Some paintings are made by great thinkers and change the course of the art world forever. They introduce concepts so intriguing to the human mind that it has you wondering for years. Such a painting is The Night Watch, by Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn in 1642. Also known as ‘Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq’ and ‘The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch’, it is one of the most famous from the Golden Age and is seen by 2.2 million people a year. Prominently displayed in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands, it is worth over $500 million. The painting is famous for three things: its colossal size (12 by 14+1⁄2 feet); the dramatic use of light and shadow and the unusual style of painting showcasing a different perception of movement – as if it were a ‘snapshot’.
The story behind the famous “snapshot”
When I took a look at this majestic The painting, I was a university student who loved to explore different museums across Europe. I always made sure to buy the audio guide so I could learn more about the masterpieces. Out of hundreds of paintings, The Night Watch stood out as a big foot and had a long audio clip. He explained the history of the painting and what the artist painted. However, I didn’t understand why he was so famous and why we still want to see him. Surely the Dutch Golden Age is long gone and now we have digital art and NFTS based on that art. The particularity of this painting is that it is a snapshot of several soldiers on mission. It’s the same detail that made it so controversial. The painting was controversial not because of its subject, but because of how Rembrandt portrayed the members of the group. Rather than giving each of them equal importance, he created the equivalent of a film for the painter: a group of militiamen who have just taken action and are about to leave. According to the Rijksmuseum, Rembrandts was the first artist to paint figures in a group portrait doing something. Painting takes a lot of time and dedication. He wants you to drink in the gloom he brings with him and wants to tell you a story. The story of a division of the Amsterdam civic guard, the Kloveniers militia. In the painting, it is the moving company, led by Captain Frans Banninck Cocq (dressed in black, with a red belt) and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch (dressed in yellow, with a white belt). With effective use of sunlight and shadow, Rembrandt draws attention to the three most prominent figures in the crowd: the two men in the center (from whom the painting takes its original title) and the woman in the center -left in the background carrying a chicken. Behind them, the company colors are worn by the Jan Visscher Cornelissen sign. The figures are almost life-size.
The mysterious girl in the painting
The The painting is much darker and darker in person. At first glance, you can barely understand what is going on, then you lay eyes on this girl ghost in the middle of all the army men. Who is she? Rembrandt naturally displayed the traditional arquebusier emblem, with the maiden in the background carrying the main symbols. She’s kind of a mascot herself; the claws of a dead chicken in her belt represent the clauweniers (arquebusiers), the pistol behind the chicken represents the shamrock, and she holds the goblet of the militia. The man in front of her is wearing an oak leaf helmet, a traditional arquebusier motif. The dead chicken is also believed to represent a defeated opponent and the color yellow is often associated with victory.
Did the Night Watch lead to the downfall of Rembrandt?
Each work of art contains the soul of the artist. It also contains untold stories that haven’t surfaced in decades. I was very interested in the state of mind of Rembrandt and I wanted to understand why he painted what he painted and what was the result of his work. It was then that I heard of his downfall because of it. How can a $500 million piece of art bring someone down? It is said that Rembrandt’s apparent disgrace was, for many years, tied to The Night Watch. The The painting even inspired conspiracy theories thanks to director Peter Greenaway and his 2007 pic “Night Watching.” This documentary and another titled ‘Rembrandt’s J’Accus’e, argue that the painting’s intricate iconography reveals a murder plot that leads to members of the civic militia, which it depicts as threatening Rembrandt’s life and leading to its ruin. According to myths and theories, when The Night Watch was unveiled to members of the Militia and their wives, the reception was overwhelmingly negative. Viewers thought the painting insulted the militiamen and that it was not “serious art” because everything looked shadowy and confusing. Contrary to myth, which began in the early 19th century, Rembrandt continued to receive commissions from the great and the good for years after completing this masterpiece.
Why is The Night Watch a masterpiece?
As I watched The Night Watch, I wondered what makes it so special. To me it seemed not only too dark but very crowded. I used to see portraits with a person as the main focus. This painting features 34 figures, including members of the volunteer guard, a military standard bearer, a drummer, and a young girl. What Rembrandt did was something completely new, making it one of the hallmarks of the Dutch Golden Age period. Millions of people still flock to see it each year to marvel at Rembrandt’s masterful skills in rendering dozens of nearly life-size individuals. The painting also features Baroque art qualities like a dramatic use of light and shadow and a display of movement. Interestingly, for hundreds of years the painting was covered in a dark glaze and dirt, which misled scholars into believing it depicted a night scene which led to its name” The Nightwatch”. And if that misconception wasn’t enough, just like the Mona Lisa, this painting has survived multiple attempts at vandalism and theft. From an unemployed cobbler to a deranged teacher to an escaped psychiatric patient, all manner of people have tried to tarnish him with knives and acid. This added to the charm of the painting and made people appreciate Rembrandt’s work more after the restoration process. If given a chance, I would love to see this masterpiece again and truly admire the work of an artist who captured the world by creating a snapshot.
The sequel in Behind the Art: Why is Picasso’s Girl in a Mirror Worth About $179.4 Million and What Does the Painting Really Mean?