Enter an Online Interactive Documentary on Rembrandt’s The Night Watch and Learn About the Painting’s Many Hidden Secrets

What pos­sessed the man who attacked Rembrandt’s The Night Watch with a bread knife in 1975, “jab­bing two-foot-long knife marks into the sur­face,” as Nina Sie­gal writes at The New York Times, “cut­ting a sev­en-foot-wide hole, and rip­ping off a sec­tion of the can­vas”? This was not the first time the paint­ing had been man­gled. In 1715, just a lit­tle over 70 years after the mon­u­men­tal work’s 1642 com­ple­tion, the Ams­ter­dam city gov­ern­ment decid­ed to move it, and removed a sig­nif­i­cant part to shrink it down for eas­i­er trans­port. The miss­ing top and left por­tions have nev­er been recov­ered.

It sur­vived intact for two cen­turies then faced its first knife attack in 1911. Then it sur­vived two World Wars only to endure the sec­ond attack. Then, in 1990, it was set upon by a man armed with sul­phuric acid.

Thanks to the quick think­ing of a Rijksmu­se­um guard, only the painting’s var­nish sus­tained injury. These are just some of the facts we learn in the inter­ac­tive doc­u­men­tary Expe­ri­ence The Night Watch, a joint cre­ation of NTR TV chan­nel and the Ams­ter­dam Rijksmu­se­um.

You can read or hear the painting’s his­to­ry in Dutch or Eng­lish, learn the names of the his­tor­i­cal fig­ures depict­ed in it, learn about Rembrandt’s com­mand of com­po­si­tion and chiaroscuro, and much more. (Enter the inter­ac­tive doc­u­men­tary here.) The painter’s mas­ter­ful, dra­mat­ic use of light and shad­ow to cre­ate a sense of depth—probably the most famous exam­ple of his use of the technique—is respon­si­ble for the painting’s usu­al title, since most of its view­ers have assumed that the assem­bled vol­un­teer mili­tia depict­ed in it came togeth­er in the dead of night. (The shad­ows had dark­ened con­sid­er­ably over the years until a thick lay­er of var­nish was removed in the 1940s.)

But Rembrandt’s mas­ter­piece was orig­i­nal­ly called Mili­tia Com­pa­ny of Dis­trict II under the Com­mand of Cap­tain Frans Ban­ninck Cocq, and it records not a troop of sea­soned sol­diers but a gentleman’s shoot­ing com­pa­ny, one of the bands of civic guards that had “effec­tive­ly devel­oped into a social club for well-to-do cit­i­zens” who would “turn up most­ly as cer­e­monies or to quell minor riots.” Each of the men memo­ri­al­ized paid to have his like­ness includ­ed. We may nev­er have known their names except that in 1715 they were added inside a shield paint­ed by an anony­mous artist for some rea­son. The work is full of oth­er such mys­ter­ies.

Who is the small girl in white, bathed in angel­ic light, to whom our eyes are inevitably drawn? “She does not have any trace­able iden­ti­ty,” our nar­ra­tor tells us, “she is Rembrandt’s inven­tion,” a sym­bol of the com­pa­ny. And yet behind her, almost com­plete­ly shroud­ed, is anoth­er girl, iden­ti­ty unknown, who most of us would prob­a­bly nev­er have noticed had she not been point­ed out. “In The Night Watch,” we dis­cov­er, “noth­ing is what it seems.”

Learn more of the painting’s secrets at the online doc­u­men­tary project here, see sim­i­lar­ly inter­ac­tive art his­to­ries from NTR on M.C. Esch­er and Hierony­mus Bosch, and, above, lis­ten to an Art­sy pod­cast fea­tur­ing Rijksmu­se­um cura­tor Pieter Roelofs and oth­er Rem­brandt experts who explain what makes The Night Watch so wild­ly famous that more than one per­son has felt dri­ven to destroy it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Rijksmu­se­um Dig­i­tizes & Makes Free Online 361,000 Works of Art, Mas­ter­pieces by Rem­brandt Includ­ed!

What Makes The Night Watch Rembrandt’s Mas­ter­piece

Enter an Online Inter­ac­tive Doc­u­men­tary on M.C. Escher’s Art & Life, Nar­rat­ed By Peter Green­away

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of Hierony­mus Bosch’s Bewil­der­ing Mas­ter­piece The Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights

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