The museum was founded in 1800 in The Hague to exhibit the collections of the Dutch stadtholders. It was inspired by the French example. By then it was known as the National Art Gallery (Dutch: Nationale Kunst-Gallerij). In 1808 the museum moved to Amsterdam on the orders of king Louis Napoleon, brother of Napoleon Bonaparte. The paintings owned by that city, such as The Night Watch (Dutch: De nachtwacht) by Rembrandt, became part of the collection.
In 1885 the museum moved to its current location, built by Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers. He combined gothic and renaissance elements. The museum has a prominent position on the Museumplein, near the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum. The building is richly decorated with references to the Dutch art history. Rembrandts The Night Watch has its own hall in the museum since 1906. Since 2003 the museum in restoration, but the masterpieces are continuously present for the viewing public.
The paintings collection includes works by artists Jacob van Ruysdael, Frans Hals, Johannes Vermeer and Rembrandt and Rembrandts pupils.
As of 2005, 95% of the museum is closed for renovation, but paintings from the permanent collection are still on display in a special exhibition called The Masterpieces in the recently renovated Philips wing.