«Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, The Night Watch, 1642, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam When one thinks of the Dutch we often think of tulips, windmills or ...»
Rembrandt’s The Nightwatch :
Epitome of the Dutch Golden Age
Thomas B. Lenihan
Yorktown High School
NEH Seminar for School Teachers, 2013, London and Leiden
The Dutch Republic and Britain
National Endowment for the Humanities
University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, The Night Watch, 1642, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
When one thinks of the Dutch we often think of tulips, windmills or canals. Often one
may also think of their famous and prominent works of art that were produced especially during the Dutch Golden Age that occurred primarily during the seventeenth century. This “golden age” reflected the success of the Dutch Republic as a maritime and commercial power that dominated European and for a period, global trade. Wealthy merchants commissioned and purchased works of art depicting their families, guilds, landscapes and scenes of daily life in the Netherlands. Rembrandt was one of the most dominant and renowned artists of the Dutch Golden Age who art historians regard as one of the great master painters of modern times.
Unlike many artists, Rembrandt was well known and sought after during his lifetime, becoming a very wealthy man. The Nightwatch is one of his most famous works that is often a highlight for anyone visiting the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Painted in 1642, it epitomizes the height of Dutch culture and art during its golden age. This is because of its subject matter, facial expressions and gestures and what this great work of art tells viewers about life, wealth and expectations of citizens who lived in the Dutch Republic during the seventeenth century.
Considered to be Rembrandt’s finest work, The Nightwatch reveals a lot about the types of paintings commissioned by men who were devoted to the state and sought to glorify their lives and successes in the Netherlands.
The Dutch Golden Age was a period of great wealth and prosperity lasting just over one hundred years. It was largely a result of success in shipbuilding, commerce and industries such as textile production. The Netherlands finally achieved complete independence from Spain in 1648 after almost eighty years of on and off fighting. With independence accomplished and recognized at the end of the Thirty Years’ War, the Dutch Republic was able to focus on other pursuits besides war. Their geographic location had always played to their advantage, allowing the rise of a merchant class that would trade goods throughout Europe, Asia and the Americas. It was these merchants that, like in Renaissance Italy, especially sought material goods and works of art to decorate their homes and businesses. The Renaissanceslowly spread north in the sixteenth century and would influence and impact many artists of the Dutch Golden Age.
After the Netherlands achieved independence from Spain, the Dutch Golden Age took off and witnessed the rise of a strong and prosperous merchant class, primarily consisting of Calvinists. The East Indies Company was created and engineers drained lakes in Holland that created more arable land, allowing the Dutch to expand agriculture and use their geographic location to their advantage. The Republic was a unique form of government at a time when most European nations were still monarchies. This decentralization meant there was no dynastic rule at the time, allowing cities to make their own political and economic decisions. In addition, this period would be defined by religious toleration although the country was officially Calvinist.
Successful businessmen sought to enhance their image and spend their money on luxury goods 2 as well as works of art to decorate their homes. The nicest houses in the Dutch Republic were situated by canals in cities such as Amsterdam, Leiden and Utrecht. “As the Republic became more prosperous around 1600, and especially after the Truce of 1609, the market for pictures grew rapidly. This market catered for various interests and levels of income and social status.”1 As time went even the middle class wanted paintings and would purchase smaller works that were more affordable for them. “Most pictures were bought by private, middle-class citizens, known as burghers, from modest artisans to wealthy regents.”2 Unlike most of the rest of Europe, art wasn’t purchased primarily by churches or rulers, but by ordinary citizens. Art in the seventeenth century came to define and exemplify the prosperity and success of the Dutch Republic as one of the great powers of Western Europe.
The most important and popular artist of the Dutch Golden Age was Rembrandt van Rijn.
Born in Leiden to a prosperous miller in 1606, he was well educated and became a master painter at an early age. Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam where he spent most of his life painting scenes from the Bible, classical history and mythology, portraits and scenes of Dutch landscapes and seascapes. His greatest talent was in portraying facial expressions and moods of individuals and groups of people from the past and contemporary life in the Netherlands, including many selfportraits. Rembrandt was also an art teacher and collector. He was famous and sought after during his lifetime. One of his most famous paintings, The Nightwatch, as it was later called, was commissioned by an Amsterdam militia company in 1642.
The Nightwatch shows a company of militia officers gathering for a procession in a ceremonial role. About a dozen men are featured in the painting, appearing to be getting ready to march into battle. But that is not what they are doing for the Dutch were not at war at the time and this group isn’t looking to fight. Militia companies, or schutterijen, sought to maintain order and quell disturbances in the towns of the Netherlands.3 These Dutch civic militias were often made up of craft masters, shopkeepers, and dairy, herring or timber dealers.4 They were basically a volunteer force that sought to protect their towns and cities, showing a civic devotion to the place where many of them were born and raised. “The officers of the militia companies were usually closely related to members of the city government.”5 It appears they were leaders within the community that sought to defend themselves if attacked, help neighbors who needed it 1 Mariët Westermann, A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic, 1585-1718 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 33.
3 Jonathan I. Israel, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477-1806 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 121.
3 and restore order when unrest occurred. These militias were a lot like guilds in that they had a primary function but also engaged in cultural, social and religious activities and recreation.6 “Schutters met regularly for shooting practice, and social events, as well as for parades, and patrolling the city gates and walls. Each company had its own building with shooting range attached and, during the summer months, it was usual to hold monthly shooting competitions, ending in elaborate feasts. Like other guilds, each company had its own emblems and collection of plate and finery. From the 1520s onwards, beginning in Amsterdam, it became the custom to hang up large group portraits of members of contingents.”7 This explains the commissioning of The Nightwatch by an Amsterdam company to be prominently displayed in their hall. It reminded them of their duties, demonstrated their social importance roles, and inspires future generations to also serve the community.
The men portrayed in The Nightwatch were doing their community duty, not just posing for a master artist in their finest militia uniforms. Most city policing in the Dutch Republic during the seventeenth century was done by these schutters. “The neighborhood watches saw it as their task not only to guard their quarter, preventing robbery and crime, but also to enforce decency and apprise the town’s schout, magistrates, or consistory of unacceptable behavior.
Policing had to devolve upon the neighborhoods in this way. For the civic militia, responsible for keeping order, and maintaining a guard at the town-hall and city gates, at night, would only be called out in the event of serious disturbances.”8 Rembrandt’s painting portrays these men as if they are about to march into Amsterdam perhaps to deal with an uprising. They all appear to have a role to play and look focused, prepared and ready to go. Most are carrying a gun and the two men in the center look like they are about to march off the canvas itself. The man at center left dressed in black, wearing a red sash and gesturing, is Captain Frans Banning Cocq. He is obviously the militia’s leader, summoning his lieutenant to his immediate left and the others to march.9 Clearly they have practiced for this very moment, for they all appear to be following Banning Cocq and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch, Lord of Vlaardingen.
We know a lot about The Nightwatch painting due to the original commission and recent work done by a Dutch historian to identify all the people portrayed. Each sitter paid a share depending on his prominence in the painting.10 Obviously Captain Banning Cocq paid the most since he is the largest figure and as the militia leader probably made the most money. He was 6 Ibid.
7 Israel, 121-22.
8 Ibid., 680.
9 Westermann, 148.
10 Westermann, 148.
4 captain of one of six subdivisions of the Amsterdam Militia Company of Musketeers in 1642.11 Soon after the painting was completed, Banning Cocq was elected burgomaster of Amsterdam a position he held on and off until his death in 1655.12 In 2009, Bas Dudok van Heel revealed each person’s identity after spending years conducting research. He also located the great hall of the civic guard building as the room where Rembrandt originally painted it (now a hotel in Amsterdam).13 Around 1715 a shield was added to the painting that contained the names of particular figures in the portrait.14 “Only a few of the names were known to belong to particular figures in the portrait. Dudok van Heel set out in pursuit of the men behind the remaining names. He researched their families, their financial position and their business contacts. Van Heel even found items of clothing and accessories depicted in the Night Watch mentioned in inventories of estates.”15 This shows that through careful research and detective work, one can make progress in solving a mystery, something historians and art historians often engage in. By identifying each person, we can learn more about them and what they may have contributed to the guild and militia. Van Heel also collated the information with the age of the various militiamen in 1642, enabling him to link each name to a figure within the painting.16 Like many works of art, The Nightwatch tells viewers a story and each figure present is an important person who plays a role within that story, whether real or imagined.
When analyzing The Nightwatch there is a lot to see, describe and contemplate. While your eye is immediately drawn to the middle where we see the captain gesturing and marching toward us, flanked by his lieutenant, we also see many other faces, colors, expressions and items in the painting. The other person that stands out is one of two females to the immediate right of Banning Cocq who appears to perhaps be an angel. It looks like a light is shining on her and she’s wearing a regal looking golden colored dress and crown. Turns out she’s Mareike, a prominent maiden who has a fowl bird suspended from her dress.17 Some have argued Mareike is the essential spirit of the painting and one theory states that she was a dwarf.18 She is the mascot holding the company’s emblem, the clawed chicken.19 In front of her is a man dressed in 11 Peter Greenaway, Nightwatching: A View of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (Amsterdam: Veenman Publishers, 2006), XIII.
13 “Rembrandt’s Night Watch Unraveled: Identity of All the Militiamen Are Finally Revealed”, March 14, 2009, accessed July 16, 2013, www.artdaily.com.
17 Westermann, 149.
18 Greenaway, XXXVII.
5 all red, holding a gun that he appears to be loading. Behind these central figures are more militiamen, some holding pikes and muskets and one holding a flag, probably of the militia. To the right of the painting is a man holding a large drum and behind him appears to be another prominent man wearing a ruff around his neck, the only other man wearing this besides the captain. He too is gesturing and looking at someone else engaged in conversation. Just below them is a dog, which practically blends in with the dark background and looks to be growling or snarling. The dog may represent fidelity to the militia and like them he is ready to patrol and if necessary attack.