The Night Watch

The Night Watch

The Night Watch
Dutch: De Nachtwacht
Artist Rembrandt van Rijn
Year 1642 (1642)
Type 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.


  • Key elements 1
  • Alterations to original 2
  • Painting's commission 3
  • Location 4
  • Popular reception 5
  • Acts of vandalism 6
  • Cultural legacy 7
  • New LED illumination 8
  • Other representations 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11

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 (chiaroscuro), 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 the painting in a natural way: the girl in yellow dress in the background is 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 stands for '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, accordingly 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]

Alterations to original

17th 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 at the time from her exile from France by her son Louis XIII her arrival was met with great pageantry.


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 went to the Trippenhuis, which now housed the Dutch Academy of Sciences. 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 December 11, 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).

Popular reception

A persistent misconception is that Rembrandt's decline in popularity was due to a 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 which 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 due not to 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 January 13, 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 September 14, 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 April 6, 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

  • The work has inspired musical works in both the classical and rock traditions, including the second movement of Gustav Mahler's 7th Symphony and Ayreon's "The Shooting Company of Captain Frans B. Cocq" from Universal Migrator Part 1: The Dream Sequencer.
  • Alexander Korda's 1936 biographical film Rembrandt depicts the painting, shown in error in its truncated form, as a failure at its completion, perceived as lampooning its outraged subjects.
  • In King Crimson's song The Night Watch, on its 1974 album Starless and Bible Black, the lyricist Richard Palmer-James muses on the painting to capture a key period in Dutch history, when, after a long period of “Spanish Wars”, the merchants and other members of the bourgeoisie can turn their lives inward and focus on the tangible results of their lives’ efforts. The song adopts a number of perspectives, including the primary subjects, the artist himself, and a modern viewer of the painting, and paints a mini-portrait of the emergence of the modern upper-middle class and the consumerist culture. However, the song presents this portrait with a deft touch, and while not fully approving, is sympathetic in tone.
  • In Jean-Luc Godard's 1982 film, Passion, The Night Watch is reenacted with live actors in an opening shot. Godard explicitly compares his film to Rembrandt's painting, describing them both as "full of holes and badly-filled spaces". He instructs the viewer not to focus on the overall composition, but to approach his film as one would a Rembrandt and "focus on the faces".
  • The Night Watch is a major plot device in the eponymous 1995 film, Night Watch, which focuses on the painting's theft.
  • The Night Watch is parodied on the British cover of Terry Pratchett's 2002 book by the same name. The cover illustrator, Paul Kidby, pays tribute to his predecessor Josh Kirby[8][9][10] by placing him in the picture, in the position where Rembrandt is said to have painted himself. A copy of the original painting appears on the back cover of the book.
  • The Night Watch is the subject of a 2007 film by director Peter Greenaway called Nightwatching, in which the film posits a conspiracy within the musketeer regiment of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch, and suggests that Rembrandt may have immortalized a conspiracy theory using subtle allegory in his group portrait of the regiment, subverting what was to have been a highly prestigious commission for both painter and subject. His 2008 film Rembrandt's J'Accuse is a sequel or follow-on, and covers the same idea, using extremely detailed analysis of the compositional elements in the painting; in this Greenaway describes The Night Watch as (currently) the fourth most famous painting in the Western world, after the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
  • In 2006 The Night Watch has inspired the literary work A Ronda da Noite by the famous Portuguese writer Agustina Bessa Luís.

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 due to 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
  • Russian artist Alexander Taratynov created a bronze-cast representation of the famous painting that was displayed in Amsterdam's Rembrandtplein from 2006 through 2009. After displays in other locations, the sculptures returned in 2012 and are now permanently installed in front of Louis Royer's 1852 cast iron statue of Rembrandt.[11]
  • The only full-sized replica in the Western world is displayed by the Canajoharie Library & Art Gallery, in Canajoharie, New York, donated to the library in the early 20th century by the library's founder, Bartlett Arkell.
  • The Rijksmuseum's Flashmob 'Our Heroes are Back' recreated Rembrandt's Night Watch in an unsuspecting shopping mall in Breda, the Netherlands - published on 1 Apr 2013 on YouTube[12]


  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 [2]
  5. ^ "Rembrandt's Night Watch Unravelled: Identity of All the Militiamen Are Finally Revealed".  
  6. ^ Nicholas, Lynn H. (May 1995) [1994].  
  7. ^ "Rembrandt's 'Night Watch' Painting Vandalized".  
  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. 

External links

  • "The Night Watch" in high-resolution - Google Art Project
  • at the WebMuseumThe Night Watch
  • Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
  • Rembrandt and the Night Watch
  • The Night Watch by Rembrandt van Rijn
  • Putting Names to the Famous Faces in Rembrandt’s 'Night Watch'