The story behind Rembrandt's masterpiece: The Night Watch

Part 1

Rembrandt van Rijn obviously needs no introduction. The Night Watch, on the other hand, could benefit from a brief explanation. The Dutch master’s most famous painting has been through quite an ordeal.

Chances are you’ve been to the Rijksmuseum to see Rembrandt’s masterpiece in the flesh. A beautiful painting with a very interesting story behind it.

The creation of The Night Watch

The Night Watch, completed in 1642, has had to endure much during its more than three centuries of existence. The Night Watch is only a nickname, and is actually titled Schutters van wijk II (Militia) led by Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, after the people depicted in the scene. In the eighteenth century, however, the painting was nicknamed The Night Watch because of its dark colour, which of course is more palatable. However, the nickname is not accurate; the painting is intended to depict a scene in daylight.

The Night Watch is a militia piece depicting a group of archers. The archers were a kind of voluntary police force of citizens in Golden Age Amsterdam. Being an archer was like being a member of a network club, and the archers liked to be portrayed in full regalia (perhaps early influencers?). The specific group in this painting chose Rembrandt for this commission and paid him approximately 1600 guilders, which may seem little to us now, but this was about six times the annual salary for the average workman of the age.

The Night Watch, however, is not a typical militia piece. The classical militia painting is more reminiscent of a group picture, for the militia are all seated around a table having a meal. In The Night Watch, the company of marksmen is depicted more theatrically. The representation is also more mysterious. The light, for instance, draws your attention to a small girl, who is possibly a symbol for the archers.


In the next post (part 2) ; The Adventures of the Night Watch


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