Rembrandt, Nightwatch

Rembrandt, Nightwatch

There is a consensus among art lovers in the whole world that Rembrandt (1606­1669) is one of the greatest painters that ever lived. And that the Night Watch, made in 1642, and now to be seen permanently in the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam, is one of his most distinguished works. It is exposed in the museum in a way that forces the spectator more or less to regard it with respect.

Does it deserve that non­contested universal admiration? Yes, absolutely. An interesting question is: why?
I asked a colleague, teacher of Dutch language and culture in Jakarta, if she liked the Night Watch. Yes, I do, she answered, but you better look at it from a distance. Then you see what is its main quality: it is full of movement.

That answer resumes indeed what makes essentially the overpowering charm of this painting. When you are in front of it, you feel as if you join, as a participant rather than as a bystander, the company of a group of selfconfident and noisy people, ready to walk on, to chat, to make jokes, to show the world that they are happy to be there and not ashamed of it. There is a man roaring a drum, a little dog barking; the painting makes itself heard. And everybody moves, in one way or another, no­one keeps a static attitude. Dynamism is the keyword. In a general way, we may say that these people are inhabitants of a world in process.

What this world was, in Amsterdam, in 1642? It was a world of citizens that felt triumphant in a triple revolution. Since the end of the preceding century, the Dutch (there were one million of them at that time ­ sixteen million nowadays) were struggling for their independence in a war against Spanish dominated feudalism. It was a threefold revolution, because it had a national component (anti­Spanish), a social component (anti­feudal) and a religious component (many Dutchmen adhered to protestantism, whereas the king and the aristocrats were catholics).

It took decades (during the eighty years war, as Dutch children learn in school ­ most Dutchmen do not like the word 'revolution') to obtain independence, internationally reckognized by a peace treaty in 1648.

Surprising thing: during this period of struggle for independence, Dutch explorers sailed all over the earth to discover new territories enabling Dutch business to globalize and to set up a big colonial empire, in the West­Indies and especially in the East-Indies (actual Indonesia). And in the same time, in the country that was to become the Netherlands, art, literature and science blossomed in such a way that historians talk about it as the 'Golden Age'. During this golden age, Rembrandt and his fellow-painters Vermeer, Jan Steen, Frans Hals and many others, made their masterpieces, in a country that, officially speaking, did not yet exist.

This may be surprising, but is is not surprising to see how the military volunteers represented on Rembrandt's Night Watch look selfconfident and proud of themselves. It is clear that they are cocksure that victory over the enemy is a fait accompli. These are free citizens. Not soldiers, that is to say mercenaries (national service did not exist before the end of the 18th century). These men are militiamen taking care of the security of their hometown. Rembrandt was asked to make a collective picture, a group's portrait. The names of the people who paid to be portrayed are mentioned on a shield hanging against the wall. The painting was attached in the room where the members of the company used to meet, for exercise, deliberations or just being together.

What a diversity of people! The captain, Banning Cocq, whose stretched out hand gives the order to start marching, is a man of importance ­ his black costume and nice white collar shows that he is a well­to­do citizen and will certainly play an important political role in the free and prosperous city of Amsterdam. The black colour symbolizes wisdom, while the exuberant yellow and gold colour of lieutenant Van Ruytenburch, signifies the right to show worthly wealth. On the right side another man in black is seriously discussing, some theological subject may­be, but another pokes fun at him, holding his lance with a tiny red flag above his hat. Irony and debunking are still now favourite occupations of the people of Amsterdam. Another joker wears, very unmilitarily, a high hat ­ Amsterdam people have very little sense of uniforms and serious behaviour. Nevertheless, a buoyant standard bearer holds up the flag of the city of Amsterdam.

And professional military men, musketeers, show how to handle fire­arms. A young boy runs around with a helmet covered with oakleaves ­ not just for fun, but because the oakleaves symbolize protection of the citizens.

Most intriguing is the presence of two little girls. Rembrandt's clair­obscur has arranged that the one in yellow dress is very visible, while the other one, in light green, is very much hidden behind her. These girls also have a symbolic function. Green is the colour that symbolizes gaudia, joy, while yellow means victoria, victory. The victory­girl bears on her girdle something that, more than anything else, shows how sure these men are that their war is won. It is a dead chicken, the defeated enemy.

Dutch militia­people of these days had traditionally group's portraits made by one of the famous painters of their days, specialized in the this genre. Many of these paintings can be seen in Amsterdam, for instance in the Museum of Amsterdam History. We see men sitting or standing together in a row, immobilized, seriously looking at us. Nowadays world leaders, ministers in new governments, have their pictures still made the same way. Thinking of these exhibitions of stiffened beings, we realize how original Rembrandt has been in his unique creation.

One may ask why the Night watch is called Night watch. Captain Banning Cocq's men posed in dalight, just as they had the habit of marching in the city streets by daylight.
There is no objective reason to give the painting the title Night watch. The habit of giving titles to paintings did not exist in Rembrandt's time. When the varnish applied for protection darkened the painting, the idea was born that Rembrandt painted a night watch; the painting was given that name. The error subsisted until the day, in the 19th century, that the dark varnish was taken away and the scene appeared in its real splendour. But it was too late to change the title ­ it subsisted until now.

© Aart van Zoest, november 2001