Completed in 1642, Rembrandt van Rijn’s The Night Watch is not only a highlight of a career that spanned over 600 paintings, but also acclaimed as arguably the greatest portrait of the Dutch Baroque era.
1. ITS ALTERNATE TITLES ARE MUCH LONGER AND MORE SPECIFIC.
There are several, including: Officers and Other Civic Guardsmen of District II of Amsterdam, under the command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch; Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq; and The Shooting Company of Frans Banninck Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch.While the details vary, the key thing was that Cocq (wearing a red sash) and Ruytenburch (in yellow beside Cocq) get their recognition. Still, it’s little wonder the nickname The Night Watch caught on.
Over the next hundred years, the nickname Night Watch became more popular than the painting’s cumbersome monikers. However, Rembrandt’s painting was set in daytime. The dark background mistaken for night’s sky was actually a varnish turned dark with age and dirt. During a restoration in the 1940s, the varnish was removed, but the name stuck.
3. IT’S A CELEBRATED EXAMPLE OF CHIAROSCURO.
Italian for “light-dark,” the term refers to works that play dramatically with shadow to create volume and a sense of three dimensions.
You’d likely miss him amidst this bustling company of distinguished men, but in the middle of the painting, behind a man in green and a guard with a metal helm, you can spot a barely-there man. Only his eye and a beret are visible, but this elusive figure is believed to be how Rembrandt wedged himself into his most famous work.
5. THAT LITTLE BLONDE GIRL ISN’T MILITARY—SHE’S A MASCOT.
This seemingly misplaced moppet carries a chicken with pronounced claws and a pistol called a klover. Both were symbols for the Kloveniers, Amsterdam’s civic guard, a guild that commissioned the painting for their meeting hall.
6. IT WAS MEANT TO BE PART OF A CONTINUOUS PANEL SERIES.
Rembrandt was one of six artists the Kloveniers hired for group portraits of their members. He, Pickenoy, Bakker, Van der Helst, Van Sandrart and Flinck were each charged with creating a piece within specific parameters so they could be displayed side by side as an “unbroken frieze of large paintings, each matching the other and fixed in the wooden paneling of the room to form a meticulously designed total interior concept.” But Rembrandt strayed from what was expected in both composition and color.
7. THE NIGHT WATCH BROKE FROM MILITARY PORTRAIT TRADITION.
Countless captains, colonels, and cadets had been painted in portraits of a static nature. Rembrandt broke from convention by showing his military men in apparent motion.
8. REMBRANDT GOT STIFFED ON HIS COMMISSION.
After The Night Watch was finished, Rembrandt entered into a decade-long period where he stopped producing portraits and scaled back painting production dramatically. It’s long been assumed that the guild members who were supposed to pay for these portraits didn’t feel they were given enough spotlight, and refused to ante up their fair share, with this discontent ruining Rembrandt’s reputation. But more modern scholarship indicates that the Kloveniers were happy with the unconventional painting and displayed it in the hall. As for Rembrandt’s post-Night Watch funk? It may just have been that he felt he had overstretched the bounds of his art and needed to reset.
In addition to being Rembrandt’s most famous painting, at nearly 12 feet by 14 feet, The Night Watch was also his largest one.
10. … WHICH MEANT THE VERSION YOU KNOW WAS EDITED.
Seventy-three years after its creation, the massive painting was moved to Amsterdam’s town hall. However, it was too big to fit the wall where it was meant to hang. As was common at the time, the painting’s canvas was cut to better accommodate its new home. In this edit, the top of the arch, the balustrade, and the edge of the step were lost, along with two figures on the left side.
Thankfully, a small copy of the painting made by Gerrit Lundens gives a clear idea of the original’s composition.
11. THE PAINTING CONTAINS ITS OWN CAPTION KEY.
Rembrandt was long dead when The Night Watch was transferred to the town hall and trimmed for the occasion. But this wasn’t the only unapproved revision made to his piece. An unknown hand added a shield to the archway—the script on the shield contains the 18 names of the featured Kloveniers.
12. THE NIGHT WATCH HAS ITS OWN PERSONAL ESCAPE ROUTE.
Museum fires have caused the loss of great works of art, so Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum has gone to great lengths to protect Rembrandt’s masterpiece. To preserve The Night Watch in emergencies, the Rijksmuseum installed a trap door complete with escape slide in 1934.
13. THE NIGHT WATCH HAS BEEN ATTACKED THREE TIMES.
On January 13, 1911, a down-and-out navy cook slashed The Night Watch with a knife, reportedly as a protest against his unemployment. A second knife attack occurred on September 14, 1975, this time courtesy of a Dutch schoolmaster who believed destroying it was his divine mission. After that, the painting was put under permanent guard. Nevertheless, an unemployed Dutchman sprayed concentrated sulfuric acid on the piece on April 6, 1990. Each time, restorations were able to repair the damage, with barely a battle scar remaining.
14. IT HAS LONG BEEN THE HEART OF ONE OF THE WORLD’S GREATEST GALLERIES.
In 1885, the construction of the Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum was centered on exhibiting Rembrandt’s massive masterwork. Nearly 120 years later, the museum underwent a decade-long renovation. As the museum’s director Wim Pijbes prepared for its reopening in 2013, he proudly declared, “Everything has changed, the only thing that hasn’t is The Night Watch. It is the altarpiece of the Rijksmuseum, the whole place is arranged around this beautiful masterpiece.”