Night Watch (Rembrandt)

I normally avoid art galleries. I feel very uncomfortable walking in an art gallery, staring at a painting and not being able to connect with it – it makes me feel shallow and void. Now if you multiply this by the number of paintings in a gallery…you can imagine the miserable state of mind when I exit.
People say one does not need knowledge or technical skills to appreciate art. Just unleash your imagination and the magic will happen!
No, this is not enough. 
Our mere eyes cannot distinguish between the difficulty to depict the sun and the muscles of a horse; our mere imagination is not able to discern symbols and history without a context that makes Mona Lisa so mysterious...
One does not have to be a painter, but one has be prepared (read on wiki, online, talk to a knowledgeable friend  etc.) before consuming art.
On Saturday I went to Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam – it is a Dutch national museum dedicated to art and history in Amsterdam and the Netherlands. They have more than 8000 objects, yet I visited it for only one single painting: this painting.

This is The Night Watch by Rembrandt painted in 1642.
Why is it so important? What is so special about it? Do you find it special? Luckily for me, I went with a connoisseur, but had I gone alone…I would have skipped this obscure and apparently gloomy picture.
What you cannot see here is its size…it is a massive painting, as big as a wall. It is big, but not the biggest in the world. 
Could it be painting technique chiaroscuro that was very usual for baroque painting? Possibly…but this bold contrast between light and dark is to be found in most of Rembrandt works. 
What truly intrigued me was the story behind these colors.
This painting was commissioned by a voluntary militia club (hereafter called Rifle club). Rembrandt was very courageous to accept as it was very hard to paint a group of people in one single painting and ensure that everyone is happy with their position, their stance and expression of their face. And the people were quite picky as they have paid 100 guilders per head (which is approx. 1200 in euros – making use of my finance degree J). If somebody was displeased with the work it meant repainting the picture over and over again. The standard format for this kind of painting was aligning everyone in a row so that they could be equally exposed.  But that would have looked very boring and blant. Rembrandt made a very bold decision to depict these policemen in action. Action or motion is what made this picture famous. One has to understand the context of this painting to fully appreciate and understand it.
These were peaceful times for the Netherlands. No wars, no belligerent attacks - so no situations where these brave men could have showcased their courage and bravery. They wanted to be considered heroes. They were craving for some glory so that their families and friends could be proud of them, so that people on the street would respectfully salute them echoing their names…but all they did was gather at night, have a drink, crack a joke and go home towards the morning…with no glory behind.
That’s why they loved this picture. It depicted them in motion getting ready to protect their territory.
The contrast of light makes 3 figures stand out. The captain, the tall man in front wearing black, red and white sash (the symbols of Amsterdam), the lieutenant - wearing some impeccable golden garments and this blond little girl.  The little girl is not a real personage. She is more a mascot, a symbol of the club…you can see that she has got a dead chicken hanging from her belt. The claws are very visible and the claws also being the symbol of this Rifle club and the dead chicken is a symbol of the defeated enemy.The captain had to be offered the best place and exposure, which you can see: he is in the centre of this motion, his hand as if raising a concern and a call to everyone else. He is like a conductor of an orchestra. He is taller than everybody else, due to this step forward and he is casting a shadow on the beautiful cloths of Lieutenant. Rembrandt also tried to make the Lieutenant shine somehow…so he dressed him up in this glimmering golden outfit. However, in order to confirm one more the power of the captain over everything else…you can see that between the thumb and pointer of the shadow finger there is a lion, the symbol of power and strength that the captain can grasp in his one hand.Of course, not everybody is as visible and happy with his position. For example, there is a personage here whom you can barely see…and obviously he was unhappy that his friends might doubt his presence in the picture. That’s why Rembrandt painted a shield with all the present names so that there is no uncertainty. This was a picture of their glory.

This painting is much more complex than my description but I will stop here. And come back to my beginning and stress the importance of being prepared for art. It makes is so much more valuable and enriching. And you don’t have to admire all paintings in an art gallery. Pick one or 2 but make the most out of it and make sure that next time when you here the name of a painting you visited…there is much more to it than a dry memory of its existence.
My prepared speech # 4 from Competent Communication - Toastmaster.

2013-11-11 20:53:00


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