Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas



November 2016

“The year in which [Rembrandt] painted the famous ‘Night Watch’, 1642, ought to have been one of his best. Things turned out differently: it was the year in which Saskia died. His son Titus was less than a year old” The Masterpieces Guide, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.



What’s so great about “Night Watch”?

Dear Reader,

By the time John and I reached the second floor of the Rijksmuseum, we were in the third hour of our day there. You might think that we would have succumbed by then to artoplexy (my word for a condition caused by an overabundance of images), but we have developed a special stamina when visiting art museums. We have learned to take it easy: we sit on the visitor-friendly benches in the galleries and find the café for a drink and a sweet. Of course, my trusty museum shoes supported me through the entire day (Judy’s Journal, 2005 January).

Because the second floor holds galleries filled with Rembrandts, Vermeers, Steens and Hals paintings, the crowds had sorted themselves out between the large “Night Watch” room and the one in which the Vermeers were located. I am never daunted by crowds for one reason: people usually do not spend much time even in front of masterpieces, usually a few minutes at most. That means movement is fluid, making it easy to insert myself into a blank space and feel alone with the painting. It is a dance that requires patience.

What’s so great about “Night Watch”? Is it one of those masterpieces that is famous for fame’s sake, making people scramble to see it just so they can say they saw it? When the Rijksmuseum was closed for a decade of renovations, they kept this crowd-pleaser on exhibit in their front rooms and still took in admission fees. So, it’s a museum money-maker.

Famous paintings are famous because people with knowledge and power say they are worthy of special attention. The rest of us trust and believe their considered opinions. Then the marketing people step in, and we line up.

But what about “Night Watch”? I wanted to understand what made it so great. So, I waited and looked. And looked. And read the study card provided in the gallery. Since emerging as a topic for this month’s journal, I also gathered my art books in a pile. Here is a list of what I have learned about the painting, all of which make it more interesting, if not great.

  • The original title, given by Rembrandt, was “The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch.” Would fame have come so easily if it had maintained its original title? When it was moved from its first home, it was so dirty that the eighteen figures looked as if they were marching out into the dark to defend the town. The new title supposedly came from that problem. The painting was too large for the next new site, so it was cut down.

  • The painting was a commission for Rembrandt. The sixteen militiamen each paid him 100 guilders. He threw in the drummer for free. He sketched in the dog – he’s there, but barely noticeable.

  • The sixteen portraits are men in action, therefore it’s a lively painting. Here and there, a pair look as if they might be talking, but this is essentially sixteen portraits. There is a three-person gun sequence going on behind the main characters (see title). One loads the firearm, the second fires it (no one seems to flinch, even though there is a red blast behind the lieutenant’s head) and the third blows off the powder remains. Energy bursts among groups of characters, as if they are in a boiling cauldron.

  • Rembrandt’s use of chiaroscuro is wonderful in this painting. Light against dark. Those who paid are lit and glow with their importance. The captain’s hand reaches out to the viewer. The embroidery trim of the lieutenant’s jacket is an intricate rendering of Amsterdam’s coat of arms. Rembrandt guides our journey through the painting with light.

  • The small girl, identified as the company mascot, has a familiar face: she resembles his wife, Saskia. According to The Masterpieces Guide, “The year in which he painted the famous ‘Night Watch’, 1642, ought to have been one of Rembrandt’s best. Things turned out differently: it was the year in which Saskia died. His son Titus was less than a year old.”

  • According to Hermann Bauer in his essay “Baroque in the Netherlands,” in Masterpieces of Western Art, the figures are all “types” used by Rembrandt in other paintings. What makes this a remarkable painting is that it “includes the entire repertoire of portrait poses and gestures from Rembrandt’s store of figures”. Shakespeare did the same in his plays, and we know what everyone thinks of his work.

    Has my quest to find out more made me understand what is so great about this painting? Yes and no. But mostly yes. Fame is a political phenomenon – the result of people who have the power to assign the label of masterpiece to a painting. Crowds will continue to jockey for position and stand in front of “Night Watch”. Reading the details about it enriched my understanding and heightened my appreciation. Finally, I concede that “Night Watch” is one of the great paintings, set in constellations of great paintings, surrounded by thousands of near-great paintings in a galaxy of art made for everyone’s taste.

P.S. Enjoy watching this video about "Night Watch."