The Night Watch — Rembrandt’s most famous painting — is the most popular work of art in the Rijksmuseum, in which it has pride of place.
It is viewed by 2.2 million people a year.
The painting is officially titled, “Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq” (Dutch: Schutters van wijk II onder leiding van kapitein Frans Banninck Cocq1).
Though that’s a mouthful, this unwieldy title is not the reason why the painting became known as The Night Watch (Dutch: De Nachtwacht). More about that in a moment.
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What is The Night Watch painting about?
Completed in 1642 the canvas depicts a group portrait of a division of Amsterdam’s civic guard — the Kloveniers militia.
The men are getting into formation, and their captain is telling his lieutenant to start the company marching out.
The kloveniers took on their name in 1522 — when they exchanged foot bows for primitive guns that were called kloveren (from the French, couleuvrine). This was a type of musket. Hence you can think of the Kloveniers as musketeers.2
Why was Rembrandt’s Night Watch painting so controversial?
The painting was controversial not because of its subject, but because of the way Rembrandt depicted the group’s members.
Rather than giving each of them equal prominence, he created the painter’s equivalent of a snapshot: a group of militiamen who have just moved into action and are about to march off.
The Rijksmuseum notes that Rembrandt was the first artist to paint figures in a group portrait actually doing something.
However, some of the members of the militia where not amused that they were represented in a less prominent position than others.
One can imagine the consternation when the painting was first revealed. They had commissioned a group portrait. But Rembrandt had defiantly broken all the conventional rules of portrait painting.
Instead of a stiff and formal collection of faces, Rembrandt painted a story: a living scene. Not only that: He also painted people as they are instead of the ‘airbrushed’ portraits people were used to.
Why is the painting called The Night Watch?
By the late 18th century the multiple layers of varnish Rembrandt applied to the painting had darkened to such an extent that people thought the canvas depicted a night scene.
Hence it’s nickname was born: De Nachtwacht — The Night Watch.
The varnish was removed during the 1940’s, but the name remained popular. Luckily, since Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq isn’t nearly as memorable.
Why was The Night Watch painting trimmed?
The Night Watch was completed in 1642. It was displayed in the large festivities hall of the Kloveniersdoelen — the headquarters of the Kloveniers militia.
In the year 1715 the enormous painting was moved from Kloveniersdoelen, for which it was designed, to the Town Hall of Amsterdam (the building that is now the Palace at Dam Square).
In the process the painting was trimmed on three sides, in order to fit its new location between two marble columns . Originally 400 cm x 500 cm (13.12 ft x 16.40 ft) in size, the still enormous painting now measures 3.6 meter × 4.4 meter (11.91 feet × 14.34 feet).
Such an alteration would nowadays be unthinkable, but it was not unusual at the time.
The trimming 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. This balustrade and step were key visual tools used by Rembrandt to give the painting a forward motion.
Nobody knows what happened with the pieces that were trimmed.
In 1808 the Night Watch was moved to the Rijksmuseum, where it remains on display.3
Night Watch Restoration Project: See it live online or in person
The Rijksmuseum will launch the largest research and restoration project in its history starting in July 2019: the restoration of The Night Watch.
The Rijksmuseum continuously monitors the condition of De Nachtwacht. It has been found that changes occur in the painting, such as the white-struck dog in the lower right corner of the painting. In order to gain a better understanding of these changes, the Rijksmuseum is starting an in-depth investigation into the overall state of the painting.
The extensive research is necessary to determine the best treatment plan and includes image techniques, high-resolution photography and highly advanced computer analysis. This allows the experts to visualize the painting in detail and not only examine the surface of the painting, but study all layers of the painting: from varnish to canvas.
Once the millimeter by millimeter computer scan is complete, a process that is expected to take about 70 days, the experts will analyze the results.
Only then will the team make a plan, determining precisely how to proceed with the restoration. Hundreds of experts from around the world will be involved.
As Taco Dibbits explains, during the entire project the painting will remain on display in the Night Watch Hall (Nachtwachtzaal) of the Rijksmuseum.
An ultra white (very clear glass) chamber, 7-metres square, designed by the French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, is being built to encase The Night Watch and its conservators.
Visitors will be able to view the painting and the entire restoration project in person.
The whole process, budgeted at 3 million euro ($3.4 million) will also be streamed live online.
It is more than 40 years ago that the last major restoration of The Night Watch took place, following an 1975 attack in which someone stabbed the painting was a knife.
How much did The Night Watch cost? And what is it worth?
According to the Rijksmuseum, Rembrandt was paid 1,600 guilders for his painting. At today’s exchange rate that would be 726 euroa, or 828 US dollars.
Since the civic guard was a municipal institution, The Night Watch belongs to the city of Amsterdam.
It is on permanent loan to the Rijksmuseum.
After Rembrandt sold his painting, it has never again been on sale — and will indeed never be sold. It is considered priceless.
Video: Documentary film about The Night Watch
- Actually the full title of the portrait, as recorded in the family album of Captain Banning Cocq, is: “Captain Heer van Purmerlandt (Banning Cocq) orders his lieutenant, the Heer van laerderdingen (Willem van Ruytenburch), to march the company out.” ↩
- Kloveniers were also known as Arquebusiers, again a reference to the musket guns they carried. These guns were sometimes referred to as ‘bussen’. ↩
- On May 31, 1800 the National Art Gallery, precursor of the Rijksmuseum, opened in The Hague. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam opened in 1885. Its architect, Pierre Cuypers (1827-1921), included an honorary hall for The Night Watch. ↩
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