Rembrandt, Militia Company of Capt (Nightwatch), 1639-42
This painting is without a doubt Rembrandt’s most famous, and seen as the national painting of the Dutch. Although it has lots of nationalistic baggage attached to it, this work is undeniably one of the most important 17th century paintings in terms of sheer ambition. The title Nightwatch was given to the painting in a later century because it had darkened from smoke and a dark varnish applied to protect the paint; however, the image actually depicts Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch leading the Second Precinct Company out of the city walls, presumably to perform some important militia duty. A myth pervades popular culture that this painting was not successful, or that Rembrandt’s eventual bankruptcy was a result of the “failure” of this work: both ideas are patently untrue. For a commissioned portrait of this ambition, Rembrandt needed special permission from the patrons to create the unusually bustling action, and it is certain that each patron signed off on his depiction within the painting.
In the image, Captain Cocq is leading his militia out of the city to perform some duty; there is a sense of chaos and normal disorganization that would be realistic for an activity of this sort. Rembrandt moves the viewer’s eye through the painting by using various diagonals, color, and light that converge to create a sense of unified action that hasn’t quite coalesced into a unified procession, giving the painting its dynamism. For the figure of Captain Cocq, who is the main figure pictured on the left, Rembrandt plays with light to highlight his face and hands, while using extra paint layered on in thick impasto to almost sculpt his figure and give it an extraordinary three-dimensional quality. Rembrandt is probably aware of this rough style from Frans Hals, who employed it frequently in his portraits.