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THE NIGHT WATCH (1642), rembrandt

Artist: Rembrandt

Technique: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 379.5 x 453.5 cm

Date: 1642

Location of Creation:

Current Location: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Holland

Movements: Dutch Golden Age painting

Theme: Historical

Subject: Group portrait

painting summary

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general description

The painting depicts a group portrait illustrating a large number of figures (about twenty one) – mostly men, (with the exception of a little girl on the left close to the center), with shotguns, spears and instruments. The image uses warm and dark tonalities of brown, red and gold, against a dark background enhancing the figures as they move forward in the composition. Two men stand predominantly in the middle, as they seem to stroll in a conversation, and the girl is also brightly illuminated.

The large group depicted in the painting belongs to a militia group, which has led to it being known as a militia painting (a group portrait of a division of the civic guard). The image shows the group commanded by Captain Frans Banninck Cocq – the figure in the center in black with a red sash  and Willem van Ruytenburch, his lieutenant, on the right, next to the captain, in golden yellow. These two central figures give the painting its original title. The title of the painting reflects this narrative, as it was named The militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, or The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch. It is more commonly referred to as The Night Watch because it was mistakenly perceived as a night scene due to its dark varnish, which was only removed in the 1940s.

One of the most iconic Dutch Golden Age paintings, and a very specific kind of group portraiture (militia painting, unique to the Netherlands), it was completed in 1642, at the height of the movement. Known for its large size, this painting is the most popular painting in the Rijksmuseum and  the most notorious of Rembrandt’s paintings.

This painting was personally commissioned by Captain Banninck Cocq and his seventeen Kloveniers (civic militia guads), in 1639, for the value of 1,600 guilders (distributed among the members). This work was intended to be hung in the banquet hall of the recently built Kloveniersdoelen (the Musketeers’ meeting hall) in Amsterdam. Rembrandt was at the height of his career when he received the commission.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

The Dutch Civic Guardsmen had the primary purpose of defending their cities (guarding gates, policing streets, putting out fires, imposing order during parades and other parades, and generally maintaining civic order). Each company had its individual guild hall, and they had the ability to practice with the particular weapon associated with that specific group (a crossbow, a longbow or a firearm), in their own shooting range. In this context, various of these group portraits of the numerous militia companies were commissioned to decorate the new assembly hall of their headquarters; this was a common type of painting, which also served as an acknowledgment of their most distinguished members. It is unknown if this particular exuberant commission was part of the enthusiasm and extravagances associated with the entrance of Marie de’ Medici, the French Queen Mother, into Amsterdam in 1638, or if it was merely to commemorate the new space. Adding to the various group portraits assigned to six different painters, above the mantle was to be placed a portrait of the different senior officers. Overall, these group portraits helped shape the sense of pride of a city, asserting power, prominence, individuality and further added to the collective civic duty.  Captain Frans Banning Cocq’s company was attributed to Rembrandt. Making Captain Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburgh, the central elements of the picture, Rembrandt also painted sixteen other militiamen who each paid an approximate sum of a hundred guilders, more or less, depending on the prominence within the picture.

… assumes a central role in the composition, standing in the middle and in the foreground; his clothing indicates his upper class social status (collar) and his ranking in the militia group (baton). Dressed in black with a lace collar and a bright red sash, the captain also carries a baton on his hand and a rapier (a thin, long and light sword) on his waist. As he walks forward, he is looking at his left and extends his arm forward, as he engages in a conversation with his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburgh.

… the lieutenant, walks alongside his captain, as he devotional looks at his superior, acknowledging his orders. Dressed extravagantly in bright  golden yellow, his ranking is established by the steel gorget around his neck and the spear he is holding in his left hand (known as a ceremonial partisan).

… the remaining members, are scattered throughout the composition, wearing pieces of armour, big hats or helmets, holding spears and firearms, as their names are inscribed on a shield hanging above a big archway. At the left side, one member raises the guild banner high, while the others at the far right raise their pikes.

… are included by Rembrandt to make the composition more dynamic, and to better hint the size of the larger company as a whole. Men were added to the background, with only partially visible faces, in order to increase their number, while a dog barks at the drummer’s feet at the right. In addition, a young girl in a luxurious dress can be seen close to the center, quite illuminated in contrast with what is in her premises, and another young boy appears at the far left, holding a powder horn rushes to gather more of it for the musketeers.

A vast range of weaponry can be seen in the painting, however, the most noticeable is the musket, which is also the official weapon of the Kloveniers company. Behind the two leading men, three of the five musketeers are given a more prominent spot in the composition. At the left, one in red garments inserts powder in the muzzle of his weapon. The man behind the lieutenant blows off the residual powder, clearing the pan, as the smaller man next to him at the left, wearing a helmet embellished with oak leaves, fires his weapon to the right side. With these three figures, the artist illustrates each step of the handling of the musket, which indicates his fascination about weaponry around that time.

content analysis

  1. Emotional and Narrative Drama: Rembrandt’s desire to create a narrative surrounding the scene, which would otherwise be only a static group portrait, is clearly heightened by the dramatic and emphatic relationship between the figures, and by the emotional force that overwhelms every man. The artist fills the frame with a blend of both solemnity and comedy, as the men behind the leaders stumble on each other as they find it hard to gracefully follow the captain and lieutenent’s march.
  2. Symbols: The young girl in the background carries with her many symbols, as she turns in almost a mascot herself, a symbol of the arquebusiers. Claws of a dead chicken (which is also a representation of the defeated opponent) hung from her belt, symbolizing the clauweniers (arquebusiers – soldiers armed with an arquebus, a long gun), behind it a pistol is thought to represent a clover, as the girl herself is holding the militia’s goblet. The oak leaves in the helmet of the man in front of her are a usual symbol of the arquebusiers as well. Additionally, the archway represents the city gate which needs to be defended, and the colour yellow is frequently linked to victory. Wanting to add more symbols, Rembrandt created actions that allows for the incorporation of specific elements such as the various uses of the musket, which was a firearm that characterized the group. 
  3. Capturing Movement and Energy: Shifting from the usual static group portrait, Rembrandt displays the figures moving through the scene, instead of having them aligned in a straight row. The artist captures a moving action, as the men march on, holding banners in the air, guns in every direction, representing the importance of their own mission.
  4. Darkness and Light: Rembrandt kept the painting dark, because where there is darkness, light can be provided: on the Lieutenant’s yellow gold uniform and on the little girl in the second row which is in full light, as he explores the effects of chiaroscuro. Both of these figures golden yellow capture the light very intensely, which creates a double spotlight effect. The men appear to be emerging from a dark gateway into the light, as the whole painting seems to be obscure as those two figures capture the light astonishingly.
  5. Mysterious Self Portrait: If one looks upon the painting carefully, one can recognize Rembrandt’s self depiction in the middle of the composition in the background, behind all men. The artist is barely visible among the confusion, with only his face a peaking out in profile, and a limb sprouting out at the right. Rembrandt usually hid a portrait of himself among the composition, just like Jan van Eyck, the Flemish master, often did.
  6. The Girl in Light and Gold: The girl among a large group of men is the most surprising feature in the whole composition. Here she acts as the personification of the Kloveniers, thus not a real person, as she brightly disturbes the darkness with her light locks and shimmering dress, both in gold. Perhaps her most unusual characteristic is the dead chicken attached to her waist. There is also some speculation that suggests that her face resembles the one of Saskia, Rembrandt’s wife.

There are various notable considerations of composition. A fundamental aspect of the work is that the figures are life-size, and obey proportional guides of perspective,  making the work a monumental painting that aims to be lived as an immersive experience.  These life-size figures are carefully orchestrated together to create a dynamic composition that seems to capture an action in motion. Samuel van Hoogstraten, an art theoretician and former pupil of Rembrandt, indicates that Rembrandt thought of composition as a crucial point of his art, instead of focusing on the individual aspects of it. This fact enhanced the powerfulness of the narrative which set it apart from other militia paintings of the time. To validate Samuel van Hoogstraten’s idea, a study of the Last Supper’s composition was found.

Rule of thirds grid analysis.

A simple rule of thirds analysis shows how Rembrandt organized the painting in zones, making the two main figures stand in the central area. Vertically, the central area displays movement, whereas the top and bottom section are reserved for a more quiet presence.

Developed rule of thirds grid analysis.

Curiously, this analysis shows various main points of interest of the painting falling on the mid horizontal line.

Golden ratio analysis.

Colour scheme of predominant tones.

Rembrandt’s restrained colour palette is denoted of sober and unsaturated tones, most of which are warmer in temperature, as he employed red lakes and ochres (something characteristic of his paintings), using only a few number of blue hues to enhance contrast in the composition.

Rembrandt took around three years to paint the work; there are merely speculations as to where the painting might have been executed, as scholars are divided between the idea it was created in his studio at his house; other theory suggests it was completed in a church close by; and the other indicates it was painted on site. As with most of his works, Rembrandt did not restrict himself to one single technique using oil. The juxtaposition of slick surfaces, created through thinly applied paint, and textures, explored through the use of thick layers of paint, impasto, show his masterful range of technique. It translates in a visually rich painting.

This painting shows innovation on so many levels, especially when it comes to militia paintings. The group is depicted in a completely different way as it was usual at the time (a carefully organized composition of figures distributed in lines), and shows a dynamic and theatrical narrative, elevating it to the same status as an historical painting.

Initially, this painting was hung in the great hall of Amsterdam’s Kloveniersdoelen. The work was later moved to the Amsterdam Town Hall, in 1775, when it had all of its edges trimmed down (as it is assumed it was too big to fit between two columns). This action eliminated a few elements from the painting, such as two characters on the left, the edge of the step, the top of the arch and the balustrade. Gerrit Lundens (1622–1683) painted a copy of the original in the 17th century, now in the National Gallery in London. The Night’s Watch was later acquired by the Rijksmuseum and, in the midst of World War II, it was removed in 1939, and stored in a special safe in the caves of Maastricht, in the Netherlands, designed to protect many artworks. After the war ended, the painting was retired and returned to the Rijksmuseum. However, this was not the most risk the painting was subject to. The painting has been subject to numerous attacks and vandalism: a bread knife was used to slash the work in zig-zag cuts as long as 30 cm, by Wilhelmus de Rijk, a school teacher, on 14 September 1975; later on 6 April 1990, the painting was attacked once again, when it was sprayed with acid by a psychiatric patient who had his escaped asylum, luckily the security guards responded quickly and sprayed water onto the canvas, damaging only the varnish layer, which was fully restored. Another interesting fact is that his wife Saskia died the same year the painting was completed, when Titus, the only of their four children to survive into adulthood, was a year old.

direct influences and connections

Rembrandt based his understandings about group portraits by thoroughly studying replicas of The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. His many studies of this composition demonstrate a fixation around the issue of symmetry and asymmetry when it comes to the figures in a group.

This painting’s legacy has trespassed the painting realm and influenced other arts, such as music, film and literature. Regarding music, it inspired the second movement of Gustav Mahler’s 7th Symphony, among many other classical pieces, as well as the rock band King Crimson’s song by the same name, from the 1974 album Starless and Bible Black. This particular song interprets the many perspectives of the painting, their subjects and the modern viewer who gazes upon it, transforming it into a parallel and contemporary version of it. The painting is also reenacted in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1982 film, Passion. In addition, The Night Watch is also the basis of Portuguese writer Agustina Bessa Luís work, A Ronda da Noite (2006).

Regarding visual arts, both Rodin and van Gogh were greatly inspired by Rembrandt’s focus on movement and action, of which this painting is a great example. Van Gogh was particularly inspired by Rembrandt’s use of impasto. And the Chiaroscuro technique continued and expanded its long tradition. In addition, the Russian sculptor Alexander Taratynov made a rendition of several of the characters in bronze-cast sculptures in 2006, which are now in front of Rembrandt’s iron statue cast by Louis Royer in 1852.

Samuel van Hoogstraten, art theoretician and Rembrandt’s former pupil, reflected on this painting, as he wrote great things about it, with only one criticism, that Rembrandt should have ‘had put more light into it’. More recently, the painting is referred to in the book ‘Eye and Mind’, written by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in 1964. The author claims that “The spatiality of the captain lies at the meeting of two lines of sight that are incompatible with one another”, adding that everyone in life has witnessed in some way or another, this type of play of shadows that seem to give an added spatial dimension.

painting details

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