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FLORENCE HALLETT: Watching the Watchers

Rembrandt's Militia Company of District II under the Command of Caprain Frans Banninck Coca, better known as The Night Watch. Picture: Rijksmuseum - Credit: Archant

Rembrandt’s epic painting The Night Watch is one of the tantalising and mysterious works ever produced. As it forms the centrepiece of a new exhibition, FLORENCE HALLETT tells the story behind it.

Visual trickery, the suggestion of a conspiracy theory, and the ghostly face of the artist’s recently departed wife, Saskia, make Rembrandt’s most famous painting, The Night Watch, 1642, one of the most intriguing works of western art.

Measuring almost four metres high and more than 4.5 metres wide it is also among the largest. Commissioned for one of Amsterdam’s most prestigious buildings, the painting marks both the high point of Rembrandt’s career, and the beginning of his descent into debt, personal tragedy and an extended period of artistic inactivity.

Bathed in light and dressed in the red, white and black of the city of Amsterdam’s coat of arms, his hand outstretched as his gives the order to march, Frans Banninck Cocq, captain of one of the city’s musketeer companies, is as much a showman as a man-at-arms, his patrol both a carnival procession and a military parade. To his left, waiting for the order, is Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch, clothed in gold and blue to denote the Kloveniers – the musketeers – the proudest and most prestigious guild of the Amsterdam militia. The company’s standard is flown by the Ensign Jan Cornelisz Visscher, while two sergeants frame the scene at right and left.

Chaotic and packed with odd and unresolved incident, its soldiers wearing costumes and carrying weapons that range from the contemporary to the old-fashioned, the painting has, since 1885, been housed in a specially designed gallery at the Rijksmuseum, as a monument to Dutch self-determination as much as to the achievements of Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age.

For the next four months, this enormous picture serves as the climax to an exhibition of every work by Rembrandt in the museum’s collection; more than 300 prints, 60 drawings and 22 paintings herald the beginning of a year of celebrations to mark the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death in 1669.

The painting was commissioned in around 1640 for the Kloveniersdoelen, then the newly extended and refurbished guild hall of the musketeers, and now a five star hotel trading on its views across the river Amstel.

The great hall was one of the grandest ceremonial rooms in Amsterdam, and by 1645 its walls were filled with seven large group portraits depicting various militia companies. Rembrandt’s painting was one of three commissioned for the long wall facing the windows: they dwarfed existing militia portraits, and for a time at least, were the biggest paintings in Amsterdam.

Seen together, in the home of the city’s musketeers, the paintings were a potent symbol of Dutch resistance against the Spanish Crown, which had lost control of the northern provinces in 1581, but did not officially recognise the Dutch Republic until 1648.

Amsterdam had never been besieged, and so the militias performed an increasingly ceremonial role, though here, Captain Banninck Cocq’s men are shown in action, defending the city gates with muskets and pikes, in an evocation of heroic deeds past, present and future.

Where other group portraits in the Kloveniersdoelen conferred dignity, tradition and a sense of military order through static arrangements of figures, dispersed so as to allow roughly equal emphasis on each individual, The Night Watch is filled with movement. Figures obscure one another as they run and posture, their actions – sometimes humorous, sometimes intriguing – drawing us into their world. The officers, dramatically lit for maximum impact, demand our attention, while the drummer at the far right looks directly at us, beckoning us into the crowd.

Though Rembrandt had never before produced a militia portrait, during the preceding decade he had established himself as the city’s leading portraitist, his willingness to innovate and challenge convention making him a popular choice among the social-climbing burghers of Amsterdam.

Of all the portraits painted by Rembrandt in the 1630s, the marriage pendant of 1634, celebrating the union of two of Amsterdam’s most powerful families is uniquely ostentatious. Comprising full length, life size portraits of sugar magnate Marten Soolmans and his wife Oopjen Coppit, the commission was the only one of its kind to be undertaken by Rembrandt, not least because the expense involved was so great as to be beyond the means of all but the extremely wealthy.

The Night Watch was far more ambitious in its complexity as well as its size, which was so great that an outbuilding had to be constructed to accommodate the canvas while it was being worked on. In its depiction of Captain Banninck Cocq and his men, it departed radically from traditions of group portraiture: Rembrandt abandoned military etiquette, and in place of drilled precision, harnessed the formidable momentum of civilians and militia infected with the zeal of shared endeavour.

The smell of gunpowder drifts across it; the shouts of militiamen and excited bystanders vie with a barking dog and a beating drum; The Night Watch speaks to every sense, and with pulses racing evokes the proud history of the civic guard. In depicting a band of irregulars, with their muskets and pikes, drums and flags, Rembrandt celebrates the citizen soldier as both defender and representative of the citizens of Amsterdam.

The painting further breaks with convention in its disposition of colour, and its most prominent figures – the captain and lieutenant – reject the orthodoxy that light colours appear nearer than darker ones, which, in turn, seem to recede in space.

In theory, Van Ruytenburch in his bright yellow costume should appear closest to the viewer, but instead it is Banninck Cocq who dominates the foreground, this feat of visual trickery underlined by the placing of Van Ruytenburch’s foot slightly in front of the captain’s.

Van Ruytenburgh’s pale costume is echoed in the dress of the little girl to the left of the picture, an equivalence that encourages the eye to rest here, and to recognise her as having some narrative significance. The exact nature of her significance is less clear, and she is an incongruous presence in this very male scene of martial conviviality.

The pistol and chicken at her waist are both emblems of the musketeers, and she is usually interpreted as a mascot, her presence among portraits of actual people a strange mingling of real with unreal, heightened by the shot, accidentally fired, perhaps, by a boy musketeer just behind the captain, his antiquated costume and the oak leaves embellishing his helmet suggesting that he too is a symbolic figure representing the history of the musketeers.

Such peculiarities have only enhanced the sense that this is a painting with a hidden narrative, and interpretations have ranged from speculation as to the meaning of its symbols, to a full-blown conspiracy theory advocated by Peter Greenaway in his 2007 film Nightwatching, and its 2008 sequel Rembrandt’s J’Accuse…!. Greenaway suggests Rembrandt used The Night Watch to reveal a plot to murder, masterminded by Van Ruytenburch and Banninck Cocq.

While Greenaway’s theory is outlandish, it is motivated by the persistent, though spurious idea that the musketeers were unhappy with the portrait, and by the dramatic downturn in Rembrandt’s fortunes following the completion of the painting.

While it might be supposed that a few of the men were displeased with the incidental roles they had been given, half hidden by bystanders who, unlike them, had not paid for their portraits to be included, it seems likely that they would have been mollified by its drama and dynamism. Certainly, it is hard to believe that Banninck Cocq was unhappy with the painting since he commissioned two copies.

More persuasive is the connection between The Night Watch and Rembrandt’s personal circumstances: Greenaway’s theory is that having been exposed by Rembrandt, the conspirators set about ensuring the painter’s ruin.

A more likely explanation for Rembrandt’s decline during the 1640s is suggested by that ghostly little girl in the crowd. Her face is surely that of Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia, who had died just a month before the painting was completed, eight months after the birth of their son Titus.

Jonathan Bikker, curator of research at the Rijksmuseum and the author of a new Rembrandt biography writes that ‘there can be little doubt that Rembrandt fell into an emotional slump around the time he completed The Night Watch, from which it took him years to recover’.

To illustrate this he points to two self-portraits, one made in 1639, at the height of the artist’s good fortune, the second dating from 1648, the fine clothes and easy self-confidence replaced with a more introspective, humble demeanour, and very ordinary clothes.

In the decade following the completion of The Night Watch, Rembrandt’s work rate reduced dramatically, and he undertook very few portraits and only two commissioned works, while producing numerous landscape etchings.

The impression is of an artist withdrawing from the world, though this did not protect him from further disaster: in 1656 he went bankrupt, in 1663 his common-law wife, Hendrickje Stoffels died, followed in 1668 by his son Titus, the only one of his five children to have survived into adulthood.

Though he would produce some of his most celebrated work in the last years of his life, when Rembrandt died in 1669, he would be buried in an unmarked grave. The inclusion of Rembrandt’s own self portrait at the back of the painting, his eye visible as he peeps through a gap in the crowd, only adds to the talismanic significance of The Night Watch, and the ill luck suffered by the painting, from having been cut down in 1715 in order to be accommodated in Amsterdam’s town hall, to several instances of vandalism, echo the misfortunes that afflicted Rembrandt himself in the later part of his life.

Rembrandt, Officers and Other Civic Guardsmen of District II in Amsterdam, under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch, also known as The Night Watch, 1642, will be on show as part of All the Rembrandts, at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam until June 10.

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