very close relationship, to his painting technique. (He didn’t typically mix colors on the palate, but rather mix the wet paint as it was applied to the canvas.)
My favorite thing about Van Gogh’s art is that his paintings aren’t meant only to depict a subject, but to depict what the subject is feeling. He preferred painting and living in the country, because he thought country living to be more honorable and honest than that in the city. He attributes the city to what drove him to madness. Indeed, in his last paintings while he was living in a mental asylum, he used much more red than in his previous work because he was trying to reflect the emotions of the patients there.
Van Gogh was truly mad, and many know the story of how he cut off his ear. He was living in a small house with his friend and fellow painter Gauguin, but after a few weeks, Gauguin began to find Van Gogh utterly intolerable, and attempted to leave. Van Gogh, angry at his friend, chased him into the street with a razor, and then being unable to catch him, cut off his ear in a fit of madness. He then presented it to his mistress, who was understandably horrified at the whole affair. Van Gogh knew he needed help, and a few years later actually admitted himself to the asylum, comforted by his brother’s shipments of painting supplies and letters. However, the tortured artist could not live with himself and shot himself in the chest. He will go down in history as one of the greatest artists of all time.
After the amazing visit to the Van Gogh museum, I embarked on a canal cruise. Amsterdam, by necessity, has become a city expert at controlling water flow, water levels and flooding. Using a system of locks, seawalls and sluices, they have kept their marshy city below sea level flood free. Drifting along the man-made canals, I could see that the facades of all of the houses were very skinny. This is because the taxes on the properties were determined by the width of the facades of the houses, so the skinnier the facade, the less taxes you owed the state.
Another very interesting fact about the city is that the term ‘flea market’ originates there. This is because in the very poor sector, floods happened so often that they sunk garbage into the water to prevent their houses and streets from flooding, and therefore made a sort of city out of garbage, riddled with fleas. In this area, most of the square is covered with stalls, and is a busy market during the day. Therefore, we get the term flea market.
Amsterdam has so many amazing museums, and I would love the chance to go back and see more.