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 Rembrandt would borrow again from his extensive print collection to add symbolic and historical reference to the Night Watch.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.

Notes

  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
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Marie de’ Medici and Rembrandt’s Night Watch

Rembrandt's "Night Watch" in the Rijksmuseum, 1886. Photo: Rijksmuseum

Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” in the Rijksmuseum, 1886. Photo: Rijksmuseum

Countless books and articles have been written about Rembrandt’s Company of District II commanded by Captain Frans Banninck Cocq of 1642, known today as the Night Watch, but in spite of this its many complexities have still not been fully addressed or understood. I certainly do not pretend in any way to provide the ultimate answer. The painting has had mixed receptions in the past and even in the present: Ernst van de Wetering, at the time of the exhibition Rembrandt, Quest of a Genius in 2006, suggested that the painting was “an experiment gone wrong”, for example.

It was architect Pierre Cuypers who, in his design for the Rijksmuseum (1880s), elevated the painting to its present day status: by designing the museum as a cathedral of art with the Night Watch on its high altar the painting became a national symbol rather than a painting in its own right. It has become a “must see” but for reasons that would have been alien to Rembrandt and the civic guards portrayed in it.

Rembrandt's "Night Watch" in the Rijksmuseum today

Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” in the Rijksmuseum today

Following the two posts on the history of Amsterdam’s civic guards group portraits, I offer an opportunity to look at the Night Watch within an unusual context. What do the French Queen Marie de’ Medici and Rembrandt’s iconic civic guards painting have in common? At first glance, absolutely nothing of course. But what if the French Queen’s controversial 1638 visit to Amsterdam influenced both the commission and the composition of Rembrandt’s masterpiece? An investigation.

A new extension for the Kloveniers

The Kloveniers headquarters' old headquarter, by David David Vinckboons, 1599-1609, Rijksmuseum

The Kloveniers headquarters’ old building by David Vinckboons, 1599-1609, Rijksmuseum

In the first post on Amsterdam’s civic guards paintings, we left the Kloveniers (the riflemen’s civic guards company, so named after their rifle, the “klover”) in their cramped medieval tower Swijgh Utrecht with adjacent rickety annex overlooking the Amstel River while the other two companies, the Crossbowmen and the Longbowmen enjoyed the luxury of far grander headquarters on the Singel (the Voetboogdoelen and the Handboogdoelen). We saw that the city’s expansion between 1578 to 1665, which effectively meant an increase in population and, as the number of districts patrolled by the guards grew, an increasing number of civic guards, still divided over the three original companies. It is estimated that at the height of the civic guards, some 10,000 men were members of one of the three civic guard companies, but few of them had the means or the status to be immortalised in the companies’ group portraits. The Kloveniers headquarters soon became too cramped to accommodate its members and guests in any comfort and a grand extension was built next to the medieval tower, overlooking the Amstel River.

Isaac de Moucheron, Fireworks festivities for the reception of the Russian embassadors with Peter the Great, 29 Augustus 1697. Engraving by Isaac de Mouceron, Rijksmuseum. The Kloveniers' new extension is on tehe left with the old tower "Swijgh Utrecht" on its right. The Great Hall was on the first floor overlooking the river

Fireworks festivities for the reception of the Russian delegation with Peter the Great, 29 Augustus 1697. Engraving by Isaac de Moucheron, Rijksmuseum. The Kloveniers’ new extension is on the left with the old tower “Swijgh Utrecht” on its right. The Great Hall was on the first floor overlooking the river

I. Borsman, ground floor plan of the Kloveniers new building, 1713, City Archives, Amsterdam

I. Borsman, ground floor plan of the Kloveniers building, 1713, City Archives, Amsterdam

One of the theories concerning the date of origin of the Kloveniers extension is that its construction was triggered by Marie de’ Medici’s visit to Amsterdam in 1638. This theory dates the extension to 1638 or 1639 but there are indications that it was built at least a decade earlier. For instance, it appears that the city council, which was accustomed to holding official banquets at the Kloveniersdoelen on a regular basis, did not dine there between 1625 and 1627, an indication that the new extension may have been constructed during those years. Moreover, a document of 19 December 1630 refers to “the newly built quarters of the Doelen with vacant lots in front and behind” and the new building is also marked on a plan of 1627 for a new sewer for the hospital. It seems safe to assume, therefore, that the Kloveniers‘ new headquarters were completed in 1627. Additional, although circumstantial, proof of this is the fact that soon after its completion the old tradition of militia group portraits was revived with the commission of a group portrait from Thomas de Keyser (dated 1632). After all, to be able to commission large paintings, one needs room to hang them.

“La Rouïna Madre”

Marie de’ Medici (1573-1642), the exiled widow of King Henry IV of France, had no right to the grand reception that befell her in Amsterdam. Not for nothing did political circles in The Hague refer to her as La Rouïna Madre. As the literary critic Busken Huet phrased it in 1882:

She was a pathetically humiliated sovereign; a ruin of a body; a ruin of State, destitute and disreputable. That the Amsterdam patricians were proud to receive her – a queen mother, a Medici – was typical of their character.

But it was more than the character of Amsterdam’s patricians. The central government of the Republic in The Hague issued a directive stating that she should not be received at the country’s expense. Her presence in the Republic could endanger diplomatic relationships with France; after all Marie de’ Medici was incessantly plotting against Richelieu. That Amsterdam defied this directive was a downright act of defiance triggered by the city’s ruling regents being almost permanently at odds with the central government and the Stadtholders, as well as an assertion of civic pride and independence. As such Marie de’ Medici’s grand reception, without precedent since, for which no costs were spared (in all it cost the city 8000 guilders), contrasted sharply with the lukewarm reception that had befallen the Stadtholders Prince Maurits in 1618 and Prince Frederik Hendrik in 1628.

Marie de' Medici's ceremonial entry into Amsterdam, 31 August 1638, engraved by Pieter Nolpe after a design by Jan Martensz de Jonge, Rijksmuseum. Civic guardsmen and trumpeteers at Haarlemmerpoort

Marie de’ Medici’s ceremonial entry into Amsterdam, 31 August 1638, engraved by Pieter Nolpe after a design by Jan Martszen the Younger, Rijksmuseum. Civic guardsmen and trumpeters at Haarlemmerpoort

Marie de’ Medici’s visit to Amsterdam took place from 31 August to 5 September 1638 and the civic guards companies played a significant role in her ceremonial entrance to the city with a full complement of men taking part. It rained so hard that the Queen preferred to make her entry by carriage through Haarlemmerpoort rather than by boat as originally planned and consequently the civic guards, formed up beside the water, had to take up a new position along Nieuwendijk.

On several locations in the city temporary triumphal arches with theatrical stages on top had been erected, designed by the painter Claes Moeyaert. On these improvised stages, tableaux vivants were enacted. It is telling that in none of these tableaux vivants the central government in The Hague or the House of Orange were honoured; instead, there were homages to the Kings of France, the Medici of Florence who were after all businessmen just as Amsterdam’s ruling regents and the Habsburg Emperors who had awarded their “imperial crown” to Amsterdam in 1489, as well as mythological scenes alluding to the French Queen’s status.

This was not all: water pageants were staged in the harbour, there was a procession led by mounted trumpeters and a large temporary structure was erected on an artificial island in the Amstel River where more dramatic tableaux vivants were enacted once the Queen set foot on the floating island and entered its pavilion.

The artificial island with theatre on the Amstel River, engraved by Salomon Savery after a drawing by Simon de Vlieger, 1638, Rijksmuseum

The artificial island with theatre on the Amstel River, engraved by Salomon Savery after a drawing by Simon de Vlieger, 1638, Rijksmuseum

A luxurious commemorative book with elaborate engravings and bound in handsome leather entitled Medicea Hospes (etc.) (1638/9) was commissioned from the scholar Caspar Barlaeus in both a Latin and a French edition, which Rembrandt must have known. And of course, if he was not a member of one of the civic guards companies taking part in the ceremony (proof of his membership has never been found) he must have been among the many spectators and perhaps, upon coming home, made sketches of the spectacle he had witnessed from memory. The festivities were a euphoric celebration of Amsterdam’s independence for which the old Queen, a descendant of the ruling bankers family of that other merchant city-state, Florence, was merely the catalyst.

On her first evening in Amsterdam Marie de’ Medici was offered an Indonesian rice table by Burgomaster Albert Burgh. From him she bought the rosary that had belonged to Saint Francis Xavier, which had been captured in Brazil. Whether her portrait ascribed to Gerard van Honthorst was commissioned by Amsterdam’s burgomasters or by Marie herself is not clear (sources mention two portraits commissioned during her visit and it is not clear whether the portrait in the Amsterdam Museum is in fact Honthorst’s), but in it she proudly holds her purchase in her hand. Salomon Savery engraved a copy of the portrait for Barlaeus’ book and duly added the silhouette of Amsterdam in the background.

Marie de’ Medici and the Kloveniers’ Great Hall

During her visit the Queen took her meals at the Amsterdam Admiralty and there is no evidence that she visited the Kloveniers‘ grand new building which overlooked the Amstel River at its widest point. Her entourage, however, was ceremoniously received in the Kloveniers’ Great Hall on the first floor which was hung with borrowed tapestries for the occasion. The large group portraits that would decorate the hall were all painted in the years immediately following Marie de’ Medici’s visit, a reason to assume that Marie de’ Medici’s visit and the completion of the Great Hall of the Kloveniersdoelen (which, as we have seen, was completed a decade earlier) were the immediate causes of the commissioning of no less than six militia company portraits and one Governors’ portrait for the room, among which Rembrandt’s Night Watch.

The company of District XIX under command of Captain Cornelis Bicker, 1640, 343×258 cm, Rijksmuseum

Joachim von Sandrart, the Company of District XIX commanded by Captain Cornelis Bicker, 1640, 343×258 cm, Rijksmuseum

One portrait, the Company of District XIX commanded by Captain Cornelis Bicker by Joachim von Sandrart dating 1640, in fact contains a specific reference to the visit: the men’s focus of attention is a bust of Marie de’ Medici around which the company gather. In 1947 her prominence in the painting led Prof. Six to believe that her visit must have been the cause and the subject of the whole decorative scheme for the great hall, which is only partly true.

On 21 August 1641, a year after Von Sandrart’s painting’s completion, the diarist John Evelyn noted in his travel journal that he had seen a portrait of Marie de’ Medici in Amsterdam:

In the Doole, there is paynted a very large table Maria de Medices her statue to the breast supported by fower [sic] royal Diademes, the Worke of one Vandall [German], who hath set his name thereon. 1 sept. 1638. [the date of the Queen’s visit]

Reconstruction with Sandrart's painting (l), Flinck's Governors (c) and Flinck's civic guards (r)

Left to right: Sandrart’s painting, Flinck’s Governors and Flinck’s civic guards

The entry clearly relates to Sandrart’s painting although Evelyn does not say in which of three civic guards headquarters he saw it. The company of Cornelis Bicker originally belonged to the Crossbowmen civic guards but transferred to the Kloveniers at some unknown date, following a system of rotation that was a conscious attempt of the city’s magistrates to prevent the civic guards from establishing their own military and political power base in the city.

An indication that the painting originally hung in the Crossbowmen’s building on the Singel is the discovery during its restoration in 1984 that it had originally been conceived as a horizontal painting. At some time it had been cut down on the left and the right and a strip of about 34 centimeters was added at the top. The civic guards on the sections that were cut off were simply painted in again on the part that was left and the composition was adapted to its new format so that it now fitted in its new home in the Kloveniers‘ Great Hall between the windows on the Amstel River side and the chimney.

Sandrart’s painting was essentially the same height as Govert Flinck’s painting of the Company of District XVIII commanded by Captain Albert Bas of 1645 on the other side of the mantlepiece. The changes were not made by Sandrart himself and all the heads were retouched by the same unknown hand. It is likely that by the time the painting was altered Sandrart had left Amsterdam for good, which he did in about 1642, because although he does mention the painting in his Teutsche Academie of 1675, he says nothing about the drastic alterations.

Detail of Joachim von Sandrart's painting: the bust of Marie de' Medici with a crown lying beside and the slip of paper once containing Vondel's poem

Detail of Joachim von Sandrart’s painting: the bust of Marie de’ Medici with a crown lying beside and the slip of paper once containing Vondel’s poem

On a slip of paper under the bust of Marie de’ Medici in Sandrart’s painting was a poem by the great Amsterdam poet Vondel who would write many dedicatory verses for 17th century paintings. The text is now no longer legible, but it still was in 1758 when the painting was in Jan van Dyk‘s care at the town hall and he duly copied it:

The Corporalship of the Lord of Swieten. Painted by Sandrart.
The flag of Swieten awaits to herald Medicis
but for so great a soul the market is too small
and the eye of the citizens too weak for such rays
That sun of the Christian empire, is flesh, nor skin, nor bone
forgive Sandrart therefore that he makes her out of  Stone. Vondel

The Great Hall’s decorative scheme

Since no contemporary illustrations survive of the Great Hall of the Kloveniers as it was in the 1640s, one has to rely on eye-witness reports, however summarily, such as Schaep’s account of 1653 and ground plans giving the hall’s measurements on which a reconstruction could be based. Originally the hall had windows on both sides, but at an unknown time, presumably to accommodate the three large paintings commissioned for it, the wall on the street side was boarded up.

Part of the street side wall of the Great Hall against which the Night Watch hung, showing a bricked up window, discovered in 1974 during renovation works in the Doelen Hotel

Part of the street side wall of the Great Hall against which the Night Watch hung showing a bricked up window, discovered in the 1970s during renovation works at the Doelen Hotel

A reconstruction of the Great Hall of the Kloveniersdoelen c. 1642. From left to right: Rembrandt's Company of District II, Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy's Company of District IV, Jacob Backer's Company of District V, all dated 1642 and above the mantlepiece and door Bartholomeus van der Helst's Company of District VIII, 1643. Rijksmuseum

A reconstruction of the Great Hall of the Kloveniersdoelen c. 1642. From left to right: (1) Rembrandt’s Company of District II, (2) Nicolaes Eliaszn Pickenoy’s Company of District IV, (3) Jacob Backer’s Company of District V, all dated 1642 and above the mantlepiece and door (4) Bartholomeus van der Helst’s Company of District VIII, 1639 (?), Rijksmuseum

The placement of the paintings in the Great Hall was dictated by seniority (the year in which a company joined the Kloveniers) and was therefore fixed. Nevertheless the group portraits must have been conceived as a unified sequence of civic guards flowing from one painting to the next. For instance, in Jacob Backer’s civic guards painting (3) the men stand on a flight of steps leading up to the guards in Bartholomeus van der Helst’s painting (4), which hung above the door and the fireplace while the building on the right in Pickenoy’s painting (2) continues into Jacob Backer’s work (3).

It is known that Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy, Rembrandt’s neighbour on Breestraat, had a large enough studio to allow his civic guards paintings to be painted there so it is possible that Backer’s painting was also painted there. All three paintings (Pickenoy’s, Backer’s and Rembrandt’s) were finished in the same year, 1642, proof perhaps of a concerted unifying effort. But where Pickenoy and Backer, masterful as their paintings were, restricted themselves to the conventions of the traditional civic guards portrait in which all men are awarded the same attention (after all, each paid well to be included, expecting a reliable likeness), Rembrandt did something very different: in his Night Watch not the sitters but the action is the focus of attention and where other civic guards paintings are static, his is all about movement.

Although the link between Marie de’ Medici’s visit and the Night Watch had been observed before by scholars, it was Snoep (1974) who suggested that the architectural structure seen in the background of the Night Watch, more clearly visible in Gerrit Lundens’ small contemporary copy of the painting, could be the outside of the theatre gate built on Varkenssluis as seen in the design drawing by Jan Martszen the Younger for an engraving by Salomon Savery. Another detail in the print, the balustrade beside the canal, also recurs in the painting.

The idea has been rejected because Rembrandt did not copy the arch’s architecture literally, but when did he ever one might argue. He would interpret his print samples to suit his own purposes as he did his sketches of architectural structures. For instance, when he drew the Kloveniers building, he concentrated on the sturdy, plain medieval tower Swijgh Utrecht alone, which he perhaps envisaged as background for a history painting, also leaving out the tower’s pointed roof.

Rembrandt, the old part of the Kloveniers building with the tower "Swijgh Utrecht", drawing, c 1650-55, 166x235 mm, Rijksmuseum

Rembrandt, the tower “Swijgh Utrecht”, drawing, c 1650-55, 166×235 mm, Rijksmuseum

Although the Varkenssluis gate was not the theatre gate where Captain Banninck Cocq and his men were stationed (and at the time of the visit neither he nor his Lieutenant headed District II yet as in Rembrandt’s painting), that did not matter. It has been pointed out that the architectural structure in the Night Watch is not an actual gate because it does not allow light through it and, like the theatrical stage above the ceremonial gates in the engravings, it is enclosed at the back. Rembrandt thus combined both theatre and gate as one stage set against which he grouped his men.

Moreover, in uniting reality and fiction, present and past into one harmonious whole, Rembrandt showed respect for the age of the institution of the civic guards he was depicting. But this interpretation, his former pupil Samuel van Hoogstraten wrote in 1678, violated the golden rule of civic guard group portraits:

[…] in the opinion of many he made the large picture too much a work executed according to his own wishes than one of individual portraits which he was commissioned to do.

It should be noted that Van Hoogstraten most likely witnessed Rembrandt painting the Night Watch as he was studying with him at the time. He continues:

This work, no matter how much it can be censored, will survive all its competitors because it is so painter-like in thought, so dashing in movement, and so powerful that, according to some, all the other pieces there [in the Kloveniers’ headquarters] stand beside it like playing cards.

One cannot put it much more eloquently than this. The painting’s indirect allusion to the pageants staged during Marie de’ Medici’s visit must have been implicitly understood by the Kloveniers and the other paintings in the Great Hall in their own way, painted so soon after the event, must have been understood in a similar vein.

Rembrandt, the Company of District II under Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, 1642, size today 379.5x453.5 cm, Rijksmuseum

Rembrandt, the Company of District II commanded by Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, 1642, size today 379.5×453.5 cm, Rijksmuseum

The end of the genre

What Rembrandt’s Night Watch and the other civic guards paintings in the Kloveniers’ Great Hall have in common is an allusion, albeit an indirect one, to the French Queen’s visit to Amsterdam only a few years previously. No other painter ever followed Rembrandt’s revolutionary innovation, a concentration on movement and action rather than on individual portraiture, but there was a practical reason rather than an artistic one for this: with the great last blossoming of the genre which saw civic paintings the scale of which was unheard of at the time and never seen again in Dutch art, the civic guards headquarters’ walls were simply full. As a final irony, La Rouïna Madre, Marie de’ Medici, whose controversial visit indirectly triggered the last upsurge of Amsterdam’s great civic guards portraits, died in the same year in which Rembrandt’s masterpiece was completed: 1642.

In the next post a more detailed discussion of the Night Watch, an encounter with some of the men portrayed in it and some disconcerting conclusions about what is left of it today.

Selected sources:

  1. C. Barlaeus, Medicea hospes, sive descriptio publicae gratulationis qua…Mariam de Medicis, excepit senatus populusque Amstelodamensis, 1638/9
  2. Samuel van Hoogstraten, Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst, 1678
  3. Jan van Dyk, Kunst- en historie-kundige beschryving van alle de schilderyen op het stadhuis van Amsterdam, 1758
  4. P. Scheltema, “De Schilderijen in de Drie Doelen te Amsterdam, beschreven door G. Schaep, 1653″, Amstel’s Oudheid, 1885
  5. M. Kok, “Rembrandt’s Nachtwacht: van Feeststoet tot Schuttersstuk”, Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum, 1967
  6. D. Snoep, Praal en propaganda. Triumfalia in de Noordelijke Nederlanden in de 16e en 17e eeuw, 1974
  7. E. Haverkamp-Begemann, Rembrandt: The Nightwatch, 1982
  8. E. van de Wetering (et al.), Rembrandt, Quest of a Genius, 2006
  9. S.A.C. Dudok van Heel, “The Night Watch and the Entry of Marie de’ Medici”, Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum, 2009