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The Night Watch

September 15, 2014

I enjoy sharing my love of art history and recently asked for suggestions for topics readers might want discussed. This post was prompted by someone suggesting Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. Essays on art can be rather dry but consider yourself warned; you’re about to see a man having his brains blown out.


Few paintings are as famous as Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, or as misunderstood. For beginners, it’s set in a dim alley but doesn’t depict a night scene, and it isn’t a watch. A famous Charles Laughton movie would have us believe that people laughed at the painting when it was unveiled, bringing ruin upon the artist—again, not true. Still, I rank this as one of the greatest paintings of all time, but that’s not to say it doesn’t include fascinating peculiarities.





Painted in 1642 when Rembrandt was at the height of his popularity, the large canvas is most properly known as The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch Preparing to March Out. It wasn’t until the 18th Century when the painting became known as the The Night Watch. It’s radically different from other Dutch paintings and this takes a bit of explanation.


In the seventeenth century the Dutch were the most prosperous people in Europe. They’d reclaimed land from the North Sea and protected it with dikes. An example of their pride is contained in the saying: God created the world but the Dutch created Holland. Independence was wrestled from Spain, and it wasn’t long before Dutch maritime power eclipsed the English, with Dutch fleets establishing trading colonies around the world.


Dutch merchants wanted to memorialize their successes and they did so by perfecting the group portrait. With Spain no longer a threat, men who’d fought together created social clubs and fraternities. The organizer often commissioned a group portrait, with each person contributing to the cost. Prominence in the composition was determined by how much was paid. If you couldn’t afford much, you were crammed into the background or pushed to the edge of the canvas.


Frans Hals was slightly older than Rembrandt and a master of the group portrait. He added liveliness to his work by posing gesturing figures around banquet tables, placing them like notes on a page of music. Hals was a master portraitist and each face is clearly depicted and identifiable. This is what Rembrandt’s patrons were expecting.




Group portrait by Frans Hals, painted in 1616


Rembrandt wasn’t content painting a simple group portrait with figures lined up like playing cards; he wanted to wow his patrons with drama and excitement. He also wanted to create an important painting, and portraiture wasn’t held in the high regard reserved for history painting. His solution was to create a group portrait masquerading as a history painting. He’d mastered chiaroscuro, the dramatic play of lit objects emerging from darkness, but this technique hadn’t been successfully used for a group portrait.


Here’s where it gets interesting: who the hell are some of the people in this painting, and why is Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch, the second most prominent figure in the composition, having his brains blown out? Rembrandt was known to have a wicked sense of humor. Look closely at the muzzle of the fired rifle held by the curiously short soldier behind the center group.




The flame and smoke cleverly blend into the feathers on the lieutenant’s hat. Even if brains aren’t spilled, the poor man would certainly become deaf in that ear. And who is the little girl—in my opinion one of the ugliest children ever painted—scurrying through The Night Watch? Why is a dead chicken strapped to her waist? Was she the group mascot? Could it be that “claws” were the heraldic symbol of this group, or did Rembrandt just feel peckish enough to add her? I doubt she paid for inclusion in the portrait.




When unveiled in 1642, not a single complaint was filed against the painting, surprising since some figures are enveloped in darkness while other faces are concealed by outstretched hands. Half a dozen of those depicted didn’t pay anything for inclusion. Still, Captain Cocq, leader of the group and the central figure in the composition, liked the painting enough to commission a watercolor copy for his family Bible.



Never again would Rembrandt tackle a group portrait on so large a scale, yet Dutch art would never be the same. The artist would deepen his mastery of paint manipulation and human expression, but he would focus on biblical scenes no longer popular in the Netherlands.


Rembrandt’s masterpiece has suffered over the years. In recent times The Night Watch has been attacked with a knife and had acid thrown at it. But the greatest insult came in 1715 when it was trimmed on all four sides to make it fit between two columns in the Amsterdam Town Hall. Two figures on the left side were lost. I hope the cropped men were among those who hadn’t paid to be included in what has become one of the world’s most famous paintings.




They protected it with dikes? I didn't know Rosie and Ellen were that old. Oh...wrong dikes? Or is that "dykes?" You know, now that I wrote that, I don't think I know. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Especially if [WARNING: Male pig statement ahead] they're hot. Great essay, by the way.
By: Al Penwasser on September 15, 2014
Thanks for that, Stephen. I seem to have been waiting years for you to explain the picture which I very much admired when in Amsterdam.
By: Brighton Pensioner on September 15, 2014
A fascinating commentary, as usual! Thanks for sharing!
By: Eva Gallant on September 15, 2014
I love your art lessons!!
By: Tabor on September 15, 2014
Fascinating art history lesson- next time we are in Amsterdam (September 2015 we hope) we will have to carefully study that painting. I always thought the "little girl" was an old dwarfed crone...and I never saw the blast from the rifle. Another thing to study. Thanks again for the entertaining and informative lesson!
By: Kathe W. on September 15, 2014
More stuff I never knew!!
By: fishducky on September 15, 2014
A most fascinating art history lesson. I'm discovering so much more to these paintings than I could ever imagine. They are in some way akin to bounty found in treasure chests and lore of the pirates pillaging. Some truth and embellishment too.
By: Daniel LaFrance on September 15, 2014
Interesting and educational and entertaining -- thank you!
By: mimi on September 15, 2014
I'm on a mission to learn more about the history of art - I'm focusing on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood at the moment. Your essays are hugely helpful in broadening my knowledge. Thank you.
By: Bryan Jones on September 15, 2014
Wish you had been my art apprec instructor. Really interesting post and enjoyed the back story.
By: Akansas Patti on September 15, 2014
I must be pretty thick as I can't find some of these things. for example I can't see the little girl!
By: red on September 15, 2014
I never knew that there were so many things and stories to discover in a painting!
By: Pixel Peeper on September 15, 2014
Why is that little girl glowing?
By: Val on September 15, 2014
I never realized how mysterious art could be. What an interesting perspective you've given us. :)
By: Scott Park on September 15, 2014
By: John on September 16, 2014
Very cool! Thanks for the history lesson. Additionally, I had to look at it several times figuring out what you meant by having his "brains blown out"
By: The Parent\'s Guide to Video Games on September 16, 2014
Indeed interesting. I didn't know anything about the painting except that it isn't really a night scene, just has dirt on it.
By: Madeleine McLaughlin on September 17, 2014
Rembrandt is by far my favorite artist.
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on September 17, 2014
I think I've said this before, but I would have loved to have taken one of your art appreciation courses in college.
By: Cranky Old Man on September 18, 2014
This is so much better than anything I was ever taught in art history classes! Thanks.
By: Mitchell is Moving on September 20, 2014

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