The Night Watch

The Night Watch (1642) by Rembrandt van Rijn is one of the most famous paintings in the world. Rembrandt was the first to depict the figures in a group portrait in action, showing the civic guardsmen taking up their positions in order to march out. His manipulation of light was also unprecedented. 

The Night Watch (1642) by Rembrandt Harmensz van RijnRijksmuseum

Captain Frans Banninck Cocq’s hand seems to stick right out of the painting. With this gesture he orders his lieutenant to call the company into action: the militiamen have to march out.

The captain’s hand casts a shadow on the costume worn by Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch. This indicates the direction from which the light falls in the painting.

Rembrandt placed the more important people in the light, such as the ensign here, and minor ones in the shade. Such strong contrasts of light and dark were uncommon in 17th-century group portraits; usually all of the sitters are evenly lit.

This is the first civic guard painting in which the men are shown in action. In other militia portraits the guardsmen are arranged in neat, static rows, while in the Night Watch they look and move in all directions.

Hanging from the girl’s waist-band is a chicken with large claws, behind which can just be seen a kind of pistol known as a ‘klover’. The claws and the klover were the symbols of this militia company, the ‘Kloveniers’, or Arquebusiers, and the girl serves as the company’s ‘mascot’.

Sergeant Rombout Kemp points to the left. Rembrandt introduced action into the painting by means of this gesture.

This figure with just one eye visible and wearing a beret may well be Rembrandt himself. The exposed part of the face bears a resemblance to some of his self-portraits.

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