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Your Position: Home - Timepieces, Jewelry, Eyewear - What was the point of the night watch?

What was the point of the night watch?

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Night Watch (Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq), 1642, oil on canvas, 379.5 x 453.5 cm (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

A night watch?

Would it surprise you to find that the title that Rembrandt’s most famous painting is known by is actually incorrect? The so-called Night Watch is not a night scene at all; it actually takes place during the day. This title, which was not given by the artist, was first applied at the end of the eighteenth century. By that time the painting had darkened considerably through the accumulation of many layers of dirt and varnish, giving the appearance that the event takes place at night.

The Dutch civic guard

Rembrandt’s The Night Watch is an example of a very specific type of painting that was exclusive to the Northern Netherlands, with the majority being commissioned in the city of Amsterdam. It is a group portrait of a company of civic guardsmen. The primary purpose of these guardsmen was to serve as defenders of their cities. As such, they were tasked with guarding gates, policing streets, putting out fires, and generally maintaining order throughout the city. Additionally, they were an important presence at parades held for visiting royalty as well and other festive occasions.

Each company had its own guild hall as well as a shooting range where they could practice with the specific weapon associated with their group, either a longbow, a crossbow, or a firearm. According to tradition, these assembly halls were decorated with group portraits of its most distinguished members, which served not only to record the likenesses of these citizens, but more importantly to assert the power and individuality of the city that they defended. In short, these images helped promote a sense of pride and civic duty.

Rembrandt was at the height of his career when he received the commission to paint The Night Watch for the Kloveniersdoelen, the guild hall that housed the Amsterdam civic guard company of arquebusiers, or musketeers.

This company was under the command of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, who holds a prominent position in the center foreground of the image. He wears the formal black attire and white lace collar of the upper class, accented by a bold red sash across his chest. At his waist is a rapier and in his hand a baton, the latter of which identifies his military rank. Striding forward, he turns his head to the left and emphatically extends his free hand as he addresses his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburgh, who turns to acknowledge his orders. He is also fancifully dressed, but in bright yellow, his military role referenced by the steel gorget he wears around his neck and the strongly foreshortened ceremonial partisan that he carries.

Sixteen additional portraits of members of this company are also included, with the names of all inscribed on a framed shield in the archway. As was common practice at the time, sitters paid a fee that was based on their prominence within the painting.

A unique approach

Compared to other civic guard portraits, Rembrandt’s The Night Watch stands out significantly in terms of its originality. Rather than replicating the typical arrangement of rows of figures, Rembrandt animates his portrait. Sitters perform specific actions that define their roles as militiamen.

A great deal of energy is generated as these citizens spring to action in response to their captain’s command. Indeed, the scene has the appearance of an actual historical event taking place although what we are truly witnessing is the creative genius of Rembrandt at work.

Men wearing bits of armor and varied helmets, arm themselves with an array of weapons before a massive, but imaginary archway that acts as a symbol of the city gate to be defended. On the left, the standard bearer raises the troop banner while on the far right a group of men hold their pikes high.

In the left foreground, a young boy carrying a powder horn dashes off to collect more powder for the musketeers. Opposite him, a drummer taps out a cadence while a dog barks enthusiastically at his feet.

In addition to the eighteen paid portraits, Rembrandt introduced a number of extras to further animate the scene and allude to the much larger makeup of the company as a whole. Most of these figures are relegated to the background with their faces obscured or only partly visible. One, wearing a beret and peering up from behind the helmeted figure standing next to the standard bearer has even been identified as Rembrandt himself.

Three musketeers

While a number of different weapons are included in the painting, the most prominent weapon is the musket, 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.

In his rendering of these steps, it seems that Rembrandt was influenced by weapons manuals of the period.

A golden girl

Probably the most unusual feature is the mysterious girl who emerges from the darkness just behind the musketeer in red. With flowing blond hair and a fanciful gold dress, the young girl in all her brilliance draws considerable attention. Her most curious attribute, however, is the large white chicken that hangs upside down from her waistband.

The significance of this bird, particularly its claws, lies in its direct reference to the Kloveniers. Each guild had its own emblem and for the Kloveniers it was a golden claw on a blue field. The girl then is not a real person, but acts as a personification of the company.

 

 

 

Additional resources

Read more about Rembrandt and the global baroque in a Reframing Art History chapter.

Animated reconstruction of the painting by the Rijksmuseum.

Rembrandt’s paintings on The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”night watch,”]

More Smarthistory images…

1642 painting by Rembrandt

This article is about the Rembrandt painting. For other uses, see Night Watch

Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq,[1] 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. Rembrandt's large painting ( 363 by 437 centimetres (12 by 14+1⁄2 feet)) is famed for transforming a group portrait of a civic guard company into a compelling drama energized by light and shadow (tenebrism). The title is a misnomer; the painting does not depict a nocturnal scene.[2]

The Night Watch 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). Behind them, the company's colors are carried by the ensign, Jan Visscher Cornelissen. Rembrandt incorporated the traditional emblem of the arquebusiers in the figure of the young girl who carries a dead chicken on her belt, referencing the clauweniers (arquebusiers) and a type of drinking horn used at group banquets.[3]

History

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Commission

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The painting was commissioned around 1639 by Captain Banninck Cocq and seventeen members of his Kloveniers (civic militia guards).[4] 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.[5] 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

17th-century copy by Gerrit Lundens with lines added indicating the areas cut down from the original painting in 1715

Location and alterations

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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) of 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.[6][7]

A 17th-century copy of the painting by Gerrit Lundens (1622–1683), on loan from the National Gallery, London, to the Rijkmuseum,[8] shows the original composition.[9]

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.[citation needed]

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.[10] After the end of the war, the canvas was re-mounted, restored, and returned to the Rijksmuseum.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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 to September with the trimmed-off sections recreated using convolutional neural networks, an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm, based on the copy by Lundens.[11] The recreation corrected for perspective (Lundens must have been sitting on the left side of the painting when he made his copy), and used colors and brush-strokes as used by Rembrandt. The trimming of the painting put the lieutenants in the center, but the original placed them off-center, 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.[6][12]

Vandalism and restoration

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Newsreel of the restoration in 1975 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.[13] 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.[14][15] However, the thick coating of varnish protected the painting from any damage at that time.[13] The varnish was removed only in the 1940s.[16]

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".[14] The painting was successfully restored after four years, but some evidence of the damage is still visible up close. De Rijk died by suicide in April 1976, before he could have been charged.[citation needed]

On 6 April 1990, an escaped psychiatric patient sprayed acid onto the painting with a concealed pump bottle.[15] 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.[17]

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."[18]


New LED illumination

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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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

Gigapixel photograph

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On 13 May 2020, the Rijksmuseum published a 44.8 gigapixel image of The Night Watch made from 528 different still photographs.[19] "The 24 rows of 22 pictures were stitched together digitally with the aid of neural networks",[20] 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.

Cultural legacy

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Other representations

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The sculptures of The Night Watch in 3D at the Rembrandtplein in Amsterdam in 2006–2009
  • Russian artist Alexander Taratynov created a bronze-cast representation of the famous painting that was displayed in Amsterdam's Rembrandtplein from 2006 to 2009. After displays in other locations, the sculptures returned in 2012 and are now permanently installed in front of Louis Royer's 1852 cast iron statue of Rembrandt.[27]
  • The only full-sized replica in the Western world is displayed by the Canajoharie Library & Art Gallery, in Canajoharie, New York, donated to the library in the early 20th century by the library's founder, Bartlett Arkell.
  • The Rijksmuseum's flashmob 'Our Heroes are Back' recreated The Night Watch in an unsuspecting shopping mall in Breda, Netherlands – published on 1 April 2013 on YouTube.[28]
  • The Night Watch is also replicated in Delft blue at Royal Delft in the Netherlands. This version consists of 480 tiles. Two painters of the manufacture worked simultaneously from the left and right end of the frame, and they met at the center to complete the grand piece. After finishing, both painters recognized that they had a more difficult job as they only used black, to paint The Night Watch. They used the traditional cobalt oxide color adding water to make the lighter shades. Once it was fired at 1,200 degrees Celsius, the black material turns into blue. It seems that this version of The Night Watch, was bought by an unknown buyer and then given to the museum on loan to display to the public.[

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  • In 2007, Austrian artist Matthias Laurenz Gräff, a distant descendant of Banninck Cocq and De Graeff family, used Rembrandt's Night Watch painting of Frans Banninck Cocq in his painting "Ahnenfolge" (Ancestral Succession/Ancestry) as part of his diploma series and thesis "Weltaußenschau-Weltinnenschau".[29]

See also

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References

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Further reading

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  • Bikker, Jonathan (2013). The Night Watch. Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum. ISBN 978-90-71450-86-0.

  • Müller, Jürgen (2015). Der sokratische Künstler. Studien zu Rembrandts Nachtwache. Leiden: Brill. pp. 226–308. ISBN 978-90-04-28525-5.

What was the point of the night watch?

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