The Night Watch : Secret of a Painting
The Night Watch : Secret of a Painting
Rembrandt’s “Night Watchman” painting is counted among the world’s most prestigious works of art. Its reputation is not solely based on Rembrandt’s unique technique and extraordinary talent, but has something to do with its “secrets”.
Is it common practice to visit two different museums in two different countries to view a painting? This question is answered with “yes” only with regard to one single work of art: Rembrandt’s “The Night Watchman” painting. One of the two versions of the same painting is in the Netherlands and the other in Great Britain. In fact, one of them is merely a “copy”. But the copy shows more than the original. The Night Watchman enigma indeed is a very interesting story. Moreover, the British director Peter Greenaway’s film on the subject matter renders this interesting story even more mysterious.
Let us start with Rembrandt’s own story. His full name was Rem-brandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. He was Dutch… He lived between 1606 and1669 during that golden age when Dutch art and science had flourished. He produced works worthy of that era. However, misfortunes did not leave him alone in his personal life. Diseases caused the lost of his very young children. Then, his wife died at a young age. The woman he later shared his life with was excommu-nicated by the church because of common-law relationship.
At the age of 50 Rembrandt went bankrupt. His works were sold by auction. After all these calamities he died on October 4, 1669. The date of his death is known with that precision. But that’s it. His grave is un-known. It is only known that he is buried in any one of Westerkerk’s nameless graves. Rembrandt departed this world as a poor man. However, he left behind a rich portfolio of exceptional worth. One of the masterpieces of the art of painting “The Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” is just one example of the portfolio, just as many of his various paintings related to religious themes.
But, this article is on “The Night Watchman” painting and the mys-tery behind its double exhibition in two different museums.
It was cut down on four sides
The “Night Watchman” has been completed in 1642, after several years of hard work. But it reached the attention and the audience it deserves only after Rembrandt’s passing away. The work was trans-ferred to the City Museum in Amsterdam in 1715. But there was a problem. The painting was larger than the exhibition space reserved for it. With its dimensions of 379,5×453,5 cm, the work of art did not fit in the space between the two columns of the museum. Thereupon, in a way deemed acceptable at that time, the painting was truncated from the four corners, to be reduced to the size of 363×437 cm.
A few people on the left of the painting and the shaded areas above and below conferring its depth to the artwork fell victim to this opera-tion. But at least, it was put on display at the museum. Nonetheless, another Dutch painter among Rembrandt’s contemporaries, Gerrit Lundens had a more scrupulous approach. Fortunately, he made a copy of the painting in its entirety showing the whole scene. Rembrandt’s “trimmed” original is today exhibited at the Rijksmu-seum in Amsterdam. The copy by Gerrit Lundens is at the National Gallery in London.
A true story is narrated
Rembrandt is known as the painter of light. The background is always dark in his paintings, as if he had plunged into the darkness to reveal what no one has seen before, by illuminating it through his own light. Does this interpretation bear only an artistic meaning? It is more than that according to the British filmmaker Peter Greena-way.
In 2007, Greenaway authored a documentary which might have been the fancy of many for long-time. He turned his camera to the “Night Watchman” and shot almost frame by frame, square by square, the whole painting in detail. He employed himself to solve the mystery of the painting by evaluating some documents and testimonies of which the accuracy could no longer be established with certainty. The claims raised by the controversial documentary shown in many festivals, including in Turkey, are as follows:
The painting tells a true story. The commander of the soldiers patrolling in night watch was murdered. But the soldiers described the death as a “training accident” in order to cover up the murder. The British film-maker who investigated the painting like a crime scene investigator, with the help of digital techniques, had found some evidence of this claim. He did not stop there. He solved the mystery of the only female figure in the painting! That woman was the daughter of Rembrandt’s neighbour Kemp and she was working in a brothel. According to director Greenaway, the artist “wanted to put forth this bitter truth” by painting the young woman in the company of the soldiers at night.
Greenaway linked his claims to the developments in the last few years of Rembrandt’s life. Rembrandt came from a wealthy family. He did not experience any difficulties up until the time he painted the Night Watchman. However, after that, it seemed as if his life had been plunged downhill. His work was ignored and he was not receiving any new orders. According to the British film-director, Rembrandt “witnessed the murder, revived it in his painting, and because of that, he was dragged into perdition”. Who knows!
• Rembrandt is also known as a portrait painter. He made portraits of many illustrious personalities of his time. In addition, there are dozens of his self-portraits.
• He is one of the most prolific artists. He produced up to 2 thousand works of art and drawings including 600 oil paintings.
• Saskia, the mother of their three deceased children, was modelling for the artist for 8 years until her own death.
• “The Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” depicts real people. The principal personality is the then 39 years old Dr. Tulp who is historically known for his contributions in the area of medical research.
Besides him, there is only one more doctor among the other persons represented in the painting. Others are a group of “curious wealthy people” from Amsterdam. As for the person who underwent autopsy: it is the convict Aris Kindt who was executed by hanging on charges of armed robbery. The autopsy, which was performed in front of the public, was put on record in drawings by five painters simultaneously including Rembrandt. The only one which reached today is Rembrandt’s work.