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15 Things You Might Not Know About Rembrandt’s The Night Watch

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Completed in 1642, Rembrandt van Rijn's The Night Watch is not only a highlight of a career that spanned over 600 paintings, but also acclaimed as arguably the greatest portrait of the Dutch Baroque era. 

1. Its alternate titles are much longer and more specific. 

There are several, including: Officers and Other Civic Guardsmen of District II of Amsterdam, under the command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van RuytenburchMilitia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq; and The Shooting Company of Frans Banninck Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch. While the details vary, the key thing was that Cocq (wearing a red sash) and Ruytenburch (in yellow beside Cocq) get their recognition. Still, it's little wonder the nickname The Night Watch caught on. 

2. The Night Watch is not set at night. 

Over the next hundred years, the nickname Night Watch became more popular than the painting's cumbersome monikers. However, Rembrandt's painting was set in daytime. The dark background mistaken for night's sky was actually a varnish turned dark with age and dirt. During a restoration in the 1940s, the varnish was removed, but the name stuck. 

3. It’s a celebrated example of chiaroscuro. 

Italian for "light-dark," the term refers to works that play dramatically with shadow to create volume and a sense of three dimensions. 

4. Rembrandt may have a cameo in The Night Watch.

You'd likely miss him amidst this bustling company of distinguished men, but in the middle of the painting, behind a man in green and a guard with a metal helm, you can spot a barely-there man. Only his eye and a beret are visible, but this elusive figure is believed to be how Rembrandt wedged himself into his most famous work. 

5. That little blonde girl isn't military—she's a mascot.

This seemingly misplaced moppet carries a chicken with pronounced claws and a pistol called a klover. Both were symbols for the Kloveniers, Amsterdam's civic guard, a guild that commissioned the painting for their meeting hall.

6. It was meant to be part of a continuous panel series. 

Rembrandt was one of six artists the Kloveniers hired for group portraits of their members. He, Pickenoy, Bakker, Van der Helst, Van Sandrart and Flinck were each charged with creating a piece within specific parameters so they could be displayed side by side as an "unbroken frieze of large paintings, each matching the other and fixed in the wooden paneling of the room to form a meticulously designed total interior concept." But Rembrandt strayed from what was expected in both composition and color.

7. The Night Watch broke from military portrait tradition. 

Countless captains, colonels, and cadets had been painted in portraits of a static nature. Rembrandt broke from convention by showing his military men in apparent motion. 

8. Rembrandt got stiffed on his commission. 

After The Night Watch was finished, Rembrandt entered into a decade-long period where he stopped producing portraits and scaled back painting production dramatically. It’s long been assumed that the guild members who were supposed to pay for these portraits didn’t feel they were given enough spotlight, and refused to ante up their fair share, with this discontent ruining Rembrandt’s reputation. But more modern scholarship indicates that the Kloveniers were happy with the unconventional painting and displayed it in the hall. As for Rembrandt’s post-Night Watch funk? It may just have been that he felt he had overstretched the bounds of his art and needed to reset.

9. It's bigger than you'd think ... 

In addition to being Rembrandt’s most famous painting, at nearly 12 feet by 14 feet, The Night Watch was also his largest one.

10. ... WHICH MEANT THE VERSION YOU KNOW WAS EDITED. 

Seventy-three years after its creation, the massive painting was moved to Amsterdam's town hall. However, it was too big to fit the wall where it was meant to hang. As was common at the time, the painting's canvas was cut to better accommodate its new home. In this edit, the top of the arch, the balustrade, and the edge of the step were lost, along with two figures on the left side. 

Thankfully, a small copy of the painting made by Gerrit Lundens gives a clear idea of the original's composition. 

11. The Painting contains its own caption key. 

Rembrandt was long dead when The Night Watch was transferred to the town hall and trimmed for the occasion. But this wasn't the only unapproved revision made to his piece. An unknown hand added a shield to the archway—the script on the shield contains the 18 names of the featured Kloveniers. 

12. The Night Watch has its own personal escape route. 

Museum fires have caused the loss of great works of art, so Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum has gone to great lengths to protect Rembrandt’s masterpiece. To preserve The Night Watch in emergencies, the Rijksmuseum installed a trap door complete with escape slide in 1934. 

13. The Night Watch has been attacked three times. 

On January 13, 1911, a down-and-out navy cook slashed The Night Watch with a knife, reportedly as a protest against his unemployment. A second knife attack occurred on September 14, 1975, this time courtesy of a Dutch schoolmaster who believed destroying it was his divine mission. After that, the painting was put under permanent guard. Nevertheless, an unemployed Dutchman sprayed concentrated sulfuric acid on the piece on April 6, 1990. Each time, restorations were able to repair the damage, with barely a battle scar remaining. 

14. It has long been the heart of one of the world's greatest galleries. 

In 1885, the construction of the Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum was centered on exhibiting Rembrandt's massive masterwork. Nearly 120 years later, the museum underwent a decade-long renovation. As the museum's director Wim Pijbes prepared for its reopening in 2013, he proudly declared, "Everything has changed, the only thing that hasn't is The Night Watch. It is the altarpiece of the Rijksmuseum, the whole place is arranged around this beautiful masterpiece."

15. Its return to public display was celebrated with a flash mob. 

Staged in a shopping mall, hordes of precisely costumed men and women marched into place, creating a live-action re-enactment of The Night Watch. Once their tableau was set, a frame complete with banners dropped down triumphantly heralding, "Onze helden zijn terug!" Or "Our Heroes are Back!"

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Thomas Quine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
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Weird
Take a Peek Inside One of Berlin's Strangest Museums
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Thomas Quine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Vlad Korneev is a man with an obsession. He's spent years collecting technical and industrial objects from the last century—think iron lungs, World War II gas masks, 1930s fans, and vintage medical prostheses. At his Designpanoptikum in Berlin, which bills itself (accurately) as a "surreal museum of industrial objects," Korneev arranges his collection in fascinating, if disturbing, assemblages. (Atlas Obscura warns that it's "half design museum, half horror house of imagination.") Recently, the Midnight Archive caught up with Vlad for a special tour and some insight into the question visitors inevitably ask—"but what is it, really?" You can watch the full video below.

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Courtesy of Nikon
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science
Microscopic Videos Provide a Rare Close-Up Glimpse of the Natural World
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Courtesy of Nikon

Nature’s wonders aren’t always visible to the naked eye. To celebrate the miniature realm, Nikon’s Small World in Motion digital video competition awards prizes to the most stunning microscopic moving images, as filmed and submitted by photographers and scientists. The winners of the seventh annual competition were just announced on September 21—and you can check out the top submissions below.

FIRST PRIZE

Daniel von Wangenheim, a biologist at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria, took first place with a time-lapse video of thale cress root growth. For the uninitiated, thale cress—known to scientists as Arabidopsis thalianais a small flowering plant, considered by many to be a weed. Plant and genetics researchers like thale cress because of its fast growth cycle, abundant seed production, ability to pollinate itself, and wild genes, which haven’t been subjected to breeding and artificial selection.

Von Wangenheim’s footage condenses 17 hours of root tip growth into just 10 seconds. Magnified with a confocal microscope, the root appears neon green and pink—but von Wangenheim’s work shouldn’t be appreciated only for its aesthetics, he explains in a Nikon news release.

"Once we have a better understanding of the behavior of plant roots and its underlying mechanisms, we can help them grow deeper into the soil to reach water, or defy gravity in upper areas of the soil to adjust their root branching angle to areas with richer nutrients," said von Wangenheim, who studies how plants perceive and respond to gravity. "One step further, this could finally help to successfully grow plants under microgravity conditions in outer space—to provide food for astronauts in long-lasting missions."

SECOND PRIZE

Second place went to Tsutomu Tomita and Shun Miyazaki, both seasoned micro-photographers. They used a stereomicroscope to create a time-lapse video of a sweating fingertip, resulting in footage that’s both mesmerizing and gross.

To prompt the scene, "Tomita created tension amongst the subjects by showing them a video of daredevils climbing to the top of a skyscraper," according to Nikon. "Sweating is a common part of daily life, but being able to see it at a microscopic level is equal parts enlightening and cringe-worthy."

THIRD PRIZE

Third prize was awarded to Satoshi Nishimura, a professor from Japan’s Jichi Medical University who’s also a photography hobbyist. He filmed leukocyte accumulations and platelet aggregations in injured mouse cells. The rainbow-hued video "provides a rare look at how the body reacts to a puncture wound and begins the healing process by creating a blood clot," Nikon said.

To view the complete list of winners, visit Nikon’s website.

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