Home News Life How Operation Night Watch should unravel the mysteries behind Rembrandt’s militia piece

How Operation Night Watch should unravel the mysteries behind Rembrandt’s militia piece

11 min read

The shooters at Rembrandt’s The Night Watch exhibit age-related ailments. With Operation Night Watch, they will soon be polished before the eyes of the public. But before the time comes, the painting will first be extensively researched to find out more about its history.

Undressed, that’s the word. Looking at a frameless Night Watch (1642), looking at a painting without clothes is a nude painting. And just like people, that makes them vulnerable. The Night Watch is an old man whose body, drawn by the 376 years, needs care. An operation was needed, Operation Night Watch.

Operation Nachtwacht is a large-scale, if not the largest-scale (material-technical) research project into Rembrandt’s famous painting to date. A project that will take place in a special glass room for the public; Monday morning was the kick-off. Twenty-five experts are involved. Art historians, natural scientists, technical researchers, someone with an understanding of artificial intelligence. They come from, among others, the Rijksmuseum, the Amsterdam Museum, the TU Delft, and the University of Amsterdam. The duration of the project depends on the outcome of the research. The research itself costs at least nine months.

During that period, De Nachtwacht occupies its own glass house. It is protected by a four-meter-high glass fence designed by architect Jean Michel Wilmotte (the cage of Dr. Hannibal “the cannibal” Lecter comes to mind), and hangs on a donkey that can be moved in any direction, including forwards. Before: two scissor lifts, one for the equipment and one for the restorers. The entourage is indispensable, thinks restorer and coordinator of Operation Nightwatch Susan Smelt: “You don’t want to be surprised halfway.”

It was clear from the start that the restoration would take place in the hall, says Gregor Weber, head of Visual Arts at the Rijksmuseum. The Night Watch is too important, if you want: too iconic to stay behind the scenes for a long time. Visitors expect the work to hang in the room. Moreover: a public restoration offers the possibility to keep the public informed of the most recent findings of the researchers. Operation Nachtwacht fits in with a long series of projects in which a famous work of art is examined and restored for the watchful eye of the visitors. Jan van Eycks The Lamb of God (Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent) and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel (Saint Peter’s) are the best known in that series.

The timing is successful, Weber believes. Although Rembrandt’s militia piece “tomorrow will not fall apart”, it is still important that Operation Nightwatch starts right now. After all, 2019 is Rembrandt year. And Captain Frans Banninck Cocq and his colleagues show old age ailments. Scars from a stabbing party from the seventies, darkening retouches from later decades: they undeniably catch the eye. The base layer that bleeds through the Cocq’s suit and gives the black fabric the appearance of an H & M after three washes: it too can no longer be ignored. Something has to be done about it. The painting will be examined before the time comes.

This screening is unprecedentedly comprehensive. The latest research methods are used, such as: high-resolution photography, hyperspectral imaging and, for fun on the scrabble board, macro-X-ray fluorescence scanning. 12,500 high resolution photos will be taken, some up to the thousandth of a millimeter, and 56 Macros XRF scans at 24 hours per scan. With the latter, the chemical elements in the paint can be analyzed, and thus the pigments used by Rembrandt. It is not data collection to data collection, assures Susan Smelt.

The new information must lead to a better understanding of the condition of the painting, as well as its restoration history and creation: how did Rembrandt design his most ambitious work? Where did he change the composition? Which parts did he paint himself, and where did he get assistance from (former) students? They are answerable questions, says Gregor Weber. The new data combined with a connoisseur’s eye will bring those answers closer, he expects.

According to Weber, more insight into the material side of the painting can also shed new light on iconography, albeit at a detailed level. Of course, The Night Watch proposes a group of shooters who are getting ready to march, that lecture will probably not change anything, but the interpretation of the individual figures is certainly under discussion. The little girl (probably a mascot) is known, for example, that she once wore a feather, but that it was later painted away. And by finding out whether or not that feather was conceived by Rembrandt himself, we get a sharper picture of what exactly he had in mind with this figure.

Another thing that people hope to learn more about is what was done with the piece after completion. Have additions been made by other painters to mention something? One such optional addition concerns the cartouche with the names of the shooters above the gate. This is not on a copy made by Gerrit Lundens of De Nachtwacht (1642-55), which argues that it is a supplement. But it is again on the signing of that copy, which in turn could indicate that the cartouche was indeed painted by Rembrandt himself. Provisional status: we don’t know. Thorough research can help solve small mysteries like these.

Perhaps the most intriguing question concerns the lost pieces of The Night Watch: have they been preserved, and if so, where are they? As known, the painting was made to measure for its new home during the relocation of the Kloveniersdoelen to the City Hall (now: Royal Palace) in 1715. That is, parts were cut off.

According to Weber, we cannot automatically assume that those parts were lost. It is conceivable that the restorers on duty, including painters themselves, reused them for their own work. That could mean that those fragments of The Night Watch are now hanging somewhere on the wall. To trace them, the wire structure of the paintings of the painters active there around 1715 (three) should be compared with De Nachtwacht’s own wire structure. But first: the research itself.

Restorer Smelt remains sober under it. For her, De Nachtwacht is “just a painting”. She has never fantasized in the past that she would ever be co-responsible for its restoration. The Twentse has few memories of it anyway. “As a child I did not know about De Nachtwacht. I only learned about it during my art history study. “

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