The Night Watch painted by Rembrandt van Rijn is a colossal (363×437 cm) and most famous canvas created by the artist. It is one of the icons of Western art history.
Painted in 1642, at the peak of the Dutch Golden Age, it depicts the eponymous company moving out, led by Captain Frans Banninck Cocq (dressed in black, with a red sash) and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch (dressed in yellow, with a white sash). This is what we see and know, but the painting has plenty of mysteries to uncover.
Here are 15 things you should know about The Night Watch by Rembrandt:
1. The most important: The Night Watch is not happening in the night.
For hundreds of years, the painting was coated with a dark varnish and dirt, which gave the incorrect impression that it depicted a night scene, leading to the name by which it is now commonly known. The varnish was removed in the 1940s, but the title remained.
2. The official title of the painting is much longer and complicated.
By the way, the official version of the title is Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq (Dutch: Schutters van wijk II onder leiding van kapitein Frans Banninck Cocq). We prefer The Night Watch version.
3. It was made for the Arquebusiers guild hall.
The Arquebusiers was one of several halls of Amsterdam’s civic guard, the city’s militia and police. The primary purpose of these guardsmen was to serve as defenders of the city. Additionally, they were an important presence at parades held for visiting royalty as well as other festive occasions. A total of 34 characters appear in the painting. The painting was commissioned to hang in the banquet hall of the newly built Kloveniersdoelen (Musketeers’ Meeting Hall) in Amsterdam. Some have suggested that the occasion for Rembrandt’s commission and the series of other commissions given to other artists was the visit of the French queen, Marie de Medici, in 1638. Even though she was escaping from her exile from France ordered by her son Louis XIII, the queen’s arrival was met with great pageantry.
4. We don’t know where it was executed.
There is some academic discussion as to where Rembrandt actually executed the painting. It is too large to have been completed in his studio in his house (modern address Jodenbreestraat 4, 1011 NK Amsterdam – now the Rembrandt House Museum). In city records of the period, he applied to build a “summer kitchen” on the back of his house. The dimensions of this structure would have accommodated the painting over the three years it took him to paint it. Another possible place was an adjacent church on the site.
5. For his work Rembrandt was paid an equivalent of… 726 euros.
According to the Rijksmuseum, Rembrandt was paid 1,600 guilders for his painting. At today’s exchange rate that would be 726 euros, or 828 US dollars. But don’t worry, it wasn’t cheap – in those times, an outdoor laborer earned 6.50 guilders per week or just over 300 guilders per year. It was a small fortune.
6. It was Rembrandt’s huge success.
The Kloveniers were happy with the unconventional painting – Rembrandt became a star. He continued to get commissions from the great and good. But after The Night Watch was finished, Rembrandt entered into a decade-long period where he stopped producing portraits and scaled back painting production dramatically.
7. But what goes around comes around.
Rembrandt’s success didn’t last forever. When he died aged 63 in 1669, he was buried in an unmarked grave, in a plot owned by the church. After 20 years, as was customary for those who had died in poverty, his remains were dug up and discarded. Why did it happen?
The artist was increasingly extravagant – he owned a grand house and had a grand and very expensive fine-art collection. He was just spending too much and quickly became indebted. Also, some researchers see here problems in artist’s private life – his beloved wife Saskia died in 1642, and Titus, their son, died in 1668.
8. The Night Watch was very innovative.
Paintings like this, representing guilds, were very popular in Rembrandt’s times. But Rembrandt was the first to paint figures in a group portrait actually doing something. The captain, dressed in black, is telling his lieutenant to start the company marching. Rembrandt broke from convention by showing his military men in apparent motion.
9. That little blonde girl isn’t military—she’s a mascot.
Rembrandt has displayed the traditional emblem of the arquebusiers in a natural way, with the woman in the background carrying the main symbols. She is a kind of mascot herself; the claws of a dead chicken on her belt represent the clauweniers (arquebusiers), the pistol behind the chicken represents clover, and she is holding the militia’s goblet.
10. The most prominent weapon on the painting is a musket.
The musket was the official weapon of the Kloveniers. Three of the five musketeers are given a place of significance just behind the captain and lieutenant, where they carry out in sequential order the basic steps involved in properly handling a musket. First, on the left, a musketeer dressed all in red, charges his weapon by pouring powder into the muzzle. Next, a rather small figure wearing a helmet adorned with oak leaves fires his weapon to the right. Finally, the man behind the lieutenant clears the pan by blowing off the residual powder. (Both the figure in a helmet with oak leaves and the man blowing off the powder are visible in the detail of the central figures above). In his rendering of these steps, it seems that Rembrandt was influenced by weapons manuals of the period.
11. Rembrandt may have a cameo in The Night Watch.
In the middle of the painting, behind a man in green and a guard with a metal helm, you can spot a barely-there man. Only his eye and a beret are visible, but this guy is believed to be Rembrandt himself.
12. It has been trimmed.
Years after the creation of The Night Watch, in 1715, the enormous painting was moved from Kloveniersdoelen to the Town Hall of Amsterdam. It was trimmed for the occasion – we know how the painting originally looked like thanks to some copies, one of which is now in the collection of London’s National Gallery (and is now on display in the Rijksmuseum). It wasn’t the only revision made to the piece. An unknown hand added a shield to the archway—the script on the shield contains the 18 names of the featured Kloveniers.
13. The Night Watch has been attacked three times.
On January 13, 1911, a down-and-out navy cook slashed The Night Watch with a knife, reportedly as a protest against his unemployment. A second knife attack occurred on September 14, 1975, this time courtesy of a Dutch schoolmaster who believed destroying it was his divine mission. After that, the painting was put under permanent guard. Nevertheless, an unemployed Dutchman sprayed concentrated sulfuric acid on the piece on April 6, 1990. Each time, restorations were able to repair the damage, with barely a battle scar remaining.
14. It is viewed by 2.2 million people a year.
Officially, The Night Watch belongs to the city of Amsterdam, but in 1808, The Night Watch was moved to the Rijksmuseum, where it remains on display. 2.2 million people view it every year.
15. In July 2019, the Operation Night Watch began.
In July 2019 the Rijksmuseum launched the largest research and restoration project ever for The Night Watch. This is happening live in the museum, and you can find more info about it here. The painting has been moved and is now on show in the Gallery of Honour. The Operation Night Watch has started with the detailed study necessary to determine the best treatment plan and involves imaging techniques, high-resolution photography, and highly advanced computer analysis. The last time the painting was restored was in 1946-47. We can’t wait for the results – we will keep you posted about any news!
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