Many of the world’s most admired paintings don’t look the same now as when the artists completed them. Time, especially when it adds up to centuries and centuries, takes its toll on paints and the canvases to which they’re applied, or at least it changes them in ways humanity hasn’t predicted or fully understood. Take Rembrandt’s 1642 Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, much better known as The Night Watch — but only because a layer of varnish on top of the paint darkened over time, giving the scene an unintended nocturnal quality. The varnish came off in the 1940s, but much more work remains to return Rembrandt’s masterpiece to the state in which Rembrandt himself beheld it.
Starting next summer, the Rijksmuseum will launch a multi-year, multimillion-dollar project to give The Night Watch its long-awaited thoroughgoing restoration. (The three restorations the painting received in the 20th century repaired damages inflicted by the occasional visitor bent, for reasons known only to themselves, on destroying it.)
The institution “plans to first study the painting for about eight months, using new scanning technologies that were not available during previous restorations, such as macro X-ray fluorescence scanning, which can explore different layers of the paint surface to determine what needs to be done.” Throughout the whole process, “a transparent showcase will be built around the painting, the scientists and the restorers, so that visitors can view the progress.”
Art conservators have traditionally done their meticulous work away from public eyes, but in the 21st century public restoration has become, as we now say, a thing. Earlier this month, Artnet’s Janelle Zara wrote about various other museum projects that have put “a public face on this normally closed-door profession,” even involving social media platforms like Instagram in the process. The Rijksmuseum, as its director Taco Dibbits announces in the video above, will take it a step further by streaming all the restoration work online, providing viewers around the world a closer look at the painting than they’ve ever had before, no matter how many times they’ve visited the Rijksmuseum’s Night Watch Hall in person. The first stages of the process will determine how, exactly, The Night Watch has changed over the past 376 years. During it we’ll no doubt find that Rembrandt, whose finest work seems to grow richer with each examination, still has a few surprises in store for us.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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.