Pride of place in the Rijksmuseum goes to Rembrandt’s De Nachtwacht (The Night Watch). Dated to 1642, it’s a group portrait of a militia company, the Kloveniersdoelen, one of the armed bands formed in the sixteenth century to defend the United Provinces (later the Netherlands) against Spain. As the Habsburg threat receded, so the militias became social clubs for the wealthy, who were eager to commission their own group portraits as signs of their prestige. Rembrandt charged the princely sum of one hundred guilders to each member of the company who wanted to be in the picture; sixteen – out of a possible two hundred – stumped up the cash, including the company’s moneyed captain, Frans Banningh Cocq, whose disapproval of Rembrandt’s live-in relationship with Hendrickje Stoffels was ultimately to tarnish their friendship. Curiously, The Night Watch is, in fact, a misnomer – the painting got the tag in the eighteenth century when the background darkness was misinterpreted. There were other misconceptions about the painting too, most notably that it was this work that led to the downward shift in Rembrandt’s standing with the Amsterdam elite; in fact, there’s no evidence that the militiamen weren’t pleased with the picture, or that Rembrandt’s commissions dwindled after it was completed. Though not as subtle as much of the artist’s later work, The Night Watch is an adept piece, full of movement and carefully arranged. Paintings of this kind were collections of individual portraits as much as group pictures, and for the artist their difficulty lay in doing justice to every single face while simultaneously producing a coherent group scene. Abandoning convention in vigorous style, Rembrandt opted to show the company preparing to march off – a snapshot of military activity in which banners are unfurled, muskets primed and drums rolled. There are a couple of allegorical figures as well, most prominently a young, spotlit woman with a bird hanging from her belt, a reference to the Kloveniersdoelen’s traditional emblem of a claw. Militia portraits commonly included cameo portraits of the artist involved, but in this case it seems that Rembrandt didn’t insert his likeness, though some art historians insist that the pudgy-faced figure peering out from the back between the gesticulating militiamen is indeed the artist himself.

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