The Restoration of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch Begins: Watch the Painstaking Process On-Site and Online

Are col­lectibles mar­kets dri­ven by arbi­trary stan­dards? Of course. Just note the com­par­isons between the art world and world of vin­tage base­ball cards. Don’t see any sig­nif­i­cant sim­i­lar­i­ties? You must not be an econ­o­mist. As Tim Schnei­der points out at Art­net, the two mar­kets may be more alike than not, but they “diverge vio­lent­ly when it comes to the con­cept of restora­tion.” Base­ball cards, no mat­ter how tat­tered, stained, and torn, should nev­er be tam­pered with to improve their con­di­tion one bit. One could say the same of many oth­er “posi­tion­al goods,” to use the prop­er­ly econ­o­mistic term.

But econ­o­mists don’t make cat­e­gories with aes­thet­ic cri­te­ria in mind, and most of us aren’t gallery own­ers, cura­tors, or bil­lion­aire col­lec­tors, but lovers and appre­ci­a­tors of art. Do the vast major­i­ty of peo­ple who vis­it Rembrandt’s mon­u­men­tal­ly famous The Night Watch at the Rijksmu­se­um care about the fluc­tu­a­tions in the paint­ing’s mar­ket val­ue? Like­ly not, espe­cial­ly since a work as trea­sured as the offi­cial­ly-titled Mili­tia Com­pa­ny of Dis­trict II under the Com­mand of Cap­tain Frans Ban­ninck Cocq has no mar­ket val­ue. “It will nev­er be sold,” writes trav­el writer Kier­an Meeke. The Night Watch is “lit­er­al­ly ‘price­less.’

“Like many oth­er such paint­ings in nation­al col­lec­tions, there is also no rea­son to insure it as it makes more finan­cial sense to spend the pre­mi­ums on improv­ing secu­ri­ty.” Oth­er rea­sons to spend on secu­ri­ty include the three vio­lent attacks the paint­ing has endured at the hands of angry and trou­bled would-be art assas­sins allowed to get too close. This dam­age, rang­ing from severe to mild, and the rav­ages of time, have also neces­si­tat­ed many expen­sive restora­tion efforts, and the lat­est under­tak­ing is the biggest yet, espe­cial­ly since it has been turned into a heav­i­ly-pro­mot­ed live event called “Oper­a­tion Night Watch.”

Last year, we brought you news of this upcom­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty to see the painting’s vibrant col­ors emerge from the accu­mu­lat­ed grime; this month, the project began, with an intro­duc­tion on Mon­day by muse­um direc­tor Taco Dib­bets. This is “the largest research and restora­tion project ever for ‘the Night Watch,’” the Rijksmu­se­um reports, “and you can be part of it.” You do not need a tick­et to the Nether­lands, though if you buy one, you’ll also need to buy a tick­et for entry to the muse­um, where the paint­ing will be on full dis­play dur­ing its restora­tion. If, how­ev­er, you decide to watch from home, your seats are free.

The pro­jec­t’s name is only part­ly tongue-in-cheek. “It is like a mil­i­tary oper­a­tion in the plan­ning,” said Dib­bets, and it has required the utmost pre­ci­sion and expert teams of restor­ers, data experts, art his­to­ri­ans, and the pro­fes­sion­als who moved the enor­mous paint­ing into the glass case it will occu­py dur­ing this intense peri­od. The crew of restor­ers will work from dig­i­tal images tak­en with a macro X‑ray flu­o­res­cence scan­ner, a tech­nique, says Dib­bets, that allowed them to “make a full body scan” and “dis­cov­er which pig­ments [Rem­brandt] used.”

This restora­tion project will great­ly expand our under­stand­ing of the paint­ing’s cre­ation, and renew our awe for its grandeur. There may be no way to cal­cu­late The Night Watch’s mon­e­tary val­ue, out­side of the unlike­ly event that the Rijksmu­se­um decides to sell, but what restor­ers, his­to­ri­ans, gallery visitors—and mil­lions of art lovers around the world, who only know the paint­ing in reproductions—truly want to know is: what exact­ly did this beloved art­work look like when it was first made, and what might we have been miss­ing in the almost 400 years we’ve been admir­ing it?

We’ll get the chance to see not only the fin­ished prod­uct of the restora­tion, but every painstak­ing step of the process as well. You can mon­i­tor the progress of the restora­tion online, and, fur­ther up, see a time-lapse video of the labor-inten­sive oper­a­tion required to move the mas­sive can­vas.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

What Makes The Night Watch Rembrandt’s Mas­ter­piece

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

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.