A Hidden Sketch Is Discovered in Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’

The Night Watch painting itself, a grand composition featuring a central captain surrounded by men with weapons, a drummer, a dog, and a pale young woman wearing a white dress
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Night Watch, 1642 Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum

Researchers have uncovered the traces of a preparatory sketch underneath The Night Watch (1642), the largest and most famous of Rembrandt van Rijn’s paintings, the Rijksmuseum announced this week.

Scholars discovered the hidden sketch as part of “Operation Night Watch,” a two-and-a-half-year-long project by the Amsterdam museum to restore the gargantuan oil painting, reports Daniel Boffey for the Guardian. Rembrandt’s 11.9-by-14.3-foot masterpiece features a chaotic array of Amsterdam militiamen, an enigmatic young woman and other figures, all framed by dramatic light and shadow.

Curators had previously assumed that Rembrandt probably relied on early sketches to guide the three-year-long process of composing and perfecting the painting. But “we didn’t have the evidence” to back up that claim, museum director Taco Dibbits says in a statement.

“[N]ow we have the proof, giving us a real understanding for the first time of how the painting was made,” adds Dibbits. “We have discovered the genesis of The Night Watch.”

Researchers used Macro-XRF imaging, a relatively new type of X-ray technology, to scan The Night Watch’s canvas for traces of calcium. The contours of these black-and-white scans reveal where Rembrandt once painted preparatory sketches, using a beige paint with high chalk content (and therefore high in calcium).

A Hidden Sketch Is Discovered in Rembrandt's 'Night Watch'
Researchers used special scanning technology that created a map of the sketch by detecting the high levels of calcium in the chalk-rich paint Rembrandt for his preparatory outlines in The Night Watch. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum

The newly revealed sketch offers a glimpse into Rembrandt’s creative process as he worked on the canvas and changed his mind about certain compositional elements. The chalk-paint sketch reveals that he initially planned to include several pointed spears sticking above the heads of the company. He also planned to paint feathers onto the elaborate helmet of militiaman Claes van Cruijsbergen, but later painted over them, per the statement.

All told, the new scans “[give] us the feeling we can peek over Rembrandt’s shoulder while he was working on The Night Watch,” notes Rijksmuseum head curator Pieter Roelofs in the statement. “It is fascinating to see how he’s searched for the right composition.”

Close study of the canvas also revealed several major conservation concerns that the museum plans to address. Most urgently, the canvas developed several large ripples on its upper left side when it was housed in a temporary gallery during renovations from 2003 to 2013, reports Mike Corder for the Associated Press.

In January, curators will remove the large canvas from its 1970s wooden frame and affix it to a new stretcher. The careful process should flatten these deformations in the canvas over a period of three months, reports Martin Bailey for the Art Newspaper.

New research also indicates that a dog at the bottom of the composition has faded over the centuries, per the Guardian. The face of the musketeer to the left of the captain has deteriorated so much that canvas threads are visible; meanwhile, black dots and discolored paint have marred other parts of the composition, the museum reports.

The black clothing and red sash of militia captain Frans Banninck Cocq, depicted in the center of the composition, has also suffered wear and tear. Cocq commissioned The Night Watch as a portrait of himself and his civic guards to hang in the company’s Amsterdam banquet hall.

Famed for its size and dramatic composition, The Night Watch is considered by many to epitomize Dutch 17th-century painting. Rembrandt created this work at the peak of the so-called “Dutch Golden Age,” a period of unprecedented economic growth in the country bolstered by Dutch colonization and traders’ enslavement of African people.

Rijksmuseum’s researchers continue to yield new insights into Rembrandt’s best-known painting. In June, the team announced that they had used artificial intelligence technology to recreate what the edges of the canvas might have looked like before 1715, when it was trimmed in order to fit through the door to hang in Amsterdam’s town hall. (Someone removed about nine inches from the top, five inches from the bottom, three inches from the right side and about two feet from the left, as Nina Siegal reports for the New York Times.)

Last year, meanwhile, the museum debuted a stunning 44.8-gigapixel composite scan of the painting. Available to access online, the hyper-resolution image allows viewers to pore over The Night Watch’s every detail, from brushstrokes to stray paint splatters.

A Hidden Sketch Is Discovered in Rembrandt's 'Night Watch'
A dog at the bottom of the composition has faded dramatically over the centuries, say researchers. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum

In January, curators will remove the large canvas from its 1970s wooden frame and affix it to a new stretcher. The careful process should flatten these deformations in the canvas over a period of three months, reports Martin Bailey for the Art Newspaper.

New research also indicates that a dog at the bottom of the composition has faded over the centuries, per the Guardian. The face of the musketeer to the left of the captain has deteriorated so much that canvas threads are visible; meanwhile, black dots and discolored paint have marred other parts of the composition, the museum reports.

The black clothing and red sash of militia captain Frans Banninck Cocq, depicted in the center of the composition, has also suffered wear and tear. Cocq commissioned the Night Watch as a portrait of himself and his civic guards to hang in the organization’s Amsterdam banquet hall.

A Hidden Sketch Is Discovered in Rembrandt's 'Night Watch'
Rembrandt changed his mind several times as he worked on The Night Watch. He originally drew an additional sword between the captain and the liutenant, the outline of which becomes visible in scans (right).  Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum

Famed for its size and dramatic composition, The Night Watch is considered by many to epitomize Dutch 17th-century painting. Rembrandt created this work at the peak of the so-called “Dutch Golden Age,” a period of unprecedented economic growth in the country bolstered by Dutch colonization and traders’ enslavement of African people.

“Operation Night Watch” continues to yield new insights into Rembrandt’s best-known painting. In June, Rijksmuseum researchers announced that they had used artificial intelligence technology to recreate what the edges of the canvas might have looked like before 1715, when it was trimmed to hang in Amsterdam’s town hall. (Someone removed about nine inches from the top, five inches from the bottom, three inches from the right side and about two feet from the left, as Nina Siegal reports for the New York Times.)

Last year, meanwhile, the museum debuted a stunning 44.8-gigapixel composite scan of the painting. Available to access online, the high-resolution image allows viewers to pore over The Night Watch’s every detail, from brushstrokes to stray paint splatters.

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