the night watch
The group portrait, often called a “corporate portrait”, was uniquely Dutch and often as huge as a modern billboard. rembrandt painted this large canvas between 1640 and 1642 commissioned by the musketeer branch of a civic militia, a wealthy segment of amsterdam society. any of the members could be assigned to guard the gates, watch the streets, put out fires, and keep order. their presence was also required at parades to visit royalty and other festive occasions. Rather than use the accepted standard convention of a stately, formal pose, such as lining up in rows or sitting at a banquet, he presented a boisterous, semi-confused scene of members preparing for an event. The painting is also known as The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem Van Ruytenburch, after the men who are brightly lit and advancing in the center of the foreground. there was no set standard for dress in the military, so outfits could be quite elaborate. Captain Cocq, a citizen educated in law and prosperous by marriage, is elegantly dressed in black with a large lace collar and a deep red sash trimmed with gold around his chest. Captain Van Ruytenburch, from a family of shopkeepers, has a more dazzling suit: a stunning golden coat made of yellow leather trimmed with elegant French laces and rich patterns, accessorized with gloves and spurred knight boots. this painting is believed to have been hung low and the two near-life-size central figures would have appeared to step out of the composition as the other participants gathered to follow. As with other group paintings, Rembrandt incorporated details that defined the identity and purpose of its members. for example, to the viewer’s left behind the men is a small female figure, also heavily illuminated. she is identified as a mascot, bearing the main symbols of the group: the claws of a dead chicken representing a defeated enemy, a pistol representing the klover, his primary weapon, and a golden drinking horn. in the rear, a group of men, armed with a series of weapons, dressed in various pieces of armor and helmets, gather before a huge but imaginary arch that represented the gate of the city that had to be defended. on the left, the standard bearer, dressed in blue, raises the troop banner while on the far right the men hold their pikes aloft. A hired drummer, shown partially to our right, plays a cadenza as a dog barks excitedly at his feet. several other participants, included to add to the activity and drama, are in the background with their faces obscured or partially visible. However, a figure wearing a beret looking up from behind a helmeted figure near the standard bearer has been identified as Rembrandt himself. rembrandt was at the height of his career when he painted this ambitious painting, which was a success at the time and is still considered one of his most celebrated works. the critic clement greenberg once defined premodern painting as the struggle against confinement in two dimensions. the night watch certainly seems to burst from the canvas, a virtuoso of baroque vigour, dramatic intensity and powerful lighting.
oil on canvas – rijksmuseum, amsterdam