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An Amsterdam Apogee- Impressions

The Amsterdam excursion we made in mid-January of this year (2023) contained many special experiences that could be considered apogee moments- meaning for me, high points. Not just high points but shared times that somehow enrich us- and perhaps even allow us to nurture our souls. Our visit here included viewing some of the most celebrated paintings in the western tradition- from the Dutch Golden Age. These visual art immersions were combined with an entire weekend of riveting music performances at the Bimhuis Muisc center. This was the series of concerts featuring gypsy swing guitar virtuosos to celebrate Django Reinhardt's birthday.

A 12" x 12' plein air oil painting on linen by Brian Keeler. This study of a view along a canal depicts the magnificent cathedral of St, Nicholas .

To view a video of the above painting being worked on-

My initial impetus for coming here was to be part of a gypsy swing guitar workshop offered by Robin Nolan and one of his music collaborators, Jan Brouwer. This series of classes was held above a charming restaurant, Kepitan Zeppos in the historic center of the city. A group of eight fellows from Europe and the states gathered each day in a room above Zeppos to learn about gypsy swing. All of us had been playing for many years and participating in Robin's various online teachings. We did some jamming and had structured classes focusing on rhythm and improvising leads.

At one point we broke off into two groups to work on arrangements of two songs which we then performed. This was really rewarding as our instructors steered us in ways to better craft our ideas. This was especially gratifying as Robin had some encouraging praise for my solos- yet noticing that I strayed from the form somewhat mid-course. The comaraderie and support amongst the students was a special part of the workshop.

To view a video of one class performance (for part of the group) -

Included in the workshop package, were free tickets to a series of concerts at the famous Bimhuis Music Center, housed in an ultra-modern building along the Amstel River. As Robin was the co-producer along with Arnauld, his bass player, the event celebrated the birthday of Django Reinhardt with the very best of the contempory musicians in this genre. The performances were all astounding from Friday to Sunday. Each night started with a pre-concert performance by our rhythm guitar instructor, Jan Brouwer along with the American guitarist, Adrian Holovaty and Arnauld on bass. This was in the bar lounge and the music was perfect for Linda and myself to do a little dancing in the back. The weekend included stellar performances by Jimmy Rosenburg, Stochelo Rosenburg, Don Vink's Parisenn Quartet, Tcha Limberger and the Thomas Baggerman Trio with the amazing Eva Scholten on vocals.

Then there was the time in the museums. Visiting the Rijks Museum on two days during this trip put me amongst some of my favorite paintings. When I visit museums I take my sketch pad to really study several paintings by making drawings of them. This allows for greater appreciation and often brings out revelations that would not occur during a cursory passing by of the canvases. On these visits I chose a Rembrandt, a De Hooch, a student of Rembrandt, William Drost, Jan Lievens, Van Honthorst and a Vermeer. We also took a day trip to The Hague where we visited the M.C. Escher Museum and the Mauritshuis.

Shown above- Brian Keeler sketching in the RIjks Museum in Amsterdam. Here Keeler is studying the self portrait of Rembrandt interpreting his own visage as Saint Paul.

To view a video of the above drawing in progress click on this link-

What was I reading during the trip you may ask? Well the perfect book for my interest in The Dutch Golden Age was a new release, titled "Rembrandt on Rembrandt" by Pascal Bonafoux. This text is an extremely engaging reflection on the master's self-portraits. And as I was looking at and studying these portraits in the various museums it was the perfect companion text. This small volume really augmented the experience of contemplating Rembrandt's work. For example, the portrait shown above, Rembrandt posing himself as Saint Paul, provided the author with fodder to make comparisons with Saul's fall from the horse and seeing the light and transforming into Paul. The analogy was to that of Rembrandt's pursuit of depiciting light, or chiaroscuro throughout his career- with Paul's illumination beneath his horse.

Self portraits may seem to be a vain pursuit, but with Rembrandt, we see that his career-long endeavor to study himself, his visage refelected in many guises was really the opposite of vanity. This is to say, these essays in paint were honest endeavors at self-knowledge and extremly virtusosic essays in paint they were. We even came across a Rembrandt self portrait in a very unexpected place- in the M.C. Escher Museum in the Hague. This one titled, "Self Portrait with a Red Beret" was discovered in 1823 when it was purchased in Brussels. Finally ending up here at the Escher Musuem- and standing out as it appears to be one of the few non-Escher pieces in the collection.

We arrived in Amsterdam a week prior to the guitar workshop so that I could paint some plein air studies. The weather, although fairly mild for January was drizzly and what we call mizzly, a sort of grey and cold but atmospheric kind of day. A new and improved Soltec easel arrived the day before we left so I was eager to try out this new model. It didn't disappoint. Setting up in minutes and easier to carry and lighter, it proved well worth the pricey cost. I started with a nocturne along a canal looking towards an illuminated St Nicholas Cathedral. The street lights and store windows made for interesting reflections in the canals. There were even two white swans swimming in the inky dark waters next to me.. This view was very close to our Hotel V at 49 Via Nesplein. The location for this study was not too busy considering it was in the Red Light District. This aspect of Amsterdam recalled the paintings of 19th century painters like Van Gogh, Lautrec, Degas and others who found inspiration in the common aspects of brothels, like the bathing of women or casual views of the quotidian rather than titilating, racy or overtly sensual. These interpretations of the nude are generally regarded as humanizing rather than an exploitation of women in the sex trade. I also think of the contemporary painter from New York, Burton Silverman, who has made a good part of his painting career portraying strippers and women from similar occupations. This district of Amsterdam brought to mind my first visit here in 1968. Even as a youth of 14 the idea of women sitting half naked in store front windows seemed way too much like merchandise. I thought of the equivalent in my hometown, Wyalusing, as some of these store fronts resembled Wyaluisng buildings of the 19th century. And, I entertained- what if Harold Mann's drug store and soda fountain on Main Street, just down from my home had a scantily clad woman sitting there in the window plying her trade.

The dining on this trip was really exquisite. Before the workshop began we casually chose restaurants by their menu offerings, looking for vegetarian if not vegan offerings, which almost all the eaterys did. Then we looked for atmosphere- meaning warm lights and interior settings. The ambiance was important too- which means in part, a low decible level. We had chosen one restaurant to return to called Lola's but upon entering it the next night, we recoiled at the blaring pop music inside. Several of the restaurants could have easily been Michelin rated, yet they were surprisingly affordable. On this trip, I made it a point to write down our meals for the night, as they were well worth noting. Fancying myself, as a new columnist for the New Yorker Magazine's "Tables for Two" it was a fun foray into culinary reviews. Later when the workshop started we all ate together at Kepitan Zeppos as it was part of the package. And the food was great here too and getting to know my fellow workshop guys was also a nice perk of the week. Some nice connections and friendships developed.

One would be remiss if an impression of Amsterdam were penned without mentioning the bicycles. They are everywhere in large numbers and the cold weather of January is no deterrent to their usage. And people of all ages and all walks of life equally use bikes to scuttle about - simply because it is the best way to get from point A to B. As the city is virtually flat- the biking is not overly athletic. One could arrive at work without being exhausted or sweaty. The biking fits in nicely with the persona of the city as being very hip, green and progressive. To show how much the city appreciates and supports its biking culture, they just opened a new multi-million dollar under-water parking garage just for bikes- that will connect conveniently to public transportation. Parking of bikes in public squares and along the canals is a problem as there is limited space. But tourists beware, the bikes and pedestrians vye for he same narrow streets and the bikes are often going at a good clip. One fellow warned us that the bikes can be more dangerous to pedestrians than cars.

Linda and Brian at "Mappa" an Italian restaurant on Via Nesplein near Dam Square in Amsterdam.

To round off the trip I painted my final plein air work this afternoon. (See the painting at the bottom.) We had visited the Amsterdam Museum earlier on this sunny day. After that Linda went on to the tulip museum (yes they have a museum for just about anything), including one for cats.) I finally got my easel set up on a quiet lane with a splendid view of a Protestant-looking, high steepled church at the opposite end It turns out that this church, The Zeiderkerk was also painted by Monet in 1874. It was grey and overcast when I started. But serendipitously the late afternoon sun came out to dramatically light up the church, the tree tops and some buildings on the right.

A good overview of Amsterdam was availed to us during this two-week trip and enough to make us want to see more. And as if we did not need reasons to return, there will be an amazing exibit coming up later this spring- an overview of the work of Vermeer. Although I saw the show of his work at the NGA in DC many moons ago and another smaller one at the MET in NYC, this one beckons and seems like a once-in-a-life time opportunity.

Brian Keeler painting a small 12" x 12" plein air oil along a canal in Amsterdam looking toward a double spired Catholic Church.

To view a short video of the painting above nearing completion, go to this link-

In the recap of the fortnight, one of the most reasssuring take aways was the unexpected kindness and friendliness of everyone. From random and chance encounters with strangers offering us help finding our way to a general attitude that seemed to pervade. One gentleman, noticing our frustration while looking at a map on a rainy night offered to walk us to our street. All the hotel staff and waiters were also equally outgoing and welcoming. Amsterdam has a reputation as being a very liberal city and the wafting smell of weed in the air underscores some of these connections. Our cab driver on the way Schiphol airport during our departure conveyed his love of Amsterdam and the tolerance of all religions- and after 37 years away from his home in Turkey, he had not desire to move back.

"Final Light on The Zuiderkerk, Amsterdam- January" Oil on linen on panel. This view of the historic church was also painted by Monet in 1874 but from a vantage point furher away.


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