Some paintings are made by great thinkers and change the course of the art world forever. They introduce concepts that are so intriguing to the human mind that it makes you wonder about them for years. One such painting is The Night Watch, made by the 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 Dutch Golden Age paintings and is viewed by 2.2 million people a year. Prominently displayed in Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, it is worth over 500 million dollars. 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 painting style showcasing a different perception of motion – as if it were a ‘snapshot’.
The story behind the famous ‘snapshot’
When I first glanced at this majestic painting, I was a university student who loved to explore different museums across Europe. I always made sure to purchase the audio guide so I can learn more about the artwork. Out of hundreds of paintings, The Night Watch stood out like a big foot and had a long audio clip. It explained the history of the painting and what the artist painted. However, I failed to understand why it was so famous and why we still care to see it. Surely the Dutch Golden Age is long over and now we have digital art and NFTS based on that art. The special thing about this painting is that it is a snapshot of several military men on a mission. This is the same detail that made it so controversial. The painting was controversial not because of its subject, but because of the way Rembrandt depicted the group’s members. Rather than giving each of them equal prominence, he created the painter’s equivalent of a motion picture: a group of militiamen who have just moved into action and are about to march off. According to Rijksmuseum, Rembrandt was the first artist to paint figures in a group portrait doing something. The painting does demand a lot of your time and dedication. It wants you to drink in the gloominess that it brings with itself and wants to tell you a story. A story about a division of Amsterdam’s civic guard — the Kloveniers militia. In the painting the is company moving out, led by Captain Frans Banninck Cocq (dressed in black, with a red sash) and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch (dressed in yellow, with a white sash). With effective use of sunlight and shade, Rembrandt leads the eye to the three most important characters among the crowd: the two men in the centre (from whom the painting gets its original title), and the woman in the centre-left background carrying a chicken. Behind them, the company’s colours are carried by the ensign, Jan Visscher Cornelissen. The figures are almost life-size.
The mysterious girl in the painting
The painting is much darker and gloomier in person. At a first glance you can hardly make out what is happening and then you set your eyes upon that ghost of a girl in midst of all the army men. Who is she? Rembrandt has displayed the traditional emblem of the arquebusiers naturally, with the girl in the background carrying the main symbols. She is a kind of mascot herself; the claws of a dead chicken on her belt represent the clauweniers (arquebusiers), the pistol behind the chicken represents clover and she is holding the militia’s goblet. The man in front of her is wearing a helmet with an oak leaf, a traditional motif of the arquebusiers. The dead chicken is also meant to represent a defeated adversary and the colour yellow is often associated with victory.
Did The Night Watch lead to the downfall of Rembrandt?
Every piece of art contains the soul of the artist. It also contains untold stories that have not surfaced for decades. I was very interested in the mindset of Rembrandt and I wanted to understand why he painted what he painted and what was the aftermath of his work. That is when I heard about his downfall due to this. How can a $500 million worth piece of artwork lead to someone’s downfall? It is said Rembrandt’s apparent fall from favour was, for many years, connected to The Night Watch. The painting has even inspired conspiracy theories courtesy of film director Peter Greenaway and his 2007 picture ‘Night Watching’. This and another documentary called ‘Rembrandt’s J’Accus’e, argue that the painting’s complex iconography reveals a murder plot that leads to members of the civic militia, who it portrays as threatening Rembrandt’s life and leading to his ruin. According to myths and theories, when The Night Watch was unveiled to militia members and their wives, the reception was mostly negative. Viewers thought the painting insulted militia men and it was not ‘serious art’ as everything seemed in the shadows and confusing. Contrary to the myth, which began early in the 19th Century, Rembrandt continued to get commissions from the great and good for years after he completed this masterpiece.
Why is The Night Watch a masterpiece?
As I was staring at The Night Watch, I was wondering what makes it so special. To me, it seemed not only too gloomy but very crowded. I was used to seeing portraits with one person as the main focus. This painting features 34 figures, including the members of the voluntary 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 still flock to see it every year to admire Rembrandt’s masterful skills at rendering dozens of individuals almost lifesize. 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 coated with a dark varnish and dirt, which misled scholars into thinking that it depicted a nocturnal scene which led to its name ‘The Night Watch’. And if that misconception was not enough, just like the Mona Lisa, this painting survived multiple vandalism and theft attempts. From a jobless shoemaker, and a deranged school teacher, to an escaped psychiatric patient, all kinds of people tried to tarnish it using 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 very much like to revisit this masterpiece and truly admire the work of an artist who captured the world by creating a snapshot.
Next up in Behind the Art: Why is Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror worth about $179.4 million and what does the painting really mean?
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Khyati RajvanshiKhyati Rajvanshi is a Digital Audio News Editor. She writes on Art and… read more

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