The experience of standing before Rembrandt’s great painting is almost overwhelming, even in its current placement in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The museum was undergoing reconstruction and remodeling while I was there in April. We went through many wonderful rooms before we got upstairs to the large room that it dominates with such power. My first reaction was a response to its vividness, the life of the people who seem to move through its space, and the dominance of its extraordinary colors and light. My second reaction was a realization that no reproduction of this great painting could ever do it justice.
Fortunately, before we saw the painting we had a demonstration by a painter in the Rembrandthuis of how Rembrandt made his paints, using ground materials of lake and madder. Lake is a reference to colors of insect origins, such as the Laq bug and dried red worms. Madder refers to color substances that have vegetable origins. What interested me was the opportunity to participate in making a paint by grinding a substance, an earthen substance derived from stone, and then mixing it with linseed oil and walnut oil until it became one thing – not two things, such as oil and matter. Rembrandt seems to have depended on a pallette of 14 colors from which he then worked his canvases. All that was useful information for me standing before this huge painting if only because I could respond more deeply to the brilliance of the reds, the yellows, the silvers, and the rich dark colors that give the painting its name.
In a word, the vitality of the picture is what overpowers the viewer. The organization of the figures, including those who are partially hidden, is a work of genius which one appreciates after seeing some of the canvases of Rembrandt’s competitors. The Museum at Middleburg holds a half dozen giant group portraits that seem to have been very popular among the wealthy syndics of the 17th century, when the Dutch ruled the seas and had beaten the English into submission. But not one of them, despite the accuracy of their portraits, imparts a sense of life into the composition. Much the same can be said of group photographic portraits in our own time – all of which are lifeless and irrelevant except to those who are positioned centrally. In other words, most of the group portraits were pro forma, routine, and not really expected to be artistic, but simply to be a careful record of a collection of important figures. When we look at them now we respond cooly primarily because we know none of the players in the picture, and the picture is not in and of itself interesting as art.
Not so The Night Watch. We look at the painting and do not need to know who these men are. Indeed, when we do know, that knowledge does not really affect our aesthetic response to the painting. The beautiful girl to the left center was the mascot of the Watch and she bears a resemblance to Rembrandt’s Sabina, but to her right is a mysterious figure in battle gear running purposely away. All the figures seem to have a purpose and are in motion of one sort or another. Action conquers station in this painting, and it imparts a sense of significance missing from virtually all of Rembrandt’s competitors’ similar works.