About the Collection - The History of the Museum in Seven Steps

Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen’s collection of art and design contains more than 145,000 objects. It was amassed with passion from 1849 onwards by the museum and by private individuals. The collection has had an eventful history with many highs and lows.

1. The Beginning and the End of the Collection

Like many of the oldest museums in the Netherlands, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen has its origins in the bequest of a private individual. In 1820 Frans Jacob Otto Boijmans made up his mind to give his collection to Utrecht City Council. Boijmans’s aim was to set up a Museum Boymannianum and become its first director. When the mayor of Utrecht turned the collection down, Boijmans approached the mayor of Rotterdam. Utrecht’s loss was Rotterdam’s gain.

After years of negotiations an agreement was reached between Rotterdam City Council and Boijmans. At his insistence the council bought the Schielandshuis to accommodate the collection and the museum opened its doors in 1849.

In the early hours of the 16th of February 1864 a fire broke out in the attic of the Schielandshuis and destroyed two-thirds of the museum’s collection. Museum staff made heroic attempts to save works of art, but rescue efforts were seriously hampered by the loss of the key to the art repository. The cause of the fire was never established.

Two hundred and ninety-three of the four hundred and eighty paintings were lost, including almost all the large masterpieces. One major reason for that was that large paintings are often hung high up on the walls, because they can still be seen. Small paintings are placed lower down, closer to the visitors. Just eighteen of the thirty-one albums of drawings survived; because they were in alphabetical order only sheets by Dutch artists with the initials C to S were saved. Lost works included rare drawings by Italian and French artists. Nothing was left of the collections of prints, etchings, pottery, porcelain or sculpture.

Cornelis van der Griendt, Fire in the Schielandshuis', 1864, Black chalk, pen and brown ink, gray and red washed, heightened with white, donation: C. van der Grient 1900
Cornelis van der Griendt, Fire in the Schielandshuis', 1864, Black chalk, pen and brown ink, gray and red washed, heightened with white, donation: C. van der Grient 1900
Petrus van der Velden, The burned Museum Boymans, 1864, watercolors and oils on paper
Petrus van der Velden, The burned Museum Boymans, 1864, watercolors and oils on paper

Did you know that

in those days fires were put out with water from the canals? On the night the Schielandshuis caught fire the canal was frozen over, making it far more difficult to fight the fire.

2. Breathing New Life into the Collection

After the devastating fire in the Schielandshuis the insurance paid out 136,129.62 guilders. The whole of this sum was spent on acquiring art. A committee was appointed to write a proposal for the new purchasing policy. It stated that purchases for Boijmans’s collection should consist almost exclusively of ‘products of the famous seventeenth-century school of Netherlandish painting’. The committee stipulated that this was where the focus should remain when it came to replacement. Some modern paintings could also be bought.

Director Ary Lamme (in post from 1852 to 1870) bought twenty-six paintings that year and received nine more as gifts in the autumn of 1864. Between 1864 and 1867 there were sixteen gifts and eighty-five purchases altogether. The purchasing policy gave paintings priority over drawings, prints, pottery, porcelain and sculpture.

The fire had a positive impact on the quality of the museum’s collection. Two hundred and ninety-three paintings were lost, but a hundred and one of higher quality were acquired in their place. The genres of the paintings encompassed still lifes, landscapes, history works and portraits by such artists as Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Ferdinand Bol.

The Puzzle That Is The Boijmans...

A short film telling the story of the creation of the museum collection and the role of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Foundation.

3. The Collection in the Schielandshuis

Between 1900 and 1907 the other occupants of the Schielandshuis – the City Council Archives and the Library - moved out. Museum Boymans, as it was called, now had much more space in which to exhibit the collection. The result was a reorganization of the way the collection was presented. This rehang and the reopening in 1909 - like the reopening after the fire in 1864 - fuelled the growth of the collection: many collectors seized the moment to gift parts of their collections.

In the original display of the collection a distinction was made between old and modern art and it was grouped by artist or genre. The new concept not only made a distinction between old and modern art, but the classification was also based on local schools. This was innovative in the Netherlands, but it had already been done in Germany in the Kaiser Friedrich Museum. This reorganization revealed that art by foreign artists was underrepresented in the collection, as were paintings by Flemish and Dutch primitives.

The growing collection and the number of visitors to Museum Boymans meant that the Schielandshuis had become too small. Under director Dirk Hannema (in post from 1921 to 1945) plans to construct a new museum building were laid. The new museum was built on Dijkzigt, an estate owned by the council. The building of the new museum began in 1929 and it opened in 1935.

Discover the collection of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

Milou visits the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. She tells us how the museum got its collection and discovers what there is to see and do.

4. Christmas Exhibitions

During the directorship of Frederik Schmidt-Degener (in post from 1908 to 1921) staging exhibitions over Christmas became increasingly important. Schmidt-Degener tried to promote interest in the museum with exhibitions featuring loaned works. For the exhibitions, works from private collections in Rotterdam were placed on easels in the galleries beside paintings in the museum’s collection with similar characteristics. From 1917 onwards the annual report went into great detail about the work shown at the Christmas exhibitions.

These now traditional Christmas exhibitions became larger and larger. More and more Dutch and foreign collectors were happy to lend their collections. In 1933 the Christmas exhibition attracted a record number of seven thousand visitors and in 1938, for the first time, a Christmas exhibition was devoted to a single artist: Pieter Jansz. Saenredam.

Pieter Jansz. Saenredam, 1662, oil on panel, purchase 1872
Pieter Jansz. Saenredam, 1662, oil on panel, purchase 1872
Pieter Jansz. Saenredam, Interior of Saint John's Church, Utrecht, ca. 1650, oil on panel, purchase 1872
Pieter Jansz. Saenredam, Interior of Saint John's Church, Utrecht, ca. 1650, oil on panel, purchase 1872

Bernlef on 'View on St. Mary's Square' by Pieter Saenredam

The writer Bernlef tells about his interpretation of this work by Pieter Saenredam.

5. The Collection during the Second World War

When mobilisation was proclaimed on 26 August 1939, the museum closed and security measures were introduced. Seven weeks later, part of the collection was open to the public again. It was primarily the old art that was placed in safekeeping, while the modern paintings were rehung as they had been prior to the closure - modern art was seen as easier to replace.

During the bombing of Rotterdam on 10 May 1940 the entire centre of the city was reduced to ruins and hundreds of people were killed. Until the capitulation on 15 May 1940, some thirty people - employees and their families - hid in the museum. The building was spared. After the bombing, all the works of art were removed from the galleries and stored in the cellars. Over time artworks from elsewhere in the city were also kept in the cellars. Another part of the collection was stored in air-raid shelters in the dunes near Castricum and Zandvoort, in Paasloo, Heemskerk, St Pietersberg Caves near Maastricht and in a castle in Heukelum. Retrieving all these works after the war proved a major task as the infrastructure was in complete disarray.

Did you know that

during the war D.G. van Beuningen’s art collection - which was later to become part of the museum’s collection - was buried in the garden of his country house in Vierhouten?

6. Modern Acquisitions

In the 1960s, inspired by the success of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which had opened in 1895, Rotterdam City Council wanted to set up its own modern art museum. Part of the collection of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen was earmarked for it but director Coert Ebbinge Wubben (in post from 1950 to 1978) was dead against it. He championed a museum that would combine old and modern art. The problem was that little modern art had been collected up to that point.

In 1962 Renilde Hammacher (1913-2014) became the first curator of modern art in the museum. She decided to focus her attention on Surrealism. The work of Jheronimus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘The Tower of Babel’ formed a centrepiece in the existing collection. Work like this was an important source of inspiration for the Surrealists. To the question ‘Why Surrealism?, Hammacher replied, ‘because Surrealism appeals to the reality and above all to the human in art in a particularly way, albeit often in its most bizarre form, and it is precisely these elements that have fascinated the latest generations.’ In making this shrewd decision, Hammacher created a niche for the museum in the Dutch art world - no other museum in the country had engaged with Surrealism.

 

Dalí in Rotterdam

Renilde Hammacher-van Brande, the very first head curator of modern art at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, organised the successful Dalí exhibition. She remembers the moment as if it were only yesterday when she sat on the sofa next to the legendary surrealist master. In all modesty Dalí called himself Il Divino - The Divine-One.

Under director Wim Beeren (in post from 1978 from 1985) emphasis was placed on the decorative art department. His aim was to show the link between art and applied art reflected in different moments in history. Beeren appointed Martin Visser (1922-2009) as head curator. They shared a passion: conceptual art and minimal art. The five key figures in the purchasing policy were Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, Walter de Maria and Bruce Nauman.

In 1980 it became more attractive for museums to acquire Dutch art. The then Ministry of Health, Welfare and Culture made a sum of money available to make purchases above and beyond the museum’s budget. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen seized this opportunity to form a ‘City Collection’ and actively follow and collect contemporary Rotterdam artists.

Beeren’s successor Wim Crouwel (in post from 1985 to 1993) also concentrated on modern art. From 1989 onwards this part of the collection grew rapidly. More works were added to the Surrealist collection. Alongside figurative modern art, by artists such as Milan Kunc and Anselm Kiefer,  the curators’ wish lists included abstract works by Gerhard Richter and others. The collections of photography, Minimal Art, modern drawings, prints and videos were also augmented.

Time travelling through the collection: the resurrection of painting

A 400 year time-travel through the collection brings you from the Old Master Cornelis van Haarlem to Sandro Chia, a so called Italian ‘Trans-vanguard’. But what, actually, do their paintings have in common?

7. Recent Additions to the Collection

The recent purchase that has caused the greatest sensation is probably the ‘Peanut Butter Floor’ by Wim T. Schippers, bought in 2010. But that is certainly not the only artwork the museum has acquired lately. Under director Chris Dercon (in post from 1996 to 2003) a halt in purchasing was announced in 1997, but there were donations in this period. One fine example is the permanent loan of ‘Landscape near Aix with the Tour de César’ by Paul Cézanne in 1998.

Director Sjarel Ex (in post from 2004 to the present) enables purchases of a great deal of modern and contemporary art. Acquisitions include the installation ‘Let your hair down’ by Pipilotti Rist, the sculpture ‘Apollo’ by Olaf Nicolai in the inner courtyard, ‘Frog Table’ by Hella Jongerius and the `Merry-Go-Round Coat Rack’ by Studio Wieki Somers. The purchase of a rare 15th-century drawing by Van Eyck is a recent high point. With the acquisition of the painting ‘Le miroir vivant’ by René Magritte in 2016, the collection of modern art has been enhanced with a work that creates a bridge between Dadaism, Surrealism and Pop Art.

Hella Jongerius, Frog Table, 2009, French walnut wood, paint and epoxy, purchase with support of: BankGiro Loterij 2009
Hella Jongerius, Frog Table, 2009, French walnut wood, paint and epoxy, purchase with support of: BankGiro Loterij 2009
René Magritte, Le mirioir vivant, 1928, oil on canvas, purchase with support of: the Rembrandt Society (including its Dura art fund and its dedicated sculpture fund), the Mondrian Fund, the VSBfonds, the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Foundation, the W. van Rede Fund, the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds (including its Breeman Talle Fund), the BankGiro Loterij 2015
René Magritte, Le mirioir vivant, 1928, oil on canvas, purchase with support of: the Rembrandt Society (including its Dura art fund and its dedicated sculpture fund), the Mondrian Fund, the VSBfonds, the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Foundation, the W. van Rede Fund, the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds (including its Breeman Talle Fund), the BankGiro Loterij 2015

The Peanut-Butter Platform by Wim T. Schippers

This video tells about the origins of the Peanut Butter Floor by Wim T. Schippers and how the work fits into the oeuvre of this unique man of ideas, who exhibited in the Stedelijk Museum when he was just twenty and seemed to have a career ahead of him as visual artist.