Rembrandt's Night WatchExcept possibly for religious painting and frescos, portrait painting has traditionally been one of the highest callings to which an artist can rise. In all forms of painting, there are artists and then there are artists! That is, while not every artist can capture a likeness, by definition, every portrait artist can. Now, while this limits the number of portrait artists considerably, those portrait artists who, down through history, have captured more than just a likeness further reduces this number to a few great artists. Capturing more than just a likeness means the ability to capture nuances of the sitter’s personality, demeanour, and lifestyle as well. In the history of painting, perhaps a dozen or so great portrait artists have learned to accomplish this consistently.
With this in mind, consider the fact that, while it is difficult enough to capture in paint that which makes a single subject a distinctive, living, breathing, imperfect, human being, imagine if you will, the difficulty in painting a group of individuals and still managing to capture something more than just a likeness. In this exalted category of portrait painters, the masters can very nearly be counted on the fingers of one hand--Frans Hals, Velázquez, Copley, Sargent, and at the head of the table of course, Rembrandt van Rijn. No man ever did it better or with more style.
Of all his great group portraits, Rembrandt is probably best remembered for his massive, 11'x14' group portrait of a band of civic guards parading through the streets of Amsterdam. The painting is entitled Captain Frans Banning Cocq Mustering His Company. If that sounds unfamiliar, the painting is better known as The Night Watch, though this moniker has proven to be something of a historical misnomer. Because of a severe build-up of dirt and varnish, it was traditionally thought of as a night scene. A recent cleaning however has dispelled this idea. It is a riot of colour--blues, greens, reds, oranges, browns, and most importantly, lemon yellow, in the uniform of the Captain. This is no staid group of interior decorators (as in his "Dutch Masters" group portrait). This is a rambunctious militia group intermingled with street urchins, a pretty young girl (bathed in a yellow glow balancing colouristically the captain's uniform), as well as numerous, seemingly unnecessary, figures melding into a dynamic composition as lively as the 20 or so amazingly distinctive portraits of the individual guards. More than just a likeness, or even twenty likenesses, Rembrandt has captured the group's spirit with incredible fidelity.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
20 May 1998