When you think of Rembrandt, do you think first of The Philosopher in Meditation? Or The Syndics of the Drapers' Guild? How about Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp? Those paintings may well come to mind, and others besides, but only one demands a great effort indeed not to think of: Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, better known as The Night Watch. Famous for the enormous dimensions that make its figures nearly life-size, and make the painting a showcase for the artist's mastery of shadow and light more fully than any other, it stands not just for Rembrandt's body of work but for the 17th century's Dutch Golden Age of painting as well.
But what, exactly, makes The Night Watch Rembrandt's masterpiece? Walter Benjamin once said that every great work either dissolves a genre or founds a new one, but this painting fits neatly in an established tradition: the civic guard portrait, civic guards being the groups of wealthy citizens who pledged to defend a city should it come under threat. As Dutch painting moved away from religious subject matter toward commissioned portraiture, civic guards made fine clients, possessed as they were of both the desire and budget for large and expensive group scenes. But even within the genre, everyone involved must have suspected that, when Amsterdam mayor Frans Banninck Cocq hired Rembrandt van Rijn to paint him and his civic guard in the late 1630s, something impressive would result.
"What hits me right away is the balance that Rembrandt strikes between chaos and unity," says Evan Puschak, the video essayist known as the Nerdwriter, in his analysis of The Night Watch above. "He clearly wanted to create a canvas with a lot of movement, but the challenge was to make that movement — people lurching in different directions, performing a variety of actions — cohere into a unified whole." Therein lies the secret to The Night Watch's transcendence of its genre, a transcendence achieved through a quality we might now call dynamism. Rembrandt also makes use of visual techniques more closely associated with cinema, such as a "depth of field" achieved by rendering Cocq and his lieutenant with the utmost clarity and gradually reducing that clarity in the figures behind.
As with any masterpiece, the more you look at The Night Watch, the more you notice. You may even start to sense a joke: "The Night Watch is capturing the moments before the company sets out to its collective purpose," says Puschak, "but the painting almost makes us doubt that they'll ever get there." By the time of the painting's completion in 1642, he notes, civic guards had less to do with actual defense than with ceremony, "and at a certain point these companies became clubs for men to play with their weapons and chip in with fancy group portraits. It's not inconceivable that Rembrandt may have been secretly making fun of them." Maybe masterpiece status doesn't absolutely necessitate creating or destroying a genre. Nor, perhaps, does it absolutely demand a sense of humor, but surely the works that have one, like The Night Watch, stand a better chance of attaining it.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.