Night Watch: A Dutch Golden Age Masterpiece

The Night Watch, or full name “Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch’s Union Preparing for the Walk,” is one of Rembrandt’s most famous works. This painting, which draws attention with its gigantic dimensions and the assumptions carried out on it, is fortunately referred to by a shorter name than its original name. So what are the facts behind this picture? Let’s take a quick look at Night Watch.

Is It Night?

Although today we know this gigantic work as the Night Watch, this composition did not show the original nighttime. Since the dirt of centuries and improper restoration practices created a black layer over the Night Watch over time, people perceived time like night, and that’s why we call the painting by that name.

Yet Night Watch does not show even a patrol moment. As the title suggests, we see a guard unit in preparation for a march here. We can only interpret the association’s taking a walk during the day as a physical exercise or a social activity. In short, it is quite clear that there is no military purpose.

That fact and the painting’s exposure puts this group portrait of Rembrandt different from other era examples. During these years, which are called the Dutch Golden Age, it is possible to come across many military groups’ collective portraits. But by showing them on the go and partly in more daily activity, Rembrandt makes the difference.

The Mysterious Figure

One of the most confusing points about NightWatch is who this crowded group represents. Looking at the historical documents and the table’s positions, we can understand that the foremost figure with a red belt is Captain Cocq. Standing next to him in yellow clothes with a white belt must be Lieutenant Ruytenburch.

Apart from that, Night Watch gives us many different figures to examine each of their faces in minutes. One of the most controversial among them is the little girl on the left. This girl is also the only female figure we’ve seen on Night Watch.

It was quite common to resort to a symbolist expression at that time, be it a group portrait, a single portrait, or a still life. For this reason, it is quite normal for experts to question whether the figures have any meaning other than themselves, even in works with such an exact name and composition.

If we come to the little girl who looks like there is significant light on her in Night Watcht, some commentators say that this girl figure symbolizes victory. Rembrandt may have wanted to portray the incarnation of the concept of success as a girl in white. However, we stated above that the group did not gather for any military purpose; they were just preparing for the march. So no situation would require them to win.

Another remarkable comment about Night Watch’s mysterious girl is that she is simply the group’s mascot. We can support this interpretation because the objects the girl carries are also symbols of the guard unit.

The Live Expression

If you have seen Night Watch up close, you may have noticed how lively its narrative is. You don’t even need to see this table’s truth to understand this. A high-resolution image will tell you what we mean.

There are multiple reasons why Night Watch can impress its audience so much. The first is that Rembrandt is highly successful and experienced as a portrait painter. The painter, who has an advanced ability to reflect people’s spiritual worlds, has also managed to give each figure a unique look in the Night Watch.

However, Night Watch gives the impression that they will leave the painting at any moment and start walking with the looks of the figures and their posture. There are two reasons for this. The first is the enormous dimensions of the painting. Night Watch has dimensions of 3.63 x 4.37 meters. (Moreover, the Night Watch was even more significant than that when Rembrandt first painted it! He cut it by 30 cm since it did not fit.) So, if you had the opportunity to stand in front of you, you would see Captain Cocq, with his real size raising his hand for the marching order. That makes it very difficult to view Night Watch as an ordinary painting.

The second reason is precisely Captain Cocq’s hand raised and ready to give orders. Instead of depicting the group members looking at a single point in a fixed pose while setting up the Night Watch, Rembrandt preferred to paint the ‘moment’ when preparing for a walk. Therefore, dynamism prevails throughout the painting. While the foremost Captain and Lieutenant gave orders, the figures in the back have not yet recovered. The little girl walks in confusion. Everyone does whatever they were busy with before the walk. That’s why Night Watch is alive, and the figures seem to move at any moment.

When Rembrandt added the light games of the Night Watch’s impressive dynamism, the work’s striking effect increases, thus, even today, we can feel the current movement and excitement whenever we look at Night Watch.

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