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 Rembrandt would borrow again from his extensive print collection to add symbolic and historical reference to the Night Watch.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

The fate of Rembrandt’s Claudius Civilis (1) – the paintings for the galleries of Amsterdam’s Town Hall

From 21 March Rembrandt’s most ambitious painting of which only a fragment (now in Stockholm) remains will be temporarily exhibited in the Rijksmuseum. The Nocturnal Conspiracy under Claudius Civilis, its full title, was created for one of the galleries of the newly built Town Hall (now Royal Palace) but it hung there only briefly. Why was it taken down? Who reduced the large canvas to the much smaller central fragment and why? An investigation, starting with the peculiar genesis of the series of paintings for the galleries of Amsterdam’s Town Hall, of which Rembrandt’s painting formed part.

View from Citizens' Hall (the "Burgerzaal") into one of the galleries

View from Citizens’ Hall (the “Burgerzaal”) into one of the galleries

Anyone visiting the galleries today will immediately be struck by the monumentality of these vast spaces, more than eleven meters high. On their outer sides they gave access to administrative chambers (now Empire period rooms) while on their inner sides windows look out on two inner courtyards. The galleries receive daylight only from the windows giving on to the inner courtyards so that the corners are especially dark, yet this is precisely where the paintings depicting the Batavian Revolt are placed.

The enormous arch-shaped works (5.5 x 5.5 meters) are situated above the lower moulding and are enclosed by the galleries’ barrel vaulting. In the north-east corner hang two canvases by Jacob Jordaens, in the south-east corner a work by Jan Lievens and a work by Govaert Flinck and Jürgen Ovens, the latter replacing Rembrandt’s Claudius Civilis, in the south-west corner two frescos by Giovanni Antonio de Groot. The series was never completed: the fourth corner has always remained empty. Similarly unfinished is the series with four biblical heroes by Jordaens that was planned in the arches of the east and west galleries with access to Citizens’ Hall (the Burgerzaal). Only two (scenes with Samson and David and Goliath) were completed.

The analogy between the Batavian Revolt and Dutch Revolt against Spain

When the Town Hall was inaugurated on 29 June 1655, the building was far from finished but the destruction by fire of the medieval town hall next door necessitated the city’s administrators to move in prematurely. The idea for a series of gallery paintings depicting the Batavian Revolt against the Romans (69-70 AD) and complimentary Old Testament and classical heroes stemmed, so the poet Joost van de Vondel tells us, from Cornelis de Graeff (1599-664), one of Amsterdam’s four Burgomasters and a member of one of the city’s powerful and wealthy regent families.

As early as 1584 the Stadtholders of Holland, princes of the House of Orange, military commanders in the Eighty Years’ War against Spain that had ended in 1648, were likened to Claudius Civilis and Brinio, the leaders of the Batavian uprising. The story had become hugely popular after 1600 following the publication of Tacitus’ Histories (in Latin) and was featured prominently both in texts and images, the most important set of which, and also the most important iconographic antecedent of the paintings in the Town Hall, was produced by the Italian Antonio Tempesta based on designs by Otto van Veen (1612). In the spirit of the Twelve Year Truce (1609-1621), a lull in the hostilities, the prints did not glorify the war itself but rather the resulting peace which must have struck a chord with Amsterdam’s Burgomasters who envisaged not only a stunning town hall expressing Amsterdam’s growing prosperity but also a monument to the restoration of peace.

Govaert Flinck and Jürgen Ovens

Govaert Flinck, study for the Conspiracy under Claudius Civilis

Govaert Flinck, study for the Conspiracy under Claudius Civilis, 1659-60, Hamburger Kunsthalle, b/w image

Naturally, to receive a painting commission for the magnificent new Town Hall, soon to be known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”, was extremely prestigious. Nothing had happened by 1659 but in that year the commission suddenly had to be rushed on account of the impending visit by members of the House of Orange on 24 September of that year. As Vondel tells us in another poem, it was Govaert Flinck who managed to complete four gigantic sketches in August 1659 in the space of only two days. Because of this bravura act and because his designs, largely based on Tempesta’s prints, pleased the Burgomasters, he was awarded the commission for the entire series: he was to paint “12 works for the galleries, two a year at 1000 guilders a piece.” But Flinck died unexpectedly on 2 February of the following year without having completed any of the permanent canvases. This time, the Burgomasters prudently decided to spread the risk and invited several renowned painters to submit sketches and drawings for the series.

Govaert Flinck/Jürgen Ovens, the Nocturnal Conspiracy under Claudius Civilis during recent restoration

It was Rembrandt’s Nocturnal Conspiracy under Claudius Civilis that replaced Flinck’s temporary painting of the same subject but when that was taken down, with another important visit (that of the Bishop of Cologne) scheduled soon afterwards, the empty space needed to be filled in a hurry and Flinck’s gigantic sketch was retrieved from storage. The German artist and former Rembrandt pupil Jürgen Ovens was commissioned “to work up a sketch by Govert Flinck into a complete ordonnation.” Ovens painted over Flinck’s faded water-colour and charcoal composition in oils and added another ten or twelve figures. On 2 January 1663 he was paid a paltry forty-eight guilders for the four days he had spent completing Flinck’s work. The planned replacement of Flinck/Ovens’ painting never materialised.

In 1664, due to a shortage of finance, the city governors decided to postpone all commissions or purchases of paintings for the Town Hall for five years. Almost illegible now, the painting still hangs in the arch in the south-east gallery today. Already severely compromised – unprimed and painted with water-based paint so that it discolours as it ages – the painting’s problems were compounded by earlier treatments by people who had no understanding of its unique nature. In the 18th century, for instance, the painting was lined using glue, a treatment that involves considerable amounts of water so that Flinck’s gum paint was partially dissolved. In addition the painting was varnished several times which is totally unsuitable for water-based paint. But the most damaging of all was the wax-resin lining of 1960 which permeated the fine linen so that it has now acquired a dark orange-brown colour.

Jan Lievens

Jan Lievens, Brinio raised on a Shield

Jan Lievens, Brinio raised on a Shield

Somewhat better fared Jan Lievens’ painting next to it. Lievens received his commission on the same day as the Antwerp master Jacob Jordaens, 13 January 1661. Both finished their paintings within six months, both executed the final touches in situ. Lievens’ Brinio raised on a shield shows the Batavians’ allies, the Canninefates, electing Brinio as their leader. To honour him, Brinio’s warriors raise their new commander on a shield, a scene also illustrated in Tempesta’s prints. The scene was significant for the Dutch Republic. Heated discussions concerning the Stadtholder’s hereditary leadership were taking place in which Cornelis de Graeff was a key figure. Brinio’s election made the point that military leaders should be elected and not installed by right of birth, a model of government that the Amsterdam Burgomasters strongly supported.

Jan Lievens, small scale study for Brinio raised on a shield, oil on paper on canvas, 60x59 cm, Amsterdam Museum

Jan Lievens, small-scale study for Brinio raised on a shield, oil on paper on canvas, 60×59 cm, Amsterdam Museum

The painting is more colourful and lighter than most of the other canvases in the series but even so specific passages such as in the sky have darkened considerably. In addition, Lievens did not wait for underlying paint layers to dry thoroughly before applying further layers and as a result, particularly in shadow paints, the paint surface has crinkled and developed deep cracks which makes it difficult for layers of old varnish, grime and wax to be removed.

Jacob Jordaens (and workshop)

From an account referring to his accommodation at the Lijsveltse Bijbel (an inn on Warmoesstraat) it appears that the Antwerp master Jacob Jordaens submitted his first painting for the series shortly before or after 17 June 1661. A Roman camp under attack by night is the only battle scene in the galleries. It is a complex, baroque composition showing a mass of writhing figures and the impact of the work is heightened by strong contrasts between light and dark. His Peace between the Romans and the Batavians illustrates the final episode of the story. In addition, Jordaens made a painting for the series of heroes in 1662, showing Samson defeating the Philistines. The Burgomasters were delighted with his work and awarded the painter a gold medal which was presented to him on 13 June 1662, along with his fee of 3000 guilders: 1200 guilders for the two Batavian paintings and 600 guilders for the Samson.

Jordaens' two paintings in the .... gallery

Jacob Jordaens’ two Batavian paintings in situ

In November 1664 as we have seen, the Burgomasters adopted a resolution not to buy or commission any further paintings for a period of five years, but two weeks later they made an exception:

Approval is given to fill the space in the gallery that has already been reserved for a painting with a work that Jordaens has already begun, representing the story of David and Goliath. Taking consideration for his advanced years [Jordaens was 71 years old at the time], one may assume that the master will not be working as an artist five years hence.

Jordaens completed David and Goliath, the second and final painting for the series of heroes soon thereafter.

What is interesting for our understanding of the architectural context is Jordaen’s modello for the Samson. When King Louis Napoleon took up residence in the Town Hall in 1808, making it his royal residence, its appearance was changed dramatically. Today the galleries and their vaultings are clad in white marble, but in the 1660s the painters would have known that their pieces would connect above with a stone-grey surrounding, just as they knew that in the walls below a marble finish was intended.

This is what Jordaens’ modello shows: the struggle is enacted above a trompe l’oeil arch that was intended as an illusory continuation of the actual arch above the doorway to the Citizens’ Hall. For this arch a white marble finish was envisaged and so the trompe l’oeil arch on the modello is also painted whitish-grey.

Jacob Jordaens David and Goliath lunette

Jacob Jordaens David and Goliath lunette

Giovanni Antonio de Groot’s “secreet”

Giovanni Antonio de Groot, Roman spoils laid at the feet of Claudius Civilis

Even more clues to the architectural finish of the galleries are found in the two frescos by the Italian artist of Dutch decent Giovanni Antonio de Groot who appeared before the Council of Amsterdam in 1667 where he presented ambitious plans for the completion of the decorations. By that time, the paintings were in a deplorable state as damp in the walls had not only damaged the plaster layer but had also caused a number of paintings to deteriorate badly. The Council acknowledged that the existing paintings had already largely perished and that the paintings were barely visible from below. De Groot claimed to have invented a secreet, a secret recipe that could be used to stabilise the plasterwork and prevent it from detaching from the wall. If granted the commission, he would paint eight frescos with scenes from the Batavian cycle. Primarily because of his proposed solution he was granted the commission. On 3 October 1668 he was paid for two frescos but for some unknown reason no other frescos were produced and the – damaged – original paintings remain in place until this day.

Giovanni_Antonio_de_Groot_-_The_Peace_Negotiations_between_Claudius_Civilis_and_Quintus_Petillis_Cerialis_-_Google_Art_Project

Giovanni Antonio de Groot, the Peace Negotiations between Claudius Civilis and Quintus Petillis Cerialis

De Groot’s works are curiously clumsy and do not represent the artistic qualities of this artist. This is because, in spite of his “secret recipe”, during the course of the first half of the 18th century the frescos must have been quite seriously damaged. Jan van Dyk (ca. 1690-1769), a restorer of paintings employed by the City and never one to mince words, described their condition as follows:

In the corner by he Thesaurie Extraordinaris, two pieces have been painted in fresco, which are actually good artistically, were it not for the brackishness in our walls, which have been spoiled by the sweated salt, and not much that could be done about it, [and also] had not one of the Know-nothings [“Weetnieten”] of art scrubbed both these pieces with water and Brussels sand, to which there are still living witnesses who confirm this, yes, who even warned him.

Van Dyk deemed the situation so serious that, in 1756, he thought restoration no longer possible. He decided to overpaint the frescos completely. In doing so, he remained faithful to De Groot’s composition and left remnants of the original composition visible wherever possible. Unfortunately, at the end of the 19th or the beginning of the 20th century the works were overpainted once more, this time not closely following De Groot but Van Dyk. The result today is that the works have become even further removed from their original appearance.

Detail from Giovanni Antonio de Groot's Peace Negotiations between the Romans and the Batavians showing the trompe l'oeuil architecture

Detail from Giovanni Antonio de Groot’s Peace Negotiations between the Romans and the Batavians showing the trompe l’oeil architecture

De Groot’s frescos do, however, provide an important clue as to the original 1660s wall finishes envisaged by architect Jacob van Campen, namely that the now white vault must originally have been sandstone-coloured: along the curved upper edges of both frescos is a trompe l’oeil architecture of sandstone blocks which must have been intended as a continuation of the surrounding “real” architecture, creating the illusion that the heroic deeds of the Batavians were actually being acted out before the eyes of the visitors in the galleries.

As a consequence of the present-day white finish of the vaults, we perceive the gallery canvases as darker than they really are. In a surround of sandstone the paintings must have been decidedly more legible even though, as we have seen, the corners in the galleries where they hung were dimly lit from the start. We will see in the next post how Rembrandt was the only artist who, in his majestic Nocturnal Conspiracy under Claudius Civilis, took into account the dark location where his painting would hang.

Acknowledgement

I am greatly indebted to the publications with regard to the recent (2007-2009) restoration of the paintings in the galleries which present hitherto unknown facts regarding the paintings’ genesis and  restoration history.

NB: Amsterdam’s 17th century Town Hall (now Royal Palace) is open to the public when not in use by the Dutch Royal family.

The remarkable case of Johannes Torrentius (2) – “magic” paint

Like his life the art of Johannes Torrentius (1589-1644) is in every way remarkable. Whereas in most cases we lack contemporary comments, especially from painters themselves, and their paintings are the sole evidence for their working methods, in Torrentius’ case it is the other way around. Only one painting today can be ascribed to him with certainty and yet the artist has been credited with, among other things, being the “first photographer”. Looking at contemporary evidence and what his one surviving painting tells us: in how far is his art, as one of the charges that led to his conviction in 1628 reads, “a sort of magic”?

An Emblematic still life

In 1913, a painting was discovered in an unlikely place: it served as the lid of a raisin-barrel in a grocery shop in the east of the Netherlands. When the signature and date (T. 1614) were discovered it was acquired by the Rijksmuseum as a Torrentius.

Johannes Torrentius, Emblematic Still Life, signed and dated "T. 1614", Rijksmuseum

Johannes Torrentius, Emblematic Still Life, signed and dated “T. 1614”, Rijksmuseum

Roemer-Visscher, “Each his own” from “Sinnepoppen”, published in Amsterdam, 1614

Painted on a round oak panel (a highly unusual shape for a 17th century still life painting) are a flagon, a wine glass with two clay pipes and a stone water jar placed on a shelf with above them a bridle. The glass stands on a piece of paper with on it musical notations and an inscription reading ER+ wat bu-ter maet be-staat, int on-maats gaat ver-ghaat. The painting has been associated with an emblem in Roemer-Visscher’s book Sinne-poppen, published in the same year as the date on the painting: 1614. Both emblem and painting convey the virtues of temperantia. The objects on painting and emblem support this meaning: wine can be diluted with water and thus represent temperance and moderation. The text on the painting can be translated as: “That which exists beyond measure, will perish in evil beyond measure” with a pun on “measure” (maat) in the musical sense. The mysterious ER+ at the beginning of the text has led to speculations that Torrentius was a member of the Rosicrucian movement: ER+ in this theory stands for Eques Rosae Crucis but so far this interpretation is not conclusive. The composition on the sheet has, as far as I know, not been researched or identified. On the reverse of the panel is the brand of Charles I indicating that the painting once formed part of that monarch’s art collection. Indeed, the painting appears to be listed in Charles I’s State Papers:

1. On a round bred donne 1614 is his fynest piece which is a glass with wyne in it very well donne, between a tynne pott and an errthen pott, a sett song under it and a bitt of a Brydle over it.

“… a glass with wyne in it very well donne” (photo: Rijksmuseum)

“Magic paints”

Looking at the painting, one understands why contemporaries described Torrentius’ style as “translucent”. It is certainly very different from still life paintings by his contemporaries such as Balthasar van der Ast or Jacques de Gheyn. As Constantijn Huygens wrote: “… not easily would a man stand up who would represent glasses, earthenware and tin or iron things, almost translucent, through the power of the brush”. The engraver Michel Le Blon wrote in a letter to the Swedish envoy in The Hague in 1635: “at the work beginning nor end could be seen, so that it seems to be washed or painted like a mist.”

Johannes Torrentius, Self-portrait? Undated drawing, Weimar

Purely on the basis of observation of the Emblematic Still Life it has been suggested that Torrentius may have achieved his peculiar “translucent” effect by applying glazes – thin, transparent layers of paint. When the painting was examined during restoration in 1993/4, however, the number of layers appeared to be rather limited. But what was this “magic” paint the artist claims to have used? Torrentius seems to have made a distinction between this and conventional pigments: in a letter to Dr Jacob Hogenheym of 17 February 1620 (Hogenheym’s would later testify at the trial) the painter wrote somewhat cryptically “… as I would not dare to risk Judgement on the fundamentals of my Art, in this case I will make do with the means that are commonly used ….” When asked during the trial whether he had refused to buy ordinary paints on the grounds that he had a “different way” of making paintings Torentius declared:

… that he paints with other paints than other painters, and therefore also works with these in a different manner than other painters. That he sometimes had to lay panels flat on the floor so that the paint would blend flat on the panel, from this mixing or combining of the paint often arises a sound or a buzz, that finally ends when the paint has taken. But if he uses paint like other painters, he would also use brushes.

This seems corroborated by Huygens who wrote that the painter “tires the inquisitive minds, as they are searching in vain, in what manner he used colours, oil – and if the Gods may wish – also brushes.” Not only were his paints different, Torrentius’ painting method was also highly dangerous. From the trial records:

[Torrentius] declares having said that if he prepares and contrives certain paints, there is such a deleterious vapour in the room that a person could not stand to remain there, staying healthy. Therefore the room would not need to have lock on those occasions because the bad fumes would be sufficient to keep people out […] and if he then quickly had to go into the room, he would plug his ears and nose to escape from the noxious vapours.

An artist's attic, drawing attributed to Andries Both, 1624-1640, British Museum

An artist’s attic, drawing attributed to Andries Both, 1624-1640, British Museum

On another occasion, at night, Torrentius had to interrupt a session with friends and hurry back home: “I have to be home in time because if I would not pay attention to it, my attic and roof would catch fire as if a small barrel of gunpowder would ignite.” Strong stuff indeed!

Surprisingly, or perhaps disappointingly, paint analysis using various scientific methods, including analysis of a number of paint samples and microscopic investigation of cross-sections did not yield anything unusual: Torrentius’ pigments were no different from those used by other 17th century painters. His grounds, too, seemed to have been made up of the usual components: “the area of the cartellino showed conventional calcium carbonate ground, a double application of lead white and a layer of lamp black. The paint for the greyish metal of the flagon is build [sic] up of lead white mixed with lamp black over a lighter mixture and some bone black applied over a tan calcium carbonate ground”, the researchers concluded. This left one option open: the binding medium.

Flagon, detail from “Emblematic Still Life”, photo: Rijksmuseum

Analysis of the binding medium did yield some surprises: the presence of pectin substances and sugars. Pectins are neutral, water-soluble substances obtained from plant or fruit extracts. The sugars contained in them may eventually dry up to an insoluble substance which would then be useless to work with. To render it soluble possibly an acid was used. The action of this acid would then have produced the strange effect described in a contemporary pamphlet recording the trial:

And then, from out of his prepared paints, there comes a sweet sound, right above the panel. As if a swarm of sweet bees were humming and singing, or similar melodies.

This refers to a statement made at the trial by Dr Hogenheym and corroborates Torrentius’ own trial statement about “a sound or a buzz” that ended when the paint had taken. The use of acid and the chemical reaction it caused possibly also explains Torrentius’ statement about the highly toxic vapours that forced him to “plug his ears and nose” when going into his studio before the paint had set. That 17th century paint contained toxic substances is well known. It must have been the peculiar chemical reaction produced by the pectid acids in his binding medium that made Torrentius’ working methods so extraordinary that they may have even contributed to his conviction. As Le Blon notes, Torrentius’ painting method was “by some of the most prominent painters, not unjustly considered a work of magic for which there is no comparison in the world.” As we have seen in the previous post, the 17th century Republic had no use for magic.

Reservations

While the above gives a more or less satisfactory scientific explanation for the “magic” paints used by Johannes Torrentius, I have two reservations:

First, we do not know how or when the Emblematic Still Life came back to the Netherlands after it had been in Charles I’s possession. It can be traced back to the city of Deventer in the mid-19th century where it hung in a bakery shop and it later passed to the owner of a grocery shop in Enschede. The painting was saved from the disastrous fire of 7 May 1862 which practically destroyed the entire city. How damaged it was is not recorded, but it was relegated to serving as a lid on a raisin-barrel possibly from that time. Since the presence of sugars in the binding medium are not yet fully understood, could it be that they are remnants from the painting’s time in first a bakery and then a grocery shop?

B.W.F. van Riemsdijk by Jaap Weyand, 1920

Secondly, Dr Van Riemsdijk, the then director of the Rijksmuseum, writing about the discovery of the painting in 1915, reports that when it was brought to him it was in a very sorry state: “Very dimly some crockery could be seen and far more clearly a piece of paper with music and a poem.” He undertakes the painting’s restoration himself: “It did not go very smoothly because the usual cleaning solvents did not have any effect and therefore others had to be used to remove the almost impenetrable, opaque oil layer that covered the paint.” Unfortunately Van Riemsdijk does not mention what cleaning solvents he used. If they were aggressive it could explain the absence of several layers of glazes and they could also in other ways have affected the paint layer.

This still does not explain the various contemporary witness statements concerning Torrentius’ still life’s “translucency” or that “beginning nor end could be seen”, leaving an effect as if “washed or painted like a mist”, an impression one gets when looking at the painting even today. A possible explanation for this is the assumption, first expressed by Huygens, that Torrentius used a camera obscura. We will look at this possibility in the next post and will also see how, in Sandrart’s words, the fact that “next to his paintings no others could stand up in the comparison, and that therefore they were considered miracle things that fetched high prices” frustrated a contemporary painter so much that it came to a painting competition.

Notes:

For selected literature on Torrentius I refer to the previous post. In addition:

  1. B.W.F. van Riemsdijk, “Een Schilderstuk van Johannes Torrentius” in Feest-Bundel Dr. Abraham Bredius, 1915.
  2. A. Wallert, “A peculiar emblematic still-life painting from Johannes Torrentius” in Art Matter, 2007.