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Rembrandt’s Night Watch and The Dutch Golden Age

The Night Watch is one of the most celebrated works of Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn. The colossal piece, measuring approximately twelve feet by fourteen feet, is one of the most famous pieces from the Dutch Golden Age. The complex artwork is a masterpiece of chiaroscuro, the use of strong contrasts between light and dark, depicting a group of civic guardsmen preparing to move out to protect the city. Unlike other military portraits of the area, Rembrandt’s piece is lively, showing the subjects in action rather than posing statically in a traditional format. In this article, Singulart will discuss the composition of The Night Watch, and explore the extensive restoration process that has recently begun. 

Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age 

During the 17th century, the Dutch Republic became the most prosperous European nation in regards to trade, science, and art. The rise of the merchant and middle class led to an increase in the demand for art, and so artists such as Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer became prominent and sought after.

The artwork of the Dutch Golden Age was characterized by an emphasis on secular subjects. Instead of focusing on religious icons, artworks focused on details from everyday life. Examples of this can be seen in pieces such as Vermeer’s The Milkmaid or Adriaen van Ostade’s Peasants in an Interior. Landscapes also became a popular subject for Dutch artists, portraying rural scenes with elements of indigenous importance. These landscapes include Vermeer’s View of Delft, in which he portrayed his hometown, or the works of Jacob van Ruisdael, who was considered an outstanding landscape artist of the Golden Age due to his dynamic paintings.

 Vanitas from the Dutch School, 17th Century
Vanitas from the Dutch School, 17th Century

The still life format also rose to prominence during this era, with an emphasis on the vanitas theme– still lifes with references to death and decay. However, during the second half of the Dutch Golden Age, still life paintings began to take on the form of pronkstilleven, ostentatious still life pieces. Rather than exploring themes of life, death and decay, the pronkstilleven artworks showed exotic, valuable items such as an abundance of fruit or flowers. It has been argued that these paintings, even showing an abundance of wealth, served to remind audiences that wealth and beauty are fleeting. 

Composition of Night Watch

Rembrandt, The Night Watch, 1642
Rembrandt, The Night Watch, 1642

Rembrandt was commissioned to paint The Night Watch in 1639 by Captain Frans Banning Cocq. It depicts the schutterij, or the voluntary civil guards. These men were tasked with protecting the city: patrolling the streets, putting out fires, shutting down revolts, and maintaining civility in the town. As was tradition at the time, each member portrayed in the artwork had to pay a ‘sitting fee’ to the artist. The full name of the portrait, as given by Rembrandt, is The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch, but was given the nickname The Night Watch due to the shadows and darkness depicted in the artwork. 

Despite its name, the scene depicted in the artwork does not actually take place at night. The name was only given to the painting in the 18th century, after the artwork had accumulated years worth of dirt and grime, giving the painting a somber, shadowy atmosphere. 

Rembrandt broke from tradition with The Night Watch, which is why it is still a unique military portrait to this day. Instead of painting the members of the militia in a traditional posed setting, such as at a banquet or seated in rows, Rembrandt’s portrayal is a lively, animated portrait that suggests the bustling, tumultuous activity of the civil guardsmen. 

In the center of the portrait, illuminated by a beam of light, viewers can see the figures of Captain Banninck Cocq and his lieutenant Willem van Ruytenbach, striding forward as they lead their group of men. Banninck Cocq, a prosperous, law-school educated citizen, is dressed elegantly in black with a striking red sash, while van Ruytenbach is dressed in a flamboyant yellow suit trimmed with French bows and a white sash. The way that Rembrandt has painted the two men makes them appear as if they are ready to leap out of the canvas and into action.

Around the two leaders, there is a flurry of activity. The musket features prominently, as it was the official weapon of the Kloveniers militia. Notably, it is featured in each stage of the weapon’s preparation. On the left side of the artwork, viewers can see a musketeer dressed in red pouring powder into the muzzle of his weapon, preparing it for firing. On the right, a figure wearing a hat adorned with oak leaves aims and fires his musket, and behind the lieutenant, a man can be seen blowing the residual powder from his weapon, presumably after firing it. This suggests that Rembrandt could have been influenced by the weapons manuals available at the time. 

Detail of The Night Watch by Rembrandt © Rijksmuseum
Detail of The Night Watch by Rembrandt © Rijksmuseum

A girl dressed in gold appears prominently in the piece, though her role is as a mascot rather than as a member of the militia. Wearing a beautifully adorned gold dress, one of the most conspicuous aspects of the girl is the dead chicken hanging from her belt. The chicken represents the emblem of the Kloveniers: a golden claw in a blue field. The dead chicken also represents a defeated enemy. 

Rembrandt has even inserted himself into the piece; he painted himself as a member of the militia. He can be seen over the right shoulder of Captain Banninck Cocq.

Restoration Process

In July 2019, an extensive restoration process of The Night Watch began in the Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. The artwork has been subject to quite a few restorations throughout its time; it’s been slashed with a shoemaker’s knife, a bread knife, and been sprayed with acid. However, this most current restoration is planned to be a multi-year project, and will be livestreamed by the museum. 

 Restoration of The Night Watch by Rembrandt  © Daniel Maissan
Restoration of The Night Watch by Rembrandt © Daniel Maissan

The artwork will be housed in a specially created glass box while undergoing the restoration, so visitors of the museum will still be able to view the piece. To begin, each inch of the artwork will be scanned and photographed, and each layer will be analyzed by x-ray. Fifty-six scans are required to cover the entire artwork, with each scan taking twenty-four hours. 

Taco Dibbits, general director of the Rijksmuseum, stated:

“The Night Watch is one of the most famous paintings in the world. It belongs to us all, and that is why we have decided to conduct the restoration within the museum itself – and everyone, wherever they are, will be able to follow the process online.”

Want to discover similar artworks? Check out Singulart’s Inspired by Rembrandt Collection.

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