Baroque and Rococo





The Mystery of the Revealed Form



 Baroque and Rococo Art Map
     Rembrandt van Rijn
     Rembrandt - a never-ending experience  
     Rembrandt the thinker: The structural conception of Rembrandt's early pictures  
     The encounter between observer and subject  
     From interpretation to observation: The Night Watch  
     Observation as comprehension: The Staalmeesters  
     The search for life in the picture: Susanna and the Elders  
     The search for life in the picture: The Return of the Prodigal Son  
     The mystery of the revealed form: The Jewish Bride  
     Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn -1606-1669: Chronology  
     Rembrandt - DRAWINGS  



From interpretation to observation:

The Night Watch



Copy of The Night Watch
A page from the family album of Frans Banning Cocq,


The Night Watch symbolized for Rembrandt a bringing together of everything that had come before, but simultaneously a new beginning. He unfolded in this, probably his most famous work, an astonishing, fascinating virtuosity, the effect of which is as great today as then. The execution of the details alone - the splendidly gleaming metal, the shimmering cloth, the various pieces of equipment - and, even more so, the fashioning of the eloquent facial expressions, succinct gestures and dazzling lighting effects are artistic in the highest degree. The possibilities inherent in a depictive representation would seem to have been exhausted. A likeness of The Night Watch may be found in the album of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, the "Seigneur of Purmerlandt and II-pendam", accompanied by the following text: "Sketch of the picture in the Great Room of the Cloveniersdoelen (Civic Guard House), wherein the young Seigneur of Purmerlandt as Captain gives orders to the Lieutenant, the Seigneur of Vlaerdingen, to have his company march out". The picture bore no other title. The name The Night Watch did not arise until the beginning of the 19th century. The likeness shows the painting in the state in which it hung in the hall of the Civic Guard building along with six further large works depicting the Guard by other artists. The painting was trimmed at the beginning of the 18th century in order that it could be hung in a smaller town-hall chamber. The sensation caused by this immense picture of almost four by five metres can be imagined. However, some of those portrayed appear to have considered themselves to have been represented less favourably than they had expected: Rembrandt later added an oval plaque bearing a list of names, which he placed in rather unmotivated fashion in the right-hand corner of the archway. The reproduction in the album shows the picture in its original state prior to this addition.
It can be seen at first glance that Rembrandt gives the presentation of the general event priority over a faithful working-out of the individual portraits. The foreground is dominated by the marching figures of the Captain and the Lieutenant. The Captain's extended hand and slightly opened mouth indicate that he is speaking; in doing so, he does not look at the Lieutenant, who is receiving the order. Figures to right and left of the archway are also engaged in conversation, while under it the standard-bearer is raising his standard. Men with helmets and hats are carrying swords and spears; some of them also bear round shields and are wearing gorgets. A number of the men are in the act of taking hold of the spears propped against the building wall to the right, while others continue to press forward through the archway. A boy wearing a helmet that is far too big for him is depicted in the left-hand foreground; he is running away with an empty powder horn, half-turning back in mid-stride. A musketeer clad in red stands next to him, loading his gun. To his right, half-hidden by the Captain, a form in baggy breeches with an oak leaf-garlanded helmet can be seen side-on, striding out with big steps towards the right and lifting his gun, the muzzle of which is visible between the Captain and the Lieutenant. A man standing behind them is attempting with outstretched hand to ascertain the angle of fire of his gun's barrel. The muzzle-flash can be observed directly adjacent to the white feather in the Lieutenant's hat: the gun is depicted in the very moment in which the shot is fired. To the right of the Lieutenant, an old man is blowing the burnt powder from his flintlock's pan. On the far right, the drummer is trying out his instrument, and seems to have scared the dog, which is cowering in front of him. Two female figures should also be mentioned. The first, in a golden dress, has a purse and a dead hen hanging from her belt, the latter claws-upwards; she is holding a drinking horn in her hand. The second figure is almost entirely concealed behind her.
A great variety of motifs of movement is arranged before the observer. Rapid change — seen in the running boy and the striding gait of the Captain and Lieutenant - characterizes the "here-and-now" of this instant, an element emphasized still further by the shot that is being fired. One may notice the lingering gestures of the speakers, together with the postures of quiet duration visible in the posture struck by the ensign and the listening and watching attitudes of those waiting.
Brilliantly set highlights and certain prominent shadows serve to heighten the impression of something lasting but for a moment. Particular attention should be paid here to the shadow thrown by the Captain's outstretched hand on the coat of the Lieutenant. It is not least through this element, together with the suggestion of commotion, that the expectation is aroused that the scene could also be encountered outside of a picture, in reality, just as it is seen here.
A wide range of activities are portrayed, such as those concerning the handling of a rifle — loading, firing, cleaning out the pan — the presentation of the standard, the taking up of arms, the testing of the drum. All these are activities such as mark out the group as a Civic Guard company. At the same time, however, each individual is characterized through the activities typical of him or his task, with the consequence that each would appear to be doing whatever he wants, without reference to the general happening. Here, too, it is only the word that binds together all these diverging actions. If the text from Banning Cocq's album is taken as being accurate, then the work depicts the moment in which the Captain gives the order to march out; the Lieutenant has not yet passed it on, nor is anyone else aware of it. As of this moment, it is the duty of the Lieutenant to pass on the order. It is in this turn of events, however, that the whole hardly surpassable effect of the picture's structural conception lies. A situation has been selected in which each individual becomes a member of a collective event, in the very moment in which he performs his activity for himself alone, with no direct reference to what is going on around him. It is only by this means that the moment preceding the passing on of the order can be clearly indicated. Rembrandt makes use of the opportunity to give a precise and subtle display of the typical hustle and bustle of the Guild's everyday life - and also, at the same time, to depict the group in a collective, unifying active whole. Christian Tiimpel characterizes the depicted moment as the "state of setting off and getting into order". However, the latter would signify that the Lieutenant — or some other person or persons — were already preparing to follow the order to the troops to form up prior to marching out. One can make a better case for the argument that the moment portrayed is that one just before the men form up, one still allowing unrestricted freedom of individual action.
Here, once again, in one of the last scenes of this kind, Rembrandt is able to use the situation to display the highest and most differentiated external movements, since the individual forms have not yet been integrated into the formative schema of the collective marching order.
The open situation throws up further questions. Will the Captain and the Lieutenant, depicted in front of the others and already striding out, become detached from the group? How will the march out look after the men are in formation, from where are the figures emerging from the archway coming, where will they line up, and what is the group's destination? Does what is happening reflect the normal course of events whenever the troop comes together, or is something special, something unique, taking place? None of this can be inferred solely from what is depicted in the picture. Are we concerned here with the departure of the Guild to escort Maria de Medici, the Queen Mother and former Regent of France, on her visit to Amsterdam? In the year 1638, she was indeed conducted into the city by the three Guilds. An argument in favour of this is that some of the costumes date from this time; against it, however, is the fact that Frans Banning Cocq and the Lieutenant were not yet in office at that time.
Furthermore, we must ask — as with The Anatomy Lesson by Nicolaes Tulp — how all these figures are to find a radius of action for their movements on the narrow steps. It is reasonable to assume that the building represented here is the Guild's house, the so-called Cloveniersdoelen, the hall of which the painting was intended to decorate. However, the pattern of the illumination remains inexplicable: how are we to account for the lighting effects in the case of the Lieutenant and the female figure in the background? If we were looking at a night watch in front of the house, then it could hardly be a question here of moonlight: the only possibility would be artificial light, for example that thrown by torches — and yet these would surely cause each and every object to cast more than one shadow. The intensity of light revealed in the picture can only have the rays of the sun as its source — so how is it, out in the open in front of the house, that everything is shrouded in darkness? If the group were indeed illuminated by the sun, then the members would surely appear universally bright and uniformly in shadow. Yet it is only the figure of the Lieutenant, the female form in the background, and individual faces here and there which the light causes to stand out, while even the shadows follow no clear direction. The distinct shadow thrown by the Captain's hand is the only thing to create such a convincing effect that it becomes a pars pro toto, a detail inducing one to believe that the conception of the illumination elsewhere in the picture is consistent. Such observations can serve to draw attention to the fact that here, too, the plausibility of the action is achieved only at the expense of the plausibility of an actual situation. It covers up the fact that the figures are bright because they are depicted, and not because the light happens to be falling on them: that which appears to be chance in the picture is in fact artistic intention.
Questions also remain unanswered when one attempts to fathom the significance of individual motifs. One example among many: the bright female form, and the one almost entirely hidden behind her, have given rise to the greatest mystery of all. In comparison with the other figures, they appear as small as children; however, their proportions and dress lead one to suspect that they might be sutlers accompanying the company. The drinking horn, the purse and the hen hanging from the belt of one of the women have been interpreted as a reference to the central social event of the Guild, the communal banquet. The fact that the size of these figures is portrayed as being so much smaller here could be explained by the mediaeval custom of depicting minor characters on a smaller scale than that employed for the principal protagonists.3 If this is the case, however, why does the artist then manipulate the lighting in such a way as to cause them to stand out to such an extent? On the other hand, if one were indeed to consider them as girls, then it would be possible to connect them with children in pictures before Rembrandt's time, where they were portrayed as emblem carriers in processions. Following this theory, the colours of the girls' dresses in The Night Watch have been linked to those of the Guild's coat of arms. Moreover, the claws of the hen hanging from the belt of one of the girls could be interpreted as a play on the coat of arms of the Civic Guard, consisting of crossed rifles and griffins' talons: the Dutch word for talon is the same as that for rifle. The question of whether the two girls have any allegorical significance within the context of the pictorial scene must remain open.
The baroque era was a time of allegory and emblems. In The Night Watch, however, Rembrandt would appear to have been successful in both depicting these and simultaneously hiding them, with the result that the observer becomes aware of the allusions, yet is unable to tie them down. In this way, they maintain the state of affairs shortly before the ordering of meaningful concepts.
The fact that the event, the situation in its details, the setting, costumes, illumination, and even meaning of individual motifs in The Night Watch elude a final definitive interpretation will not be taken in the following as a mistake or
as the capriciousness of so-called artistic freedom; rather, it should be considered - at least on an experimental basis - as a decisive principle, one by which Rembrandt allowed himself to be led in shaping that which was to be depicted. It should be apparent that the reason for such a style of depiction can hardly lie in the effort to reproduce things as faithfully as possible, nor in the subject-matter of the depiction. If one acknowledges the openness of the depictive interpretations, then one is ultimately led to their concrete, visible cause - the elements of the picture itself, the lines, the light-dark structure, the colours.
If one starts by studying the structure and arrangement of the lines on the surface of the picture — leaving aside any representational interpretation — then one may be struck by the numerous straight lines formed by the contours of the facade in the background, by the lances and rifles, the standard, the Captain's stick, and other elements. The back wall manifests some horizontal lines in its cornice, together with some vertical lines such as those on the right-hand side, where the wall projects, and to either side of the archway. Although these lines do not pass over the entire surface, they nevertheless create the impression of a grid of vertical and horizontal lines spread over the whole picture — yet one that is only intimated, since each individual line is constantly interrupted, is not sharply drawn, and can be distinguished only with difficulty against the dark surface. For this reason, it would be pushing things too far to speak here of a grid. The structure remains open, and does not bind the format together. Nonetheless, the lines bestow upon the surface a structure such as is consistent in itself, one presenting a distinct contrast to the diversity of direction to be seen in the other straight lines mentioned above. It is fascinating to notice how the spears leaning against the wall on the right, for example, diverge but minimally from the vertical lines of the ground - yet this divergence is sufficient to disperse the impression of a consistent "grid", or prevent its consolidation from the outset. A different orientation is adopted by the slanting lines, first of all that of the standard's stave, the direction of which is taken up by the Captain's stick and the rifle of the man in red in the left-hand foreground, and secondly, that of the almost vertical direction of the spear which the man in the helmet immediately above the Lieutenant is holding, in an upwards direction towards the right-hand border of the picture. Other straight lines would appear to go along with this second direction: the Lieutenant's lance, the gun with the muzzle flash, the flintlock whose pan is being blown out, and the pointing arm of the third figure from the right. The lines of the standard's stave and of the spear pointing to the right, if they are extended, lead to the head of the brightly illuminated girl, albeit barely intersecting at the top of the head's outline. Visible points of intersection are avoided here, in an almost methodical manner; however, they accumulate on the other side. Swords, rifles, and other spears cross the main axis mentioned above in different directions, while a star-shaped double overlapping may even be seen above the previously discussed pointing arm. Yet all this does not serve to make the brightly lit girl the centre of the main directions; equally, nor does the star-shape form offer a central point for the principle under which the lines are distributed. It is significant, moreover, that the "accompanying" axes mentioned above are not parallel - they are almost so, it is true, but no more than this. A structure of geometric relationships would seem to have been intended but not realized.
Into this structured system of straight lines is woven the chain of small roundish forms. This chain, which description cannot enable one to follow, is made up of the overlapping outlines of the figures; its indentations are such as could lead one to think distantly of a laurel garland. It crosses the whole width of the picture midway up, tending to confuse or break up any comprehensive efforts at orientation. This serves to focus the observer's gaze upon the light-dark structure in this zone, from the limits of which this feature emerges.
If one concentrates exclusively upon the smaller bright elements of this linear network — the impression can be heightened experimentally by blinking one's eyes - the heads and collars can be seen to follow one another in a garland leading first from the left in a curve down to the girls. From here, it continues upwards over the helmet adorned with oak leaves, passing in an upwardly curred arch over the heads of the Captain, the Lieutenant and the man behind them to that of the old man blowing into his powder pan. Finally, it rises over the remaining heads and the pointing arm to the right-hand border of the picture, from where it rolls on towards the centre of the picture as far as the drum. Another section of garland, not necessarily connected to the first, is formed from the heads of the figures in the archway. Notwithstanding the fact that all of the small details of the individual forms offset the tendency to recognize directions, it would be possible to speak from a very general point of view of a rough symmetry, in the sense of two wings unfolding towards the sides. The centre of this double form can be seen in the two most extensive and striking elements of illumination, those of the Lieutenant and the girl. The form of the Captain, which has been rendered extremely dark apart from his equally bright lace collar, would thereby be integrated into the symmetrical pattern and almost framed within the picture, this latter process separating him - it is said again and again, by a sort of rectangle - from the rest of the structure.
If one advances this view, however, then it is always necessary to emphasize immediately the opposite view, namely that it is in fact impossible to demonstrate a symmetrical shape in the light-dark structure. The bright areas constituted by the Lieutenant and the girl are of such differing size, the distance from them to the Captain is so unequal, that it is far from convincing to argue that they are symmetrical objects. As regards the smaller bright elements, they are of course related to each other, but the comparison with a connected garland overshoots the mark. At the same time, the structure can also be seen as a group of isolated elements, or divided up into sporadic, separate groups. There is no one single line constituting an order in which the bright elements - at least, the faces — should be seen as connected. Several equally valid "paths" are available to the observer, along which he can follow the garland.
The openness and divergence of the light-dark structure is great, yet not so great that its tendency to form a unified arrangement could be denied. Rectangles, oval arches, spiral forms, left-right symmetry — in each case, the observer is pointed in the direction of a basic geometric order. Yet it cannot be grasped. The elements of spontaneity, motion, even disorder, assert themselves all the more, renewing the challenge to the observer to find a general system.
An important discovery with regard to the light-dark effect is made when one runs one's eyes — if possible at an even speed — over the described garland, for example from left to right across the whole picture. In this process, one becomes aware of an extremely differentiated succession of brighter and darker elements. The contrasts resulting from this alternation culminate in the central zone, dying down again towards the sides and finally reaching a provisional end at the half-bright drum, from where the next sequence of movement could then start. As the observer's gaze travels across the picture, the light-dark alternation is experienced as a free, sporadic rhythm, one in which the intensity, the size of the individual elements, and the intervals between them combine to produce a highly differentiated and particularly dynamic effect. At the same time, however, the sequence of alternation does not appear to be entirely free. The rhythm appears to follow an underlying beat, and it is only over this that its free dynamic can unfold. That which has been indicated here may serve to make clear that the entire observable structure of this picture reveals itself in detail with reference to the lines and the light-dark structure as arranged individually and in accordance with an open structure, yet tending towards a general formation in every part. Indeed, the pictorial structure of The Night Watch can itself be characterized as individual motion shortly before the establishment of order.
The purely visible qualities of the picture assert themselves here as a self-supporting system possessing its own drama and motion, independent of the recognizable qualities seen in that which can be comprehended within the scene. The same dramatic structure is revealed both in that which is readily apparent here and in that which can be understood via the portrayal in the scene. The change taking place that is signified by The Night Watch and the following collections of pictures within the course of Rembrandt's development is a step from interpretation to observation.



"The Night Watch"

(Norbert Schneider)

The Night Watch
Oil on canvas, 363 x 437 cm
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The Night Watch (detail)
Oil on canvas
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Bob Haak has quite rightly pointed out that Rembrandt's so-called Night Watch "has a greater historical burden to carry than any other seventeenth-century Dutch painting". Since the nineteenth century especially, when Rembrandt was made the object of a cult of genius, the painting has been obscured by so many different layers of meaning that it has become inordinately difficult to throw light on the conditions under which it was executed. According to popular legend, Rembrandt's use in this painting of an entirely new method of composition so appalled his public that his fall into penury was sealed from that moment onwards. The story draws on the myth of the unrecognised genius whom an insensitive public condemns to tragic isolation. This stock device in the rhetoric of modern art bemoans the fate of the typical secessionist whose rebellion against the dominant aesthetic is fought out at the cost of his secure existence.
However, contemporary sources suggest that the painting's rejection was not as great as was later supposed. Indeed, the evidence tends to point to the contrary. Despite one or two, hardly unusual, critical remarks concerning various practicalities of the painting's execution, Samuel van Hoogstraten described the composition in his "Schilderkonst" (1678) as "dashing". It was "so powerful", he said, "that, according to some, the pictures beside which it was hung were made to seem like playing cards". Filippo Baldinucci reported that the painting was received to considerable acclaim. Rembrandt had "made such a great name for himself that he is better known than almost any other artist in these climes". Although it is demonstrable that Rembrandt now turned away from the group portrait, it would be difficult to establish a causal nexus between this change of direction and the financial crisis which overshadowed his life from then on.

The Night Watch (detail)
Oil on canvas
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The Night Watch (detail)
Oil on canvas
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Detail from The Night Watch.
The claw (Dutch: "klauw") of the white fowl hanging from the girl's belt is a visual pun on the name of the "Klovcniers" militia company.



Rembrandt's Night Watch - erroneously named, since it depicts an event taking place in the shadows, with patches of sunlight breaking through - belongs to the genre of the "doelenstuk", or militia company piece. The painting shows members of the Amsterdam "Kloveniersdoelen" (civic militia company of harquebusiers). The subject is introduced by a visual pun: the muskets ("kloven" is Dutch for the butt of a gun) which the men are holding, or loading and firing. Moreover, Rembrandt has included a hidden, emblematic reference to the militia company in the middle ground. At the same time, the detail is accentuated by painting it in a bright light: a white fowl, shown dangling from the belt of a dwarflike girl, who may be a sutler - the "claws" (Dutch: "klauw") of the bird are a visual pun on "Kloveniers".
The painting shows only the more wealthy, upper and middle class members of the militia company from Amsterdam's District II, the "Nieuwe Zijde". In fact, the company had several hundred members, while about four thousand civic guards were organised in the Amsterdam companies altogether. To become a high-ranking officer of the civic guards was a means of demonstrating one's rise to political influence. This certainly applies to the two main protagonists here: Captain Frans Banning Cocq, with his red sash and sword, and Lieutenant Willem van Ruijtenburch, with his sunlit yellow uniform, upon which the Captain's hand, giving marching orders to the assembled company, casts its shadow. Frans Banning Cocq was the child of an immigrant from Bremen, who, according to the records, was initially forced to beg in order to survive, but was later able to improve his circumstances by working for a chemist. His son studied, became a Doctor of Law, and was soon a respected member of Amsterdam society. His marriage to the daughter of the mayor, whose considerable wealth he inherited at the age of twenty-five, gave him financial independence and paved his way to high political office in Amsterdam.

Frans Hals
Banquet of the Officers of the St George Civic Guard Company
Oil on canvas, 179 x 257,5 cm
Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem

A static configuration would have made hierarchical structures more conspicuous. Here they are obscured by synchronizing temporally unrelated incidents, creating the impression of a great variety of un-coordinated movements and impulsive actions.

Rembrandt's Night Watch breaks with an older genre of militia company paintings, of which there were two main types: the banquet group portrait, particularly associated with Frans Hals, and the full-length civic guard portrait, in which the sitters would usually be shown parading, with guns and unfurled company banner, in brightly coloured officer's uniforms. A characteristic of earlier examples of the genre was their arrangement of figures according to the principle of iso-cephaly - showing them all the same height - as seen in works by Dirck Jacobsz (Company of Captain Dirck Jacobsz) and Cornelis Anthonisz (Banquet of Members of Amsterdam's Crossbow Civic Guard).
It was not until the early seventeenth century that this schematic arrangement of figures became less rigid and began to accommodate the idea of narrative. Compositions which had hitherto stressed fraternal equality within the militia company now began to emphasise its hierarchy, gradually transforming the genre of the "doelenstuk" into the history painting. This is anticipated by the prominence given to the officers in Thomas de Keyser's Militia Company of Captain Allaert Cloeck. Rembrandt adapts these formal developments to his own ends, animating the configural arrangement as a "whole. Furthermore, he imparts to the setting a dignity and grandeur otherwise considered the exclusive preserve of the ruling class. He does this partly, it seems, by inventing the architecture in the background himself, since the arch cannot be identified as one of Amsterdam's city gates.

Dirck Jacobsz
Company of Captain Dirck Jacobsz
Rosecrans and Lieutenant Pauw, Amsterdam


Cornelis Anthonisz
Banquet of Members of Amsterdam's Crossbow Civic Guard

Historisch Museum, Amsterdam


Thomas de Keyser
The Militia Company of Captain Allaert Cloeck
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


It has never been disputed that Rembrandt attempted to break down boundaries between the portrait and the history painting (considered the highest in the hierarchy of genre paintings at the time), in other words, that the so-called Night Watch refers to a particular event in history. The event to which the painting alludes has never been established, however. According to one tentative hypothesis, the painting shows the guards assembling to escort Queen Henrietta Maria of England on 20th May 1642. In this case, the subject of the painting would be an event which took place in the same year as the painting was executed. Another theory suggests the painting may refer to the state visit to Amsterdam of Maria de' Medici in September 1638. Whatever the correct answer, it is apparent that Rembrandt's purpose here is to impart nobility to his bourgeois clientele by showing them as historical agents, a role hitherto considered above their station. In so doing, he is not far from illustrating Shakespeare's dictum: "There is a history in all men's lives" (Henry IV, Act III, 1, 80-81). Ennobling his subject, however, does not mean depriving his figures of their spontaneity, a quality indicating bourgeois lack of restraint: a musket going off behind the Lieutenant, for example, or a man loading a gun, another beating a drum or boisterous children dressed in a burlesque martial style.
Turbulence was an essential component of Baroque history painting. Leon Battista Alberti had defined the guiding principle of the genre as "varieta": diversity of movement, gesture and pose. In coordinating elements aesthetically that were not coordinated historically, Rembrandt gave shape in painting to a principle which had been postulated for drama in contemporary French Classical poetics, namely the unities of time, place and action (later summarised by Pierre Corneille in his "Discours des trois unites", 1660).
The spontaneity of the figures in the painting initially suggests their autonomy, their democratic freedom from constaint. Closer scrutiny reveals the opposite, however. Unlike earlier examples of the "doelenstuk", Rembrandt's composition stresses the dominant positions of the Captain and the Lieutenant. In an original, uncut version of the painting, which has survived in the form of a copy by Gerrit Lundens (London, National Gallery), the emphasis was even more obvious. Here, the action - the assembly and departure of the guard - tapers to a formal conclusion in the figures of the company's two leaders (disregarding the artist's use of lighting, the device is convincingly revealed in Schmidt-Degener's reconstruction of the basic plan of the composition).
Paradoxically, the society depicted here appears to allow the unrestrained expression of individuality, and yet, at the same time, its structure remains rigidly hierarchical. With the old feudal system shaken off, hierarchical structures continued to exist, only now they were based on a consensus achieved by the new principles of bourgeois democracy. The problem was how to reconcile the new power structures with individual freedom of development.



A Well-Guarded Painting

The fascination of The Night Watch

The Company of Captain Trans Banning Cocq)

How the drum beats.
How the pipe trills,
How trumpets also,
   and shawms,
   and kettle-drums sound,
O see
How fresh the flag flutters.
May your hearts
Leap light for joy.

Johannes Grab, Soldier's Song, seventeenth century

Pulsating with life — a drum is beaten, a dog barks, lances and muskets are raised, a flag is flown, children run about in all directions — The Night Watch is regarded as the masterpiece of the great Dutch painter Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn. The only oddity is that the subject of the painting is not a night watch. The title emerged towards the close of the eighteenth century after the many layers of varnish coating the surface of the painting had considerably darkened. The gloom thus produced led to the idea that the scene was captured at night. The original title of the painting was The Company of Captain Trans Banning Cocq. Instead of depicting a night watch, it is a group portrait of Amsterdam militia men. At the time it was painted, Amsterdam was Europe's leading mercantile city, with three civic militias. They called themselves The Crossbowmen, The Longbowmen and The Guild of Arquebusiers after the weapons the men of their companies had borne in the Middle Ages. The militias recruited members from the pool of men in their city fit for military service, while each district had its own company. In times of war and unrest, the militias fulfilled the function of protecting the community. Before Rembrandt's time, their duties included patrolling the ramparts of the city and mounting guard at its gates.
In 1633 Rembrandt settled permanently in Amsterdam. The civic militias still retained something of their military character, although by then theirs was predominantly a social function. The traditional guilds with their historic past represented different sections of the city, sometimes marking political factions, and their members paraded at civic festivities. Commissioned in 1640 by the Amsterdam Arquebusiers to paint their group portrait, Rembrandt probably portrayed the members before they were to participate in a traditional parade, which may have been held in celebration of the visit of the French Queen, Marie de' Medici, in 1638. Contemporary sources show that the queen was welcomed by the marksmen's guilds and was accompanied by them in a ceremonial parade to a lavish feast in the festival hall of a guild house. Rembrandt's company of men was possibly depicted early tn the morning of this royal visit. Led by their captain, Frans Banning Cocq, a reputable Antwerp merchant, the guild members seem to be about to take leave to greet the French queen outside the city. The large painting with its life-sized figures most likely hung in the festival hall of the Arquebusiers' guild house. In 1715 it was transferred to Antwerp's Town Hall. Because it was too large for the space it was to occupy there, it was promptly cut down to size.

Klaus Reichold, Bernhard Graf


Man in a Golden Helmet
Oil on canvas, 67,5 x 50,7 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Alejandro Magno


The Polish Rider
Oil on canvas, 114,9 x 135 cm
Frick Collection, New York


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