Night Watch is not only one of most acclaimed Rembrandt paintings but also one of the most famous artworks in Europe.

Officially given the unwieldy title Militia Company of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, Night Watch is one of 125 surviving civic guard portraits, the most prestigious commission a portraitist could obtain.  When Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69) painted it in 1642, he had been in Amsterdam for over a decade and was considered the most famous painter of the Dutch Golden Age. Rembrandt paintings were in great demand during this era, unlike those of countryman Johann Vermeer, now viewed as the other most prominent painter of the Golden Age.

Rembrandt van Rijn.  Militia Company of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq (Night Watch), 1642.  Oil on canvas, approx. 12′ by 14′.   Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Militia Company was originally believed to portray a nocturnal guard, earning it the enduring 19th century nickname, Night Watch.  After the recent cleaning of Night Watch and Phillips’ installation of LED lighting to illuminate it, one can handily see the guardsman standing in dim but daylight spaces.

The nickname isn’t going anywhere, though.

Night Watch portrays the company of kloveniers commanded by Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, who is in the black attire in the left foreground, and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch, who is distinguished by his partisan, a weapon carried only by officers.  The company derived its name from the “klover”, a firearm superseded by a musket known as an arquebus. Rembrandt provides other clues that these are kloveniers – under the belt of the brightly illuminated young girl, for instance, is a dead bird whose claws are an attribute  of the company.

Night Watch was a revolutionary civic guard portrait.  Unlike like the static lineup typical of preceding guard portraits, these guards are in motion. As in other Rembrandt paintings, he uses dramatic light-dark contrasts; here they heighten this sense of activity and accentuate the portraits.

Cocq, whose lips are parted, issues an order and the company springs into action:

  • the drummer (right foreground) starts drumming;
  • the ensign raises the standard; and
  • the guards hoist their weapons.

The musket is dominant – three guards model how it works; the guard in red (left foreground) is re-loading his; the guard behind the Lieutenant is blowing away residual powder after firing; and the guard behind the Captain is shooting his.

Attributed to Gerrit Lundens. Night Watch, c. 1655. Oil on panel, 2′ 2″ by 2′ 10″.  National Gallery, London.  

Records indicate the guards were pleased with Night Watch, and that the 16 guards each paid Rembrandt about 100 guilders, depending upon their prominence in the portrait.  A decade after its completion, Rembrandt added a shield (center top) with the names of all 18 people (16 guards, the young girl, and the drummer, hired for the occasion) whose portraits comprise Night Watch.

Night Watch was commissioned and designed for the Great Hall of the Kloveniersdoelen, where it hung until it was moved in 1715 to the Amsterdam town hall.  After discovering it was too large for its new space, Night Watch was trimmed on all sides to fit into these tighter quarters.  Luckily, Captain Cocq had been so enthralled with his portrait that he commissioned a copy of Night Watch for his personal use.  Zoom around this Night Watch copy to gain a sense of what the original Night Watch looked like.

I learned of new speculation about Rembrandt’s Night Watch.  Some art historians speculate that Rembrandt included his own self-portrait – he may be the one eyed man sporting a beret and peeking over the right shoulder of the man n the top hat.

With all the self-portraits in Rembrandt paintings, he is one of the most recognized figures of the 17th century.

Are you persuaded that this is, or might be, him?

Rembrandt van Rijn.  Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul.  Oil on canvas, 1661.  Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. 

Survey of the History of Art

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