The Rijksmuseum discovers the genesis of Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’ in a sketch under oil | Culture


The night watch, the famous painting painted by Rembrandt in 1642, has an initial sketch under the definitive work painted by the artist. It is the origin of the composition, never seen until now, and has been discovered in the course of the research phase of the so-called Operation The Night Watch, designed to delve into the artist’s work method to refine its subsequent restoration and conservation. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which exhibits the Golden Age canvas in its permanent collection, unveiled the find this Wednesday along with another less joyous one. The upper left part is deformed due to the time it hung in another room during the restoration of the gallery, between 2003 and 2013. It will be necessary to detach it from its wooden frame and adjust it to another more stable support to avoid further damage.

The notes made by Rembrandt in The night watch they are “the chalk map of the work, and it is as if we were together with the artist when he was working,” explained Peter Roelofs, head of painting and sculpture at the Rijksmuseum, in the presentation of the results of the study this Wednesday, carried out by videoconference. The expert added: “We always suspect that he made a sketch before executing a composition as complex as The night watch. We have looked better than ever below the surface and we have the proof; it is fascinating”. For Taco Dibbits, director of the museum, the sketch means “discovering the genesis of the painting”.

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Chalk, which has calcium carbonate in its composition, was the main element present in some pigments, and with the help of a scanner it has been seen where there are white lines, but not in the black areas. Experts knew that Rembrandt first applied a brown coating to the fabric. Now they have verified that “in the upper part he used a beige paint with a high content of chalk in the straight and curved lines. The second are for the architectural area of ​​the work ”, continues Roelofs. Rembrandt made some changes and painted elements that he later discarded following his method of work, “which consisted of developing the composition as a whole as he advanced with the brush,” he adds. He made later alterations, discovered as early as the 1970s.

Thanks to the new techniques used in this operation – among them, high resolution photography with 3D images and scanning with fluorescent rays to reach all the layers of paint without damaging it – several more have emerged. Like the feathers on the helmet of a member of the urban militia portrayed, which eventually disappeared; the change of position of the leg of another of the characters, or the number of spears, of which he painted less. A pigment with arsenic has also been found, little associated with his palette: he used it for the bulk dough applied to the embroidered clothing of Willem van Ruytenburg, one of the protagonists. “This pigment was used in seventeenth century still lifes and in Italian painting, but we had not seen it in the Dutch master,” says the same expert.

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Image extracted by scanner of the square where the calcium imprint is seen.
Image extracted by scanner of the square where the calcium imprint is seen.

The state of conservation of the canvas itself will be addressed in the second phase of the Operation Night Watch, and the most urgent thing is to repair the deformation of the upper left part. There are also abrasions due to the different treatments and varnishes applied over the years. And something striking in the color of the dog that accompanies the characters. The researcher and his team thought that the tone had deteriorated due to the formation of crystals in the paint. “But we have discovered that it is also due to the abrasion of their layers, which have been lost. That is why the dog is much more subdued than the artist intended ”.

As of January 19, 2022, the canvas will be adjusted to another frame, a very delicate task. “Everything we’ve learned from Rembrandt’s creative process will allow us to approach his other works in a different way: we know what to look for,” said Petria Noble, the museum’s chief curator of paintings. Caring for the condition of the fabric is the structural part, “and while we carry it out, we will decide how to proceed so that it reaches future generations in good condition,” said Roelofs.

Detail of the dog deteriorated by the passage of time.
Detail of the dog deteriorated by the passage of time.

The night watch it is actually titled The Military Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburg, which are the two central figures of the group of harquebusiers that accompany them. They went out during the day to carry out their surveillance mission, but the shadows that surround him now are due to the varnish, darkened with time. It is a monumental canvas, 3.79 meters long by 4.36 meters high, and weighs, without frame, 170 kilos. In 1715, he was taken from the headquarters of this civic guard to the Amsterdam City Hall. They did not calculate the measurements well and cut it out. Three characters were lost on the left side and several portions of the upper area and on the right. Last June, the Rijksmuseum presented the reconstruction of the fragments cut in 1715. With the help of artificial intelligence, data from a copy of the painting, attributed to Gerrit Lundens, was combined with the original by Rembrandt. The result was a digital reproduction of the pieces made in high resolution that was embedded, varnished and for a few months, in the original without damaging it.

‘The standard bearer’

After the discovery, it has been known that the Dutch State will allocate 150 million euros for a purchase offer of The standard bearer, a canvas by the painter in the hands of the French branch of the Rothschild family, whose lineage links them to the British nobility, as well as to the financial sector. The French government is ready to allow its export, and the acting Cabinet of the Netherlands hopes to have parliamentary support for the operation. Painted in 1636, The standard bearer It is considered the most important work of Rembrandt in a private collection, and in 2019 it was valued at 165 million euros. The remaining money will be provided by the Dutch Rembrandt Association and the Rijksmuseum Fund. The standard bearers led the troops that fought in the Eighty Years’ War (the Flanders War) that ended up leading to the birth of the Netherlands and Belgium, and the artist portrays himself as one of them.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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