Estimated reading time: 13 minutes
Table of contents
- But first: A Word About the Special Vermeer Exhibition
- The Night Watch Painting’s Real Name
- Rijksmuseum Skip-The-Line Tickets
- What is The Night Watch painting about?
- Why was Rembrandt’s Night Watch painting so controversial?
- Why is the painting called The Night Watch?
- Why was The Night Watch painting trimmed?
- Limited Time: See The Untrimmed Version of the Night Watch
- Night Watch Restoration Project: See it live online or in person
- New Ultra High Resolution Photo of Rembrandt’s Night Watch Painting
- Amsterdam’s Coat of Arms in Rembrandt’s Night Watch
- Conservation Phase
- Video: Rijksmuseum Director Taco Dibbits explains the restoration project.
- Buy Rijksmuseum Tickets
- We Are Tourists in Our Own Hometown
- How much did The Night Watch cost? And what is it worth?
- Video: Documentary film about The Night Watch
- About this article
But first: A Word About the Special Vermeer Exhibition
See our Vermeer Exhibition information page
The Night Watch Painting’s Real Name
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. (That’s a pre-pandemic figure, of course).
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, because 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, 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
Limited Time: See The Untrimmed Version of the Night Watch
For the first time in 300 years, you now view the original, untrimmed version of the Night Watch.
Using artificial intelligence, the Operation Nightwatch Team has recreated the missing pieces of canvas that had been slashed from the painting.
A computer was taught to learn Rembrandt’s painting techniques. And while the slashed pieces of the painting were never found, researchers were able to use a copy of the original painting as a guide. That copy, painted by Gerrit Lundens, a contemporary of Rembrandt, hangs in the National Gallery, London.
Robert Erdmann, Senior Scientist, Rijksmuseum: “This project testifies to the key importance of science and modern techniques in the research being conducted into The Night Watch. It is thanks to artificial intelligence that we can so closely simulate the original painting and the impression it would have made.”
The recreated panels of canvas are currently displayed with the painting. The extended version of the Night Watch is on display until this autumn, when the next phase of the painting’s restoration begins.
Night Watch Restoration Project: See it live online or in person
The Rijksmuseum launched the largest research and restoration project in its history on July 8, 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. 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.
The operation started with a macro-x-ray fluorescence scanner, in short: macro-XRF scanner.
Here you can see how the machine was set up:
The millimeter-by-millimeter computer scan was completed in 70 days, after which the experts began to analyze the results.
During this time team developed a plan, determining precisely how to proceed with the restoration. Hundreds of experts from around the world are involved.
New Ultra High Resolution Photo of Rembrandt’s Night Watch Painting
In 2020 the Rijksmuseum placed an extremely detailed photo of Rembrandt’s Night Watch online. By zooming in, you could see not only the painter’s brush strokes, but even pigment particles in the paint he used.
Now, at the start of 2022, the museum’s research team has released a new, even more detailed image. At 717 gigapixels it is the largest and most detailed photograph of any artwork in the world.
The image is four times sharper than its predecessor, which the Rijksmuseum published in May 2020. This means you can zoom in and examine every part of the huge canvas without distortion. Among other things this allows scientists to study the painting remotely in even greater detail.
The photograph can also be viewed by the public. This is important because at the beginning of the conservation phase of Operation Night Watch, the front of the painting will not be visible for a short time.
Explainer: The Ultra High Resolution Night Watch Photo
This photograph of The Night Watch has a resolution of 717 gigapixels, or 717,000,000,000 pixels, making it the largest-ever digital image of an artwork. Each pixel represents an area of 5 micrometres or 0.005mm square, and the complete composite image is made up of 8,439 individual photographs measuring 5.5cm x 4.1cm.
This photograph is so sharp that neural networks can now be used to rapidly detect similar pigment particles or identify the lead soaps,4 for example, something that was not possible using the previous photograph.
The team used a 100-megapixel Hasselblad H6D 400 MS-camera. Artificial intelligence was used to stitch these smaller photographs together to form the final large image, with a total file size of 5.6 terabytes.
The previous ‘hyper resolution’ photo had a resolution of 44.8 gigapixels, with each pixel representing an area of 20 micrometres or 0.02mm square. It was created from 528 different still photographs.
Amsterdam’s Coat of Arms in Rembrandt’s Night Watch
Nice to see that Rembrandt included Amsterdam’s iconic Coat of Arms in his painting. The St. Andrew’s crosses are seen in the decorations on Willem van Ruytenburgh‘s coat.
The crosses are also visible in the flag at the top left of the painting.
The second phase of Operation Night Watch starts on 19 January 2022, when the first procedures will be be carried out on the painting itself. The first task will be to mount The Night Watch on a new stretcher. This is necessary because of the ‘deformities’ in the canvas, particularly the clearly visible ripples in the upper left corner.
While this issue does require immediate attention, it is easily remedied and will not impact on the future of the painting. After this, the Rijksmuseums conservationists will take a step-by-step approach to consider whether other conservation treatments should be conducted.
Video: Rijksmuseum Director Taco Dibbits explains the restoration project.
As Taco Dibbits explains, during the entire project the painting will remain on display in the Night Watch Hall (Nachtwachtzaal) of the Rijksmuseum.
During the entire process, the Night Watch painting is encased in an ultra white (very clear glass) chamber. The 7-metres square glass case was designed by the French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte.
Visitors are thus able to view the painting and the entire restoration project in person.
The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to some delays in the project. Even though museums are currently open, visitors and workers alike must still observe the social distance rule: Keep 1.5 meters (5 feet) distance between yourself and non-family members. This means that only 2 people are time can work inside the glass box.
The entire 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 with a knife.
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We Are Tourists in Our Own Hometown
As an aside: do you visit museums in your own home town? We sure do. As for me, Anton, I have visited the Rijksmuseum far as long I can remember — starting way back when I was still in primary school. I’m talking more than 5 decades ago! And my wife and I both remember the Rijksmuseum from before the highly successful renovation.
My, what a difference! Back then it was a dark, difficult to navigate building. At times you felt like you were lost in a cold, dark castle. The renovation worked magic on the museum, and we love the way collection is now displayed.
By the way, even though we live just 30 minutes away from the Rijksmuseum, we get our tickets from Get Your Guide, DutchAmsterdam’s trusted ticket partner. We get to skip the line, show the voucher on our mobile phone, and then we’re headed straight for the world-famous works of art.
So that’s our advice to you as well: Don’t spend your precious vacation time waiting in line: Buy Skip-The-Line Rijksmuseum Tickets Now
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 euro, 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
More about Rijksmuseum
Free entry with the I amsterdam City Card
Will the world famous I amsterdam letters still be outside the Rijksmuseum when you visit?
And pray tell, what happened to the Night Watch statues?
About this article
This article was published on June 23, 2021. It was written by Amsterdam locals Janet and Anton .
The article was last updated on January 3, 2022 to include details of a new, ultra high resolution photograph of 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. ↩
- Lead soap: any of various lead salts of higher carboxylic acids (as fatty acids) especially for use as a drier in paints and varnishes or as an additive to lubricants” – Definition from Merriam-Webster Dictionary. ↩
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