The Night Watch

This article is about the Rembrandt painting. For other uses, see Night Watch.
The Night Watch
Dutch: De Nachtwacht
Artist Rembrandt van Rijn
Year 1642 (1642)
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 363 cm × 437 cm (142.9 in × 172.0 in)
Location Amsterdam Museum on permanent loan to the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Website Amsterdam Collection online

Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq,[1] also known as The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch, but commonly referred to as The Night Watch (Dutch: De Nachtwacht), is a 1642 painting by Rembrandt van Rijn. It is in the collection of the Amsterdam Museum but is prominently displayed in the Rijksmuseum as the best known painting in its collection. The Night Watch is one of the most famous Dutch Golden Age paintings and is window 16 in the Canon of Amsterdam.

Key elements

The painting is renowned for three characteristics: its colossal size (363 cm × 437 cm (11.91 ft × 14.34 ft)), the effective use of light and shadow (tenebrism) and the perception of motion in what would have traditionally been a static military portrait.

The painting was completed in 1642, at the peak of the Dutch Golden Age. It depicts the eponymous company moving out, led by Captain Frans Banning Cocq (dressed in black, with a red sash) and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch (dressed in yellow, with a white sash). With effective use of sunlight and shade, Rembrandt leads the eye to the three most important characters among the crowd: the two gentlemen in the centre (from whom the painting gets its original title), and the small girl in the centre-left background. Behind them, the company's colours are carried by the ensign, Jan Visscher Cornelissen.

Rembrandt has displayed the traditional emblem of the arquebusiers in a natural way, with the girl in the background carrying the main symbols. She is a kind of mascot herself; the claws of a dead chicken on her belt represent the clauweniers (arquebusiers), the pistol behind the chicken represents clover and she is holding the militia's goblet. The man in front of her is wearing a helmet with an oak leaf, a traditional motif of the arquebusiers. The dead chicken is also meant to represent a defeated adversary. The colour yellow is often associated with victory.

Another interpretation proposes that Rembrandt designed this painting with several layers of meaning, as was common among the most talented artists. Thus, the Night Watch is symmetrically divided, firstly to illustrate the union between the Dutch Protestants and the Dutch Catholics, and secondly to evoke the war effort against the Spaniards. For instance, according to Rembrandt's multilayered design, the taller captain (in black) symbolizes the Dutch Protestant leadership, loyally supported by the Dutch Catholics (represented by the shorter lieutenant, in yellow). Moreover, all characters of this painting were conceived to present double readings.[2]

One of the most important aspects of the Night Watch is that the figures are nearly human size. Rembrandt gives the illusion that the characters jump off the canvas and into real space.

Alterations to original

18th century copy with indication of the areas cut down in 1715.

For much of its existence, the painting was coated with a dark varnish, which gave the incorrect impression that it depicted a night scene, leading to the name by which it is now commonly known. This varnish was removed only in the 1940s.

In 1715, upon its removal from the Kloveniersdoelen to the Amsterdam Town Hall, the painting was trimmed on all four sides. This was done, presumably, to fit the painting between two columns and was a common practice before the 19th century. This alteration resulted in the loss of two characters on the left side of the painting, the top of the arch, the balustrade, and the edge of the step. This balustrade and step were key visual tools used by Rembrandt to give the painting a forward motion. A 17th-century copy of the painting by Gerrit Lundens at the National Gallery, London shows the original composition.[3]

Painting's commission

The painting was commissioned (around 1639) by Captain Banning Cocq and seventeen members of his Kloveniers (civic militia guards).[4] Eighteen names appear on a shield, painted circa 1715, in the centre right background, as the hired drummer was added to the painting for free.[5] A total of 34 characters appear in the painting. Rembrandt was paid 1,600 guilders for the painting (each person paid one hundred), a large sum at the time. This was one of a series of seven similar paintings of the militiamen (Dutch: 'Schuttersstuk') commissioned during that time from various artists.

The painting was commissioned to hang in the banquet hall of the newly built Kloveniersdoelen (Musketeers' Meeting Hall) in Amsterdam. Some have suggested that the occasion for Rembrandt's commission and the series of other commissions given to other artists was the visit of the French queen, Marie de Medici, in 1638. Even though she was escaping from her exile from France ordered by her son Louis XIII, the queen's arrival was met with great pageantry.


The Night Watch as it hung in the Trippenhuis in 1885, by August Jernberg

The Night Watch first hung in the Groote Zaal (Great Hall) or Amsterdam's Kloveniersdoelen. This structure currently houses the Doelen Hotel. In 1715, the painting was moved to the Amsterdam Town Hall, for which it was altered. When Napoleon occupied the Netherlands, the Town Hall became the Palace on the Dam and the magistrates moved the painting to the Trippenhuis of the family Trip. Napoleon ordered it returned, but after the occupation ended in 1813, the painting again moved to the Trippenhuis, which now housed the Dutch Academy of Sciences. It remained there until it moved to the new Rijksmuseum when its building was finished in 1885.

The Night Watch rolled around a cylinder inside a crate. The canvas would be stored in this condition throughout the long war years.

The painting was removed from the museum in September 1939, at the onset of World War II. The canvas was detached from its frame and rolled around a cylinder. The rolled painting was stored in Radboud Castle in Medemblik, north of Amsterdam.[6] After the end of the war, the canvas was re-mounted, restored, and returned to its rightful place in the Rijksmuseum.

On 11 December 2003 The Night Watch started its move to a temporary location, due to a major refurbishment of the Rijksmuseum. The painting was detached from its frame, wrapped in stain-free paper, put into a wooden frame which was put into two sleeves, driven on a cart to its new destination, hoisted, and brought into its new home through a special slit.

While the refurbishment took place, The Night Watch could be viewed in its temporary location in the Philipsvleugel of the Rijksmuseum. When the refurbishment was finished in April 2013, the painting was returned to its original place in the Nachtwachtzaal (Room of the Night Watch).

A persistent misconception is that Rembrandt's decline in popularity was the result of negative public reception of the painting. The myth has even made its way into modern advertising; in 1967, KLM featured the painting in an advertisement that said, "See Night Watch, Rembrandt's spectacular 'failure' (that caused him to be) hooted... down the road to bankruptcy." The myth has no reasonable origin as there is no record of criticism of the painting in Rembrandt's lifetime, and Captain Cocq even commissioned a watercolor of it for his personal album.

It is more likely that the decline in the artist's popularity was not the result of reaction to any one painting but to a broader change in taste. During the 1640s, wealthy patrons began to prefer the bright colors and graceful manner that had been initiated by such painters as the Flemish portraitist Anthony van Dyck.

Acts of vandalism

Newsreel of the restoration in 1975

On 13 January 1911 a man slashed the painting with a shoemaker's knife.

The work was attacked with a bread knife by an unemployed school teacher on 14 September 1975, resulting in several large zig-zagged slashes. It was successfully restored after four years, but some evidence of the damage is still visible up close. The man was never charged and committed suicide in a mental institution in April 1976.

On 6 April 1990 a man sprayed acid onto the painting with a concealed pump bottle. Security guards intervened and water was quickly sprayed onto the canvas. The acid had only penetrated the varnish layer of the painting and it was fully restored.[7]

Cultural legacy

New LED illumination

On 26 October 2011, the Rijksmuseum unveiled new, sustainable LED lighting for The Night Watch. With new technology, it is the first time LED lighting has been able to render the fine nuances of the painting's complex color palette.

The new illumination uses LED lights with a color temperature of 3,200 kelvin, similar to warm-white light sources like tungsten halogen. It has a color rendering index of over 90, which makes it suitable for the illumination of artifacts such as The Night Watch. Using the new LED lighting, the museum saves 80% on energy and offers the painting a safer environment because of the absence of UV radiation and heat.

Other representations

The sculptures of the Night Watch in 3D at the Rembrandtplein in Amsterdam in 2006–2009


  1. Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq at The original Dutch: Schutters van wijk II onder leiding van kapitein Frans Banninck Cocq
  2. Oliveira, Paulo Martins The Dutch Company (online paper: 2013. Retrieved 2014-10-02.
  3. "The Company of Captain Banning Cocq ('The Nightwatch')". Retrieved 2013-02-19.
  4. D.C. Meijer Jr “De Amsterdamsche Schutters-stukken in en buiten het nieuwe Rijksmuseum,” In: Oud Holland 2, no. 4 (1886): 198–21 Translated in English by Tom van der Molen
  5. "Rembrandt's Night Watch Unravelled: Identity of All the Militiamen Are Finally Revealed". ArtDaily. 14 March 2009. Retrieved 2013-02-19.
  6. Nicholas, Lynn H. (May 1995) [1994]. The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War. New York City: Vintage Books. ISBN 978-0-679-40069-1. OCLC 32531154.
  7. "Rembrandt's 'Night Watch' Painting Vandalized". Los Angeles Times. Associated Press. 6 April 1990. Retrieved 2013-02-19.
  8. Night Watch (Terry Pratchett) Easter Egg – Night Watch Cover
  9. BBC – h2g2 – Paul Kidby – Discworld Illustrator
  10. Book: Night Watch – Discworld & Terry Pratchett Wiki
  11. "About NW3D". Niveau. Spring 2004. Retrieved 2013-02-19.
  12. "Onze helden zijn terug!". Rijksmuseum. 1 Apr 2013. Retrieved 2013-04-07.
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