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Amsterdam art, off the beaten path

Rembrandt and Vermeer, of course. But this city's art treasures hardly end there.

By Susan JaquesContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / May 23, 2008

RIJKSMUSEUM: A bicyclist passes the state museum. Now being renovated, it draws more than 1 million visitors a year.

Peter Dejong

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Amsterdam

Like fans at a rock concert, a friend and I recently stood elbow-to-elbow with throngs of fellow art lovers at the Rijksmuseum, trying to catch glimpses of masterpieces by those 17th-century superstars, Rembrandt and Vermeer. Extensive renovations, slated for completion in 2010, have greatly limited gallery space but not attendance, which hit 1.2 million last year. We took refuge under a shady oak tree in nearby Vondelpark, maps spread out, searching for a more relaxed way to experience the city's art. Happily, we discovered a collection of smaller venues whose ambience inspires rather than overwhelms. Here are our favorites:

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De Nieuwe Kerk

After a fire gutted De Nieuwe Kerk (Dutch for "New Church") in 1645, it was restored to its former grandeur with a towering carved wood pulpit, striking stained-glass windows, and a cherub-adorned pipe organ, the largest in the Netherlands. William I chose De Nieuwe Kerk for his investiture in 1815, and his successors have all done the same, establishing De Nieuwe Kerk as the country's Westminster Abbey.

Its ceremonial importance and splendid interior create a memorable gallery for art exhibits. In late July, "Seven Centuries Black" will explores the multitude of black characters in Flemish and Dutch paintings, from angels and ordinary people to kings and queens. Among the noteworthy paintings in this exhibit will be Rembrandt's "The Baptism of the Eunuch" and Jan Mostaert's "Portrait of an African Man" (www.nieuwekerk.nl).

The Jewish Historical Museum

Before World War II, Amsterdam's small but thriving Jewish community worshipped at a complex of 17th- and 18th-century synagogues. During World War II, three-quarters of Dutch Jews were deported to Nazi death camps. It wasn't until the 1980s that the four looted synagogues were restored, connected, and reopened. Today the Great Synagogue, dating from 1671, provides a moving setting for galleries highlighting the culture, religion, and history of Dutch Jewry from 1600 to 1900.

The adjacent New Synagogue, built in 1752, is home to a permanent exhibit of Dutch Jewry from 1900 to the present. Among the museum's gems are its beautifully preserved 13th-century prayer book and gold- and silver-embroidered velvet torah mantles commissioned by the city's Portuguese Jews, who were involved in the textile trade (www.jhm.nl).

Rembrandt House Museum

In 1639, the same year Rembrandt received a prestigious commission for his iconic Night Watch, the artist splurged on a two-story gabled house with a fashionable Amsterdam address. Until his lavish lifestyle led him to declare bankruptcy 20 years later, Rembrandt lived and worked here.

Today, the Rembrandt House Museum has been restored and decorated with art and furniture from its famous owner's day. Rembrandt's presence can be felt throughout the house, especially in his upstairs studio, where light streams through a north-facing window onto a large easel.

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