Under the thick paint of Rembrandt’s most renowned work, The Night Watch, a secret Rembrandt drawing has been unearthed, revealing for the first time the artist’s original concept for the massive painting.
The preliminary sketch, which was created using beige paint with a high chalk component, was discovered after a two-and-a-half-year inquiry at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam by restorers, data specialists, and art historians.
Before the painting’s completion in 1642, Rembrandt van Rijn made a number of adjustments to his arrangement of 34 distinct figures and the array of feathers, spears, and swords surrounding them, according to the drawing.
After being commissioned by Amsterdam’s civic guard for a banqueting hall at its Kloveniersdoelen headquarters, the Night Watch, representing a militia under the direction of Capt Frans Banninck Cocq, took three years to complete.
Due to the artist’s use of a chalk-rich paint that could be picked up by the newest scanning technology, Pieter Roelofs, the Rijksmuseum’s head of paintings, claimed it was feasible to make Rembrandt’s hidden sketch apparent via a “calcium map” of the piece.
“We see straight lines and curves,” he said. He drew an early drawing for the building in the backdrop using the curves. You may wonder why this is so crucial. It gives us the impression that we’re looking over Rembrandt’s shoulder while he worked on The Night Watch.
“We’ve always assumed Rembrandt drew it on the campus before beginning this complicated composition.” However, that was always a presumption.
“Now that we can see beneath the surface better than ever before, we have proof, and for the first time, we have real insight into Rembrandt’s creative process.” It’s intriguing to watch how he went about finding the correct mix. The roots of The Night Watch have been identified.”
Staff working on Operation Night Watch have been employing cutting-edge technology to get new insights into the artwork ahead of its restoration since the summer of 2019.
Rembrandt used the impasto method, which entails applying thick paint to the canvas in order on create a three-dimensional structure that reflects light.
To reach under the layers, imaging techniques were applied. They discovered that Rembrandt painted feathers for the militiaman Claes van Cruijsbergen’s helmet, but afterwards painted them over.
There are hints that there was an extra sword in the original between the captain and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch, and he drew more spears than he painted. He also changed the leg position of sergeant Rombout Kemp.
“You might wonder why Rembrandt changed his mind,” Roelofs stated. “We have no idea.” But, since Van Cruijsbergen is at the center of the composition, he probably plucked the feathers because they drew too much attention.”
The current study on The Night Watch was primarily conducted in order to prepare for its first repair in nearly 40 years.
Despite traces of wear, discolouration, and paint loss over time, the artwork is believed to be in extremely excellent condition despite having withstood a turbulent four centuries, including transit into a bunker in coastal dunes at the outset of WWII.
The priority, according to Roelofs, was to address the distortion of the canvas, which was apparent in especially in its upper left-hand corner during its sojourn in the Philips wing of the Rijksmuseum between 2003 and 2013, while the main building was being renovated.
The picture will be removed from its existing wooden stretcher, which has kept the painting in place with metal tacks since 1975, according to Petria Noble, the museum’s director of painting conservation.
“We believe the wooden stretcher is contributing to the problem because a wooden stretch reacts differently to the canvas,” she said. It will then be placed on a new strainer made of a non-reactive material that we believe will make the painting much more stable. The deformations should then relax, and the painting should take on a flatter, more equal appearance.
“One of the first things you should do is remove those tacks extremely softly and in a methodical manner. And, of course, we’ll need to apply some light pressure to coax those deformations along the left and right edges out.”
The procedure will begin in January and last up to three months, after which other conservation procedures, such as the removal of many varnish layers from the work’s surface, will be explored.
Thanks to Daniel Boffey at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.