Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606 to 1669) is one of the greatest painters in European early modern history, and is the most important Dutch painter ever. Just as with some major current artists — Prince, Madonna, Bono — one name has always been enough for him. Rembrandt is above all Dutch, and the Dutch have honored him through the centuries by preserving and protecting his work. The Dutch reverence for Rembrandt’s works reflects their own identity as tolerant and free-thinking, but fully nationalist, intellectuals.
His birthplace Leiden, a sophisticated and intellectual university town, claiming to have the most academic and research-oriented university in the Netherlands, today has a statue commemorating his life there. Rembrandt first opened a studio in Leiden in 1624, and never strayed too far from these roots.
Looking at Rembrandt’s most famous work, Night Watch (De Nachtwacht), is instructive for understanding this phenomenon – of Rembrandt and his work as an embodiment of what it means to be Dutch, even today. On display in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Night Watch was painted in 1642. It is, at first glance, an action shot, much like something that a modern newspaper photographer might capture. This is intensely modern, and a break from the earlier art focus on set pieces, stage scenes or portraits. It also resembles modern photography with its dramatic light and dark elements.
Night Watch is variously called a portrait of a militia company or portraits of several leading citizens in their roles as citizen-soldiers, or a portrait of local leaders in the set roles of protectors of the citizens. It was commissioned by a group of local leaders, as was the custom of the time.
But looking closer at Night Watch, you see something much more vibrant, modern and open-minded than a set group portrait of civic leaders. For example, in a place of prominence in the front and center is a child – a female child. For patriarchal society in 1600’s Netherlands, this was quite a departure.
This portrait, with its sense of motion captured in an instant, and its large crowd, complete with lights, drums, weapons, and other accessories, has a party verve – it’s almost a caricature of warlike behavior – as if the locals gathered in a party mode, and are putting on a show of militia behavior, and yet it’s not a war at all, and no one is taking it seriously. The presence of the girl front and center adds to this sensibility. It’s as if these locals are saying in this picture – here we are, and we are ready to be a militia if we have to be, but really we aren’t, and we are entirely too civilized to take it very seriously.
Night Watch down through the ages, along with the remembrance and legacy of Rembrandt in general, has lived a most interesting life with a jaunty air thoroughly in this original spirit. Early in her life, Night Watch suffered the ignomy of having her edges cut off, removing a number of townsfolk from the picture, for the simple reason that the picture was too big for its position on a wall (Night Watch remains a whopping 11 feet by 14 feet in size).
In the 1800’s the Netherlands, in deference to the continuing centrality of Rembrandt and his work, specifically built its new state museum with rooms to accommodate Night Watch and other Rembrandts. Since moving into its new quarters in 1885, Night Watch has left only three times – most dramatically when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. The Dutch, in preparation for the invasion, detached Night Watch from her frame, rolled her up, and hid her, as well as a number of other Dutch masters, in secure quarters under sand dunes near Limburg. Night Watch was hidden for several years, and restored to her prominence after the war, never having been found by the Nazis.
Night Watch was attacked a couple more times after World War II – not this time by a concerted invasion, but by mentally unstable individuals. Both attacks resulted in minor damage, which has been repaired.
Rembrandt remains central to Dutch identity, and a primary transitional painter into early modern times. His use of light and dark as intrinsic design elements, his willingness to flout earlier conventions of painting, his modern sensibilities in creating both action pictures and in individualistic portraits that resonate with more modern self-interest, all make him relevant to modern viewers, despite the passage of over three centuries.
This piece was written by my sister, Nancy Robinett. Nancy is a lawyer in Arizona and Washington and studied law at Leiden University in the Netherlands as part of her law school education. She has seen Night Watch in Amsterdam and highly recommends the experience to anyone traveling to Europe.