Rembrandt's Night Watch
(The Company of Captain Frans Banning
Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenhurch
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"The Legend and the Man," in The World of Rembrandt: 1606-1669 (Time-Life Library of Art), Walter Wallace, New York, 1968, pp. 107-111
Since this celebrated work will always be known by an incorrect title, and since those who have not seen it continue to believe, quite logically, that it is a nocturne Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenhurch, and not until late in the 18th Century did it acquire the name by which it is now known. Unfortunately, both "Night" and " "Watch" are wrong. The civic guards who are depicted had, by the time Rembrandt painted them, become quite pacific; it was no longer necessary for them to defend the ramparts of Amsterdam or to go out on watches by night or by day. Their meetings had been diverted chiefly to social or sporting purposes; if they may be said to have any particular destination in the painting, it is perhaps to march into the fields for a shooting contest or to take part in a parade.
"Night" is even less apt than "Watch." When the critics and the public attached that word to the painting, the canvas had become so darkened by dirt and layers of varnish that it was difficult to tell whether the illumination Rembrandt had provided in it came from the sun or moon. Not until after the end of World War II was the painting fully restored so that the viewer could get an idea of the brightness it had when it left Rembrandt's hand more than 300 years before. (Upon seeing the refreshed work, journalists promptly re-christened it the "Day Watch.")
Rembrandt, possibly more than any other artist, has suffered from the ministrations of picture restorers. The infamous "Rembrandt brown" is their work, not his, and so too is the widespread impression that he was a monotonous colorist who invariably worked with a low-keyed palette. It is true that the forceful use of chiaroscuro in his paintings, with its emphasis on the mysterious, evocative qualities of shadow, has always disturbed certain critics, and so occasionally has his subject matter. John Ruskin, the 19th Century English art critic and essayist, who had a superb knack for being wrong in just the right words, remarked that "it is the aim of the best painters to paint the noblest things they can see by sunlight, but of Rembrandt to paint the foulest things he could see by rushlight." However even Ruskin, if he had seen a cleaned Rembrandt panel or canvas, might have directed some of his vitriol at the men who applied layer upon layer of toned varnish on the artist's pictures. In the past generation not only the Night Watch but many other Rembrandt paintings have been stripped of their dirty and discolored overlays-with a consequential appraisal by critics of his genius as a colorist.
There is an understandable, if not a good, reason why Rembrandt's works were so slathered with varnish. As he matured he became increasingly free in his technique, using bold strokes, passages of broken color, heavy impasto applied with the palette knife, and areas scumbled with his fingers. This highly personal stlye proved a mystery to most critics of the late 17th and 18th Centuries, who attributed it to laxness or perversity. Rembrandt himself seems to have suggested indirectly that his work was to be observed at a slight distance, so that the intervening space would make his strokes and colors fuse. According to Houbraken, "visitors to his studio who wanted to look at his works closely were frightened away by his saying, 'The smell of the colors will bother you.'" The probability is that Rembrandt was not at all concerned about the smell of fresh paint, which is pleasant to many people, but that he did not care to answer dim questions from his guests.
To their credit, it should be recorded 'that there were a few early critics who admired Rembrandt's rough strokes and said so. In 1700 an English writer on art, John Eisum, published a poem dedicated to "An Old Man's Head, by Rembrant":
What a coarse rugged Way of Painting's here,
Stroaks upon Stroaks, Dabbs upon Dabbs appear.
The Work you' d think was huddled up in haste,
But mark how truly ev'ry Colour's placed,
With such Oeconomy in such a sort,
That they each mutualiy support. Rembrant! thy Pencil plays a subtil Part
This Roughness is contriv'd to hide thy Art.
One or two theorists of Rembrandt's era agreed that his paintings, in their "coarse rugged Way," would appear more coherent if one stepped back from them, but they noted that a similar coherence could be obtained with varnish. As a result, for more than a century after Rembrandt's death liberal applications of varnish, frequently tinted, were applied to many of his paintings by dealers-and what is even more unfortunate-by collectors. Theoretically, the Night Watch should not have been a candidate for such treatment. Although it contains some wonderfully rich and complex areas, Rembrandt did not paint it in the freest style he would ultimately achieve. Nonetheless, this masterpiece received its full gallonage of Golden Glow and Toner. In fairness to the varnishers, it must be said that their intention was to protect the paintings from dirt as well as to "improve" certain of them by making the strokes and colors blend. Inadvertently, the varnishers also rendered a great service to the world of art. In 1911, when the Night Watch was still covered with a thick layer of hardened varnish, an unemployed ship's cook went at it with a knife. He seems to have had no reason for this act of apparent madness beyond the fact that the painting was famous and he was not. But its surface coating proved as resistant as glass, and the attacker was unable to cut through it.
The Night Watch was commissioned by Captain Barining Cocq and 17 members of his civic guards; that this was the total of Rembrandt's clients for the work is assumed from the fact that 18 names, added by an unknown hand after the painting was completed, appear on a shield on the background wall. Doubtless the guardsmen expected a group portrait in which each member would be clearly recognizable, although perhaps not of equal prominence; it was often the practice for less affluent or junior members of a group to be represented only by heads or partial figures, for which they paid less than did those who were portrayed full length. The guardsmen, most of whom must have been familiar with Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp of a decade earlier, may also have foreseen that the artist would not produce a standard, static painting. But none of them could have been prepared for the thunderous masterwork with which they were confronted.
The Night Watch is colossal. In its original dimensions it measured approximately 13 by 16 feet and contained not only the 18 guardsmen but 16 other figures added by Rembrandt to give still more animation to an already tumultuous scene. It was by far the most revolutionary painting Rembrandt had yet made, transforming the traditional Dutch group portrait into a dazzling blaze of light, color and motion, and subordinating the requirements of orthodox portraiture to a far larger, more complex but still unified whole. In Rembrandt's hands what was, after all, a commonplace affair became filled with Baroque pictorial splendor, loud with the sound of drum and musket, the thud of ramrods, the barking of a dog, the cries of children. In the forefront Captain Banning Cocq - in black, with a red sash - and his lieutenant in yellow lead the forward drive of the still unformed ranks. The sense of movement is reinforced by converging diagonal lines: on the right, the foreshortened spontoon in the lieutenant's hand, the musket above it and the lance still higher; and on the left, the captain's staff, its line repeated above by another musket and the banner. The effect on the viewer is direct; he feels that he had best get out of the way.
The powerful contrast of light and shade heightens the sense of movement, but it is well to regard Rembrandt's use of light in this painting, as in many others, from an esthetic rather than from a strictly logical view- point. He was, in the phrase of one critic, "his own sun-god." The shadow cast by the captain's hand on the lieutenant's coat might suggest that the sun is at an apparent angle of about 45 degrees to the left, but the shadow of the captain's extended leg indicates quite a different angle. The picture was of course composed and painted indoors, not while the officers posed for him out of doors, and although his lighting in any particular detail may be true to nature, that is not the case overall. He regulated and manipulated light-opening or closing the shutters in his studio-for his own purpose, which was to create an atmosphere both dreamlike and dramatic.
The Night Watch lies at the center of the most persistent and annoying of all Rembrandt myths. As recently as the tourist season of 1967, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines featured the painting by their illustrious countryman in an advertisement inviting travelers to visit Holland. "See Night Watch," said the advertisement, "Rembrandt's spectacular 'failure' (that caused him to be) hooted ...down the road to bankruptcy." The myth has been attacked by various critics, and a few years ago it was utterly demolished by Professor Seymour Slive of Harvard in Rembrandt and His Critics. But since the tale has a phoenix-like capacity for self-resurrection, a few of Professor Slive's observations will bear repeating here.
The painting was not poorly received; no critic during Rembrandt's lifetime wrote a word in dispraise of it. Captain Banning Cocq himself had a watercolor made of it for his personal album, and a contemporary oil copy of it by Gerrit Lundens, now owned by the National Gallery in London, offers further proof of the picture' s popularity. The Night Watch was never hidden in some obscure location; it was first hung in the Kloveniersdoelen, the headquarters of the civic guardsmen, and in 1715 it was moved to the Amsterdam town hall, as prominent a place as could have been found for it. (Probably on the occasion of its transferal, but no doubt for reasons of space, the painting was cut down on all four sides. The greatest loss was on the left, where a strip about two feet wide, containing three figures, was removed. Nor did painting this supposed "failure" result in any abrupt withdrawal of patronage; Rembrandt received about 1,600 guilders for the Night Watch, and four years later the Prince of Orange gave him 2,400 for two smaller works.
The fable of the Night Watch may owe its stubborn survival to the fact that it is a simple and convenient means of disposing of a complex matter. In 1642 Rembrandt was at the height of his popularity, and thereafter he slowly fell out of public favor, though never to the extent that romantic biographers suggest. What were the reasons for his "decline"? One of them, certainly, was a change in Dutch tastes in art. During the 1640s wealthy citizens, perhaps growing a trifle soft in their security, developed a fondness for showiness and elegance. They began to prefer the bright colors and graceful manner that had been initiated by such painters as the fashionable Flemish portraitist Anthony van Dyck- who, however fine an artist, lacked Rembrandt' s depth. Rembrandt's use of chiaroscuro dissatisfied them too, and they turned away from an artist who seemed "dark" and-what was perhaps worse-demanded that they devote some thought to what they were looking at.