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The Night Watch
Nov 24, '21

The Night Watch

The Night Watch

Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, also known as The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch, but commonly referred to as The Night Watch (Dutch: De Nachtwacht), is a 1642 painting by Rembrandt van Rijn. It is in the collection of the Amsterdam Museum but is prominently displayed in the Rijksmuseum as the best-known painting in its collection. The Night Watch is one of the most famous Dutch Golden Age paintings.

The painting is famous for three things: its colossal size (363 cm × 437 cm (11.91 ft × 14.34 ft)), the dramatic use of light and shadow (tenebrism) and the perception of motion in what would have traditionally been a static military group portrait. The painting was completed 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). With effective use of sunlight and shade, Rembrandt leads the eye to the three most important characters among the crowd: the two men in the center (from whom the painting gets its original title), and the woman in the centre-left background carrying a chicken. Behind them, the company's colors are carried by the ensign, Jan Visscher Cornelissen. The figures are almost life-size.

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. The man in front of her is wearing a helmet with an oak leaf, a traditional motif of the arquebusiers. The dead chicken is also meant to represent a defeated adversary. The colour yellow is often associated with victory.



The painting was commissioned around 1639 by Captain Banninck Cocq and seventeen members of his Kloveniers (civic militia guards). Eighteen names appear on a shield, painted circa 1715, in the center-right background, as the hired drummer was added to the painting for free. A total of 34 characters appear in the painting. Rembrandt was paid 1,600 guilders for the painting (each person paid one hundred), a large sum at the time. This was one of a series of seven similar paintings of the militiamen (Dutch: Schuttersstuk) commissioned during that time from various artists.

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.

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). Scholars are divided. 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 candidate is in an adjacent church and a third possibility is actually on site.

The Night Watch as it hung in the Trippenhuis in 1885, by August Jernberg

The Night Watch first hung in the Groote Zaal (Great Hall) or Amsterdam's Kloveniersdoelen. This structure currently houses the Doelen Hotel. In 1715, the painting was moved to the Amsterdam Town Hall, for which it was trimmed on all four sides. This was done, presumably, to fit the painting between two columns and was a common practice before the 19th century. This alteration resulted in the loss of two characters on the left side of the painting, the top of the arch, the balustrade, and the edge of the step. The missing portions have not been found; Taco Dibbits, director of the Rijksmuseum has some hope that possibly at least the left-hand side might not have been destroyed as it contained three figures, and at the time the painting was trimmed Rembrandt paintings were already expensive.

A 17th-century copy of the painting by Gerrit Lundens (1622–1683) at the National Gallery, London, shows the original composition.

When Napoleon occupied the Netherlands, the Town Hall became the Palace on the Dam and the magistrates moved the painting to the Trippenhuis of the family Trip. Napoleon ordered it returned, but after the occupation ended in 1813, the painting again moved to the Trippenhuis, which now housed the Dutch Academy of Sciences. It remained there until it moved to the new Rijksmuseum when its building was finished in 1885.

The painting was removed from the Rijksmuseum in September 1939, at the onset of World War II. The canvas was detached from its frame and rolled around a cylinder. The rolled painting was stored for four years in a special safe that was built to protect many works of art in the caves of Maastricht, Netherlands.[8] After the end of the war, the canvas was re-mounted, restored, and returned to the Rijksmuseum.

On 11 December 2003, The Night Watch was moved to a temporary location, due to a major refurbishment of the Rijksmuseum. The painting was detached from its frame, wrapped in stain-free paper, put into a wooden frame which was put into two sleeves, driven on a cart to its new destination, hoisted, and brought into its new home through a special slit.

While the refurbishment took place, The Night Watch could be viewed in its temporary location in the Philipsvleugel of the Rijksmuseum. When the refurbishment was finished in April 2013, the painting was returned to its original place in the Nachtwachtzaal (Room of the Night Watch).

In 2021 the painting was exhibited from June through September with the trimmed-off sections recreated using convolutional neural networks, an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm, based on the copy by Lundens.[9] The recreation corrected for perspective (Lundens must have been sitting on the left side of the painting when he made his copy), and used colours and brush-strokes as used by Rembrandt. The trimming of the painting put the lieutenants in the centre, but the original placed them off-centre, marching towards an empty space now reinstated, creating a dynamic of the troops marching towards the left of the painting. The cutdown painting by Rembrandt with the AI recreation of the missing portions attached was placed on exhibition for three months. The augmented painting will not be on permanent display so as not to "trick" viewers into thinking they were seeing the full original; the augmentations are a scientific, rather than an artist's, interpretation.

Vandalism and restoration

The painting during restoration measures (Operation Night Watch), October 2019

For much of its existence, the painting was coated with a dark varnish, which gave the incorrect impression that it depicted a night scene, leading to the name by which it is now commonly known. On 13 January 1911, a jobless shoemaker and former Navy chef attempted to slash the painting with a shoemaker's knife protesting his inability to find work. However, the thick coating of varnish protected the painting from any damage at that time. The varnish was removed only in the 1940s.

On 14 September 1975, the work was attacked with a bread knife by an unemployed school teacher, Wilhelmus de Rijk, resulting in several large zig-zagged slashes up to 30 cm long. De Rijk, who suffered from mental illness, claimed he "did it for the Lord" and that he "was ordered to do it."

The painting was successfully restored after four years, but some evidence of the damage is still visible up close. De Rijk committed suicide in April 1976, before he could have been charged.

On 6 April 1990, an escaped psychiatric patient sprayed acid onto the painting with a concealed pump bottle.

Security guards intervened, stopping the man and quickly spraying water onto the canvas. Ultimately, the acid only penetrated the varnish layer of the painting, and it was fully restored.

In July 2019, a long and complex restoration effort began. The restoration took place in public, in a specially-made glass enclosure built and placed in the Rijksmuseum, and was livestreamed. The plan was to move the 337 kg painting into the enclosure starting when the museum closed for the day on 9 July, then to map the painting "layer by layer and pigment by pigment", and plan conservation work according to what was found. Taco Dibbits, the Rijksmuseum's general director, said that despite working there for 17 years, he had never seen the top of the painting; "We know so little on how [Rembrandt] worked on making The Night Watch."

New LED illumination

On 26 October 2011, the Rijksmuseum unveiled new, sustainable LED lighting for The Night Watch. With new technology, it is the first time LED lighting has been able to render the fine nuances of the painting's complex color palette.

The new illumination uses LED lights with a color temperature of 3,200 kelvin, similar to warm-white light sources such as tungsten halogen. It has a color rendering index of over 90, which makes it suitable for the illumination of artifacts such as The Night Watch. Using the new LED lighting, the museum saves 80% on energy and offers the painting a safer environment because of the absence of UV radiation and heat.

Gigapixel photograph

On 13 May 2020, the Rijksmuseum published a 44.8 gigapixel image of The Night Watch made from 528 different still photographs. "The 24 rows of 22 pictures were stitched together digitally with the aid of neural networks," the museum said. It was primarily created for scientists to view the painting remotely, and to track how ageing affects the painting. The photograph can be viewed online, and zoomed into the fine detail.

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