An enchanting and mysterious painting, starting with the title, around which a thousand stories and anecdotes revolve.
Originally known as The Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch, only at the end of the 1700s did the work take on the name The Night watch. However, the scene does not have a night setting. It only appeared so at the time because the paints with which the painting had been covered over the years had oxidized, therefore darkening the surface.
In fact, the canvas was painted in 1642 when Rembrandt began to paint figures with inaccurate outlines and with the color spread irregularly, creating rather blurry images. Due to the fact that there one could note that application of paint created a uniform outline of the irregularity of the pictorial surface, making the image more comprehensible, over the centuries various coats of paint were applied, indelibly altering the colors, and transforming the work into a nocturnal scene.
The genre of the collective portrait in the Netherlands
The work is part of the genre of collective portraits of the “corporations” in which the Dutch society was organized. In 1579, after bloody revolts, the Netherlands had successfully freed itself from the Spanish yoke. Moreover, this had led to the affirmation of a rich bourgeoisie, yet with austere customs, far from the ostentation of the luxury of Spanish culture and the style of the Catholic baroque that prevailed in the south of Europe. The collective portrait was a true novelty, and also the means by which the members of the various “corporations” left their memories of themselves by showing off the industriousness and well-being that came from social cohesion.
The representation of this transition
The genius of the painter was that of capturing those men in action. Therefore, this is not a parade of posing mannequins that rigidly fix the observer, as in tradition, but rather men immersed in life. The picture is the still-image of the moment when the company of the arquebusiers is about to begin the inspection. The painting is the transition from chaos to order, from the disorder of preparations to the rigidity of military training.
In the foreground, the captain and his lieutenant are attentive and show intense movements, talking animatedly, as they move towards the spectator.
The hand of the captain moving forward shows that he has just given the order to go. An interesting aspect is the shadow of the gesture that is projected onto the yellow suit of the lieutenant, as if it were an echo of the verbal order.
Furthermore, in the background we find the officers relaxed and in no particular order – they have seen the gesture and are preparing their weapons to get in formation. Each character lives of his own life, represented with precision and realism in their faces and in the clothing, however their poses and body language appear theatrical.
Therefore, by upsetting the rules of the pictorial genre, it represents a moving crowd that is about to advance between drum rolls, running children and flags in the wind. The painter has staged the recitation of the militia as a “boisterous bluster, a street show” as some critics defined it.