The Night Watch by Rembrandt, 1642

The Night Watch by Rembrandt Van Rijn

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The Night Watch
Night Watch
Night Watch
The Night Watch, 1642

Painted in 1642, when Rembrandt was 36, The Night Watch was commissioned by the Captain of the Guard and 17 of his civil militia guards, for 1600 guilders.

Oil painting on a canvas of huge dimensions (3.6 by 4.3 m), The Night Watch is presently hosted at the Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam.

Rembrandt obtained in 1641 the commission to paint a corporation piece, in which he had achieved success in the earlier period of comparative self-restraint.

The result was the so-called "Night Watch" which, by the very fact that it has received this title, an entirely misleading one, betrays, its specific character. It is not a night-piece at all, but represents an open-air scene illumined by a sun that is still high in the heavens, yet the effect of chiaroscuro is so forced that at the end of the eighteenth century it was supposed to be a scene in an interior artificially illumined.

It is true that the picture had already by that time been considerably darkened both by the smoke and dirt of the shooting-company"s hall where it was hung and by successive coats of varnish, so that to Reynolds it appeared I to have been "much damaged" and he writes of it, "it was with difficulty I could persuade myself that it was painted by Rembrandt."

That it was a dark picture from the first is however proved by Rembrandtís own pupil Hoogstraten, who ends an appreciative notice of it with the words I yet I wish he had put more light into it. The picture was badly shown in the former place of exhibition before the present Rijksmuseum was built, and still kept much of its obscuring film. In its place of honor in that Museum approached through the somewhat gloomy "Ehren galerie" it was not favorably lighted, and this tended to perpetuate the traditional impression of the picture that there was little to be made out in it but the one, or two principal figures.

Of decisive importance for the history of the picture, or at any rate for the criticism of it, have been the display of it under more favorable conditions at the Rembrandt, exhibition at Amsterdam in 1898, and the final removal of it in 1906, in connection with the Rembrandt tercentenary celebrations, to a new room specially built out for it at the rear of the museum, where it is placed low down close to the floor, and illumined by y a light that on a bright afternoon is wholly satisfactory.

The removal of the dirt and old varnish and this favorable change of locality render it possible at last to form a fair judgment on the much controversial masterpiece. There is really only one part of the picture in which the traditional obscurity still remains, and this is the central portion of the architectural background. Were this clear, the interpretation of the motive of the piece Would, as we shall see, be easier than it is.

There is documentary evidence for the general character of this motive. Two copies of the picture exist, one in oils, by Lundens in the London National Gallery, and one in water- color, in a private collection at the Hague. Both of these copies belonged originally to Frans Banning Coca, the captain in the picture, and on the water color is the explanatory inscription "The young Laird of Purmerlandt (Banning Cocq) in his capacity as Captain gives to his Lieutenant, the Laird of Vlaerdingen, the command to march out his burgher- company".

This justifies the name "Sortie" often given to the piece. It represents a "going out" of a company of civic militia, but whence and at what hour and for what purpose the exit takes place are matters not easy to settle. In the eighteenth century it was supposed to be a nocturnal watch turning out on its rounds by artificial light, whence the French name "Ronde de Nuit" and the English and German "Night Watch" Nachtwache.

The time is, however, certainly the day and not the night. The shadow of the captain"s out- stretched hand and arm is thrown by the sun upon the yellow dress of the second in command, and it is easy to see by the relative positions of object and shadow that the sun is still pretty high in the heavens.

The going out apparently takes place from the hall of assembly or place of arms of the particular company of the civic militia somewhere in the town, and the destination may be presumed to be some tavern or garden in the outskirts of the city where there will be a drill or a shooting competition, ending with one of those banquets represented in the shooting-pieces of Frans Hals and other painters of the time. In the copy by Lundens the middle of the architectural background is occupied with a wide archway from which the figures have issued, and though in the original figures no such opening can be clearly made out, yet there are indications in the group just in front of its assumed position that seem to presuppose it.

One figure of this group, that just behind and above the form of the lieutenant, holds his long lance almost at the level, the next one, to the left of him, who wears a curious high- crowned hat, is raising his spear to the upright position, while the standard bearer holds his banner fully erect. All this seems to betoken the action of lowering the weapons while passing through a roofed passage and raising them when the open air has been reached.

The captain and the lieutenant head the "Sortie" and are by far the most conspicuous figures. The former is in black with a white collar. He has hose of a brown color and golden undersleeves, while across his breast is a scarf of richest crimson trimmed with gold embroidery. The lieutenant, a conspicuously smaller man, is clad from head to foot in saffron trimmed with gold lace over a buff ground, and wears a scarf of dazzling white, with bluish half-tones. Behind and above these two, on the steps which descend from the doorway, are four figures, three of whom have just been referred to. The one to the left, the ensign, holds aloft the banner in blue and red.

To right and left of the centre are other groups the lines of whose heads will be seen to slope downwards towards the centre, with the effect of securing still greater prominence for the two protagonists, while behind these last and between them and the group with the standard-bearer are other figures that must presently be noticed.

The movement forwards is not so obvious on the flanks as in the centre. On the extreme left will be observed a figure holding a halberd and turning his face towards the spectator. Ile is not in motion at all, but is seated on the top of a low wall that runs along on that side of the picture. On the extreme right a drummer in green is beating a drum of a somewhat pronounced orange hue, and beyond him a figure in black with arm outstretched is standing in conversation with a companion. These stationary figures are no doubt introduced for the sake of variety.

The idea of movement is however taken again, on the left, by a conspicuous figure in red who is at the same time in the act of pouring a measure of powder down the muzzle of his matchlock, while a quaint little misshapen i nip of a boy, his page, is running along at his side; and on the right, by another soldier also in red, who, as he moves forward, is examining the priming of his piece. Amongst the other figures, that, are grouped with the more conspicuous ones here described, will be noticed two that carry bucklers.

One is behind the man loading, and the other, to the right of the standard bearer, presents the appearance of a mediaeval man-at-arms. Helmets alternate with hats through the groups, and are more in evidence here than in any other of the numerous contemporary shooting-pieces.

The most remarkable figures are those which intervene between the foremost couple and the standard-bearer"s group. To the left, behind the man who is loading, is the somewhat squat figure of a little girl, who wears a saffron dress similar in color to that of the lieutenant, and carries at her girdle a white cock, repeating the white scarf of the latter. It has been suggested that the bird is the popinjay which is to serve as the mark in the forthcoming shooting competition, while the little maiden herself may be selected to present the prize to the successful marksman. The artistic intention of the figure is of course apparent. It balances that of the lieutenant, from which it is separated by the imposing black mass of the form of the Captain.

Between the girl and the Captain intervenes a curious and almost grotesque figure. It is that of a lad, in a fantastic helmet that looks too big for him, who holds a piece to his shoulder and is discharging it in the air in somewhat dangerous proximity to the heads of the figures on the right of the picture. One man, whose head appears between those of the captain and the lieutenant, is putting up his hand as if to divert the muzzle of the gun, but no one else of the company is taking notice of the performance.

In justification of Rembrandt, attention may be called to the fact that in one of van der Helst"s big pieces that hangs now where the I Night Watch" was till recently displayed, a conspicuous figure in the foreground holds his matchlock leveled to his shoulder, with fingers on the trigger, and match blown up to a bright glow above the touch hole ! If the piece were discharged, several of the most important persons of the group would be blown out of existence! Rembrandt has at any rate tilted up the gun, that in the "Night Watch" is actually going off.

In the picture as at present seen, there is great variety in light and shade, but the faces are fairly well illumined throughout, and there are at least sixteen heads, exclusive of the drummer, that can be distinctly seen, though of course many of these are quite in the background as compared with the few more favored ones. It is to be noted that the contributors to the sum paid to Rembrandt for the picture numbered .just sixteen.

The vigor of the work is beyond all praise, and every spectator will understand the exclamation. of Hoogstraten that it was so powerful that it made all other pictures look like painted cards! A certain air of strain and effort, is however unmistakable, and is to be seen in the actions, motives, and costumes, some of which are forced and even theatrical, as well as in the light-and-shade that is too pronounced for a scene, in the open air. It is the greatest effort of the master, but few would single it out as the most perfect expression of his artistic ideal.

Among Rembrandt Van Rijn"s other signed paintings, we note: "The Syndics", dated 1662 and located at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; - "Christ at Emmaus", completed in 1648 and displayed at Louvre Museum, Paris, France; - "The Return of the Prodigal Son", finished in 1669 and located at Louvre Museum, Paris, France; - "Beggars Receiving Alms at the Door of a House", dated 1648, presently hosted at -

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