A night watch?
Would it surprise you to find that the title that Rembrandt’s most famous painting is known by is actually incorrect? The so-called Night Watch is not a night scene at all; it actually takes place during the day. This title, which was not given by the artist, was first applied at the end of the 18th century. By that time the painting had darkened considerably through the accumulation of many layers of dirt and varnish, giving the appearance that the event takes place at night.
The Dutch civic guard
Rembrandt’s Night Watch is an example of a very specific type of painting that was exclusive to the Northern Netherlands, with the majority being commissioned in the city of Amsterdam. It is a group portrait of a company of civic guardsmen. The primary purpose of these guardsmen was to serve as defenders of their cities. As such, they were tasked with guarding gates, policing streets, putting out fires, and generally maintaining order throughout the city. Additionally, they were an important presence at parades held for visiting royalty as well and other festive occasions. Each company had its own guild hall as well as a shooting range where they could practice with the specific weapon associated with their group, either a longbow, a crossbow, or a firearm. According to tradition, these assembly halls were decorated with group portraits of its most distinguished members, which served not only to record the likenesses of these citizens, but more importantly to assert the power and individuality of the city that they defended. In short, these images helped promote a sense of pride and civic duty.
Rembrandt was at the height of his career when he received the commission to paint the Night Watch for the Kloveniersdoelen, the guild hall that housed the Amsterdam civic guard company of arquebusiers, or musketeers. This company was under the command of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, who holds a prominent position in the center foreground of the image (above left). He wears the formal black attire and white lace collar of the upper class, accented by a bold red sash across his chest. At his waist is a rapier and in his hand a baton, the latter of which identifies his military rank. Striding forward, he turns his head to the left and emphatically extends his free hand as he addresses his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburgh, who turns to acknowledge his orders. He is also fancifully dressed, but in bright yellow, his military role referenced by the steel gorget he wears around his neck and the strongly foreshortened ceremonial partisan that he carries. Sixteen additional portraits of members of this company are also included, with the names of all inscribed on a framed shield in the archway. As was common practice at the time, sitters paid a fee that was based on their prominence within the painting.
A unique approach
Compared to other civic guard portraits, Rembrandt’s Night Watch stands out significantly in terms of its originality. Rather than replicating the typical arrangement of boring rows of figures (see above), Rembrandt animates his portrait. Sitters perform specific actions that define their roles as militiamen.A great deal of energy is generated as these citizens spring to action in response to their captain’s command. Indeed, the scene has the appearance of an actual historical event taking place although what we are truly witnessing is the creative genius of Rembrandt at work.
Men wearing bits of armor and varied helmets, arm themselves with an array of weapons before a massive, but imaginary archway that acts as a symbol of the city gate to be defended. On the left, the standard bearer raises the troop banner while on the far right a group of men hold their pikes high. In the left foreground, a young boy carrying a powder horn dashes off to collect more powder for the musketeers. Opposite him, a drummer taps out a cadence while a dog barks enthusiastically at his feet.
In addition to the eighteen paid portraits, Rembrandt introduced a number of extras to further animate the scene and allude to the much larger makeup of the company as a whole. Most of these figures are relegated to the background with their faces obscured or only partly visible. One, wearing a beret and peering up from behind the helmeted figure standing next to the standard bearer has even been identified as Rembrandt himself.
While a number of different weapons are included in the painting, the most prominent weapon is the musket, the official weapon of the Kloveniers. Three of the five musketeers are given a place of significance just behind the captain and lieutenant where they carry out in sequential order the basic steps involved in properly handling a musket. First, on the left, a musketeer dressed all in red, charges his weapon by pouring powder into the muzzle. Next, a rather small figure wearing a helmet adorned with oak leaves fires his weapon to the right. Finally, the man behind the lieutenant clears the pan by blowing off the residual powder (both the figure in a helmet with oak leaves and the man blowing off the powder are visible in the detail of the central figures above). In his rendering of these steps, it seems that Rembrandt was influenced by weapons manuals of the period.
A golden girl
Probably the most unusual feature is the mysterious girl who emerges from the darkness just behind the musketeer in red. With flowing blond hair and a fanciful gold dress, the young girl in all her brilliance draws considerable attention. Her most curious attribute, however, is the large white chicken that hangs upside down from her waistband. The significance of this bird, particularly its claws, lies in its direct reference to the Kloveniers. Each guild had its own emblem and for the Kloveniers it was a golden claw on a blue field. The girl then is not a real person, but acts as a personification of the company.
Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:
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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Rijksmuseum on an early Sunday morning, in order to avoid the crowds that gather in front of Rembrandt’s most famous work, in fact probably the most famous painting in the Netherlands. This is Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch.”
Dr. Beth Harris: [0:17] It’s a group portrait. This is a type of painting that was very specific to the Dutch Republic in the 17th century.
Dr. Zucker: [0:24] This is a painting of one of the militia groups of Amsterdam. Now, militia groups were meant to defend the city, but by the time Rembrandt paints this, they were largely ceremonial.
Dr. Harris: [0:33] They took part in processions, parades, and festivities relating to the city. They symbolized civic pride.
Dr. Zucker: [0:41] In fact, one had to pay dues in order to be a member. It was always a leading citizen that would head it up.
Dr. Harris: [0:47] We’re looking at a group of elite citizens of Amsterdam. We should say, it was hung with other group portraits of militias in the hall where they would meet.
Dr. Zucker: [0:56] I think this probably really stood out.
Dr. Harris: [0:58] Look at how it stands out in this gallery.
Dr. Zucker: [1:00] Unlike earlier examples, which generally have a kind of even light and are very much like the kind of class portrait you would have in your grade school, here we have people who seem to be in the act of coalescing around an action.
Dr. Harris: [1:12] The captain is giving an order for the militia to gather and move forward, and he’s giving that order to his lieutenant. There is a sense in which the portrait function has been played down.
Dr. Zucker: [1:24] Rembrandt has decided to impose a hierarchy on the figures. In other words, in most group portraits there would be even light and there would be even attention to each face, and generally even handling of each figure.
[1:37] There may be figures that are placed in the foreground, figures that are placed in the background. In fact, there might be different prices that each of those sitters paid for that honor. But here, the two men in the foreground are clearly most important.
Dr. Harris: [1:48] They’re flooded with a beautiful Baroque light that’s so dramatic. In fact, the captain’s hand casts a stark shadow on the amazingly beautiful uniform worn by his lieutenant. Those fluctuations of light and dark do make this very different from a typical group portrait.
Dr. Zucker: [2:07] This is a Baroque painting, not only in the handling of light but also in the sense of the momentary, in the compositional diagonals that are defined by the spears that are held, by the banner on the upper left, activating the scene.
Dr. Harris: [2:20] Hals is also bringing that sense of informality and movement to the genre of the group portrait, but Rembrandt is engrossing us in a narrative.
Dr. Zucker: [2:29] For example, we see three moments in the use of a long gun. On the left, you see a man who’s loading his firearm. This is a precursor to the musket, actually, up to the rifle. In the center, you see somebody whose legs are bracing and is in the process of shooting. You can just make out the smoke from the barrel that gets a little bit confused with the rather smoky feathers of the lieutenant’s hat. Then, on the right side, you have somebody blowing out the used powder from his pan.
Dr. Harris: [2:55] Art historians believe that these images are in some part derived from a manual about using this kind of firearm. This was very much a source of pride for this militia group. This was their weapon. They practiced it in a field nearby and they’re shown using it.
[3:11] There’s so much else going on. [laughs] There’s a dog barking. There’s someone playing the drums. There’s someone raising the standard of the militia. There’s that girl striding forward who’s puzzled art historians for a while.
Dr. Zucker: [3:24] Actually, if you look closely, you can make out that there are two girls, one behind the other. The one that’s most evident, we think of as some kind of mascot.
[3:31] If you look closely in her beautiful dress, she’s got a dead chicken that’s been hung upside down from her belt. The claws [are] very prominent, and that refers to the name of this particular militia group.
Dr. Harris: [3:43] Here we are in this room filled with group portraits. I have to admit that when I look around at the Frans Hals, they’re beautifully painted, incredibly informal and lifelike, but I find myself caring less.
[3:54] I don’t know the people in the portrait. I can sort of put myself back and imagine the citizens of Amsterdam in the early 17th century who did know these figures, but somehow I find myself caring about the story and getting involved in the story of “The Night Watch.”
Dr. Zucker: [4:08] We can look at the Frans Hals and admire his brushwork, the innovations of his composition, the way in which he takes great risks in terms of this tradition of the group portrait. But Rembrandt transcends that category of painting and makes this something where we care about the figures even if we’ve lost their identity.
Dr. Harris: [4:24] With the Hals, they’re not filled with as much movement.
Dr. Zucker: [4:27] Rembrandt is bringing in the lessons of Caravaggio. He’s bringing in the lessons of the Italian Baroque. We have to remember that we’re seeing this painting differently than somebody in Rembrandt’s era would have seen it.
[4:37] For one thing, the painting was cut down when it was taken out of the militia hall. We’re seeing it not only having lost its top and its sides, but actually somewhat off-center.
Dr. Harris: [4:48] It would have been much more readable. There are two figures from the left that are missing, the very top of that arch and some architectural space above are missing.
Dr. Zucker: [4:56] The banner, for example, did not reach the top of the painting.
Dr. Harris: [4:59] It’s a little illegible to us for these reasons.
Dr. Zucker: [5:02] It’s also important to remember that the painting wasn’t originally called “The Night Watch.” It was much more specific and referred to the militia that it’s representing.
Dr. Harris: [5:10] And the captain who leads it.
Dr. Zucker: [5:11] It got that title in the 18th century, after the painting had darkened considerably and it was no longer evident that it was a daytime image.
Dr. Harris: [5:18] Although it is still dark, the figures do come out of that darkness in the tradition derived from Caravaggio.
Dr. Zucker: [5:24] It still comes out of that tenebristic tradition of the Italian Baroque and all of the mystery and drama that that imparts.
[5:31] There was another addition to the painting as well. If you look carefully, you see a large shield. That was actually added after most of these men had passed away, in order to remember who these men were.
Dr. Harris: [5:41] When you look toward this painting as you enter this gallery and you see the people standing in front, the painting is so lifelike that it almost looks as though the figures here are interacting with the people who are standing in front of it.
Dr. Zucker: [5:53] Look at the amazing foreshortening, for example, of the weapon that the lieutenant is holding, the way in which that moves into our space.
Dr. Harris: [5:59] Or the rifle held by the figure in red, or the captain’s hand that comes forward. There’s foreshortening everywhere as we move our eye across the canvas.
Dr. Zucker: [6:08] It really has to do with the separateness of each person’s involvement in what they’re doing and the way in which they’re all being called to order, that moment of transition. This is a painting that allows us to see that complex moment when people are moving from their individual thoughts into a formation. The galleries are already filling up. We’d better stop.