Tag Archives: Rembrandt

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.

Psst. Hey, Buddy — Wanna Buy a Rembrandt?

Cellini's salt cellar (c. 1540)  Kunsthistorisches, Vienna

Cellini's salt cellar (c. 1540) Kunsthistorisches, Vienna

Scaffolding had been erected on the exterior of the Kunsthistorisches, Vienna’s famed art museum, to facilitate sandblasting of the facade.  The scaffolding also provided a convenient way for an art thief to enter a second-story window at 4 a.m. on May 11, 2003.  His break-in triggered a motion-sensing device, alerting a museum guard to get out of his chair and shut off the alarm without investigating further.  The thief, who perhaps coincidentally was a security-alarm salesman, smashed a glass case and removed its contents:  a gold and ebony sculpture valued at approximately $50 million.  Crafted in the 1540s by Benvenuto Cellini and known as the Saliera (salt cellar), it’s the last surviving work in gold by that artist — over the centuries, the others had been melted down.

It was feared that might be the fate of this sculpture as well, but Robert Mang seemed to know that the object was worth far more than its salvage value.  He kept it for a couple of years under his bed; eventually he buried it in a lead box in a forest outside Vienna.  Mang then sent a ransom note to the museum’s insurance company, demanding 10 million euros.  A cat-and-mouse game ensued; Herr Mang used cell phones to send text messages to set up a clandestine meeting.  He was eventually caught because an electronics store security camera recorded him buying a cell phone that was used by the thief to send text messages.  The Cellini salt cellar was recovered, relatively unharmed, on January 21, 2006.

In this instance the motive for the theft was financial gain, but that hasn’t always been the case with stolen art.  In August, 1911, the Mona Lisa — yeah, the world’s most famous painting — was taken off a wall in the Louvre.  The thief had gotten in on a Monday, when the museum was closed to the public.  He seems to have blended in with cleaning crews and other staff, then snatched the painting, leaving its frame in a staircase.  As you might imagine, a frenzy of police investigation ensued, and among those questioned about Mona’s disappearance was a young Spanish painter named Pablo Picasso.

He had nothing to do with it; the thief turned out to be a former Louvre employee of Italian descent.  In 1913, Vicenzo Peruggia made contact with an art dealer in Florence, admitting that he had stolen La Gioconda (as Mona is sometimes known) in order to restore to Italy what had been stolen from it by Napoleon.  The art dealer met with the thief, who produced the painting from a trunk in his hotel room.  The art dealer was a bit of a con man himself, apparently.  He (and the director of the Uffizi Gallery, who was with him) convinced the thief that they would need to compare the painting to other known works by Leonardo to verify its authenticity.  Peruggia let them walk out the door with the Mona Lisa, and he was apprehended by police soon thereafter.  The Louvre got its star attraction back on December 30, 1913.

The motive behind the biggest art theft in history remains unclear because the case remains unsolved.  In the early hours after St. Patrick’s Day, 1990, two guys in police uniforms pounded on the door of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.  They told the museum guard that there had been reports of a disturbance on the grounds and that they needed to investigate.  Within minutes that hapless guard and his colleague were both in handcuffs and gagged.  The thieves spent over an hour gathering loot, which included a masterpiece by Vermeer and three works by Rembrandt.  One of the latter, “Storm On The Sea of Galilee”, is his only known seascape.  Other art works were taken as well; the value of the total haul is at least $300 million.  

There have been occasional leads in the case, but as of this date they have all proven to be dead ends.  So if you happen to be invited to the mansion of an underworld titan and notice an original Rembrandt seascape over the mantel, you might want to slip out and call the FBI.  The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is offering a $5 million reward to get its artwork back.  Just think — for that kind of money, you could make a down payment on your own Rembrandt!