Rembrandt’s Night Watch is like a good book. The problem is we have only one page and must fill in the blanks on our own.
But, dear me, what page that is! Shots fired. Smoking gun. Or rather a musket. Dancing midget. Woman in supernatural spotlight. Dead chicken under her belt. Fashion show. Ghost of a dog. Weaponry exhibition. Strange people lurking from the shadows. Darkness. Mystery.
So, what is this painting? Is it actual scene caught in a frame? Anything but. Look at the wear and gear: clothes, hats, boots, weapons. Well, each to its own. There are helmets from antiquity, swords from middle ages, 15th-century outfits and 16th-century shields.
It has nothing to do with casual fashion of the early 1640s when The Night Watch has been created and completed. These guys are dressed up as in a theatre. They are posing but – as for myself – Rembrandt has caught an awkward moment…
It is like the director just shouted out ‘cut!’ and some of the actors froze holding their poses still, some relaxed immediately and some were so immersed in their roles they did not notice the command. A few characters clearly react to something. What did they see? Or rather what did they hear?
Right, the gunshot! We can see the flame coming out of a barrel positioned between main figures: captain Frans Banning Cocq and his lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch.
So, why on Earth they seem to not be bothered at all by such a loud bang coming out of a musket right behind their heads? Apparently, almost whole company doesn’t give a hoot about it.
If we reject the idea that the shot is just a symbolic gesture or a manual how to use a musket as experts argue, then we have to accept that the scene of The Night Watch is set in one moment of time and the shot is a part of a consistent narrative.
So, the other solution is that company is not hearing the sound of discharge because it is not there! Yet. Is it possible that Rembrandt has captured the exact moment just before the gunshot could be heard? We know the sound travels slower than visual but did the painter?
Anyway, the idea that he painted such a complex scene placing it intentionally just milliseconds before the big bang coming out of the musket is truly mind-boggling.
The shot is the weirdest thing happening in painting’s narrative. British filmmaker Peter Greenaway in his quasi-documentary “Rembrandt’s J’accuse” promotes the theory that it is actually an indictment Rembrandt brought against commanding officers. It is a very entertaining exercise, but difficult to accept as based on facts though.
There is no evidence Captain Banning Cocq and company murdered his predecessor, as the film suggests. Also, the idea that painter knitted such accusations into the fabric of work commissioned by the same indicted is just too sensational, isn’t it?
In all fairness, art historians’ argument that the gunshot is in fact part of some kind of manual has also unbearable flaws. According to that theory, there are three stages of musket handling shown in the painting. Red musketeer is loading his weapon, the shooter’s firing it and old man on the right is blowing the remains of gunpowder out of the pod.
Well, all three men do their bit wrong. The red one is holding his musket carelessly in the air rather than rest its butt on the ground for better balance. The shooter is firing his weapon in the middle of unaware crowd without an essential supporting leg. The old one is holding the burning wick dangerously close to the firing mechanism. Interesting detail: two musketeers whose faces we can see, have suspiciously red noses.
Not much of a manual, isn’t it? More of a parody. Some experts are implying The Night Watch is in fact a mockery of flawed military conduct. According to Margaret Carroll, the guardsmen of Captain Cocq had been privy to Rembrandt’s intrigue that was actually leveled against their opponents. Again, that’s a treacherous run to explain one – big as it is – group portrait.
Apparently, there are now 31 characters in the painting. That’s what experts say. Try to find all of them in one go. It’s like Where’s Wally game and I am bad at it.
Out of these 31 characters, there is one more conspicuous than others, even the pair in front, the captain and lieutenant. The girl blessed by the light, aglow with radiant gravity that attracts everything around her. Who is she?
Peter Greenaway suggested that the girl and her companion behind, with her face concealed or even smudged over, are in fact bastard daughters spawned by one of the officers. He also mentions bonkers ideas about the glowing girl, namely that she is a transvestite or a male dwarf.
Anyone who watched his movies must realise it is artistic provocation tactics more than anything else. Bear in mind, Greenaway is Rembrandt’s admirer, visual arts expert, director of such controversial movie as “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” and wanna-be painter himself.
As for myself, the girl is clearly Saskia. Rembrandt’s beloved wife, whose death in 1642, the same year he completed The Night Watch, had taken such a toll on the artist he had never truly recovered from the tragedy and grief.
We have dozens of paintings and drawings of Saskia, not only by Rembrandt but by the other renowned artists of the Dutch Golden Age. She shares the same facial characteristics: oval shape, blonde curls, slight double chin, and that lower lip, small but protruding, casting little shade downwards.
She was also the model of Rembrandt’s biblical and mythological heroines: Susannah, Europe, Minerva, Eve, Flora. Therefore, we cannot rule out the possibility that in The Night Watch, despite the physical similarities to Saskia, that woman of angelic provenance is more symbolic than a real person.
Her importance is emphasised not only by the light shining upon and the place she occupies but also by the fact she is the witness. She is looking straight at the firing musketeer thus attracting our attention to him.
It is established the girl bears some types of symbols: silken pouch, a purse, drinking horn, even a pistol. O yeah, and chicken. That dead bird in full exposure had been giving experts a headache since the painting was unveiled. It could refer to musketeers’ emblem – bird claws on a blue background.
However, the choice of a chicken as a symbol of supposedly brave company of men is a little bit weird. Has Rembrandt made fun of the people who were paying him? Or did he imply their cowardice? That chicken is definitely out of place here.
The light vs. darkness
It is cliché but true: Rembrandt was master of light. He painted with chiaroscuro rather than with colours. In his paintings, the intensity of colour is derived from lighting effects.
The journey of light through the canvas of The Night Watch does not make any logical or observational sense. It rather blows around the painting freely like a breeze and sweeps across particular figures.
The most astonishing example of light rendering skills is the figure of lieutenant Ruytenburch. While details of the captain’s black attire fade away in shadows, his deputy just shines on with full splendour. Not only the golden-yellow costume but especially silvery sash around his waist and metallic gorget are painted with absolute virtuosity.
On the other hand, area hidden in shadows occupies one-third of the entire painting. In total it is stunning 62 square feet (5.7 m2) of darkness! To presume that it only plays the role of background is just untenable.
Definitely, that dark area is a counterbalance for beams of light sweeping through the scene. But it also partly conceals some characters at the edges of the main scene. Rembrandt himself (in between officer holding flag and young guard with the helmet on) is one of them.
Straight out of a tavern
What with the dwarves or children in the painting? It seems Rembrandt had intentionally borrowed these characters from a totally different genre. There was a huge tradition in Flemish and Dutch art of depicting peasants’ life, especially tavern scenes.
Works of Pieter Brueghel the Elder, David Teniers, Adriaen van Ostade, Jan Steen and countless others are swarmed with simple folk dancing, playing, drinking, brawling and flirting. Hustle and bustle as usual in stables, inns and brothels.
The dancing guy (or running away) in The Night Watch, the one with a helmet too big for his head, looks as if he just stepped off such a tavern scene. He has clearly comical role to play as the painter attempted to relieve the pathos represented by the militiamen.
From that perspective, the other characters’ presence could be less of a mystery. An accompanying dog for example is also a conventional figure in village life depictions.
The dog might be intimidated by the second loudest sound in the painting – the drum. Although the figure of animal is sketched only with a few smears of a brush we can see it is facing the drummer.
The magic of counterbalance
Even the appearance of two girls could be re-interpreted if we accept the idea both of them are in fact a reference to ‘tavern art’. Women in these paintings are portrayed three-ways: as drinking companions, as objects of sexual advances and as servants to the guests.
Back to The Night Watch, now we can justify the smoking pan held by the second girl. Oh, and that goddam chicken appears to be more in place.
Rembrandt however wouldn’t allow us to finish the jigsaw and go home. As a genius artist, he’d always find the way to rain on our rationalisation parade. Now what doesn’t fit are the clothes girls are dressed in. Expensive materials and jewels just don’t match their supposed servant’s purpose.
One way or another, we have to accept that the reality of art could not be solved, measured up and substantiated. That’s why, at some point, we must refer to generalisation and find some comfort in it.
With Rembrandt it is the beautiful magic of contradictions. His masterful extracting light out of the darkness. Skill of finding the sacred in profane, or vice versa. Watering down the levels of splendour and grandiosity with adding comic quality, travesty, or irony.
This painting has it all.