Posted inCultures

Rembrandt’s The Night Watch: How do we let art grow old?

Illustration by Lizzy Nightingale

In the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam’s museum district, at the end of the long, grand 17th century room is Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. Painted in 1642 for the mayor Captain Banninck Cocq and his guards, the piece depicts the military group in action. The room it is exhibited in, named the Nachtwachtzaal (literally the ‘room of the night watch’), is built around it, with other pieces positioned along each wall leading up to the painting, which hangs alone, taking up the entire far wall. It is one of the most famous pieces in the museum and has had a far reaching legacy, from inspiring symphonies and films, to the Playmobil set you can buy in the gift shop. 

The Rijksmuseum began the project ‘Operation Night Watch’ in 2019 which aimed at restoring the painting, specifically to recreate the missing pieces of the painting which were cut off in 1715 in order for it to fit in Amsterdam Town Hall, despite Rembrandt’s paintings having significant value in the 18th century. The missing pieces removed two figures from the left hand side of the painting which shifts the rest of the figures into a more symmetrical, central position. This painting seemed to have a finished point, when Rembrandt declared it done and was paid handsomely for it, but the painting cannot avoid moving through the ages. It has been vandalised multiple times and restored to what was believed to be its original, and now it is being restored to something last seen over 300 years ago. Restorations change paintings; it is becoming further and further from what Rembrandt himself created and touched, but somehow closer and closer to the original. 

In trying our best to preserve art, it undoubtedly changes, and ‘Operation Night Watch’ decided to highlight this transformation rather than shying away from it. The restoration took place in front of the public, becoming an installation itself. A specially made glass enclosure was built around the painting in the Nachtwachtzaal which allowed the visitors of the gallery to see the artists working on the painting. I was able to visit the Rijksmuseum and watch as the conservators worked and as the painting slowly changed before my eyes. This transformation was a piece itself, also available to see on the Rijksmuseum website, as the work was live streamed. A team of various people were assembled, from scientists doing 3-D scans and studying the chemical composition of the paint, to artists using 17th century techniques. The senior scientist on the project, Robert Erdman, dedicated his ‘thanks to artificial intelligence’ that allowed such an accurate simulation of ‘the original painting’. 

But that’s the thing – it’s not the original painting. It’s only due to our technological advancements that we would ever be able to attempt such a project, technology which Rembrandt could never have dreamed of. Taco Dibbits, the director of the Rijksmuseum, stated that the painting, so famous it has been ‘etched into our collective memory’, is now finally being restored to ‘how Rembrandt intended it’. There seems to be two Nightwatches then: the one we know, sold on postcards and printed on Playmobil packaging; and the ‘original’ The Night Watch from 1642. But actually, there are hundreds of Night Watches. There is the one cut in 1715 and shown in the Amsterdam town hall, the ones that have been vandalised, the rolled up and one stored in the caves of Maastricht during the Second World War, or even the one whose varnish was removed which dramatically lightened the painting. Point being, at each point in time, one version of the painting was considered ‘the original’, displayed with pride and looked at by thousands. We cannot change the way that art will become altered as it passes through the ages, yet every effort seems to be made to freeze it and make it timeless. Restoration is a constant battle against the clock and the older paintings become, the more that technology and money are required, to keep them as ‘the original’.

But as the painting changes and ages through time, so do we. We don’t look at the painting to see the military prowess of Captain Banninck Cocq. I personally look at the painting because I like how intricate it is, and how you can barely take it all in unless you stand right at the end of the gallery. The relationship between the painting and its viewer is vital, and it is also ever-changing. We have no idea what the painting will mean to future generations, but we change it now because we think it is crucial that they see what we saw, and what Rembrandt saw. 

If seeing the original is so important to the sanctity of the piece, then it raises the question: why don’t we do this for every piece? ‘Operation Night Watch’ has cost millions, and will require constant monitoring even after it is finished. It seems unfair to be able to pick and choose which paintings get to survive the decades, and which ones will inevitably fade away. The Night Watch won’t be going anywhere in the art world, but its ambitious restoration reveals the problems around conservation. Art will outlive us, and I do think it is important that future generations get to appreciate and experience what we have, but how far can we push the line with preservation until it becomes a completely new piece? Is it fruitless to fight inevitable change? 

You can follow more updates on the progress ‘Operation Night Watch’ here: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/whats-on/exhibitions/operation-night-watch

The Night Watch is set to be completed next month.