Painting of the Day

4 Mar

The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq (The Night Watch). by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). Oil on canvas, 1642. Currently on view at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.


Notes from Stokstad and Cothren’s Art History, 4th Edition:

In1642, Rembrandt was one of several artists commissioned by a wealthy civic-guard company to create large group portraits of its members for its new meeting hall. The result, The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, carries the idea of a group portrait as a dramatic event even further. Because a dense layer of grime had darkened and obscured its colors, this painting was once thought to be a nocturnal scene and was therefore called The Night Watch. After cleaning and restoration in 1975-1976, it now exhibits a natural golden light that sets afire the palette of rich colors—browns, blues, olive-green, orange, and red—around a central core of lemon yellow in the costume of the lieutenant. To the dramatic group composition, showing a company forming for a parade in an Amsterdam street, Rembrandt added several colorful but seemingly unnecessary figures. While the officers stride purposefully forward, the rest of the men and several mischievous children mill about. The radiant young girl in the left middle ground, carrying a chicken with prominent claws (klauw in Dutch), may be a pun on the kind of guns (klower) that gave the name (the Kloveniers) to the company. Chicken legs with claws also are part of its coat of arms. The complex interactions of the figures and the vivid, individualized likenesses of the militiamen make this one of the greatest group portraits in the Dutch tradition.

My comments:

This painting evokes such a strong sense of motion that it almost feels like a painting of the civic guard company working on an ordinary night, a “genre” scene of sorts, rather than a portrait. But since many portraits, especially those made by Rembrandt, were intended to reveal the inner identity of the subject rather than just capture his or her likeness, it’s fitting that the portrait depicts the Kloveniers with a milieu of action occurring around them. It communicates to the viewers that the civil guard company keeps quite busy, and that they don’t work in a workshop or study, but among the people that they serve in the open, keeping watch. Rembrandt is also careful, however, to make sure that we understand who the subject is in the painting and do not get overwhelmed by the panoply of figures looking and moving in different directions at different levels in the picture plane. He does this both by placing the main officer and lieutenant in the center of the composition and shining the most light on them, a light that really is inexplicable due to the height at which the light source would logically reside as well as the pointed line of direction it follows.

It’s interesting that the textbook mentions “seemingly unnecessary” figures in the composition. One of the aspects of picture making that we discuss almost every class in Studio Art is the idea of executing intentional formal choices in the painting. Any time an artist creates a formal element in his or her artwork that will make the work steer farther away from the realistic and closer into the realm of the contrived, this product that becomes what the viewer sees must stem from a conscious, intentional decision on the part of the artist. If something such as incorrect perspective or unnatural tonal changes are a mistake in a painting, they swiftly lose their expressive power, and the painting will ultimately just seem flat and devoid of meaning, like an orator with nothing to say. But it is clear that all of Rembrandt’s formal calculations in this painting are completely intentional, for it shows in a painting that captivatingly employs light and crafts a dynamic composition that provides enough interest for hours of viewing.

One Response to “Painting of the Day”

  1. tara March 5, 2013 at 2:45 pm #

    such a treat to see a Rembrandt . i’d love to see a side by side comparison of before cleaning adn after cleaning.

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