The Night watch

Operation Night Watch has started on 8 July and is ongoing. 


Rembrandt van Rijn painted The Night Watch (De Nachtwacht) in 1642. The painting is 363 cm × 437cm (it has been cropped in 1715, these pieces have never been found) and weighs 337kg. It is the largest painting in Rembrandt’s line of work. The illustration in messy, like a snapshot, a group portrait of people actually doing something. The Night Watch is a story, a living scene. 

 In 1642 the 30 Years’ War was halfway through, and the Netherlands sought independence from Spain. It was a great time of prosperity for some Dutch citizens. The trade and plantations in the Dutch colonies were the basis for a lot of that wealth. Investment in art, collectables and business opportunities rose, as did poverty, war, forced labour, human trafficking and colonization…and thus this period is called the ‘Golden Age’. The painting, like the name for this age, is a showcase of national pride. Many Dutchies today have not been coming to terms with how its colonial past continues to play a role in the Dutch collective memory. It -the independence from Spain and break from Catholic state religion- made way for neo-liberalism. Amsterdam Museum Director Kiers said that this heritage of tolerance, free thought and inclusion is still the evidence of that what today is considered Golden Age for the Netherlands. “You can still feel these values around us today” she avers, “entrepreneurship, creativity, tolerance.” wrote Shellie Karabell (a grey and wrinkly white journalist, a ‘Karen’) a former contributor on Forbes addressing “the county’s era of greatness” in 2017. But it wasn’t so great, was it? On September 13, 2019, Amsterdam Museum dropped the term ‘Golden Age’, arguing that it whitewashes the inequity of the period. The Rijksmuseum, where this painting is located for more than 200 years, still hasn’t dropped the term as far as I know of(?). Maybe, I question, it is time to drop not only this term but those museums completely, but I’ll elaborate on this further at another time. 

Back in 1642, it was quite common for civic guards or other military troops to commission group portraits, usually to be hung in their headquarters. The Night Watch was a commission from the Militia Company of District II. There are thirty-four figures depicted in this painting. Sixteen were real members of the militia (the ones that paid). Captain Franz Banning Cocq and the lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch are the main focus points. The Militia are portrait as if they are about to march off. They were groups of able-bodied men who, if the need arose, could be called upon to defend the city or put down riots.

( visited on 26-6-2020

Dutch Militia proudly played a prominent part in towns and some were well paid, their formal duty was to defence and police. They consisted of locals citizens that volunteered (schutterij in Dutch) independent from the government but supported by the local order of the municipality and elite. It changed a bit in the 18th century, but the police that resembles what is known today didn’t exist until Napoleon came in 1810 and the Dutch Corps de Maréchaussée, a military police, came into being afterwards by 1814 under King Willem I to replace the French. A lot of reformations have taken place since. 

The painting is also known as Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq” and “The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch“, “The Night Watch” is not its original name. 

( This photo is taken in August 2019.

The history of The Night Watch is in a sense the history of art conservation. It used to have a golden glow that was applied during the 19th century when thick yellow varnishes were popular. The varnish cracked. The yellow varnish was taken off, twice, and it looks quite different now. “The difference was, quite literally, night and day – despite its nickname, The Night Watch doesn’t actually depict a night scene; the darkening layers of varnish, on top of Rembrandt’s painting style, made it look gloomier than intended.” wrote Victoria Turk for Wired.

1911, the painting is attacked with a knife. Again, in 1975, a museum visitor slashed the painting 12 times with a bread knife. He did it for the Lord, a Dutch teacher told bystanders that day. 6 April 1990, another museum visitor sprayed the painting with a chemical. The varnish was damaged, not much more. These weren’t the only moments The Night Watch suffered and it has been treated at least 25 times before. The painting is probably first restored in the 19th century, or even earlier. The latest restoration research is taken place right now, but everything is delayed by the corona crisis. It is expected to cost three-million euro and should’ve to take about a year. The actual restoration — originally scheduled to start August  2020 — has now been rescheduled to start in January 2021.