Larger Than Life

Rembrandt van Rijn, "Night Watch" (1642)

An acquaintance of mine brought his mother out to California for the first time when she was in her late 70s.  She had lived in rural Indiana all her life, never traveling more than a few miles from her home.  Richard drove her to Santa Monica so she could see the Pacific Ocean;  they took in the magnificent vista of blue ocean stretching as far as the eye can see.  Eventually Richard asked, “Well, Mom, what do you think?”  She considered a moment and then replied, “I thought it would be bigger.”

I had the opposite reaction when I saw Rembrandt’s most famous painting at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam:  I hadn’t realized how big it was.  We’ve all seen reproductions of the painting popularly known as “Night Watch”, but when you see it printed on a page, somehow the dimensions — 11’10” x 14’4″ — don’t sink in.  Try this comparison:  football goal posts are 10 feet high by 18½ feet wide.  The painting isn’t quite as wide, but it’s taller.

“Night Watch” is so big, I couldn’t help but wonder how Rembrandt painted it — what was the physical process?  You certainly don’t put a canvas that size on a conventional easel.  Did he work on a ladder for hours at a time?  After I got over the technical challenges  its massive size must have presented, I began to appreciate the artistic details, and it is loaded with them.

Rembrandt van Rijn painted “The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch” in 1642; it didn’t get dubbed “Night Watch” until many years later.  The painting was a commission from that particular band of Civic Guards.  There were many such groups in Amsterdam which had their origins in defending the city — they were, in effect, militia.  By the mid-seventeenth century, though, the Civic Guards were primarily social organizations.  The members got together to drink, shoot, and march in parades.

That means the subjects of this group portrait were not on watch, in the sense of providing security — and the scene isn’t really at night, either.  Layers of smoke and varnish accumulated over time, darkening the painting.  When it was cleaned in 1946, the sunshine reappeared.

Captain Cocq is the central figure; he’s the guy dressed in black, with the red sash.  Lieutenant van Ruytenburch is in yellow — he seems to be getting marching orders from the captain;  members of the Civic Guard surround their leaders.  Other group portraits of these fraternal organizations by other (lesser) painters had the subjects lined up stiffly and staring out at the viewer.  Rembrandt’s painting was admired then and now because his composition is so unusual — the subjects are in motion, almost as if this is a snapshot of them.

The weird little girl in the middle of the picture is not a member of the Civic Guard, obviously, so why did Rembrandt “light” her in a way that makes her so prominent?  Apparently the dead chicken on her waistband and the goblet she’s holding are metaphorical symbols of Captain Cocq’s group; she seems to be a sort of mascot or figurehead.

Because of its huge size, one can stand and study it for a long time.  It’s hard to imagine, but the painting used to be even bigger.  When it was moved to the Amsterdam Town Hall in 1715, some knucklehead lopped off part of the painting so it would fit between columns.

Oh, and by the way — the disappointingly small Pacific Ocean is a mere 64 million square miles, give or take.

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One response to “Larger Than Life

  1. A postscript: In October 2011, the Rijksmuseum installed new LED lights to illuminate the painting. It is now lit more evenly, approximating daylight. Art experts say the view is now much closer to its original appearance, and background features that were once obscured are now able to be seen.

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