One of the best-known masterpieces of the Dutch Golden Age is undoubtedly The Night Watch painted by Rembrandt van Rijn. This impressive painting was created in 1642 and it represents a group portrait of The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch. It is a work of great significance for art history due to its immense craftsmanship, as well as for its social and political implications.
In a recently published article, The Guardian announced the grandiose and millions of euros-worth restoration of the painting which is going to start in July 2019 at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where The Night Watch is housed. According to the art historian and the head of the museum since 2016, Taco Dibbits, it will be quite a slow, yet the most elaborate public restoration project of this kind, right next to previous restoration of the Sistine Chapel, which took place between 1980 and 1994, or the latest crowd-funded restoration the of Gustave Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio at the Musée D’Orsay.
The whole process will be broadcasted live from a 7-meters square white chamber which will be constructed by the French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte. The audience will be able ask the conservators questions concerning the process, and get regular updates on pigments discoveries.
The Night Watch is considered a Dutch national treasure and is visited by more than 2 million people every year. In order to understand why this masterpiece is so interesting and valuable, it is important to emphasize the context and the immense cultural impact it made over the course of the centuries.
In the years following the production of this impressive painting, Rembrandt was already an established commercial painter who regularly received commissions, so The Night Watch came as an effect of his fame. The artist was focused on portraits and was best-known for them, although he did landscapes and works dealing with religious and mythological themes as well. He was perceived by his contemporaries as an excellent interpreter of biblical narratives due to the specific approach to gestures and emotions. Alongside being a painter, Rembrandt was a printmaker and draughtsman and is therefore considered as a highly innovative and multilayered artist in the Dutch art history.
It seems as if the production of The Night Watch was a long and quite complex, since it lasted from 1640 until 1642. That specific period is marked as The Dutch Golden Age due to the economic, social and cultural affluence. It was commissioned in 1639 by Captain Banning Cocq and seventeen members of his Kloveniers or the civic militia guards and it includes a number of thirty-four figures. Rembrandt received a sum of one thousand six hundred guilders for the painting which was a small fortune at the time.
Among the scholar's circles, there are voices which speculate that the painting was not created by Rembrandt, since his studio could have been too small to house such a huge composition during its making. The 17th-century documents show that he remodeled his house in order to build an additional space where painting such canvas would actually fit.
However, the final result is a painting which displays a group of almost life-size figures in movement centered on three characters: Captain Frans Banning Cocq (dressed in black), his lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch (dressed in yellow), and of the woman in the center-left background carrying a chicken. The work is filled with various emblems and allegories, which is kind of typical for Baroque. For example, the traditional emblem of the arquebusiers is represented by the woman in the background carrying the main symbols - a dead chicken on her belt, the pistol behind the chicken, and the militia's goblet.
Initially, The Night Watch painting by Rembrandt was commissioned to be on display in the banquet hall of the newly built Kloveniersdoelen or Musketeers' Meeting Hall in Amsterdam. There is a speculation that this artwork, as well as portraits commissioned from other artists at the same time, were created to honor the French queen Marie de Medici, in 1638. The painting was moved to the Amsterdam Town Hall In 1715, and after Napoleon’s occupation of the Netherlands, that venue became the Palace on the Dam and The Night Watch was moved again, to the Trippenhuis, a building which belonged to the Dutch Academy of Sciences. The New Rijksmuseum became its final destination, when the museum's building was finished in 1885.
In the dawn of the World War II, The Night Watch was taken from the museum, and the canvas was detached from its frame and rolled around a cylinder. Along with other masterpieces, it was stored in the underground caves of Maastricht for four years. Finally, after the war ended, the canvas was restored, remounted and taken back to the Rijksmuseum.
In 2003, due to a major refurbishment of the Rijksmuseum, The Night Watch was moved to a temporary location in the Philipsvleugel of the Rijksmuseum, and was returned to its original place in the Nachtwachtzaal, or Room of the Night Watch.
For centuries, The Night Watch by Rembrandt has been inspiring many artists, scholars, musicians, and filmmakers. Perhaps the best example is the second movement of Gustav Mahler’s 7th Symphony. On the other hand, Alexander Korda's movie titled Rembrandt from 1936 revolves around the painting, while live actors reenact it in the opening scene of the film Passion by Jean-Luc Godard from 1982. In 2007, Peter Greenaway, known for art history references, shot a film titled The Nightwatching based on a plot covering a conspiracy within the musketeer regiment of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch, while just a year later Greenaway released a sequel titled Rembrandt's J'Accuse in which a meticulous analysis of the compositional elements of the painting is featured.
The Night Watch also appears in a form of a parody on the cover of Terry Pratchett's book by the same name from 2002, while the book A Ronda da Noite from 2006 written by the famous Portuguese writer Agustina Bessa Luís was inspired by the painting. In his essay, Eye and Mind, notable author Maurice Merleau-Ponty mentions this work and states that:
The spatiality of the captain lies at the meeting of two lines of sight that are incompossible with one another. Everyone with eyes has at some time or other witnessed this play of shadows, or something like it, and has been made by it to see space and the things included therein.
Interestingly so, this masterpiece was the target of several attacks as well. In 1911, a man managed to cut the painting with a shoemaker's knife, while in 1975 a great damage was done by an unemployed school teacher who assaulted it with a bread knife. Four years later it was restored. In 1990, yet another person sprayed acid onto The Night Watch with a concealed pump bottle, and luckily the guards quickly splashed water onto the canvas, so the acid only penetrated the varnish layer.
After all these actions and the natural flow of time, the work is now ready for a thorough restoration, especially because recent discoveries showed that there was discoloration. Taco Dibbits explained:
We continuously monitor the painting and noticed that the restoration of the 1970s had started to discolor. There’s a whiteish haze which appears on it, so you can’t quite appreciate it in its full glory. One tell-tale patch is the blanched figure of a dog on the lower right of the painting.
Finally, the decision by the Rijksmuseum to run the restoration beginning in July 2019 under the public eye is based on the desire to underline the domains of Rembrandt as well as to raise awareness about the importance of cultural heritage not only in local, but also in global terms. The Night Watch is often described as one of the most important artworks of the Western world, and such a proposition along with all stated above tells much about its cult status.
Editors’ Tip: Manhood, Marriage, And Mischief: Rembrandt's 'Night Watch' And Other Dutch Group Portraits
A study of the theory and practice of seventeenth-century Dutch group portraits, Manhood, Marriage, and Mischief offers an account of the genre’s comic and ironic features, which it treats as comments on the social context of portrait sitters who are husbands and householders as well as members of civic and proto-military organizations. Were the patrons and sitters aware of or even complicit in staging the anomalies? If not, did the painter get away with a subversive parody of militia portrait conventions at the sitters’ expense? Parts One and Two respond to these questions at several levels: first, by analyzing the aesthetic structure of group portraiture as a genre; Part Three studies these phenomena in portraits of married couples and families. Finally, Part Four examines them in The Night Watch in the light of the first three parts.
Featured image: Rembrandt van Rijn -The Nightwatch, 1642, detail. Image creative commons