The Night Watch

‘The Night Watch’ by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642, via Wikipedia

To Amsterdam for a few days, and at last a visit to the Rijksmuseum, one of the world’s leading art galleries, physically or online. For years now I have been familiar with the collection through its digital presences, not just the usual line-up of great works to be found on the standard web sources, but through its exceptional Rijksstudio, which lets you curate whole or parts of the art works in assorted creative ways (it was praised on these pages when launched back in 2012).

But the greater sense of the collection has come from the works reproduced across countless books, magazines, postcards, posters, web pages, television programmes, films and so on. It is a gallery I have visited many times, to the extent that is has become a part of me, yet until now I was never there.

It is a substantial gallery on a number of floors, with works ranging from 1200 to 2000, plus special exhibition spaces. Objects range beyond paintings to include drawings, statues, furniture, china, musical instruments, a biplane and (a particular pleasure) the great Dutch documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens’s Philips Radio (1931). However, for the first-comer there is only one space that you must visit, and that is the Gallery of Honour. This is the Rijksmusum’s greatest hits area, a wide corridor of seventeenth-century Dutch masterpieces (Hals, Rembrandt, Steen, Vermeer), at the end of which hangs the art work of art works, ‘The Night Watch‘. Or ‘De Nachtwacht’. Or ‘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’.

Rembrandt van Rijn‘s 1642 masterpiece is the epitome of the Dutch Golden Age and consequently the epitome of art itself, or so says the building. You see it there in the distance, approaching as though the altarpiece of a cathedral, where it has been positioned since the museum’s opening in 1885. At the time of visiting the painting was undergoing restoration and was surrounded by a glass case, with a preservation gantry detracting somewhat from the purity of the experience, but the care with which its reputation is protected only enhances the sense that here is the holy of holies. The section of the gallery in which it sits contains assorted complementary works including other large-scale paintings showing Dutch military companies, of which ‘The Night Watch’ is but one example, and to the side a small seventeenth-century copy of ‘The Night Watch’, by Gerrit Lundens, as it originally looked before it was trimmed on all four side (most dramatically on the left-hand side) in 1715 to enable the painting to fit in Amsterdam Town Hall. The lost sections have never been found.

17th-Century copy of ‘The Night Watch’ as it originally looked, by Gerrit Lundens, via Wikipedia

‘The Night Watch’ has led a extraordinary life for an object that might just happily hang on a wall. It has been hung in five different places, as well as being rolled up in a cylinder and placed in a safe in caves at Maastricht for four years during the Second World War. Aside from the corporate vandalism of 1715, it was attacked by gallery visitors in 1911 (slashed by a knife, but saved by its thick coating of varnish), 1975 (again slashed by a knife, more seriously this time) and 1990 (sprayed with acid, but again saved from greater damage by varnish). In 2013, when the Rijksmueum re-opened after ten years of renovation (the painting had remained on display all that time), it was recreated by a flash mob of actors memorably filmed in a Breda shopping centre to the bemusement, then delight, of the passing shoppers.

In 2019 the ongoing restoration project began, ‘Operation Night Watch‘, which could be followed via a live stream. In 2020 it was published online as a 44.8 gigapixel image built up out of 528 individual images of sections of the painting. This has been upscaled subsequently to a 717 gigapixel version made up of 8,439 individual photographs. You can stare more closely than even the artist knew at colours, discoloration, cracks, blemishes and repairs to knife cuts. In 2021 it was shown in an AI-enhanced version, which recreated the lost trimmed section through an analysis of the Lundens copy. We cannot help reinventing ways in which to look ever more closer at the painting, willing it to come to an ever greater life.

A flash mob recreating ‘The Night Watch’ in a Breda shipping centre in 2013

Whatever the paraphernalia and the people that stand in the way of the physical experience of seeing ‘The Night Watch’ in situ, you cannot but see the painting as though the gallery had emptied, just for you. My immediate experience of seeing the familiar for the first time was two-fold. The first was confusion. The painting is bewilderingly disordered. The figures are arranged strangely, looking out in every direction. There is no obvious logic to how this company has elected to present itself. Each individual seems absorbed in their own world, counteracting the others. The strange criss-crossing of pikes is emblematic of the appearance of confusion. There is too much going on for a mere mortal to comprehend.

On the other hand, and at the same point of initial sight, the painting is absolutely clear in its simplicity. It is about light. Everything radiates from the hand of the central figure, Captain Banninck Cocq. Reaching out to the viewer, as though projecting out of the flatness of the painting, it not only receives the light falling on to it but seems to give out light itself. It was Banninck Cocq, the leader of the company, who commissioned the painting, and it is he who presents his work to us. Rembrandt may have included himself in the painting (the top of his head is visible between the left and second-left of the quartet of figures at the back), but thematically speaking the creator of this work is its central subject.

The hand of light

The play of light in the painting has been much discussed. Exactly from where the light source, or sources, derive and how that light falls upon the figures has brought out many a critical helioscope, but even if we had Rembrandt’s notes and could say for certain from which windows or which break in the clouds the light comes down, this would not tell us much. What matters is that the company is coming into the light.

‘Coming into the light’ suggests that they are moving towards us, and the painting does have a curious effect of forward motion even while the members of the company are for the most part standing still. It’s a quality that has inspired filmmakers, from Alexander Korda’s 1936 feature Rembrandt (in which the painting is mocked by its first audience, which we now know was not the case – its exceptional quality was recognised from the start), to the recreation with actors, with moderate accuracy, in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1982 Passion, to being the subject of Peter Greenaway’s 2007 Nightwatching – not to mention the flash mob video. The painting suggests the will to motion, the reel of film turning in the projector that triggers life.

The implied motion is that of those who have emerged out of darkness and have been surprised by light. The name ‘The Night Watch’ is a misnomer, the guidebooks tell us, given to the painting in the late eighteenth-century before it was cleaned, when people thought that it was set at night and therefore depicted the company on nighttime duties (originally, of course, the painting had no name). It is now known, those guidebooks say, that the painting shows us daylight, but it is not easy to discard that old notion and the name that has stayed. The company is coming into the light, as though woken from sleep, caught in the act of forming themselves into a painting.

‘The Night Watch’ is about the control of light, so it is about painting itself. The theme and function of any painting must be light and how it shapes the world we see (those who can see). Colours are only perceived as a part of the light spectrum, and forms are but shadows. The understanding of light is the artist’s ultimate mission, and no other painting expresses this so subtly, so wisely and so emphatically as ‘The Night Watch’. Its subject is light and its subject is painting. Here, says the artist – speaking for all other artists – is what we must do. What the painting shows is why we have painting. It is what rescues us from the night.



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2 thoughts on “The Night Watch

  1. When I was there the space in front had a group of students taking selfies, and some were sitting on a bench nearby looking at their phones. There wasn’t much art appreciation going on.

    1. Maybe mostly so, but you can never know what may have sunk in to a mind that appeared not to be concentrating. And selfies are all about putting yourself into the artwork, which is rather appropriate in this case.

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