The Night Watch
In 17th-century Amsterdam becoming a member of the civic guard, accepted as one of the prominent burghers of the city, meant great social and political prestige.
In order to be eligible for membership, you needed to show an annual income of at least six hundred guilders, and acknowledge that you were prohibited from swearing, or visiting taverns and brothels.
The chosen ones of Amsterdam decided to immortalise themselves in paint, and Rembrandt (1606- 1669) was commissioned to create a group portrait; he was paid a minimum of one hundred guilders by each of the eighteen members, under the command of Captain Frans Cocq.
Cocq and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruijtenburch, offered
Rembrandt a premium for being prominently positioned in the painting, and in fact the artist decided each gentleman’s placement based on the individual commission price they agreed to pay him.
This unseemly marriage of vanity and greed was to become one of Rembrandt’s greatest masterpieces, The Night Watch.
Rembrandt painted Captain Frans Cocq clothed in black, the dress code of the ruling classes of the city. Cocq, the son of a pharmacist had married well, and inherited large proportions of his elderly father-in-law’s properties.
His lieutenant van Ruijtenburch was lesser in rank than
Cocq and is painted smaller, although the rich yellow colour of his clothes suggests his wealth – he owned a palace in
Amsterdam and a large family estate.
The flag-bearer at the back of the painting is pictured as a striking and powerful figure, whose role was to appear resolute in all ceremonies and parades taking place at the time.
He was expected to remain a bachelor due to his venerable responsibility of carrying out flag duties.
Measuring thirteen by sixteen feet, Rembrandt painted
The Night Watch on a scaffold in the backyard of his home, as it was too large to lean against a wall in any of the rooms in the house.
Rembrandt had an avid interest in weapons and painted the men in The Night Watch carrying many different kinds.
He collected old uniforms, once-fashionable discarded clothes, and embroidered fabrics, from public auctions. He liked to hang these on the walls of his studio.
He was also deeply interested in old head-coverings, instruments, arrows, halberds, daggers, and sabres.
He referred to these as ‘antiques’ and searched for these items enthusiastically through the entire city, and on the market stalls on its bridges.
On his searches, he also noted people on the street whose appearance resembled historical characters.
His collecting habits are said to have greatly influenced the portrayals of characters in his paintings.
At the time, group portraits of important city leaders would decorate the assembly halls to celebrate the members’ significance, and also to promote a sense of importance for the town.
The burghers commissioned Rembrandt to paint them in traditional postures, but Rembrandt responded with an audacious composition that broke all traditional rules.
Rather than replicating the typical arrangement of rows of figures, a custom prevalent at the time, Rembrandt arranged his figures more dynamically.
However, on viewing the painting, everyone from the burghers themselves to the town’s herring-peddlers, thought the picture was dreadful.
The patrons demanded that changes be made, but
Rembrandt stubbornly refused, assuming that in due time he would be proven right.
Van Hoogstraten, a prominent former student of Rembrandt’s, praised the effort to achieve liveliness and unity in the work, but went on to criticise his master stating,
‘I would have preferred if he would have kindled more light into it.’
These remarks were one of the causes of Rembrandt’s fall from grace. The lack of light in the painting led to The Night
Watch being rejected, and Rembrandt’s further decline in popularity followed as other wealthy patrons started to prefer bright colours rather than Rembrandt’s dark portraits.
Rembrandt was a successful and wealthy painter by his late twenties. He married a pleasingly rich heiress, Saskia van
Uylenburgh, in 1634, which further improved his financial situation.
However, young Rembrandt was a spendthrift and his excessive purchases led to many disputes with his in-laws.
Always hungry for cash, and generally considered to be getting increasingly miserly, Rembrandt charged hefty fees from his students, and also made money from the sale of their artworks.
Each student’s parents had to pay him one hundred guilders, even though he did not provide lodging for them, contrary to the usual practice at the time.
Rembrandt of course also had his students assist him in producing his portraits, and memorably had a pupil paint the hands in an important commission of a leading churchman, after the sitter had left the studio.
He would often bid secretly on sales of his own prints to increase the market value of his works. Rembrandt would also deliberately print plates of etchings when they were half complete, so that he could subsequently sell the completed prints as independent works.
He chose to spend very little on his home, and ate only a piece of herring or cheese for lunch. His money-pinching habits were now so ridiculed that his students used to play pranks on him by painting realistic coins on the floor, which Rembrandt spontaneously bent to pick up.
In December 1660, Rembrandt’s finances were in such a parlous state his assets were taken over by his mistress
Hendrickje, and his son Titus.
They dealt with his creditors in exchange for his artworks, leaving Rembrandt with no control over his business matters even as he continued to paint and teach.
Finally, Rembrandt made a successful application for ‘cessio
bonorum’, a more respectable form of bankruptcy that avoided imprisonment.
However, he lost all of his collections, and all of his paintings, which were sold off at pitifully cheap prices.
He was even forced to sell his wife Saskia’s tomb.
But his passion for collecting couldn’t be restrained, and even though he was destitute, he simply could not stop himself from putting in an offer for a Holbein painting that had come up for sale at the same time.
He was, of course, a far greater painter than Holbein, and in any number of his searing self-portraits, he reveals how much the turmoil of his life was etched onto his face.
Perhaps even Rembrandt himself did not fully understand one fact: despite his irksome ways, every few weeks he was creating some of the most piercing and magnificent paintings in our world’s history.