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Course: Europe 1300 - 1800 > Unit 9

Lesson 4: Dutch Republic

Rembrandt, The Night Watch

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Night Watch (Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq), 1642, oil on canvas, 379.5 x 453.5 cm (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

Speakers: Dr Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Created by Steven Zucker and Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

(piano music) - [Voiceover] We're in the Rijksmuseum on an early Sunday morning in order to avoid the crowds that gather in front of Rembrandt's most famous work, in fact, probably the most famous painting in the Netherlands. This is Rembrandt's The Night Watch. - [Voiceover] It's a group portrait, and this is a type of painting that was very specific to the Dutch Republic in the 17th century. - [Voiceover] This is a painting of one of the militia groups of Amsterdam. Now militia groups were meant to defend the city, but by the time Rembrandt paints this, they were largely ceremonial. - [Voiceover] Right, they took part in processions, and parades, and festivities relating to the city, and they symbolized civic pride. - [Voiceover] In fact, one had to pay dues in order to be a member, and it was always a leading citizen that would head it up. - [Voiceover] Right, we're looking at a group of elite citizens of Amsterdam. We should say it was hung with other group portraits of militias in the hall where they would meet. - [Voiceover] And I think this probably really stood out. - [Voiceover] Well look at how it stands out in this gallery. - [Voiceover] Unlike earlier examples, which generally have a kind of even light and are very much like the kind of class portrait you would have in your grade school, here we have people who seem to be in the act of coalescing around an action. - [Voiceover] Right, the captain is giving an order for the militia to gather and move forward, and he's giving that order to his lieutenant. There is a sense in which the portrait function has been played down. - [Voiceover] Rembrandt has decided to impose a kind of hierarchy on the figures. In other words, in most group portraits there would be even light and there would be even attention to each face, and generally even handling of each figure. Now there may be figures that are placed in the foreground, figures that are placed in the background, in fact, there might be different prices that each of those sitters paid for that honor, but here the two men in the foreground are clearly most important. - [Voiceover] Well they're flooded with a beautiful Baroque light that's so dramatic. In fact, the captain's hand casts a stark shadow on the amazingly beautiful uniform worn by his lieutenant. So those fluctuations of light and dark do make this very different from a typical group portrait. - [Voiceover] This is a Baroque painting, not only in the handling of light, but also in the sense of the momentary, in the kind of compositional diagonals that are defined by the spears that are held, by the banner in the upper left, activating the scene. - [Voiceover] Well Hals is also bringing a sense of informality and movement to the genre of the group portrait, but Rembrandt is engrossing us in a narrative. - [Voiceover] Well for example, we see three moments in the use of a long gun. On the left, you see a man who's loading his firearm. This is a precursor to the musket, actually to the rifle. In the center, you see somebody whose legs are bracing and is in the process of shooting, and you can just make out the smoke from the barrel that gets a little bit confused with the rather smoky feathers of the lieutenant's hat. Then on the right side, you have somebody blowing out the used powder from his pan. - [Voiceover] Art historians believe that these images are in some part derived from a manual about using this kind of firearm. This was very much a source of pride for this militia group. This was their weapon, they practiced it in a field nearby, and they're shown using it. But there's so much else going on. There's a dog barking, there's someone playing the drums, there's someone raising the standard of the militia. There's that girl striding forward who's puzzled art historians for a while. - [Voiceover] Actually, if you look closely you can make out that there are two girls, one behind the other, but the one that's most evident we think of as a kind of mascot. If you look closely, in her beautiful dress she's got a dead chicken that's been hung upside down from her belt, the claws very prominent. That refers to the name of this particular militia group. - [Voiceover] So here we are in this room filled with group portraits, and I have to admit that when I look around at the Frans Hals, they're beautifully painted, incredibly informal and lifelike, but I find myself caring less. I don't know the people in the portrait. I can sort of put myself back and imagine the citizens of Amsterdam in the early 17th century who did know these figures, but somehow I find myself caring about the story and getting involved in the story of The Night Watch. - [Voiceover] We can look at the Frans Hals and admire his brush work, the innovations of his composition, the way in which he takes great risks in terms of this tradition of the group portrait, but Rembrandt transcends that category of painting and makes this something where we care about the figures, even if we've lost their identity. - [Voiceover] With the Hals, they're not filled with as much movement. - [Voiceover] Rembrandt is bringing in the lessons of Caravaggio, he's bringing in the lessons of the Italian Baroque, but we have to remember that we're seeing this painting differently than somebody in Rembrandt's era would have seen it. For one thing, the painting was cut down when it was taken out of the militia hall. So we're seeing it not only having lost its top and its sides, but actually somewhat off center. - [Voiceover] It would have been much more readable. There are two figures from the left that are missing. The very top of that arch and some architectural space above are missing. - [Voiceover] And the banner, for example, did not reach the top of the painting. - [Voiceover] It's a little illegible, I think, to us for these reasons. - [Voiceover] And it's also important to remember that the painting wasn't originally called The Night Watch. It was much more specific and referred to the militia that it's representing. - [Voiceover] And the captain who leads it. - [Voiceover] It got that title in the 18th century after the painting had darkened considerably and it was no longer evident that it was a daytime image. - [Voiceover] Although it is still dark, the figures do come out of that darkness in the tradition derived from Caravaggio. - [Voiceover] It still comes out of that Tenebristic tradition of the Italian Baroque and all of the mystery and drama that that imparts. There was another addition to the painting as well. If you look carefully, you see a large shield. That was actually added after most of these men had passed away in order to remember who these men were. - [Voiceover] When you look toward this painting as you enter this gallery and you see the people standing in front, the painting is so lifelike that it almost looks as though the figures here are interacting with the people who are standing in front of it. - [Voiceover] Well look at the amazing foreshortening, for example, of the weapon that the lieutenant is holding, the way in which that moves into our space. - [Voiceover] Or the rifle held by the figure in red, or the captain's hand that comes forward. There's foreshortening everywhere as we move our eye across the canvas. - [Voiceover] But it really has to do with the separateness of each person's involvement in what they are doing and the way in which they're all being called to order, that moment of transition. This is a painting that allows us to see that complex moment when people are moving from their individual thoughts into a formation. The gallery is already filling up. We'd better stop. (piano music)