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Rembrandt's painting, "The Night Watch"
perhaps the most famous work of his long career
and of the Dutch golden age generally
is not set at night,
and it's not really a "watch" either.
It's a painting of the militia company of district two under the command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq.
Which is also its true, long, original name.
A century later
After years of varnish and low light darkened the canvas
Someone called it "The Night Watch," and it stuck.
Because, well, that's what it looked like
In fact, "The Night Watch" was meant to be a day-time scene
Just like other portraits of the Dutch civic guards:
groups of well-to-do Amsterdam citizens
tasked with keeping the peace should threats come to the city walls.
Over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries
civic guard portraits became a genre all it's own,
and as painting in the Netherlands moved away from
spiritual subject matter and towards the secular,
artists welcomed commission work from these wealthy guilds
because they wanted large group portraits again
and again
and again.
But if you wanna know why Rembrandt's
is the only civic guard painting that makes it into most school curriculums
all you have to do is look at it.
Commissioned to do what all the others had done, show off the paying members of the guild,
Rembrandt takes the genre
and explodes his vision through it.
"The Night Watch" is an eruption of action, shadow, and light
with drama that's more suited to
a Biblical or historical epic,
not seventeen guys from peacetime Amsterdam.
No offense to Captain Cocq.
So what makes "The Night Watch" so great?
Well, what hits me right away
is the balance that Rembrandt strikes between chaos and unity.
He clearly wanted to create a canvas with a lot of movement,
but the challenge was how to make that movement,
people lurching in different directions, performing a variety of actions
cohere into a unified whole.
The keystone, the part of the painting that holds everything in place,
are the dual figures of the captain and his lieutenant
the rest of the portrait moves away from them diagonally
indeed, Rembrandt places these lines
directly onto the painting in the form of weapons and poles
and the effect isn't just two dimensional.
Maybe the most striking thing is the captain and the lieutenant
seem to be
emerging from the picture plane,
the captain's hand, ordering the company forward.
It's as if you could grab it and pull him out of the frame.
The lieutenant's partizan, the spear-like weapon he's holding in his left hand,
is so expertly foreshortened, it feels like it could cut you.
In fact, based on the angle and the placement of the weapon's shadow on the ground,
the partizan is beyond the picture plane,
or at least it should be.
Another trick Rembrandt uses to acheive this effect
is one that will be familiar to film makers.
The figures in the front are painted with detail and clarity
while the further back you go in the composition, the softer and hazier things seem to get
Rembrandt is mimicking
“depth of field,” an optical phenomenon
that can make objects in focus pop from their backgrounds.
All of these effects were carefully planned
by Rembrandt to anchor the composition
around the central figures.
The longer you look at the night watch, the more meaning
emerges from this burst of frenetic energy.
For example, the three men with guns are performing
the three main actions associated with the Arquebus --
the primary weapon of this particular guild.
Loading, firing, and blowing clear the gun powder pan
In fact, these poses match almost perfectly
engravings from a book called “Exercise of Arms”
a famous manual on how to use weaponry
released at the beginning of that century.
This particular civic guard, the Clauweniers, is signaled again
in the chicken that’s hanging from the young girl’s waist,
– a similar claw was on the Clauweniers’s coat of arms.
And while the captain’s hand points toward the viewer,
its shadow points towards his company’s function.
It’s cradling the emblem of Amsterdam,
a Lion and three crosses.
The clauweniers were supposed to protect the city.
The other notable feature is Rembrandt’s famous use of chiaroscuro.
An effect of deeply contrasted light and shadow
It’s a technique that first came to prominence in the work of
Carravaggio, who used sharp contrasts and harsh lighting
to create intense drama in his paintings.
Rembrandt was clearly interested in this technique, but for him,
light served a somewhat different purpose
Not only is Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro softer than Carravaggio’s
but the light in his paintings seems to have a numinous quality
As if, once it touches the subjects,
it becomes a part of them.
If we turn back to “The Night Watch” we can see that Rembrandt uses chiaroscuro
to single out two key figures.
The lieutenant and the girl.
As we’ve already seen, both these figures contain symbols that call back to the group itself.
In the case of the Lieutenant, it’s as if the captain’s orders to assemble
are illuminating his second in command
and from his light, the rest of the company is to fall in line.
And yet, compositionally,
the two lighted figures almost serve the opposite purpose.
Instead of unifying the company, the girl and the lieutenant
seem strategically placed to break up the individual men in the canvas.
Flanking the captain, they almost isolate him.
And thanks to their contrast,
we’re drawn to the haphazard actions and faces each man.
All seeming to be lost in their own world.
“The Night Watch” is capturing the moments before the company sets out
to its collective purpose.
But the painting almost makes us doubt that they’ll ever get there.
Indeed, by the time this painting was made in 1642,
nearing the victorious end of the eighty years war with the Spanish,
the Dutch were prosperous
and civic guards were more ceremonial than necessary.
At a certain point, these companies became clubs for men
to play with their weapons and chip in for fancy group portraits.
It’s not inconceivable that Rembrandt may have been
secretly making fun of them a little bit
in this, his most famous painting.
But that’s the tension that the painter captures in "The Night Watch"
An endless jockeying between light and dark,
nation and individual,
chaos and order.
Rembrandt could never let either one of those elemental forces
win out in his composition because if he did,
he’d lose the most essential thing.
The thing he was striving for and achieves
with an effect that makes this one of the greatest paintings
of all time
Motion.
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