What Makes The Night Watch Rembrandt’s Masterpiece

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

300+ Etch­ings by Rem­brandt Now Free Online, Thanks to the Mor­gan Library & Muse­um

Late Rem­brandts Come to Life: Watch Ani­ma­tions of Paint­ings Now on Dis­play at the Rijksmu­se­um

A Final Wish: Ter­mi­nal­ly Ill Patients Vis­it Rembrandt’s Paint­ings in the Rijksmu­se­um One Last Time

Flash­mob Recre­ates Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” in a Dutch Shop­ping Mall

Sci­en­tists Cre­ate a New Rem­brandt Paint­ing, Using a 3D Print­er & Data Analy­sis of Rembrandt’s Body of Work

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.

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  • Robert says:

    I’m afraid Evan Puschak miss­es one of the most impor­tant things: pieces of the paint­ing were cut off some years after it was paint­ed. (See wikipedia.)
    The painter Ger­rit Ludens in 1715 made a copy of the paint­ing just before these cuts were made. And on it you can see that the orig­i­nal com­po­si­tion added A LOT to the dynam­ics of the paint­ing by plac­ing the two main fig­ures some­what more out of the cen­ter of the paint­ing. The paint­ing as it is now where the two main char­ac­ters are almost com­plete­ly in the cen­ter is much more sta­t­ic than Rem­brandt orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed.

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