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Rembrandt van Rijn
 
 
 
The Night Watch
 
 


Copy of The Night Watch
A page from the family album of Frans Banning Cocq,
c.1650


The Night Watch symbolized for Rembrandt a bringing together of everything that had come before, but simultaneously a new beginning. He unfolded in this, probably his most famous work, an astonishing, fascinating virtuosity, the effect of which is as great today as then. The execution of the details alone - the splendidly gleaming metal, the shimmering cloth, the various pieces of equipment - and, even more so, the fashioning of the eloquent facial expressions, succinct gestures and dazzling lighting effects are artistic in the highest degree. The possibilities inherent in a depictive representation would seem to have been exhausted. A likeness of The Night Watch may be found in the album of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, the "Seigneur of Purmerlandt and II-pendam", accompanied by the following text: "Sketch of the picture in the Great Room of the Cloveniersdoelen (Civic Guard House), wherein the young Seigneur of Purmerlandt as Captain gives orders to the Lieutenant, the Seigneur of Vlaerdingen, to have his company march out". The picture bore no other title. The name The Night Watch did not arise until the beginning of the 19th century. The likeness shows the painting in the state in which it hung in the hall of the Civic Guard building along with six further large works depicting the Guard by other artists. The painting was trimmed at the beginning of the 18th century in order that it could be hung in a smaller town-hall chamber. The sensation caused by this immense picture of almost four by five metres can be imagined. However, some of those portrayed appear to have considered themselves to have been represented less favourably than they had expected: Rembrandt later added an oval plaque bearing a list of names, which he placed in rather unmotivated fashion in the right-hand corner of the archway. The reproduction in the album shows the picture in its original state prior to this addition.
It can be seen at first glance that Rembrandt gives the presentation of the general event priority over a faithful working-out of the individual portraits. The foreground is dominated by the marching figures of the Captain and the Lieutenant. The Captain's extended hand and slightly opened mouth indicate that he is speaking; in doing so, he does not look at the Lieutenant, who is receiving the order. Figures to right and left of the archway are also engaged in conversation, while under it the standard-bearer is raising his standard. Men with helmets and hats are carrying swords and spears; some of them also bear round shields and are wearing gorgets. A number of the men are in the act of taking hold of the spears propped against the building wall to the right, while others continue to press forward through the archway. A boy wearing a helmet that is far too big for him is depicted in the left-hand foreground; he is running away with an empty powder horn, half-turning back in mid-stride. A musketeer clad in red stands next to him, loading his gun. To his right, half-hidden by the Captain, a form in baggy breeches with an oak leaf-garlanded helmet can be seen side-on, striding out with big steps towards the right and lifting his gun, the muzzle of which is visible between the Captain and the Lieutenant. A man standing behind them is attempting with outstretched hand to ascertain the angle of fire of his gun's barrel. The muzzle-flash can be observed directly adjacent to the white feather in the Lieutenant's hat: the gun is depicted in the very moment in which the shot is fired. To the right of the Lieutenant, an old man is blowing the burnt powder from his flintlock's pan. On the far right, the drummer is trying out his instrument, and seems to have scared the dog, which is cowering in front of him. Two female figures should also be mentioned. The first, in a golden dress, has a purse and a dead hen hanging from her belt, the latter claws-upwards; she is holding a drinking horn in her hand. The second figure is almost entirely concealed behind her.
A great variety of motifs of movement is arranged before the observer. Rapid change seen in the running boy and the striding gait of the Captain and Lieutenant - characterizes the "here-and-now" of this instant, an element emphasized still further by the shot that is being fired. One may notice the lingering gestures of the speakers, together with the postures of quiet duration visible in the posture struck by the ensign and the listening and watching attitudes of those waiting.

Brilliantly set highlights and certain prominent shadows serve to heighten the impression of something lasting but for a moment. Particular attention should be paid here to the shadow thrown by the Captain's outstretched hand on the coat of the Lieutenant. It is not least through this element, together with the suggestion of commotion, that the expectation is aroused that the scene could also be encountered outside of a picture, in reality, just as it is seen here.
A wide range of activities are portrayed, such as those concerning the handling of a rifle loading, firing, cleaning out the pan the presentation of the standard, the taking up of arms, the testing of the drum. All these are activities such as mark out the group as a Civic Guard company. At the same time, however, each individual is characterized through the activities typical of him or his task, with the consequence that each would appear to be doing whatever he wants, without reference to the general happening. Here, too, it is only the word that binds together all these diverging actions. If the text from Banning Cocq's album is taken as being accurate, then the work depicts the moment in which the Captain gives the order to march out; the Lieutenant has not yet passed it on, nor is anyone else aware of it. As of this moment, it is the duty of the Lieutenant to pass on the order. It is in this turn of events, however, that the whole hardly surpassable effect of the picture's structural conception lies. A situation has been selected in which each individual becomes a member of a collective event, in the very moment in which he performs his activity for himself alone, with no direct reference to what is going on around him. It is only by this means that the moment preceding the passing on of the order can be clearly indicated. Rembrandt makes use of the opportunity to give a precise and subtle display of the typical hustle and bustle of the Guild's everyday life - and also, at the same time, to depict the group in a collective, unifying active whole. Christian Tiimpel characterizes the depicted moment as the "state of setting off and getting into order". However, the latter would signify that the Lieutenant or some other person or persons were already preparing to follow the order to the troops to form up prior to marching out. One can make a better case for the argument that the moment portrayed is that one just before the men form up, one still allowing unrestricted freedom of individual action.
Here, once again, in one of the last scenes of this kind, Rembrandt is able to use the situation to display the highest and most differentiated external movements, since the individual forms have not yet been integrated into the formative schema of the collective marching order.
The open situation throws up further questions. Will the Captain and the Lieutenant, depicted in front of the others and already striding out, become detached from the group? How will the march out look after the men are in formation, from where are the figures emerging from the archway coming, where will they line up, and what is the group's destination? Does what is happening reflect the normal course of events whenever the troop comes together, or is something special, something unique, taking place? None of this can be inferred solely from what is depicted in the picture. Are we concerned here with the departure of the Guild to escort Maria de Medici, the Queen Mother and former Regent of France, on her visit to Amsterdam? In the year 1638, she was indeed conducted into the city by the three Guilds. An argument in favour of this is that some of the costumes date from this time; against it, however, is the fact that Frans Banning Cocq and the Lieutenant were not yet in office at that time.
Furthermore, we must ask as with The Anatomy Lesson by Nicolaes Tulp how all these figures are to find a radius of action for their movements on the narrow steps. It is reasonable to assume that the building represented here is the Guild's house, the so-called Cloveniersdoelen, the hall of which the painting was intended to decorate. However, the pattern of the illumination remains inexplicable: how are we to account for the lighting effects in the case of the Lieutenant and the female figure in the background? If we were looking at a night watch in front of the house, then it could hardly be a question here of moonlight: the only possibility would be artificial light, for example that thrown by torches and yet these would surely cause each and every object to cast more than one shadow. The intensity of light revealed in the picture can only have the rays of the sun as its source so how is it, out in the open in front of the house, that everything is shrouded in darkness? If the group were indeed illuminated by the sun, then the members would surely appear universally bright and uniformly in shadow. Yet it is only the figure of the Lieutenant, the female form in the background, and individual faces here and there which the light causes to stand out, while even the shadows follow no clear direction. The distinct shadow thrown by the Captain's hand is the only thing to create such a convincing effect that it becomes a pars pro toto, a detail inducing one to believe that the conception of the illumination elsewhere in the picture is consistent. Such observations can serve to draw attention to the fact that here, too, the plausibility of the action is achieved only at the expense of the plausibility of an actual situation. It covers up the fact that the figures are bright because they are depicted, and not because the light happens to be falling on them: that which appears to be chance in the picture is in fact artistic intention.
Questions also remain unanswered when one attempts to fathom the significance of individual motifs. One example among many: the bright female form, and the one almost entirely hidden behind her, have given rise to the greatest mystery of all. In comparison with the other figures, they appear as small as children; however, their proportions and dress lead one to suspect that they might be sutlers accompanying the company. The drinking horn, the purse and the hen hanging from the belt of one of the women have been interpreted as a reference to the central social event of the Guild, the communal banquet. The fact that the size of these figures is portrayed as being so much smaller here could be explained by the mediaeval custom of depicting minor characters on a smaller scale than that employed for the principal protagonists.3 If this is the case, however, why does the artist then manipulate the lighting in such a way as to cause them to stand out to such an extent? On the other hand, if one were indeed to consider them as girls, then it would be possible to connect them with children in pictures before Rembrandt's time, where they were portrayed as emblem carriers in processions. Following this theory, the colours of the girls' dresses in The Night Watch have been linked to those of the Guild's coat of arms. Moreover, the claws of the hen hanging from the belt of one of the girls could be interpreted as a play on the coat of arms of the Civic Guard, consisting of crossed rifles and griffins' talons: the Dutch word for talon is the same as that for rifle. The question of whether the two girls have any allegorical significance within the context of the pictorial scene must remain open.

The baroque era was a time of allegory and emblems. In The Night Watch, however, Rembrandt would appear to have been successful in both depicting these and simultaneously hiding them, with the result that the observer becomes aware of the allusions, yet is unable to tie them down. In this way, they maintain the state of affairs shortly before the ordering of meaningful concepts.
The fact that the event, the situation in its details, the setting, costumes, illumination, and even meaning of individual motifs in The Night Watch elude a final definitive interpretation will not be taken in the following as a mistake or
as the capriciousness of so-called artistic freedom; rather, it should be considered - at least on an experimental basis - as a decisive principle, one by which Rembrandt allowed himself to be led in shaping that which was to be depicted. It should be apparent that the reason for such a style of depiction can hardly lie in the effort to reproduce things as faithfully as possible, nor in the subject-matter of the depiction. If one acknowledges the openness of the depictive interpretations, then one is ultimately led to their concrete, visible cause - the elements of the picture itself, the lines, the light-dark structure, the colours.
If one starts by studying the structure and arrangement of the lines on the surface of the picture leaving aside any representational interpretation then one may be struck by the numerous straight lines formed by the contours of the facade in the background, by the lances and rifles, the standard, the Captain's stick, and other elements. The back wall manifests some horizontal lines in its cornice, together with some vertical lines such as those on the right-hand side, where the wall projects, and to either side of the archway. Although these lines do not pass over the entire surface, they nevertheless create the impression of a grid of vertical and horizontal lines spread over the whole picture yet one that is only intimated, since each individual line is constantly interrupted, is not sharply drawn, and can be distinguished only with difficulty against the dark surface. For this reason, it would be pushing things too far to speak here of a grid. The structure remains open, and does not bind the format together. Nonetheless, the lines bestow upon the surface a structure such as is consistent in itself, one presenting a distinct contrast to the diversity of direction to be seen in the other straight lines mentioned above. It is fascinating to notice how the spears leaning against the wall on the right, for example, diverge but minimally from the vertical lines of the ground - yet this divergence is sufficient to disperse the impression of a consistent "grid", or prevent its consolidation from the outset. A different orientation is adopted by the slanting lines, first of all that of the standard's stave, the direction of which is taken up by the Captain's stick and the rifle of the man in red in the left-hand foreground, and secondly, that of the almost vertical direction of the spear which the man in the helmet immediately above the Lieutenant is holding, in an upwards direction towards the right-hand border of the picture. Other straight lines would appear to go along with this second direction: the Lieutenant's lance, the gun with the muzzle flash, the flintlock whose pan is being blown out, and the pointing arm of the third figure from the right. The lines of the standard's stave and of the spear pointing to the right, if they are extended, lead to the head of the brightly illuminated girl, albeit barely intersecting at the top of the head's outline. Visible points of intersection are avoided here, in an almost methodical manner; however, they accumulate on the other side. Swords, rifles, and other spears cross the main axis mentioned above in different directions, while a star-shaped double overlapping may even be seen above the previously discussed pointing arm. Yet all this does not serve to make the brightly lit girl the centre of the main directions; equally, nor does the star-shape form offer a central point for the principle under which the lines are distributed. It is significant, moreover, that the "accompanying" axes mentioned above are not parallel - they are almost so, it is true, but no more than this. A structure of geometric relationships would seem to have been intended but not realized.

Into this structured system of straight lines is woven the chain of small roundish forms. This chain, which description cannot enable one to follow, is made up of the overlapping outlines of the figures; its indentations are such as could lead one to think distantly of a laurel garland. It crosses the whole width of the picture midway up, tending to confuse or break up any comprehensive efforts at orientation. This serves to focus the observer's gaze upon the light-dark structure in this zone, from the limits of which this feature emerges.
If one concentrates exclusively upon the smaller bright elements of this linear network the impression can be heightened experimentally by blinking one's eyes - the heads and collars can be seen to follow one another in a garland leading first from the left in a curve down to the girls. From here, it continues upwards over the helmet adorned with oak leaves, passing in an upwardly curred arch over the heads of the Captain, the Lieutenant and the man behind them to that of the old man blowing into his powder pan. Finally, it rises over the remaining heads and the pointing arm to the right-hand border of the picture, from where it rolls on towards the centre of the picture as far as the drum. Another section of garland, not necessarily connected to the first, is formed from the heads of the figures in the archway. Notwithstanding the fact that all of the small details of the individual forms offset the tendency to recognize directions, it would be possible to speak from a very general point of view of a rough symmetry, in the sense of two wings unfolding towards the sides. The centre of this double form can be seen in the two most extensive and striking elements of illumination, those of the Lieutenant and the girl. The form of the Captain, which has been rendered extremely dark apart from his equally bright lace collar, would thereby be integrated into the symmetrical pattern and almost framed within the picture, this latter process separating him - it is said again and again, by a sort of rectangle - from the rest of the structure.
If one advances this view, however, then it is always necessary to emphasize immediately the opposite view, namely that it is in fact impossible to demonstrate a symmetrical shape in the light-dark structure. The bright areas constituted by the Lieutenant and the girl are of such differing size, the distance from them to the Captain is so unequal, that it is far from convincing to argue that they are symmetrical objects. As regards the smaller bright elements, they are of course related to each other, but the comparison with a connected garland overshoots the mark. At the same time, the structure can also be seen as a group of isolated elements, or divided up into sporadic, separate groups. There is no one single line constituting an order in which the bright elements - at least, the faces should be seen as connected. Several equally valid "paths" are available to the observer, along which he can follow the garland.

The openness and divergence of the light-dark structure is great, yet not so great that its tendency to form a unified arrangement could be denied. Rectangles, oval arches, spiral forms, left-right symmetry in each case, the observer is pointed in the direction of a basic geometric order. Yet it cannot be grasped. The elements of spontaneity, motion, even disorder, assert themselves all the more, renewing the challenge to the observer to find a general system.
An important discovery with regard to the light-dark effect is made when one runs one's eyes if possible at an even speed over the described garland, for example from left to right across the whole picture. In this process, one becomes aware of an extremely differentiated succession of brighter and darker elements. The contrasts resulting from this alternation culminate in the central zone, dying down again towards the sides and finally reaching a provisional end at the half-bright drum, from where the next sequence of movement could then start. As the observer's gaze travels across the picture, the light-dark alternation is experienced as a free, sporadic rhythm, one in which the intensity, the size of the individual elements, and the intervals between them combine to produce a highly differentiated and particularly dynamic effect. At the same time, however, the sequence of alternation does not appear to be entirely free. The rhythm appears to follow an underlying beat, and it is only over this that its free dynamic can unfold. That which has been indicated here may serve to make clear that the entire observable structure of this picture reveals itself in detail with reference to the lines and the light-dark structure as arranged individually and in accordance with an open structure, yet tending towards a general formation in every part. Indeed, the pictorial structure of The Night Watch can itself be characterized as individual motion shortly before the establishment of order.
The purely visible qualities of the picture assert themselves here as a self-supporting system possessing its own drama and motion, independent of the recognizable qualities seen in that which can be comprehended within the scene. The same dramatic structure is revealed both in that which is readily apparent here and in that which can be understood via the portrayal in the scene. The change taking place that is signified by The Night Watch and the following collections of pictures within the course of Rembrandt's development is a step from interpretation to observation.


Rembrandt: "The Night Watch"
 

(Norbert Schneider)



The Night Watch
1642
Oil on canvas, 363 x 437 cm
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam




The Night Watch (detail)
1642
Oil on canvas
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


Bob Haak has quite rightly pointed out that Rembrandt's so-called Night Watch "has a greater historical burden to carry than any other seventeenth-century Dutch painting". Since the nineteenth century especially, when Rembrandt was made the object of a cult of genius, the painting has been obscured by so many different layers of meaning that it has become inordinately difficult to throw light on the conditions under which it was executed. According to popular legend, Rembrandt's use in this painting of an entirely new method of composition so appalled his public that his fall into penury was sealed from that moment onwards. The story draws on the myth of the unrecognised genius whom an insensitive public condemns to tragic isolation. This stock device in the rhetoric of modern art bemoans the fate of the typical secessionist whose rebellion against the dominant aesthetic is fought out at the cost of his secure existence.
However, contemporary sources suggest that the painting's rejection was not as great as was later supposed. Indeed, the evidence tends to point to the contrary. Despite one or two, hardly unusual, critical remarks concerning various practicalities of the painting's execution, Samuel van Hoogstraten described the composition in his "Schilderkonst" (1678) as "dashing". It was "so powerful", he said, "that, according to some, the pictures beside which it was hung were made to seem like playing cards". Filippo Baldinucci reported that the painting was received to considerable acclaim. Rembrandt had "made such a great name for himself that he is better known than almost any other artist in these climes". Although it is demonstrable that Rembrandt now turned away from the group portrait, it would be difficult to establish a causal nexus between this change of direction and the financial crisis which overshadowed his life from then on.



The Night Watch (detail)
1642
Oil on canvas
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam



The Night Watch (detail)
1642
Oil on canvas
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Detail from The Night Watch.
The claw (Dutch: "klauw") of the white fowl hanging from the girl's belt is a visual pun on the name of the "Klovcniers" militia company.



Rembrandt's Night Watch - erroneously named, since it depicts an event taking place in the shadows, with patches of sunlight breaking through - belongs to the genre of the "doelenstuk", or militia company piece. The painting shows members of the Amsterdam "Kloveniersdoelen" (civic militia company of harquebusiers). The subject is introduced by a visual pun: the muskets ("kloven" is Dutch for the butt of a gun) which the men are holding, or loading and firing. Moreover, Rembrandt has included a hidden, emblematic reference to the militia company in the middle ground. At the same time, the detail is accentuated by painting it in a bright light: a white fowl, shown dangling from the belt of a dwarflike girl, who may be a sutler - the "claws" (Dutch: "klauw") of the bird are a visual pun on "Kloveniers".
The painting shows only the more wealthy, upper and middle class members of the militia company from Amsterdam's District II, the "Nieuwe Zijde". In fact, the company had several hundred members, while about four thousand civic guards were organised in the Amsterdam companies altogether. To become a high-ranking officer of the civic guards was a means of demonstrating one's rise to political influence. This certainly applies to the two main protagonists here: Captain Frans Banning Cocq, with his red sash and sword, and Lieutenant Willem van Ruijtenburch, with his sunlit yellow uniform, upon which the Captain's hand, giving marching orders to the assembled company, casts its shadow. Frans Banning Cocq was the child of an immigrant from Bremen, who, according to the records, was initially forced to beg in order to survive, but was later able to improve his circumstances by working for a chemist. His son studied, became a Doctor of Law, and was soon a respected member of Amsterdam society. His marriage to the daughter of the mayor, whose considerable wealth he inherited at the age of twenty-five, gave him financial independence and paved his way to high political office in Amsterdam.

A static configuration would have made hierarchical structures more conspicuous. Here they are obscured by synchronizing temporally unrelated incidents, creating the impression of a great variety of un-coordinated movements and impulsive actions.

Rembrandt's Night Watch breaks with an older genre of militia company paintings, of which there were two main types: the banquet group portrait, particularly associated with Frans Hals, and the full-length civic guard portrait, in which the sitters would usually be shown parading, with guns and unfurled company banner, in brightly coloured officer's uniforms. A characteristic of earlier examples of the genre was their arrangement of figures according to the principle of iso-cephaly - showing them all the same height - as seen in works by Dirck Jacobsz (Company of Captain Dirck Jacobsz) and Cornelis Anthonisz (Banquet of Members of Amsterdam's Crossbow Civic Guard).
It was not until the early seventeenth century that this schematic arrangement of figures became less rigid and began to accommodate the idea of narrative. Compositions which had hitherto stressed fraternal equality within the militia company now began to emphasise its hierarchy, gradually transforming the genre of the "doelenstuk" into the history painting. This is anticipated by the prominence given to the officers in Thomas de Keyser's Militia Company of Captain Allaert Cloeck. Rembrandt adapts these formal developments to his own ends, animating the configural arrangement as a "whole. Furthermore, he imparts to the setting a dignity and grandeur otherwise considered the exclusive preserve of the ruling class. He does this partly, it seems, by inventing the architecture in the background himself, since the arch cannot be identified as one of Amsterdam's city gates.


It has never been disputed that Rembrandt attempted to break down boundaries between the portrait and the history painting (considered the highest in the hierarchy of genre paintings at the time), in other words, that the so-called Night Watch refers to a particular event in history. The event to which the painting alludes has never been established, however. According to one tentative hypothesis, the painting shows the guards assembling to escort Queen Henrietta Maria of England on 20th May 1642. In this case, the subject of the painting would be an event which took place in the same year as the painting was executed. Another theory suggests the painting may refer to the state visit to Amsterdam of Maria de' Medici in September 1638. Whatever the correct answer, it is apparent that Rembrandt's purpose here is to impart nobility to his bourgeois clientele by showing them as historical agents, a role hitherto considered above their station. In so doing, he is not far from illustrating Shakespeare's dictum: "There is a history in all men's lives" (Henry IV, Act III, 1, 80-81). Ennobling his subject, however, does not mean depriving his figures of their spontaneity, a quality indicating bourgeois lack of restraint: a musket going off behind the Lieutenant, for example, or a man loading a gun, another beating a drum or boisterous children dressed in a burlesque martial style.
Turbulence was an essential component of Baroque history painting. Leon Battista Alberti had defined the guiding principle of the genre as "varieta": diversity of movement, gesture and pose. In coordinating elements aesthetically that were not coordinated historically, Rembrandt gave shape in painting to a principle which had been postulated for drama in contemporary French Classical poetics, namely the unities of time, place and action (later summarised by Pierre Corneille in his "Discours des trois unites", 1660).
The spontaneity of the figures in the painting initially suggests their autonomy, their democratic freedom from constaint. Closer scrutiny reveals the opposite, however. Unlike earlier examples of the "doelenstuk", Rembrandt's composition stresses the dominant positions of the Captain and the Lieutenant. In an original, uncut version of the painting, which has survived in the form of a copy by Gerrit Lundens (London, National Gallery), the emphasis was even more obvious. Here, the action - the assembly and departure of the guard - tapers to a formal conclusion in the figures of the company's two leaders (disregarding the artist's use of lighting, the device is convincingly revealed in Schmidt-Degener's reconstruction of the basic plan of the composition).
Paradoxically, the society depicted here appears to allow the unrestrained expression of individuality, and yet, at the same time, its structure remains rigidly hierarchical. With the old feudal system shaken off, hierarchical structures continued to exist, only now they were based on a consensus achieved by the new principles of bourgeois democracy. The problem was how to reconcile the new power structures with individual freedom of development.

 

A Well-Guarded Painting

The fascination of The Night Watch

(The Company of Captain Trans Banning Cocq)

How the drum beats.
How the pipe trills,
How trumpets also,
and shawms,
and kettle-drums sound,
O see
How fresh the flag flutters.
May your hearts
Leap light for joy.

Johannes Grab, Soldier's Song, seventeenth century


Pulsating with life a drum is beaten, a dog barks, lances and muskets are raised, a flag is flown, children run about in all directions The Night Watch is regarded as the masterpiece of the great Dutch painter Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn. The only oddity is that the subject of the painting is not a night watch. The title emerged towards the close of the eighteenth century after the many layers of varnish coating the surface of the painting had considerably darkened. The gloom thus produced led to the idea that the scene was captured at night. The original title of the painting was The Company of Captain Trans Banning Cocq. Instead of depicting a night watch, it is a group portrait of Amsterdam militia men. At the time it was painted, Amsterdam was Europe's leading mercantile city, with three civic militias. They called themselves The Crossbowmen, The Longbowmen and The Guild of Arquebusiers after the weapons the men of their companies had borne in the Middle Ages. The militias recruited members from the pool of men in their city fit for military service, while each district had its own company. In times of war and unrest, the militias fulfilled the function of protecting the community. Before Rembrandt's time, their duties included patrolling the ramparts of the city and mounting guard at its gates.
In 1633 Rembrandt settled permanently in Amsterdam. The civic militias still retained something of their military character, although by then theirs was predominantly a social function. The traditional guilds with their historic past represented different sections of the city, sometimes marking political factions, and their members paraded at civic festivities. Commissioned in 1640 by the Amsterdam Arquebusiers to paint their group portrait, Rembrandt probably portrayed the members before they were to participate in a traditional parade, which may have been held in celebration of the visit of the French Queen, Marie de' Medici, in 1638. Contemporary sources show that the queen was welcomed by the marksmen's guilds and was accompanied by them in a ceremonial parade to a lavish feast in the festival hall of a guild house. Rembrandt's company of men was possibly depicted early tn the morning of this royal visit. Led by their captain, Frans Banning Cocq, a reputable Antwerp merchant, the guild members seem to be about to take leave to greet the French queen outside the city. The large painting with its life-sized figures most likely hung in the festival hall of the Arquebusiers' guild house. In 1715 it was transferred to Antwerp's Town Hall. Because it was too large for the space it was to occupy there, it was promptly cut down to size.

Klaus Reichold, Bernhard Graf



Man in a Golden Helmet
1650
Oil on canvas, 67,5 x 50,7 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin




Alejandro Magno




The Polish Rider
1655
Oil on canvas, 114,9 x 135 cm
Frick Collection, New York

 
 
 


Albert Cuyper



A Bearded Man in a Cap
1657


 



Jeremias de Dekker


Retrato de Johannes Wtenbogaert


Retrato de un anciano


Portrait of Nicolaas van Bambeeck
1641
Oil on canvas, 105,5 x 84 cm
Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels




Old Rabbi
1642
Oil on wood
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest






Old Rabbi (detail)
1642
Oil on wood
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest






Portrait of Andries de Graeff
1639
Oil on canvas, 199 x 124 cm
Staatliche Museen, Kassel







Portrait of an Old Man
1665
Oil on canvas, 102 x 73 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence







Portrait of an Old Man in Red
1652-54
Oil on canvas, 108 x 86 cm
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg






Portrait of an old Woman
1654
Oil on canvas, 109 x 84 cm
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg






Man with a Magnifying Glass
1668
Oil on canvas, 36 x 29 1/4 in.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York






Bust of an Old Man in a Fur Cap
1630
Oil on wood, 22 x 17,5 cm
Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum, Innsbruck






Portrait of a Man in Oriental Garment
1633
Oil on wood, 86 x 64 cm
Alte Pinakothek, Munich






The Moneychanger
1627
Oil on wood, 32 x 42 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin






A Scholar
1631
Oil on canvas, 104,5 x 92 cm
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg






Portrait of Eleazer Swalmius
1637
Oil on canvas, 132 x 109 cm
Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp

 
 
 

The Staalmeesters
 
 
 

Sampling Officials of the Drapers' Guild
(The Staalmeesters)
1662
Oil on canvas, 191,5 x 279 cm
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


Rembrandt painted his last group portrait in the year 1662. In The Staalmeesters the name given the board members of the Clothmakers' Guild the artist would once again combine the achievements in the structural conception of his portrait scenes. After the so richly developed scene of The Night Watch, the later picture strikes the observer as a simplification; it appears to take up the earlier work of The Anatomy Lesson by Nicolaes Tulp and even - going beyond this painting - the group-portrait tradition of more than a hundred years, in which the persons to be portrayed are collected one after the other around a table, generally with a minor figure included. However, the picture with which we are concerned here surpasses its predecessors in density, complexity and fullness of life. Moreover, the superficial resemblance to the traditional forms reveals all the more clearly the fact that Rembrandt's crucial innovations consisted not in an external break with the forms which he had taken over but in their transformation. The portrait, as a document of someone existing in time, is intended to release that person from the bounds of time. It is the task of the representation to turn the observer's thoughts back to the subject of the portrait and thereby preserve the memory of him. In contrast to this, Rembrandt's structural conception converts the portrait so as to give it the qualities of a temporal event, thereby changing remembrance of the past into observation of the present. It is not his intention in his portraits to overcome the temporal nature of a person by using art to disconnect it from time, to immortalize it. Instead, he is on the way to overcoming the temporal through a form of anchoring it in time, one in which timeless eternity appears itself in the present. It is not his intention to extend the temporal, ephemeral element of man to everlasting duration; rather, he wishes to anchor in time the timeless element - that is, that which is independent of temporal restrictions - and thus to enable it to achieve a present that can be experienced. But what pictorial form must this take so that it may be experienced?



The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Joan Deyman
1656


The members of the board are giving their report. The offices of those present are indicated by the open book on which Willem van Doeyenburg has let his hand drop in explanation and in which the gentleman on his right has placed a hand, ready to turn to a certain page; by the treasurer's purse on the far right; and by the notebook by means of which the half-standing Volckert Jansz. is propping himself on the table, while Frans Hendricksz. Bel, the house supervisor, who is standing bareheaded in the background, serves to give an indication of their significance. Poses are no longer adopted here. The body language of the men reveals a complete obliviousness to the world around them, stemming from their preoccupation with what they are doing. The facial characteristics of the figures are finely differentiated, from expectant concentration directed outwards, apparently connected with a readiness to intervene in what is happening, via an interested following of what is taking place, to a relaxed observation of the entire scene. Here, too, the expressions are made to speak. However, the attitudes of the men are not typical of the representative attitudes encountered at a board meeting, unlike the typical attitudes of those attending a lecture displayed in The Anatomy Lesson by Nicolaes Tulp, for example. The characteristic gestures are so nuanced and meaningful that their only sensible interpretation can be as an expression of that individual - and him alone - in whose face they are to be read. A key to the scene, however, is provided by the observation that it is within this very individualization that the persons act, not each for himself but collectively, simultaneously and equally.
Extremely economical allusions to perspective the view from below of the table, the armchair, the panelling on the receding back wall, and no less that of the hat brims make it apparent that the group is seated on a level above that of the artist. Assuming that the depicted situation is taking place in an assembly chamber, then it is only from a seat in the audience that the observer would so perceive the board members on the podium.
In The Anatomy Lesson by Nicolaes Tulp, the observer's gaze is met by those of two figures in the picture, inviting him to see himself as a fellow-protagonist. None of the figures in the scene of The Staalmeesters is looking at the observer. The three gentlemen seen above the area of the red table are indeed looking out of the picture; however, their gazes pass to the left of the observer. The man in the armchair to the left is also turning in that direction, while Volckert Jansz.'s eyes are directed towards a point to the observer's right. This makes it quite clear that the group is not only acting collectively but also reacting collectively, to a partner outside of the picture, to an audience. The fact that the figures are looking past the observer draws him into the scene to a far greater extent than was the case with the direct exchange of glances in The Anatomy Lesson. Quite unexpectedly, he finds himself a member of the large audience, this latter constituting the cause of the group's reaction. At the same time, it becomes clear that he is no active participant within this audience - in the sense that he does not put his hand up, give his vote when invited to do so, or maybe even interrupt the speaker. As a member of the audience, the observer is allocated the role of a witness, a spectator. In the earlier work depicting his mother as the reading Prophetess Hannah (Rembrandt's Mother as the Biblical Prophetess Hannah, 1631), Rembrandt rendered the observer a potential participant to some extent by allowing him to look into the book. Henceforth, this motif is revealed to be a comprehensive and inescapable principle of Rembrandt's structural conception: in seeing - and grasping - the situation as portrayed in the scene of The Staalmeesters, the observer is already executing his observational role. The fact of his looking at the scene is itself already a pictorial motif, a part of the picture's action, whether he wishes this to be so or not.



The Standing Syndic
(Study for The Staalmeesters)
1662

However, whereas the effects resulting from the structural conception of the picture thus become comparable with real-life situations outside of the picture, the basic depictive problems of the portrayal of temporal actions become all the more critical. How does Rembrandt represent movement here? Volckert Jansz.'s posture has been interpreted in many different ways. In the preliminary sketch, he is seen still standing upright. An X-ray of the picture reveals the fact that Rembrandt altered the posture a number of times while painting the picture. In the final version, he is shown neither sitting nor standing. One hand, holding the notebook, is propped on the table - as described above -while the other appears to be groping behind him, as if touching the armrest of a chair, or being on the point of doing so. This, together with the concentrated look directed outwards, can convey the impression that Volckert Jansz, is standing up to answer a question from the audience. On the other hand, he could also be on the point of sitting down after a speech. While the attention of the other board members is still or currently occupied by someone or something on the left, his gaze remains upon a member of the audience who - to give but one possible explanation - is not yet content with the answer which he has received and is making the fact known, as happens again and again in business discussions, while the debate is already moving on elsewhere. What is significant is the fact that the two interpretations given here totally contradict each other. The directions of movement mentioned are diametrically opposed to each other: one cannot simultaneously stand up and sit down. Nonetheless, Rembrandt's attempt to portray such a posture - as documented by the numerous alterations that he made - would appear to have taken the direction of just such a contradiction. A broad range of possibilities is to be found in the middle area of the course of events between standing up and sitting down. Volckert Jansz, stands up, but the situation changes rapidly; before he is upright, he hesitates in a half-erect posture: either he could straighten up, or he could take his seat again.


Alternatively, he has been speaking on his feet and is about to sit down when an objection occurs; he pauses, could stand upright again and add a postscript to his speech or could complete the process of resuming his seat. It is also possible, having attained such a posture, to pause for a moment while taking note of a vote by the audience and deliberating whether an intervention is necessary or not. Rapid external movement, the lingering action of temporary duration, and the quietly continuing action, seen distributed among a number of persons in The Blinding of Samson - all three characteristics of action are encountered here in a single gesture. The motif of action within these particular limits is ambiguous.
Corresponding to this concept, the nature of the glances of the other board members is equally ambiguous. As shown here, their gazes can be understood as lingering, but also, if one looks at the picture in a different way, as fleeting glances moving over the audience. And even if they are interpreted as lingering glances, they can be subject to change through an increasing or decreasing degree of interest, in the progressive forms that have already been examined in the various possibilities of interpretation regarding Volckert Jansz.'s posture.
The ambiguity observed here should not be interpreted as indicating a lack of clarity; rather, it is purely functional. One need simply recall the fact that it is not until the observer uses his imagination to conjure up the various potential facets of the action that the corresponding qualities of movement or change come to light. The fact that the actions are brought before the observer should not be seen as representing a contradiction to the static nature of the picture; rather, the observer himself is challenged to actively complete the mental picture, to play a game. If he does not participate, then he cannot understand what is in front of him. This game consists of linking the various ambiguous elements. A structure of relationships brought about by actions develops, although its elements openly undergo change even in their various aspects. As a result, the structure becomes complex and many-layered, and can no longer be tied down to a single status. In the course of all this, the game of imagination itself acquires a certain progressive character. Within this progression, the observer experiences the to-and-fro motion of directions and impulses, the alternation of action and reaction. In so doing, he carries out an action the course of which is as changeable as is sometimes the case in a debate between two groups of people at a meeting. This also ultimately implies that the observer, in becoming aware of this, realizes himself to be already involved in this action, as it is in fact a question of his own conscious action.
However, such qualities of experience are not only dependent on the motifs of action of the figures. The spatial structure was only partially characterized above. Despite all certainty, it is in fact simultaneously completely open. The section seen in the field of vision presented to the observer gives no indication as to the distance from the observer to the figures. As a result of the lack of foreground, they give the impression of being observed as if from close to. At the same time, however, a different effect argues for their being seen from afar. The colours of the figures, the objects and the surroundings are uniformly broken in colour against a warm shade of brown. The impression arises that this common shade of refraction is not inherent in the colours but stems from a gloom illuminated by light, one such as appears when haze or smoke fills the otherwise clear medium of the air. The brightened gloom of the atmosphere - certainly intensified here beyond the empirical possibilities can only be found between the coloured objects and the eye of the observer. It thus becomes impossible to exclude the observer from this spatial system, since this state of "between" only comes into being when one is face to face with the picture. If the observer understands the manner in which the objects and figures appear as an atmospheric effect, then he finds himself taken up into the atmosphere of the pictorial space - in a manner that is just as inevitable as was the case with the scenic constellations. For the figures can only be seen in this way by an observer who can be said to share the atmospheric conditions of visibility experienced by the figures in the picture. Put another way, the objective manner in which the pictorial world is painted can only be seen if one is looking at it subjectively. This was noticed by Jacob Burckhardt: "Rembrandt is indifferent to the real structure of things; it is their appearance which is all-important for him ... as far as Rembrandt is concerned, events, forms, natural objects only exist inasmuch as air and light play their wondrous game with them." However, it is not necessarily a question here of gaining an "undreamt-of magic" from the light, nor of mystically transfiguring the world. Previously, the act of observation itself appeared to be drawn into the scenic process; now, the observer cannot avoid being involved in this event in the pictorial world, also with respect to the manner in which the object world appears in the picture. The picture loses the character of something existing objectively for itself, inasmuch as the "depicted" act of seeing and that performed by the observer no longer occur independently of each other: for something to appear within the picture, it must be disclosed by an act of observation.


The Sacrifice of Isaac
1650

One final observation concerns the relationship of the scenic order to that of the picture itself. The positions of the individual figures, as surface elements, stand in a subtle relationship of interdependence with each other and with the background. Thus, the jamb of the chimney at the back frames the treasurer, while the position of the man on the armchair to the left receives clear confirmation through the projecting corner above him. The red table unites the three board members seated behind it. Volckert Jansz, stands out on account of his half-standing posture, which in turn is qualified by the higher position of the house supervisor. The two heads for their part render Willem van Doeyenburg a central element; and so on. The positions on the surface become isolated under the influence of one aspect and combine under the influence of the other; they simultaneously emphasize and qualify each other. A structure of relationships results, one appearing ever more complex, the further the observer pursues the interactions that are presented. The apparently so simple arrangement, one which seems so natural through its apparently arising from the chance element of a seating arrangement, enables the observer to see the forms at one and the same time as a number of isolated individuals and yet also as a group of differentiated people acting in unison.
The pictorial form of the portrait would appear to be no longer subject to the event being depicted. As has been seen, the interplay of relationships emerging from the change of aspects becomes itself a kind of action through the activity of the observer. Furthermore, the structure of this interplay corresponds to the event and contributes an additional nuance to the interpretation: the interaction of the individual areas of colour becomes a condition for the individual element to be shown to its advantage, each serving the other and defining itself via the others. It is difficult to describe this wealth of relations in words, but it perhaps has something to do with the kind of relationships among the persons, and between them and the audience.



Abraham's Sacrifice
1655



This also serves to explain why it is that one does not grow aware of the purely visible pictorial values - the interplay of bright and dark areas, of red, yellow, white, black, and gold-brown - as a self-supporting system, as was the case in The Night Watch. The dramatic effects of the bright-dark structure have been reduced. Painting is no longer presented in terms of artistry and virtuosity. This is not to say that these are not to be found here: indeed, they are present to a high degree. In order to achieve the outlined effect of the atmospheric element, the execution of the painting must satisfy the highest demands in a technical respect as well. Rembrandt's style of painting has also become extremely individual. The qualities of his painting have lost any intrinsic value, are becoming discreet, and are absorbed into the service of the previously mentioned manner in which something appears. Rembrandt's path towards enabling the observer to experience that which is temporal through the picture is thus indicated: he forms the pictorial elements themselves in such a way that the observer can only become aware of them within the process of their appearing to him. This will ultimately be observed to comprise the realm in which the mystery of Rembrandt's art lies. In The Staalmeesters, the appearance in the picture of the event's temporal structure would seem to have been approached, in the same way that the temporal action would appear to have been approached; with regard to the actions of the observer, this means that comprehension is brought closer to observation.
First of all, however, we should focus once again on the path leading to the final step, that in which the motifs of the action ultimately become one with their appearance. The artist's work on structural conception can be grasped all the better from his drawings, since this medium of itself means that the visual qualities fade in importance, to the benefit of the action portrayed.

 
 
 

 
 
 
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