Rembrandt Van Rijn The Night Watch
Ever-vigilant and on their guard, Rembrandt's majestic group portrait captures the patience, the inscrutable humility, and the everyday heroism of a neighbourhood militia. Keeping watch over their locality and, in a wider-sense, over the nation itself, the Dutch master's canvas depicts what would not have been an unusual sight in the towns and cities of Holland during heir attempt to win independence from the Spanish. Commissioned at the height of the Dutch Golden Age of painting, Rembrandt delivered the painting in 1642 to the members of the civic militia guard pictured within the frame, and was paid an astronomical sum for his troubles. The Night Watch was originally named, rather drily, The Company of captain Frans Banning Cocq and lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch preparing to march out, perhaps not fully grasping the enduring legacy that this triumphant work would hold in the national zeitgeist.
The two men named in the original title are to be found in the dead centre, anchoring the action and balancing the frequently divergent emotions and lines of sight. In the midst of the thirty-years war that ravaged Central Europe, militiamen frequently pooled their resources to commission a portrait of their brigade; a poignant reminder of a soldier's desire to leave a remnant of their likeness for posterity. Perhaps also aiming to consolidate their group's achievements with an image of national unity, The Night Watch arrives in the present day as a truly commanding canvas which pays witness to the glory of the everyman, and hangs as a testament to the individual who, when gathered together, become more powerful than the sum of their parts. Yet, this is more than a finely-wrought group portrait. Rembrandt's achievement can be found in the way he has rendered in such evocative simplicity the whole gamut of postures, expressions, and movements. The militiamen bustle with energy, intrigue, and curiosity, literally pawing their way through the dark on behalf of their fellow citizens.
Brimming with austerity and humility, in typical style the artist adds a touch of heaven in his vision of commonality. An enigmatic little girl commands an ethereal light that separates her from the posse yet does not capture the attention of the soldiers. Instead, they stand forever poised in their own personal and idiosyncratic manner that suggests if danger presented itself would see their coiled stances spring off beyond the confines of the frame. Steeled against their own individual vulnerability, the men of The Night Watch form one of the ultimate images of democracy, coming together to protect their people from the coming of night.
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