Fit for a Queen: Amsterdam’s 1898 Rembrandt exhibition

The Late Rembrandt exhibition in London and Amsterdam prompted me to reflect on the first Rembrandt exhibition held in Amsterdam in 1898. Any comparison between a pioneering exhibition held 127 years ago and a so-called “blockbuster” staged today would be pointless and unfair, but it is interesting to see where it all started, what the motivations of the organisers were and how the exhibition was received by the public. In addition, the 1898 exhibition was the point of departure for attribution debates which still continue today.

The new Queen and the new King of Painters

Thérèse Schwartze, official inaugural portrait of Queen Wilhelmina, 1898, Dutch Royal Collecion

Thérèse Schwartze, inaugural portrait of Queen Wilhelmina, 1898, Royal Palace Amsterdam

In 1898, when she would have reached the tender age of 18, Princess Wilhelmina’s inauguration as Queen of The Netherlands would take place in the capital, Amsterdam. The solemn event was to be accompanied by festivities, pageants and historic and folkloric exhibitions in the young Queen’s honour. These had been years in the planning but it was not until January 1897 that the idea for an Old Masters exhibition was launched. On the initiative of the influential Abraham Bredius, a member of Amsterdam artist society Arti and Amicitiae, and his former assistant art historian Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, this idea was rejected in favour of an exhibition dedicated to the newly rediscovered King of Dutch Painters: Rembrandt. The 1898 exhibition would be the first ever exhibition dedicated to a single Old Master. With royal approval duly received in September 1897, exactly one year before the exhibition would open, the special exhibition committee, which included artist members of Arti et Amicitiae and honorary member art historian Wilhelm von Bode, could set to work in earnest.

Securing loans: success and disappointment

It was evident that the very few remaining Rembrandts in Dutch collections would not suffice and that foreign loans would have to be secured. Once Queen Victoria agreed to lend two Rembrandt paintings, the German Emperor and other (mostly aristocratic) collectors and institutions soon followed suit. In six months Hofstede de Groot secured the loans of 124 paintings and over 350 drawings from all over Europe, an astonishing feat.

Portrait of an old woman, perhaps Elisabeth Bas, possibly by Ferndinand Bol, c. 1640-5, Rijksmuseum

Ferdinand Bol (?), Portrait of an old woman, perhaps Elisabeth Bas, c. 1640-5, Rijksmuseum

From the start the Rijksmuseum had made its four Rembrandts, the Night Watch, the Syndics, the Jewish Bride and the fragment of the Anatomy Lesson of Dr Deyman, available for the exhibition. For the public favourite, however, the Portrait of “Elisabeth Bas”, today no longer considered an autograph work, the museum’s insurance demands were so excessive that the painting could not be included. The reason for this may have been a furious letter sent to Rijksmuseum’s director Van Riemsdijk by the family that had bequeathed the painting to the Dutch State in 1880, stating unequivocally that such a loan would violate the conditions of the bequest.

Other disappointments followed: Stockholm’s Museum declined to send Rembrandt’s Claudius Civilis and some drawings on the – understandable – grounds that it considered the transportation risks too high; the Scottish National Gallery simply replied that it never lent art works. Perhaps the greatest disappointment was the Six family’s refusal to lend Rembrandt’s Portrait of Jan Six, a decision that met with criticism in the local press.

Exhibition label from the back of Rembrandt's "Diana and Actaeon", Wasserburg Anholt collection, Isselburg

Exhibition label from the back of Rembrandt’s “Diana and Actaeon”, Wasserburg Anholt collection, Isselburg

Venue: the Stedelijk Museum

The Stedelijk Museum in its opening year 1895 with the Rijksmuseum in the background, photographer Jacob Olie, City Archives Amsterdam

The Stedelijk Museum in its opening year 1895 with the Rijksmuseum in the background, photographer Jacob Olie, City Archives Amsterdam

The Stedelijk Museum, which had opened its doors to the public in 1895, had been selected as venue from the first and graciously agreed to make a number of its galleries available free of charge. That the Rijksmuseum, which had opened only ten years earlier, was not considered may have been due to public disappointment with its poor lighting conditions. Although the Stedelijk Museum had been built along the same lines (ground floor rooms with light flooding in from windows and first floor galleries lit by skylights), the size of windows, skylights and rooms were better aligned so that the Stedelijk Museum’s lighting plan was deemed more successful.

One of the rooms in the Stedelijk Museum exhibiting Rembrand drawings, 1898

Room 26 in the Stedelijk Museum exhibiting Rembrandt drawings, 1898

Paintings and drawings formed the nucleus of the first Rembrandt exhibition but it also included 400 reproductions of absent paintings which had been made available by the French publisher of Bode’s 1897 book on the artist so that Rembrandt’s painted and drawn oeuvre was represented in its entirety (according to the standards of the time). Rembrandt’s etchings would be exhibited simultaneously in the Rijksmuseum, but few people would bother to go there. Drawings were grouped according to lenders: Museum Fodor, Teylers Museum, the Dresden and Weimar collections and private collectors among whom A. von Beckerath (Berlin), John Postle Heseltine (London) and Léon Bonnat (Paris). There appears to have been no catalogue of the drawings, nor are there photographs of the display of the reproductions.

“Aesthetic hangings”

Today monograph exhibitions are organised chronologically or thematically. The Rembrandt exhibition of 1898 was organised aesthetically which involved rigid, strictly symmetrical groupings of paintings.

The "aesthetic hang" in one of the exhibition galleries, 1898

The “aesthetic hang” in room 27, 1898

In the center of each wall would be a large and preferably important painting, flanked by three, four and in a few cases even five corresponding formats, preferably in comparable frames and with the necessary thematic diversion among pairs. Three artists and Arti et Amicitiae members, among whom the painter George Breitner, were responsible for this concept which today would be unthinkable.

Room 28 of the exhibition, looking into room 27

Room 28 of the exhibition, looking into room 27

At the time, the “aesthetic hang” met with great approval. Art critic Paul Schumann, writing in the Dresdener Anzeiger (late October 1898), was delighted that the paintings

… are hung with great artistic sensibility. Everything that could distract from Rembrandt’s masterpieces has been avoided; these alone shine, happily not in chronological order but solely according to aesthetic merit so that one’s appreciation for the genius who created the works only increases.

The Night Watch light controversy

An amusing controversy accompanied the exhibition. In 1898 Rembrandt’s Night Watch was to be shown in one of the Stedelijk Museum‘s smaller ground floor rooms: the outcome of heated debates that had started as soon as the Rijksmuseum had opened its doors in 1885. In the Trippenhuis, the Rijksmuseum’s precursor, the painting had been lit from windows on its left, the same light direction Rembrandt had applied to his painting.

Cartoon on the light controversy by W. van Konijnenbelt in the Nederlandsche Spectator, 12 November 1898. Rembrandt's statue despairs as Josef Israëls (on the ground) and others battle it out

Rembrandt’s statue despairs as Josef Israëls (on the ground) and others battle it out. Nederlandsche Spectator, 1898.

From 1885 the painting was housed in the specially designed Rembrandt Gallery in the new Rijksmuseum. No longer could the painting be admired in its familiar domestic environment but instead was fixed in a monumental, immovable frame between two columns in a pompously decorated gallery hung with theatrical draperies where – even worse – it was lit by skylights. Contemporary artists in particular protested vehemently and veteran artist Josef Israëls fulminated in an 1889 newspaper that the “once so resonant and lively painting now hangs in the Rijksmuseum and is trampled to death.” Not surprisingly, the “pro side light lobby” anxiously awaited the opportunity to prove its point. On 30 August 1898 the enormous painting, newly framed and securely crated, was transported from the Rijksmuseum across Museum Square to the Stedelijk Museum. Once it had arrived at the Stedelijk Museum, the painting – not without difficulty – was hoisted through the window of Room 6.

Sketch by Jozef Israëls of the Night Watch in its room at the Stedelijk Museum, 1898

Jozef Israëls, sketch, 1898, Rijksmuseum

No images of the Night Watch in its temporary housing have survived other than a hasty sketch by Jozef Israëls, but its display with the desired lighting conditions was a resounding success with most art lovers. The Rotterdamsche Courant raved:

This room on the ground floor receives a warm sunlight coming from two windows on the side which can be darkened by curtains if desired. In addition glass curtains ensure that sunlight does not fall directly on the painted surface. The painting, in a simple rosewood frame, stands on the floor. Visitors coming from the dark front hall and entering the room find themselves immediately in the most favourable lighting conditions.

Visitor numbers

The success of an exhibition, then as now, is measured in visitor numbers. The 1898 exhibition counted on the most “civilised” part of the population which becomes clear from the exhibition poster (in French!) and the prohibitive entrance fee of 2.50 guilders. During the official run of the exhibition 43,000 people from the “better classes” visited. A three-day extension was proposed and granted so that the less affluent would be able to visit the exhibition for the much lower admission fee of 25 cents. With 8,000 additional visitors the total visitor number rose to 51,000, an average daily total of 800 “affluent” people during the first two months and 2,500 during the additional three days.

Various publications in four languages accompanied the exhibition, all with texts by Hofstede de Groot. A sober catalogue listed all paintings chronologically, but people could also subscribe to a series of forty photo-engravings which came in handsome, patterned portfolios designed by Lion Cachet. The portfolios were available in various colours, materials and price ranges; the most luxurious cost 600 guilders in 1899. With these luxury products the publishers also aimed at the American market where Rembrandt was just being discovered. In the next decades many Rembrandt paintings that had belonged to European collections were sold overseas.

A tour of the exhibition with Jan Veth

Jan Veth, self-portrait,

Jan Veth, self-portrait, 1887, Dordrechts Museum

Jan Veth (1864-1925), accomplished portraitist and art critic, published profusely on contemporary art and old masters, especially Rembrandt whose etchings he collected. Veth’s observations on the exhibition appeared in an article published on 3 October 1898. They are typical of the Dutch artistic movement of the time: emotional and hyper-individual. But Veth also had a keen eye for quality and was not easily hoodwinked when it came to attributions.

In the first room of the exhibition hung Christ and the adulterous woman from the Weber collection in Hamburg. Veth was not impressed:

It is inconceivable to me that someone should think this a Rembrandt. The signature is palpably false but how fake, too, is the coarse, lumpy old guy with monstrous hands, how fake the female head with holes torn in it, how fake the grumpy chimpanzee that has to assume the role of Christ, how fake Van Dyke [sic] and not at all Rembrandtesque the action, the entire clumsy composition. Certainly, at first sight there is something attractive in parts of the coloration, but that is all.

Christ and the adulterous woman, in 1898 given to Rembrandt

Christ and the adulterous woman, (signed “Rembrandt f. 1644”), 1898 collection Ed.F. Weber, Hamburg; 1980s deaccessioned by the Walker Art Gallery; sold at Bonhams in 2011

Veth’s comment was later confirmed by Bredius who did not include the painting in his authoritative 1935 Rembrandt catalogue.

Opposite Christ and the Adulterous Woman hung Rembrandt with Saskia at her dressing table, a then famous painting lent by Queen Victoria. “A disappointment”, Veth concluded,

… one would have expected more from this painting. Does it hang poorly in Buckingham Palace so that no one questions it? Here in strong light something tawny seems to come over it. Notwithstanding the richness of the jewelry and gown it is not at all effective. The piece from Dresden is so much better. [By the latter Veth meant Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son in the Tavern, c. 1637]

Rembrandt, a woman trying on earrings, 1654, Hermitage

Rembrandt, 1654, Hermitage

Veth was not alone in his disappointment and it can be said that Queen Victoria’s painting lost its reputation in Amsterdam. Today it is thought to be a pastiche of the Young Woman Trying on Earrings from the Hermitage St Petersburg and a lost likeness of the painter from the 1630s.

Among the other paintings Veth thought very little of was the Portrait of an Old Man with dishevelled hair: “Generally called the bellowing ox. Out of respect for the master I refuse to believe in its authenticity.”

Saul and David in the second exhibition room, on loan from the Parisian art dealer Durand-Ruel, on the other hand impressed Veth:

This masterful painting becomes more perfect the more I see it. The cunning David playing his harp with downcast eyes – and soul-sick Saul and his daring, but in its simplicity moving, gesture of wiping away a tear with the curtain – and the regal nature of that Saul … With minimal treatment the tonality could be restored and then one would enjoy the painting even more.

Abraham Bredius in 1905

Abraham Bredius in 1905

Nevertheless, some Rembrandt connoisseurs, among them Bode, doubted the painting’s authenticity. Abraham Bredius, however, shared Veth’s enthusiasm. When Hofstede de Groot promised to make 25,000 guilders available from the exhibition’s revenues, the Rembrandt Society was prepared to buy the painting on condition that one-fourth of the total sum of approximately 100,000 guilders should come from private donations and one-fourth from the State. The Ministry refused. Bredius, undeterred, and above all very wealthy, announced to the world (that is to say: to The Hague where he lived) that he would sell his horse and carriage to acquire the painting. It was not an empty threat: on 7 November 1898, three days after the exhibition finally closed, he sent the following telegram: Saul bought so not back Paris but direct to Mauritshuis The Hague deux cent mille! = Bredius. 

"Lysbeth van Rijn", 1898 Coll. Hofstede de Groot; today Groninger Museum (c. 1675)

“Lysbeth van Rijn”, 1898 Coll. Hofstede de Groot; today Groninger Museum (c. 1675)

In the same room hung the painting then known as Rembrandt’s Kitchen Maid, today attributed to Rembrandt pupil Willem Drost, which epitomised the popular view of the artist at the time: Rembrandt’s paintings mirrored his life. At the 1898 exhibition all were present: his father and mother, his brother Adriaen, his sister Lysbeth (lent by Hofstede de Groot himself!), Saskia and Titus, Hendrickje (Geertgen had not yet emerged from the archives) – and the kitchen maid. Veth saw “something tame” in the latter, “notwithstanding the clarity of light and wildness of subject”.

In one of the smaller rooms on the first floor the Man in Armour from Glasgow dominated one of the walls (“Delacroix’s dream painted by Vollon,” was Veth’s comment) with on its left the Portrait of a Boy (in 1898 owned by Earl Spencer, Althorp Park; today Norton Simon Museum) which Veth considered “a beautiful thing”.

Room 24, 1898

The sensation of the exhibition, certainly for art lovers, hung in the center of the long wall in this room: the painting then known by the impossible title Portrait of a Polish Rider in the costume of the regiment of Lysowsky in a landscape (today simply The Polish Rider), discovered in Poland by Bredius only the year before. Veth:

One look at the painting and only a few seconds of studying its technique convinced me that one of Rembrandt’s greatest masterpieces hung in that god-forsaken place for a hundred years. Something of the surprise in the Landscape with Tobias, the things where he [Rembrandt] seems to step out of his skin as it were. The entire composition is permeated with sonority. 

Here Veth’s critical eye momentarily let him down: the Tobias and the Angel in a Mountainous Landscape is hardly a Rembrandt and was not included in Bredius’ 1935 catalogue.

Concerning the Portrait of a Man in a Red Cloak, recently re-attributed to Rembrandt by the Rembrandt Research Project for (seemingly) no other reason than that they regard it as a study for the man in the Jewish Bride, Veth was brief. “Seen”, he noted.

The painting that had been highly praised by Rembrandt’s contemporary Constantijn Huygens, Judas returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver, disappointed many, including Jan Veth: “In the conventional figures surrounding the high priest there are poorly executed areas that remind one of an old copy or of overpaintings.” He was right: the version shown in the exhibition, then owned by Baron Arthur de Schinckler, was an early copy. Only in 1939 would the version acquired by Lord Iveagh in 1874 be acknowledged as Rembrandt’s original.

What did Veth think of the Night Watch now that it finally hung in a room where it was lit from the left? His only comment was an enigmatic: “Well …”

The return of the Night Watch

Rembrandt's Night Watch photographed outside the Stedelik Museum

Rembrandt’s Night Watch photographed outside the Stedelijk Museum

On 7 November 1898 the Night Watch, having been photographed outside the Stedelijk Museum on two consecutive days, returned to the Rijksmuseum. Its return was as eagerly anticipated as its temporary home in the Stedelijk Museum had been: the detractors of the painting’s location in the Rijksmuseum were keen to compare. First on the scene was Abraham Bredius and in his reaction, published the next day, he did not mince words: “The location of Rembrandt’s masterpiece is vandalism of the highest order.” The press, amused by the controversy, contributed a tongue-in-cheek compromise: “Light from above AND from the side.”

Cartoon by G. Kerkhoff in "De Amsterdammer", 20 November 1998: "The Night Watch matter resolved - light from above AND from the side (stiff necks after the visit)

Cartoon in “De Amsterdammer”, 20 November 1998: “The Night Watch matter resolved – light from above AND from the side (stiff necks after the visit)”

Eventually the “side light lobby” won a Pyrrhic victory: Rembrandt Year 1906 saw the opening of the “Rembrandt extension” at the Rijksmuseum, a newly built exhibition space behind the Night Watch Gallery where visitors could admire the painting under the same lighting conditions it had had in the Trippenhuis and in its temporary home at the Stedelijk Museum. Twenty years later, however, a new generation thought differently and the painting was restored to its original location in the Night Watch Gallery.

The Rijksmuseum's "Rembrandt extension" in 1906

The Rijksmuseum’s “Rembrandt extension”, 1906

London and beyond

Contrary to the Late Rembrandt exhibition today, the 1898 exhibition took the reverse route. After its successful run in Amsterdam the Rembrandt exhibition traveled to London’s Royal Academy as the institution’s 30th Winter Exhibition (2 January-11 March 1899). 102 paintings were exhibited in four rooms, a fifth room was devoted to drawings. Only six paintings came from Europe’s mainland so that for the first time virtually the entire collection of Rembrandt’s paintings in the United Kingdom and Ireland were united under one roof. Such an exhibition had not been possible in The Netherlands: while the Dutch were Rembrandt’s rightful heirs, his inheritance had largely been sold abroad.

Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, image KNAW

Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, image KNAW

The attribution aftermath was fierce. At the time of the Amsterdam exhibition, criticism had been mostly verbal which had upset Hofstede de Groot, its organiser. Vexed, he stated categorically that “all exhibited paintings are authentic”, but this only fuelled the debate even more. Perhaps tragically, for Hofstede de Groot the Rembrandt of the 1898 exhibition remained the one and only Rembrandt until his death in 1930. Bredius was more flexible: of the 124 paintings shown, 29 did not make his 1935 catalogue.

As for the exhibition’s objective, to honour the new Queen of the Netherlands through its King of Painters, this had been achieved in more ways than one. In The Netherlands the popularity of the monarchy had been waning, as had Rembrandt’s reputation. The exuberant inauguration festivities in Amsterdam revived the monarchy’s popularity while the first Rembrandt exhibition established the artist’s reputation once and for all. As Hofstede de Groot concluded in his catalogue introduction:

The Dutch could have paid no nobler homage to their young Queen and her coronation, than by bringing together a collection of the masterpieces of the greatest painter to whom Holland has given birth.


  1. The images of the exhibition are from a folio containing fourteen silver collodion photographs of the preparation and installation of the 1898 Rembrandt exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum
  2. Jan Veth’s extensive tour of the exhibition appeared in De Kroniek, no. 201, 4 (1898), pp. 335-151 under the title “Uit een geannoteerden catalogus van de Rembrandt-tentoonstelling” (From an annotated catalogue of the Rembrandt exhibition)

Sassetta: the quest for an altarpiece – (1) The road to Borgo

Sassetta, detail of the Funeral of St Francis, panel from Borgo San Sepolcro altarpiece, 1437-1444, National Gallery, London

Sassetta, detail of the Funeral of St Francis, panel from Borgo San Sepolcro altarpiece, 1437-1444, National Gallery, London

It must have been a strange procession that wound its way from Siena to the town of Borgo San Sepolcro in the late Spring of 1444. The renowned Sienese painter Stefano di Giovanni (ca. 1392-1450), known as Sassetta, the carpenter who had crafted the frame and perhaps Sassetta’s close colleague Pietro Giovanni d’Ambrogio with other assistants arrived in Borgo with the enormous polyptych commissioned by the Franciscans of the convent of San Francesco seven years earlier. The altarpiece would have been transported in separate units: its predella, main tier, pilasters and pinnacles would be assembled on the spot. The men would also have brought with them dowels, iron devices, nails and tools for the carpenter (in all likelihood the one responsible for constructing the altarpiece’s frame back in Siena) to install the painted structure on the high altar. Sassetta had come not only to oversee the installation but also, if necessary, to repair any paintwork that may have sustained damage during transportation.

Anonymous painter, 16th century, with view of Sansepolcro, Museo Civico, Sansepolco

Anonymous painter, 16th century, panel with view of Sansepolcro, Museo Civico, Sansepolco

On June 2nd Sassetta’s polyptych was installed on San Francesco’s high altar which had been erected exactly 140 years earlier to commemorate Blessed Ranieri, a local Franciscan friar. The townspeople would have flocked to the church to see the new altarpiece. It had come from afar: the more usual practice was to erect structures on altars to be painted in situ, but on this occasion the first time the people of Borgo laid eyes on Sassetta’s majestic polyptych was in its finished and mounted form on the altar. Among the eager viewers were the young Piero della Francesca, a native of the town, and his master Antonio di Giovanni d’Anghiari. The two had failed to complete the altarpiece commissioned from them for the same church which was now replaced by Sassetta’s polyptych.

Church of San Francesco, Sansepolcro, photo MD 2011

Church of San Francesco, Sansepolcro, photo MD 2011

The installation of Sassetta’s altarpiece is uniquely recorded by Ser Francesco de’Larghi, notary and chancellor of the town, who, among the customary dry notarial acts recording sales, receipts and testaments, noted:

On the second day of the month of June [1444], which was the third day of Pentecost, the altarpiece painted and decorated by Stefano of Siena was placed on the high altar of the Church of San Francesco in Borgo. Benedictus Deus.

The polyptych stood on the altar of San Francesco for over a century. During the Counter-Reformation the altarpiece was dismantled but several panels still remained in the church, mounted on other altars as recorded by Apostolic Vicar Angelo Peruzzi who visited the church in 1583 and noted a “beautiful picture with beautiful framework” on one of its altars.

The cult of Blessed Ranieri and the Franciscans of Borgo San Sepolcro

Ranieri's corpse laid out in front of the high altar, 1954

Ranieri’s “incorrupt”corpse laid out in front of the high altar of San Francesco in 1954 on the 650th anniversary of his death

On 1 November 1304, Ranieri, a local man who was a lay brother of the Franciscan order in Borgo San Sepolcro (today: Sansepolcro) died. Nothing is known about his life other than his name, the date of his death and one or two miracles said to have taken place during his lifetime as recorded in a 1532 religious play about the friar. Probably from a poor background Ranieri would not have had a last name although in later times the family name “Rasini” came in use, however without historic foundation. It was not until after Ranieri’s death, in fact the very next day, that miracles started to occur in rapid succession, first through direct physical contact with the friar’s corpse and later by physical contact with his casket or by praying for his intervention. The Liber Miracolorum, recording testimonies of those Borgo citizens who had sought and found healing through Ranieri, survives in two manuscripts, the oldest dating from the 14th century. As many as sixty miracles are recorded for the period from his death on 1 November 1304 until April of the next year.

In Borgo San Sepolcro the climate was ripe for a local cult such as that of the Blessed Ranieri. The founding of a Franciscan convent with its church, the emergence of other confraternities as a focus for lay devotion and charity and the winning of self-government by the secular elite made that new saints were required: holy men and women who were local, therefore approachable, unburdened by high ecclesiastical office, contemporary, and who would be role models for the people. Ranieri fitted that bill exactly.

Detached fresco from San Francesco by a local anonymous artist depicting Saint Anthony Abbot, Madonna Lactans, Christ enthroned and a Franciscan Saint presenting a female donor figure, late 14th century, 215x263 cm, Museo Civico, Sansepolcro. Photo MD, 2011

Detached fresco from the church of San Francesco by a local anonymous artist depicting Saint Anthony Abbot, Madonna Lactans, Christ enthroned and a Franciscan Saint presenting a female donor figure, late 14th century, 215×263 cm, Museo Civico, Sansepolcro. Photo MD, 2011

Towards the end of that same year, 1304, the first step was taken to propagate Ranieri’s cult: a high altar dedicated to his memory. In view of the new climate described above it is important to remember that not the Franciscans but the commune commissioned the altar. It still stands in the church today and the crypt where Ranieri rests, now in a 16th century wooden sarcophagus, is also still largely intact but in all other respects the early gothic church interior is unrecognisable today, having been rebuilt between 1752 and 1760. Only very few original architectural elements survive and the frescos that once adorned the walls, those that survived, were detached and are now on display in the Museo Civico close to the church, as are the church’s carved choir stalls with intarsia panels dating from around 1495.

High altar, church of San Francesco, Sansepolcro, 1304

High altar, church of San Francesco, Sansepolcro, 1304

San Francesco’s high altar is of dark-gray sandstone or pietra serena. It consists of an immense monolith measuring 181 x 342.5 cm which rests on a block carved with large, rectangular rosette reliefs, surrounded by an arcade consisting of colonnettes, the majority of which with a rich variety of twisting designs. In its design it followed the Franciscan typology, modeled ultimately on the high altar of the Lower Church of San Francesco in Assisi which was consecrated in 1253.

San Francesco, Assisi, high altar of the Lower Church (Basilica Inferiore), consecrated 1253

San Francesco, Assisi, high altar of the Lower Church (Basilica Inferiore), consecrated 1253

The inscription on the front of Borgo’s altar’s mensa is unique among surviving Franciscan high altars and testifies to the close links between the friars and the local community:

In the year of our Lord 1304 on the Feast of All Saints, Saint Ranieri migrated to the Lord. In that year the commune of Borgo commissioned this altar to the honour of God and the magnificence of the said saint. Amen.

Once Ranieri had been laid to rest in the crypt below the presbytery, the worshippers could see his tomb from all sides through grids in the altar steps as is still possible today, again a similar situation as once existed in Assisi.

The presbytery of San Francesco today with the high altar and grills in the altar steps

The presbytery of San Francesco today with the high altar and grids in the altar steps

Precedents and empty altarpieces

In 1426 the carpenter Bartolomeo di Giovannino d’Angelo was commissioned to construct a frame following the model of Sienese artist Niccolò di Segna’s altarpiece of 1340-50 in the church of the Camaldolese order (today’s cathedral) with the difference that the altarpiece for San Francesco should be prepared for painting on both sides.

Niccolò di Segna, c. 1350, Duomo Sansepolcro

Niccolò di Segna, c. 1340-50, tempera and gold on panel, 374.5 cm wide, Duomo, Sansepolcro

Giovanni del Biondo, Rinuccini Polyptych, Florence, S. Croce, detail showing buttress

Giovanni del Biondo, Rinuccini Polyptych, Florence, S. Croce, detail showing buttress

Di Segna’s monumental altarpiece consists of a large panel with a depiction of the Resurrection in the center and four panels showing saints in three-quarter length on the sides. The panels are all the same height and have trapezoidal tops, but the central panel was twice as wide as the side panels. The original slender, rectangular, gilt pilasters adorned with blue paint survive with those framing the central scene are slightly thicker than those at the sides. In the upper tier, which was painted on the same planks of wood as the main section are depictions of pairs of saints under double arches. The altarpiece would have been wider than the altar on which it stood and framed on the sides by vertical buttresses, necessary to distribute the weight of such a large altarpiece. In addition, such buttresses provided space for the representation of a large number of additional saints. The existence of similar buttresses for the San Francesco altarpiece is confirmed in the commission of 1426 and the documents of 1439: the carpenter was to use a piece of iron “to sustain the necessary columns”.

When Antonio d’Anghiari was commissioned to paint the double-sided altarpiece for San Francesco in 1430, the wooden structure had already stood empty on the high altar for four years. Work still did not begin until two years later when Antonio, with the young Piero della Francesca as his assistant, started to prepare the front face. But they never actually seem to have begun painting and Antonio eventually lost the commission, perhaps because he had not been able to complete the work in the required time-span of three and a half years. He seems to have suffered from chronic poverty and may not have been able to pay the expenses of the altarpiece: the gold and pigments, among which the expensive azurite stipulated in the contract. Due to his financial distress he may also have taken on various other jobs such as repair work which meant that any progress (if at all) on the altarpiece was slow. It seems to have been left to young Piero, then about 15 years old, to gesso (ground with gypsum) the wooden structure installed on the high altar, a time-consuming and laborious task.

Anonymous fresco, ...., Sant'Andrea, Siena

Anonymous fresco, trompe l’oeil of a wooden polyptych, 1370s, Sant’Andrea, Siena

It should be noted that it was by no means unusual for a wooden structure to stand on an altar unpainted for a long period. An illustration of this phenomenon is a fresco in the church of Sant’Andrea, Siena, showing bare wood with no figures. To assume that this fresco is unfinished is not correct: it merely reflects a reality found in several Italian churches of the period. In one case, in Rome, it took as much as twelve years until a painter was commissioned to paint a bare wooden structure standing on a high altar. Possible reasons for this phenomenon could be that the patrons, after paying for the carpentry, needed ample time to gather enough funds to hire a painter. Often such funding was co-dependent on private donations and the sale of properties or land. In the case of the Franciscans in Borgo the process, due to its exceptional circumstances, would even take eighteen years from the initial carpentry commission in 1426 to the installation of the altarpiece in 1444.

Choosing Sassetta

Why, after D’Angiari’s and Piero’s failed enterprise, did the friars of Borgo turn to Siena and in particular to Sassetta? For one thing, Sienese artists such as Taddeo di Bartolo and Niccolò di Segna had, in the previous century, worked frequently on distant commissions as the latter’s altarpiece for the abbey and another, now lost, altarpiece for Borgo attested so that there would have been a predilection for Sienese art in Borgo. They may have known his work from Borgo citizens traveling to Siena or from works in nearby Cortona where the painter was born. Another factor may have been the painter’s association with Bernardino from Siena, the Franciscan order’s most celebrated preacher. As Machtelt Israëls suggests, Sassetta very likely painted a large Assumption of the Virgin for the Osservanza convent church in Siena in the 1430s (previously thought to post-date the Borgo altarpiece) while the celebrated and influential Franciscan preacher Bernardino was in residence.

Sassetta, Assumption of the Virgin surrounded by agnels, mid-1430s, tempera and gold on panel, 332x224 cm. Formerly Kaiser Friedrich Museum, Berlin (destroyed in 1945)

Sassetta, Assumption of the Virgin surrounded by angels, mid-1430s, tempera and gold on panel, 332×224 cm. Formerly Kaiser Friedrich Museum, Berlin (destroyed in 1945)

It is, however, not likely that Bernardino himself had anything to do with a Franciscan commission for a small conventual convent in the back waters at Borgo San Sepolcro although his association with the painter may have helped: any control of the subject matter and the execution of the altarpiece was after all the responsibility of the Borgo convent as its commissioner. Certainly, by commissioning the Sienese painter who was then at the height of his artistic powers, conveys the ambitions of the Franciscans of Borgo and possibly a conscious intent to compete with and even outshine the older altarpiece in the town’s abbey.

What made Sassetta especially suitable for this ambitious undertaking was his ability to translate spirituality into intimate imagery, something that would have appealed especially to the Franciscans: colour pitched to the subtlest intensity, figures that are almost flimsy, almost naive, set in fluid, intricate architecture. He had also proved that he was immensely versatile and could adapt his style when a commission demanded it. His Wool Guild (Arte della Lana) altarpiece (1423-25) was an ingeniously movable, highly elaborate gothic altarpiece used by the guild for its outdoor celebration of the Feast of Corpus Domini and otherwise stored in the guild’s palazzo. Although today only a few fragments survive, these are indicative of Sassetta’s artistic ambition and the stylistic and aesthetic aims he sought to achieve.

Sassetta’s art is unmistakably Sienese in its mysticism and refinement rather than analytical such as Florentine art of the period. He made constant reference to his great Trecento predecessors such as Duccio, Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti but he did so in such a way that it emphasised his “modernity” at the same time: his heightened flat colours and abstracted space are closer, perhaps, to Bonnard and Matisse than Masaccio. His indebtedness to Pietro Lorenzetti’s altarpiece for the Carmine in Siena of a century earlier is evident in the astonishingly complex architecture of the Wool Guild panels. Although these do not yet demonstrate a full understanding of perspective, the interiors are completely coherent and innovative.

Sassetta, predella panel of the Arte della Lana altarpiece: St Thomas Aquinas at prayer, 1423-25, tempera and gold on panel, 24x30 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

Sassetta, predella panel of the Arte della Lana altarpiece: St Thomas Aquinas at prayer, 1423-25, tempera and gold on panel, 24×30 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

For instance, in the scene depicting Saint Thomas Aquinas at prayer, the figure of the Saint kneeling in front of an altar surmounted by a splendid polyptych is minimal; nothing more than a black pedestal surmounted by a haloed egg. The real emotional vehicle is the spatial setting which juxtaposes interior and exterior, inviting us out into the cloister garden with its fountain as well as deep into the monastic library with its terraced rows of desks lit by stained glass windows. All is precisely and independently envisioned and subtly illustrative of the Saint’s monastic life. Only when we notice the grey dove of the Holy Spirit descending does this space take on full significance. Aquinas’ writings provided the foundation of the liturgy of Corpus Christi and here, kneeling before the altarpiece of the Virgin, he receives divine inspiration. The natural beauty, the waters of the well, the books on their reading desks: on all this Thomas has turned his back to embrace instead devotional solitude.

Sassetta, Madonna della Neve, 1430-32, tempera on panel, 240×216 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

The frame of Sassetta’s Madonna della Neve (Madonna of the Snow) altarpiece for a chapel in Siena’s Duomo (1430-2) has survived intact so that it is possible to understand Sassetta’s ingenuity and use of historical reference. The main picture plane brings together the Virgin and Child, angels and saints in a unified space marked off by a patterned carpet. This unity is emphasised by the poses, gestures and positions of the figures, while the upper part of the altarpiece harks back to the tripartite divisions of a Gothic polyptych and is framed accordingly. As for the frame itself, Sassetta introduced a unique cassetta-type moulding which frames the bottom and continues to four-fifths up the sides to fit it into its shallow niche in the Duomo.

Upper panel of Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1433–35, Tempera and gold on panel, 21.6x29.8 cm, Metropolitan Museum

Upper panel of Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1433–35,
Tempera and gold on panel, 21.6×29.8 cm, Metropolitan Museum

In his Adoration of the Magi (c. 1435), a painting that was sadly cut in two, the upper part shows a concentrated attention to landscape we will see again in the Borgo San Sepolcro polyptych. The cavalcade depicted here is typical of the international Gothic courtly style reminiscent of Gentile da Fabriano, whose majestic Adoration of the Magi in Florence Sassetta may have seen there, and who he must have met when Gentile visited Siena. Everyone in Sassetta’s procession is decked out in the most extravagant contemporary court dress and the two magpies are, as are the two tall birds on the crown of the hill diagonally opposite, beautifully observed. Yet all this finery moves through a wonderfully still and sparse winter landscape, among bare trees. The riders, led by the star suspended against the white hill, pick their way along a path of bright stones and pass the pink gate of Jerusalem – unmistakably Siena’s Porta Camollia with the tower raising above.

Sassetta’s challenges

When Sassetta accepted the commission for the San Francesco altarpiece in Borgo, the challenge the painter faced was two-fold: not only was he facing the architectural constraints imposed by the wooden structure on the altar which, his contract stipulates, he was to follow, but he also needed to find a visual equivalent for the “poetics of Franciscan spirituality” (as Keith Christiansen called it) within the constraints of the iconographic programme.

Sassetta’s professionalism asserted itself immediately when he refused to accept the existing wooden structure and insisted on having a replica made in Siena where he would have the necessary facilities in his workshop. None of the documents relating to the altarpiece suggest substantial alterations of the 1426 structure which he must have followed closely. It is therefore the original carpenter who may be credited with combining two different traditional altar types: a tall gothic polyptych and a 13th century Umbrian vita-retable. For the front, as stipulated in the contract, Di Segna’s altarpiece was taken as a model while for the back possibly an earlier dossal format was adapted, an early version of which is still preserved in Assisi, consisting of double narrative tiers in each lateral panel so that biographical episodes flank the figure of Saint Francis.

The first, simple vita or dossal retables, were adapted to existing altar widths. It is the subsequent rapid growth in height, and therefore of overall size and width that required support systems such as buttresses anchored in the pavement at each side of an altar. The earliest example of a buttressed altarpiece, and also a prime example of a later complex dossal retable was extremely well-known to Sassetta: Duccio’s Maestà in Siena’s Duomo.

Buttresses were initially an architectural device, invented by gothic architects to permit them to construct buildings of soaring heights. In the same way the buttressed altarpiece permitted much loftier compositions. At the height of this development, the great gothic altarpiece essentially resembled gothic cathedrals. In the same way the internal structural organisation of the polyptych frame came to resemble church architecture itself. The most eloquent surviving example in stone of this phenomenon is the marble polyptych on the high altar of San Francesco, Bologna: a veritable church within a church.

Pierpaolo and Jacobello della Masegne, high altar ensemble, 1388-1392, marble, approx. 521 cm wide, San Francesco, Bologna

Pierpaolo and Jacobello della Masegne, high altar, 1388-1392, marble, approx. 521 cm wide, San Francesco, Bologna

Sassetta who, as we have seen, was a master at adapting his style when a commission’s constraints demanded it, while harking back to revered older models, nevertheless asserted his “modernity” in the Borgo polyptych by adding Sienese refinement in its visual language and by applying richly gilded pastiglia (raised decorative patterns applied to wooden moldings) and polychromy to the framework. Emulating his great predecessors, Sassetta achieved a near-miraculous technical and artistic unity for his double-sided altarpiece, thereby rising triumphantly to the challenges of iconographic and structural constraint.

It is all the more deplorable that the frame for Sassetta’s double-sided altarpiece has suffered the fate of many altarpiece frames and has not survived. Reconstructions based upon the 1439 iconographic programme (the scripta) and the surviving twenty-seven (out of sixty) panels, give an indication of what it must have looked like in its mounted form on the altar of San Francesco. In the next post a closer look at the scripta and how Sassetta artistically interpreted the prescribed iconography as well as a discussion of some aspects of Sassetta’s painting technique.

Selected sources

  1. Enzo Carli: “Sassetta’s Borgo San Sepolcro Altarpiece”, The Burlington Magazine, 1951
  2. C. Gardner von Teuffel, “The Buttressed Altarpiece: a forgotten aspect of Tuscan fourteenth century altarpiece design”, Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen, 1979
  3. Keith Christiansen et al, Painting in Renaissance Siena: 1420-1500, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988
  4. Henk van Os, Sienese Altarpieces 1215-1460, Groningen, 1988 and 1990
  5. Donal Cooper, “Franciscan Choir Enclosures and the Function of Double-Sided Altarpieces in Pre-Tridentine Umbria”, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 2001
  6. James Banker, The Culture of San Sepolcro during the Youth of Piero della Francesca, University of Michigan, 2003
  7. David Franklin, “A Contract Drawing for the Church of S. Francesco in Sansepolcro”, Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, 2004
  8. Machtelt Israëls, Sassetta’s Madonna della Neve, Leiden, 2003
  9. Machtelt Israëls et al, Sassetta, the Borgo San Sepolcro Altapiece, The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence, Leiden, 2009

Inside Rembrandt’s Night Watch: illusion, meaning and the painting as chronic patient

Following from the previous post which discussed the (indirect) relationship between Rembrandt’s group portrait of the Company of District II commanded by Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, known as the Night Watch, and Marie de’ Medici’s 1638 visit to Amsterdam, in this post a more intimate look at the painting. The Night Watch was created as a very public work and that is what it is still to the extent that it has become a national symbol. Divorced from its original context, the painting has become less accessible. In this post an attempt to break through the barriers of its fame and to really see this in some ways controversial and in other ways compromised masterpiece.

The standard-bearer

The flamboyant standard-bearer Rembrandt painted in 1636 could be an actual portrait or perhaps rather a tronie or a modello intended to procure lucrative commissions from the wealthy members of the civic guards companies. A civic guards group portrait, the sitters for which invariably belonged to the wealthy segment of Amsterdam society that could afford to commission paintings, might lead to individual portrait commissions. The standard-bearer is shown in antique costume for which Rembrandt may have used a print by the Italian engraver Teodoro Filippo di Liagno.

The parallels between the portrait and Di Liagno’s print are striking: the pose with the hand at the waist, the notched bonnet with feather, the wide sleeve with slashes and the drooping moustache seem too similar to be coincidental. The standard bearer’s costume is that of a Landsknecht (literally: servant of the land) of the beginning of the 16th century to which Rembrandt added 17th century elements such as the sash, gorget and standard which associate the man with a civic guards company. Rembrandt would borrow again from his extensive print collection to add symbolic and historical reference to the Night Watch.

Where was the Night Watch painted?

Rembrandt's house on Breestraat as it was thought to have looked in the 17th century, Cornelis Springer, 1853, Amsterdam City Archive

Rembrandt’s house on Breestraat as it was thought to have looked in the 17th century, Cornelis Springer, 1853, Amsterdam City Archive

We do not know when Rembrandt obtained the commission for the Night Watch. The painting is signed 1642, in all likelihood the year of completion, but such a large painting would have taken quite some time to create. A question which has so far not been answered satisfactorily is where such a large canvas was painted. Prof. Ernst van de Wetering has suggested that artists may have painted civic guards group portraits in “empty churches” but the problem is that there were none in Amsterdam. Fairly soon after the Reformation took hold at the 1578 Alteration, catholic churches were converted for protestant worship, a process that would have been completed by the 1630s. In addition, the light in a church would hardly be conducive to painting.

In the deed of the execution sale of Rembrandt’s house on Breestraat, drawn up on 1 February 1658, a “wooden structure in the yard” is mentioned that shared a wall with the neighbouring house. Lesser known documents in the Amsterdam municipal archives specifically mention a gallery, presumably referring to this structure, as early as 1617. Courtyard galleries were not uncommon and were used by craftsmen or for household chores. In bad weather the open side of such a gallery would be covered with tarmac. An early birds-eye map of Amsterdam might well show the gallery in the courtyard behind Rembrandt’s house

Rembrandt’s gallery is again mentioned in a deed of 1643 concerning the sale of a property behind his house. This deed specifically mentions “the small gallery built by the aforementioned Rembrandt against the wall of this house”, which suggests that by that time the painter may have altered the existing gallery, perhaps specifically to accommodate the Night Watch. Once finished, the canvas would have been relatively easy to transport, rolled up, through the passage Rembrandt shared with his neighbour the painter Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy, through Staalstraat to its destination: the Great Hall of the Kloveniers headquarters.

Page fragment from bankruptcy invenory of 1656 showing the "schilder loos" entry, Amsterdam City Archive

Page fragment from the 1656 bankruptcy inventory mentioning the “schilder loos”, Amsterdam City Archive

In the famous bankruptcy inventory of 1656 a schilder loos is mentioned which was translated as a “painter’s rack”. It is not clear whether this “rack” was located inside or outside the house. Could the loos possibly refer to the “small gallery” in the 1643 deed and had Rembrandt, at some later time, perhaps boarded its open side up so that it could serve as a storage area for paintings? The paintings mentioned as being in this loos include a “large Danaë”. This may be the painting now in the Hermitage, which was painted much earlier. The painting was initially finished in 1636 and later altered by Rembrandt some time before 1643. That it was still in his possession could mean that Rembrandt had hung on to it for some unknown reason or had found it difficult to sell because of its large size.

Rembrandt, Danaë,1636 and 1643, oil on canvas, 185x202.5 cm, Hermitage St Petersburg

Rembrandt, Danaë,1636 and 1643, oil on canvas, 185×202.5 cm, Hermitage St Petersburg

Location and illusion

Rembrandt would have been very aware of the intended location of the Night Watch, furthest from the entrance to the Kloveniers‘ Great Hall and at an angle to the wall which had a fireplace. Entering the hall, it would have appeared as if Captain Banninck Cocq and his Lieutenant emerged from the darkness of the corner at the moment the order to march is given and the drummer beats his drum, causing a dog to cringe in fright. The company behind them, still in disarray, will soon fall into formation.

3D visualisation of the Great Hall of the Kloveniers building by Studio 12

3D visualisation of the Great Hall of the Kloveniers building (Studio 12)

For the illusion of movement and action to work best, the painting must have hung at floor level, perhaps with only a narrow plinth separating it from the floor so that the life-size figures of the Captain and the Lieutenant were almost at eye level with the beholder. Unfortunately neither the exact dimensions of the hall nor the exact measurements of the paintings are known: all three civic guards paintings on the long wall were cropped to a greater or lesser extent at some time in their existence. There is, however, a notarial deposition of 19 July 1642 in which two carpenters, Grismund Claesen and Johannes Doots, state that:

Some days ago [we] installed the painting or likeness of the company of the honourable Captain Jan Claas van Vlooswijcq [by Pickenoy] in the great hall of the new Cluveniersdoelen and secured it in its permanent surround.

Pickenoy’s painting was the Night Watch‘s neighbour, hanging in the center of the long wall in the Great Hall. Since no frame-maker was involved, this suggests that the paintings were incorporated in panelling which would have brought the room together in a single impressive entity.

Two contemporary assessments of painting techniques

Samuel Dircksz van Hoogstraten, self-potrait at 17, 1644, Museum Bredius

Samuel Dircksz van Hoogstraten, self-portrait at 17, 1644, Museum Bredius

Samuel van Hoogstraten, who almost certainly witnessed Rembrandt paint the Night Watch, made interesting observations regarding the illusion of depth which, in Rembrandt’s painting, constituted a revolutionary leap forward when compared with other civic guards portraits. The latter focused on accurate likenesses which meant that for each member of the group to be awarded the same painterly attention, compositions were of necessity fairly static and one-dimensional.

In his Introduction to the Academy of Painting, or the Visible World, published in 1678, although not directly referring to the Night Watch, Van Hoogstraten described principles that apply to Rembrandt’s painting. With regard to coarse surfaces and the rendering of depth in a painting, kenlijkheyt (perceptibility), he writes:

I therefore maintain that perceptibility [kenlijkheyt] alone makes objects appear close at hand, and conversely that smoothness [egaelheyt] makes them withdraw, and I therefore desire that that which is to appear in the foreground, be painted roughly and briskly, and that that which is to recede be painted the more neatly and purely the further back it lies. Neither one colour or another will make your work seem to advance or recede, but the perceptibility or imperceptibility [kenlijkheyt or onkenlijkheyt] of the parts alone.

The passage illustrates Rembrandt’s method in achieving the three-dimensional effect contemporaries so admired in the Night Watch: rough brushwork is applied in the foreground, for instance in the Lieutenant’s uniform, in the drummer and in the Captain’s collar and hand and the paint becomes gradually smoother towards the background.

Van Hoogstraten also refers to “thickness of air”, by which he means that more distant shadows are lighter in tone than those nearby which is also reflected in the Night Watch. “Air,” Van Hoogstraten writes, “forms a body even over a short distance“, meaning that aerial perspective produces tonal differences even when the viewer is closer to the object.

The Italian art historian Filippo Baldinucci, one of Rembrandt’s earliest biographers, never saw the Night Watch in real life. He relied for his 1686 Rembrandt biography on the testimony of the Danish artist Bernhard Keil who, like Van Hoogstraten, was a pupil of Rembrandt in the 1640s and therefore must have known the painting intimately. A passage in Baldinucci’s book is devoted to the foreshortening of the Lieutenant’s partisan (the halberd-like weapon in his left hand) which, Baldinucci says, is so well drawn in perspective that, although upon the picture surface it is no longer than half a braccio, it yet appears to everyone to be seen in its full length. This, he says, the citizens of Amsterdam specifically admired.

Detail: the Lieutenant's partisan

Detail: the Lieutenant’s partisan

The way in which Rembrandt achieved this effect can be seen in the handling of the paint on the partisan’s tassel. He used a lighter blue beyond the point where the blue and white fringe of cords is bound together while over a distance of a few centimeters the paint surface becomes smoother, bringing together Van Hoogstraten’s principles of perceptibility, aerial perspective and the possibility of darker passages advancing further than lighter ones. This is also illustrated in the Captain’s costume which, although black, does not yield ground to the radiant costume of the Lieutenant beside him.

Colour and meaning

The city's emblem: a lion and three St Andrew's crosses

The city’s emblem: a lion and three St Andrew’s crosses

A well-known feature of the Night Watch is the shadow of Captain Banninck Cocq’s hand cupping the emblem of the city of Amsterdam embroidered on Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch’s coat. This, one learns, is a homage to the city, but there is more in that respect. As Captain of a Kloveniers company, Banninck Cocq should have been wearing a blue sash such as the men in the other civic guards paintings in the hall are wearing. The Captain’s sash, however, is red and combined with his black costume, white cuffs and ruff, his costume represents the colours of the city of Amsterdam; red, white and black. With the Lieutenant in his flamboyant gold-coloured uniform with blue accents (the civic guards colours) next to him the message is clear: the function of the Kloveniers civic guards is to protect the city of Amsterdam.

The coat of arms of the Kloveniers consisted of a golden claw on a blue field and this is acted out not just in the Lieutenant’s uniform but in other parts of the painting as well, for instance in the little girls, one dressed in golden yellow with a light blue cape embroidered with gold, the other, partly hidden by her, in blue, who walk towards the procession to take their places. They are caught in a pool of radiant golden sunlight that illuminates them and the company symbols they are carrying: the precious ceremonial drinking horn and a chicken dangling upside down from the first girl’s belt.

From this detail it already becomes clear how worn the painting is. For more on its condition see below

Weapons in the Night Watch and the myth of rejection

One element in the Night Watch focuses on the civic guards’ exercise of their main weapon, the arquebus or klover. Rembrandt borrowed poses from the then well-known Wapenhandelinghe (the Exercise of Arms) with engravings by Jacob de Gheyn II of 1608. He presented the three most important exercises the civic guards engaged in in logical order from left to right on the painting’s central plane:

1. loading

2. firing

3. blowing residual gunpowder away from the firing pan

This was by no means exceptional: in 1630 Nicolaes Lastman in his civic guards group portrait quoted from the Wapenhandelinghe in the costumes of the sitters and in Werner van de Valckert’s militia portrait one of the men is emphatically pointing at an engraving in the book (see here). In order to draw even more attention to the cleaning of the rifle’s mechanism, Rembrandt sacrificed part of the Lieutenant’s shoulder, the earlier outline of which can still be seen with the naked eye.

The original outline of the shoulder can still be seen with the naked eye

The original outline of the Lieutenant’s shoulder can still be seen with the naked eye

Critics have suggested that the depiction of weapons was not rendered correctly in the Night Watch but. Rembrandt was an avid collector of new and old weapons and for a painter of his abilities it would not have been too difficult to render weapons perfectly. I would suggest that in the painting weapons are subservient to the guards’ portraits which in themselves are subservient to the larger picture: the veneration of the historic traditions and current role of the guards, as well as a depiction of their ceremonial function in festive events such as the glorious entry of Marie de’ Medici in 1638.

The supposed inadequate depiction of weapons as well as later criticism regarding the painting’s poor show of realistic portrayal has led to the myth that the painting was rejected by the Kloveniers. There is, however, no evidence of this. On the contrary: in 1659, in two notarial depositions by Jan Pietersen Bronckhorst and Claes van Cruijsbergen, both depicted in the Night Watch, testified that as far as they could recall Rembrandt had received 1600 guilders for the painting. Each sitter paid according to their prominence in the painting. Given the fact that around that period Rembrandt could ask 500 guilders for an individual portrait, the amount seems perhaps rather low although Bernhard Keil’s estimate, as reported to Baldinucci, that Rembrandt received 4000 guilders for it seems very excessive.

The fact that Rembrandt was paid and that the painting would hang in the Great Hall for almost a century speaks against it being rejected. In fact, it was one of the very last paintings to be transferred from the Kloveniers‘ Great Hall to the Town Hall to join the other civic guards portraits that had already been taken there after the civic guards abandoned their headquarters. In addition, Captain Banninck Cocq had at least three much smaller copies painted, one by Lundens and two for his private family album.

Fantasy and reality in costume in the Night Watch

Captain Willem van Ruytenburch van Vlaerdingen, Lord of Purmerland (1600-1652), lawyer, wears spurs and gloves, typical attributes of a cavalryman. Gloves would only be worn on horseback, as soon as the men dismounted they would take them off

Captain Willem van Ruytenburch van Vlaerdingen, Lord of Purmerland (1600-1652), lawyer, wears spurs and gloves, typical attributes of a cavalryman. Gloves would only be worn on horseback, as soon as the men dismounted they would take them off

Frederick Rihel on horseback, 1663, oil on canvas, 295x241 cm, National Gallery

Frederick Rihel on horseback, 1663, oil on canvas, 295×241 cm, National Gallery

The figures capturing the most attention in the Night Watch due to their position in the painting are no doubt Captain Frans Banninck Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch. The Lieutenant is the only figure in the painting who wears spurs. It is possible that Rembrandt referred to one of the ceremonial functions of the civic guards during important events such as Marie de’ Medici’s visit to Amsterdam: that of mounted escorts. Van Ruytenburch is not mentioned among the ad hoc mounted guard of honour on the occasion of Marie de’ Medici’s glorious entry, nor is he mentioned among the men taking part in the cavalry escort for Queen Maria Henrietta’s entry into the city on 20 May 1642, but it is tempting to think that he, in his splendid cavalry uniform, symbolically represents the mounted civic guards.

More than twenty years later, in 1663, Rembrandt would paint the portrait of the extremely wealthy bachelor Frederick Rihel on horseback. The portrait is thought to commemorate a similar event: Rihel participated in the mounted honour guard on the occasion of the entry into Amsterdam of Mary Stuart and the young William III on 15 June 1660. Even though fashions changed, there are similarities between his and the Lieutenant’s attire.

Jan van der Heede in fashionable red costume

Jan van der Heede (1610-1655)

Another remarkable figure in the Night Watch is the man dressed entirely in a red civilian costume who has been identified as Jan van der Heede, merchant in groceries. Van der Heede would have been 32 years old in 1642. It has been suggested that the middle classes no longer wore red clothes in the early 1640s. Van der Heede’s loose ruff and cuffs without lace, however, were still fashionable in the 1630s and the decorative appliqués at the knees of his breeches were in vogue around 1640. Red was still a popular colour in military and, in consequence, in court circles in The Hague and this in turn was mimicked by the wealthy middle classes. That red is not worn by the other young men in the Night Watch is simply because prosperous citizens of Amsterdam had become so wealthy that they had turned to wearing gold and silver brocades.

Ensign Jan Visscher Cornelisen wearing a brocade uniform

Jan Visscher Cornelisen (1610-1650)

Indeed, the Captain wears gold brocade sleeves under his black coat and the man identified as Ensign Visscher Cornelisen, a wealthy merchant who remained a bachelor all his life, wears a silver brocade suit with coloured silk sleeves. Ensign Visscher’s clothes were lovingly kept by his mother. When she died an “oriental chest” was found in her attic containing, among other clothes owned by her son, “a brocade suit” and “a pair of coloured satin sleeves”, while in an oak chest were kept “two white plumes with a crest of black feathers” and “a blue sash with gold lace”. In the painting the Ensign wears the whole outfit, including two white ostrich feathers.

Cloth merchant Rombout Kemp (1597-1653) positioned on the right wears civilian attire

Cloth merchant Rombout Kemp (1597-1653)

Sergeant Rombout Kemp’s militia accessories, “two white plumes, a black aigrette and a blue sash with gold lace” were also listed in his death inventory. It is thought that the ostrich feathers (the two white plumes) he wears on his hat show the remains of a helmet that had been painted out, but analysis of the painting shows that the feathers were indeed part of the original plume on Kemp’s hat.

Sergeant Reijnier Engelen (1588-1651)

Sergeant Reijnier Engelen (1588-1651)

In the back row Rembrandt introduced helmets into his painting. He must have decided later that they were too dominant and changed three of them into imaginary hats. Where the helmets remain, they seem to be more or less current types but Rembrandt embellished them with decorative elements such as the hat worn by Sergeant Engelen which comes from Rembrandt’s world of history painting. Engelen also wears a plain cuirass and grasps his antique halberd in his mailed fist. His old-fashioned, broad-striped dark blue sleeves refer to the 16th century, as does the mysterious figure of the extra just to the left behind the Captain. Rembrandt rigged him out in a Spanish or Italian type morion of around 1590 which goes splendidly with his padded purple hose in the outdated Spanish fashion of the previous century, as do his dagger and poniard of a type no longer in use in the 1640s.

Detail of Johannes Spilbergen's civic guards portrait, 1650, Amsterdam Museum

Detail of Johannes Spilbergen’s civic guards portrait, 1650, Amsterdam Museum

The outfits and weapons, contemporary and historic, realistic and fantastic, combined and distributed strategically in the composition make the Night Watch into an elaborate tableaux vivant honouring the company of District II in the present while harking back to the civic guards’ glorious past. In this respect the Night Watch was an innovative painting within 17th century group portraits. It was the painter Johannes Spilbergen who, although modelling his civic guards portrait on Bartholomeus van der Helst’s 1648 piece of the same topic (the banquet celebrating the Peace of Münster) followed this example by introducing a 16th century helmet into his composition as a symbol of the guards’ glorious past and traditions. Spilbergen’s painting was very likely the last large civic guards portrait to be painted in Amsterdam.

Early restoration history and the impact of the 1715 cropping

Although still impressive, the Night Watch has suffered a great deal over the centuries. When the painting was cropped in 1715 to make it fit between two doors, its spatial effect, unity and coherent action were severely compromised. The Captain and Lieutenant now find themselves in the center of the composition whereas they originally stood more towards the right. Because a strip at the bottom was cut off, they seem almost to trip over the frame and tumble out of the painting, which reduces the space around them that is needed to create the illusion of natural movement. Since a large chunk was cut off from the left, the entourage behind them now looks far more chaotically crowded than Rembrandt intended, as a reconstruction of the painting in its original state shows compared with the painting as it is today.

Entries in the city’s 17th century treasury records and Resolution Books tell us that the painting, not yet half a century after leaving Rembrandt’s premises, was subjected to multiple interventions together with the other civic guards paintings that had reverted to the city. Interventions are recorded in 1686, 1687, 1688, 1689 and 1693, and in several entries, for instance that of 1704, there is mention of “holes” in the paintings that needed to be repaired. Once installed in the Town Hall, an entry mentions that during the installation of some benches a hammer was accidentally dropped on the Night Watch, causing a gaping hole in the canvas.

From the mid-18th century onwards, the frequency of the treatments only increased. There are no detailed accounts of these earlier treatments but one Jacob Buys is mentioned as having “overpainted” the Night Watch in 1771, to what extent is unclear. Jan van Dyk, the restorer of the city’s paintings, not only cleaned but presumably also retouched the painting to a larger or lesser extent in 1751 and possibly also relined the canvas in 1761.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, self-portrait, c. 1780, Royal Academy

Sir Joshua Reynolds, self-portrait, c. 1780, Royal Academy

In 1781, Sir Joshua Reynolds visited Amsterdam and his assessment of the Night Watch, still located in the Small War Council Chamber in the Town Hall, was a gloomy one:

So far indeed am I of thinking that this last picture deserves its great reputation, that it was with difficulty I could persuade myself that it was painted by Rembrandt; it seemed to me to have more of the yellow manner of Boll [sic]. The name of Rembrandt, however, is certainly upon it, with the date 1642. It appears to have been much damaged, but what remains seems to be painted in a poor manner.

“The yellow manner of Bol” may refer to persistent problems with the varnish that eventually earned the painting the nickname Night Watch. Various methods were tried to remedy these such as regenerating, cleaning, “powdering”, removing and replacing the most problematic areas of varnish and eventually revarnishing the entire painting on several occasions, but after the initial success of each treatment, recorded in jubilant articles, the problems would recur fairly soon: the varnish would become dull and lost its transparency. On several occasions the varnish was regenerated by rubbing it with alcohol or by exposing the painting for long periods to alcoholic vapours, by rubbing the surface with copaiva balsam and other methods, and that at regular intervals throughout the centuries.

The toll of fame

In 1851 restorer Hopman relined the canvas and subjected it to an intensive restoration. In 1914, 1916 and 1921, 1934 and 1936 further regenerations and treatments of the varnish were recorded. Other restorations became necessary due to exceptional circumstances as the elevation of the painting to national symbol on the high altar of art in the Rijksmuseum provoked repeated aggression during the 20th century. On 13 January 1911 an unemployed ship’s cook attacked the Night Watch with a knife but only the varnish was damaged. The knife did not penetrate the paint.

The 1911 police file on the attacker, 28-year old S.A. Sigrist

The 1911 police file on the attacker, 28-year-old R.A. Sigrist

In 1939 the outbreak of the Second World War necessitated evacuation of the Night Watch and other national art treasures. Rembrandt’s painting was initially stored in shelters in the west of the country but early in 1942 these were no longer deemed safe and the painting was transported to the caves in the Sint Pietersberg mountain near Maastricht in the south of the country where a consistent temperature and dry climate ensured the preservation of the paintings stored there. The long journey of the Night Watch across the country was a hazardous one in a time of war: at one time the convoy was forced to spend the night in a farm and the painting, rolled up, spent the night in an open shed in the pouring rain.

Once the Night Watch arrived in the caves, the painting was rolled on a cylinder the handle of which was turned slighty every day to relieve pressure on the paint. In June 1945, shortly after the ending of World War II, the Night Watch finally returned to Amsterdam. It was said that the then director of the Rijksmuseum was so enthousiastic about its return that he tripped and fell flat on the painting, but this has never been confirmed. Remarkably, the painting appeared to be in fairly good condition given its ordeal. The only apparent damage was that the 1851 relining canvas had become loose in some places so that it had to be newly relined. The varnish was once more regenerated.

The worst damage, however, occurred on in September 1975 when an unemployed school teacher managed to savage the painting with a knife before he could be overpowered by the guards. The vicious attack caused severe scratches and cuts, some of which had penetrated the canvas. A triangular piece was completely cut away and had fallen to the floor. Thankfully the area in front of the painting was not immediately wiped clean so that tiny fragments could be retrieved and reused in the intensive restoration that took place in full view of the public. Prior to the dramatic attack it had already been decided to reline the painting again (for the second time in thirty years) and to remove the varnish once more. When it was removed some sixty-eight small holes and tears were discovered that had been repaired in the past, which confirms the early records which frequently mention “holes” in the painting.

On 6 April 1990 the painting was once more attacked, this time with sulphuric acid, but because of the alertness of the museum guards the acid did not penetrate the varnish. Barely a month later, on 1 May of that year, the painting was once more on view.

A chronic patient

It is clear from the historic records and its dramatic recent history that the Night Watch has become a chronic patient. In the past the paint surface has been radically overcleaned, even abraded. This is most clearly visible when looking at the dog which has hardly any paint left on it but it is also possible to see with the naked eye how worn the paint is in other places. Any glazes that would have given the painting its enriching values have long disappeared. The only place where they can still be ound is on Captain Bannincq Cocq’s red sash where the red lakes are still intact. The flesh tones are severely worn: in their current condition they consist of only one layer which contrasts with the near-contemporary copy by Gerrit Lundens where it is still possible to see the astonishing richness and variation in flesh tones from one head to another.

The Night Watch‘ long saga of damage, repairs, restorations, revarnishings, relinings and aggressive cleanings reads like the medical file of a chronically ill patient who weakens with every new treatment. The patient has been resuscitated and his life has been prolonged by artificial means, but Rembrandt’s masterpiece is far removed from the glory which filled his contemporaries with such admiration.


  1. Dr S.A.C. Dudok van Heel completed the process started by E. Haverkamp-Begemann of identifying the men in the Night Watch. Taking the names written on the shield in the painting and, if listed, their function in the guards, he conducted painstaking research in the Amsterdam Archives and compared the men’s features with other known portraits of them when available.
  2. All images of the Night Watch courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

Selected literature

  1. Samuel van Hoogstraten, Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst, 1678
  2. A. van Schendel and H.H Mertens, “De restauraties van Rembrandt’s Nachtwacht”, Oud Holland, 1947
  3. E. van de Wetering (et al), A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, Vol. III, 1989
  4. S.A.C. Dudok van Heel, “De galerij en schilderloods van Rembrandt of waar schilderde Rembrandt de Nachtwacht”, Maandblad Amstelodamum, 1987
  5. E. van de Wetering, C.M. Groen and J.A. Mosk, “Summary Report on the Results of the Technical Examination of Rembrandt’s Night Watch”, Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum, 1976
  6. P.J.J. van Thiel, “The Damaging and Restoration of Rembrandt’s Night Watch”, Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum, 1976
  7. M. de Winkel, Fashion and Fancy. Dress and Meaning in Rembrandt’s Paintings, 2006
  8. S.A.C. Dudok van Heel, “Frans Banninck Cocq’s Troop in Rembrandt’s Nightwatch”, Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum, 2009