Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas
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,
Whats so great about Night Watch?
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 (Judys 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
Whats so great about Night Watch? Is it one
of those masterpieces that is famous for fames 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, its 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 months 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
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 hes there,
but barely noticeable.
The sixteen portraits are men in action, therefore its
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 lieutenants head) and the
third blows off the powder remains. Energy bursts among
groups of characters, as if they are in a boiling cauldron.
Rembrandts use of chiaroscuro is wonderful in this
painting. Light against dark. Those who paid are lit and
glow with their importance. The captains hand reaches
out to the viewer. The embroidery trim of the lieutenants
jacket is an intricate rendering of Amsterdams coat
of arms. Rembrandt guides our journey through the painting
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 Rembrandts 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 Rembrandts 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 everyones taste.
Enjoy watching this video about "Night Watch."