Sunday 13 July 2014

The Night Watch by Rembrandt

The Night Watch by Rembrandt at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Impossible to see this iconic painting. Far too many people. The tour groups and their guides just took over: all these people standing in front of the painting, looking at the guide, not the painting. I lingered around for ages, but it was no use - once a group departed, another took its place.
 This is the closest I got to it
A look at sections of the painting was possible but not the whole of it
The Night Watch by Rembrandt
So I downloaded it from here
Holland's most iconic painting, symbolic of its people, standing for the nation as a whole. Completed in 1642, at the peak of the Dutch Golden Age, it depicts a company of Amsterdam volunteer militiamen. The painting is renowned for three characteristics: its colossal size (363cm x 437cm); the effective use of chiaroscuro, the use of light and shadow; and the perception of motion in what would have traditionally been a static military portrait. With effective use of light and shade, Rembrandt leads the eye to the three most important characters among the crowd, the two men in the centre and the small girl in the centre left background. Why is the little girl among the soldiers? Why does light fall on her in such a moving golden glow? Like all great pieces of art, the painting possesses a note of mystery. Technically, it's a masterly piece of work: the captain's hand, for instance, seems to be coming out of the painting towards the viewer.
It's moreover a painting that depicts democracy, a painting of a group of burghers, not royalty or religious figures. No two faces point the same way: everyone is looking somewhere else, so that instead of discipline, Rembrandt suggests something close to chaos. It almost seems to mock the Dutch as part-time soldiers and foolish burghers, and this is where the greatness of the painting and its political message, lie. The human company stand together against encroaching shadows. They are heroic at the same time as being vulnerable, flawed and eccentric. They stand together, as a community, acknowledging one another's individuality and difference. It's an icon of tolerance, diversity and what makes a society work and in this it epitomises Dutch national pride.
It moreover, is the only one of the 8,000 works in the Rijksmuseum's collection that returned to its original display position: it sits at the end of the museum's main gothic-style Gallery of Honour, acting as a symbolic altarpiece of a secular church.
As I mentioned in my post on the Rijksmuseum, Alan de Botton has made an 'intervention' in the museum. This is what he has to say about The Night Watch:
I can't bear busy places - I wish this room were emptier
You're in a crowd of hundreds, and you're looking at a picture of a crowd of people. But there's a difference. Your crowd is anonymous and the enemy of good things happening. Ideally you'd like to be alone, while, in the picture, their comradeship is bringing a glow to a dark, rainy day.
Imagine you are with them, part of the Night Watch. You're going out in dreary weather to deal with drunks, to move on troublemakers and keep an eye out for thieves and burglars. It's going to be great. It beats being at home, because you're doing it with your friends. It's a picture about how nice it is to be doing something with people you like. The Night Watch - which is perhaps the most revered picture in the country - speaks of the appeal of joining in; they are going to do something that is hardly appealing in itself - patrolling the streets on a foul day - but how readily we would join them if we could. Companionship is so much more important than ease and comfort.
It is a terribly poignant message: for there we are in this room, in a crowd, and yet without a collective purpose.  They - in the picture - are what we should be, and in times of honesty, we wish we could be: a band of siblings, a true team, people who will bring out the best in one another. Strange though it might sound, this picture is about loneliness, for it tells us what we are missing when we feel lonely. And getting to know what our loneliness is about is the first step to lessening its pangs.
(image taken from here)
The opening of the 'new' Rijksmuseum was marked by the public hauling of the painting through the streets. It was like a procession. The painting was crated in a wooden box and was covered by a protective layer featuring a life-size reproduction of the painting. It was driven in a special vehicle, moved on wheels and then lowered by crane. Hundreds of people watched the proceedings while clapping and cheering the painting. They cheered the painting - this could only happen in Amsterdam!

In a different part of the city, in Rembrandtplein, beneath a statue of Rembrandt, there is a bronze-cast of The Night Watch, that was created in 2006 as part of the celebration of the artist's 400th birthday.

You can walk 'inside' it

and look closely





But, this is not all. To mark the re-opening of the Rijksmuseum and to celebrate this painting that means so much to the Dutch people, the painting was re-created in a shopping centre -  literally bringing art to the people.



  1. Thank you especially for the quote from Alain de Botton. I have not read his books yet. Somehow there has always been a dozen or so already clambering! I have always feared at the back of my mind that he might be a bit 'precious'. I don't know where that came from, but the smidgen of hesitation has been enough to put me off. So, thank you for contradictory evidence.

    1. Olga - I don't know much about de Botton's work either. I watched a TV series on architecture a few years ago, housing really, modern housing, and I really enjoyed that.

      The 'intervention' at the Rijksmuseum was very interesting, Ken loved it and found it very refreshing. His comments on the museum itself were the most interesting, and when I read your comment I realised that I did not include them in my post on the museum - how I could have forgotten, I do not know, as I mentioned him at the end. But, there you go....

      The reviews were not that favourable:
      and so on....

      But, we thought it was an interesting idea, even though I agree with some of the comments that have been made.

      One of the comments was something like this: 'You are standing in front of a painting and you know it's a masterpiece. But it leaves you cold....' This is something that must have resonance with a lot of people.

      An interesting debate about art, what it stands for, how we view it and experience it, I think.