In the still of the night

Standing tall at 14 feet, this painting from three-and-a-half centuries ago, is like no other...

July 29, 2019 05:00 pm | Updated 05:00 pm IST

In the days before cameras and “selfies” were invented, people who wanted pictures of themselves paid artists to paint their portraits. One of the most famous group portraits is called The Night Watch, by Dutch painter, Rembrandt van Rijn (pronounced Rem brunt vun Rhine ).

In the early 17 century, Dutch cities had to defend themselves from Spanish invaders. Groups of men would form armed forces called civic militias. One such group in Amsterdam asked Rembrandt to paint them.


Rembrandt did not simply line the men up and paint them standing still like the usual portraits of that time. In his picture, there is a lot of action — drums, men inspecting their muskets, a man holding a flag, a barking dog. Their leader, Captain Banninck Cocq, and his lieutenant are in the centre, bathed in a bright golden light. You can even see the pattern on their coats.

In another brightly lit part, a girl stands with a dead chicken tied to her waist. Some people think Rembrandt painted his wife, Saskia’s face on the girl. She is actually a mascot for the company of guards. The chicken’s claws are an emblem used by the guards. In the back row of figures, to the upper left of the Captain is part of a face. Only one eye of the person is visible, and he wears a beret much like Rembrandt did. The artist put himself inside the picture.

The real name of the painting is Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq , but people started calling it The Night Watch . This was because dust and varnish collected on it over time to make it look like a night scene, though it was really supposed to look like early morning.

In 2019, it will be 350 years since Rembrandt died.

More than two million people visit the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam every year to look at this large picture, which hangs over 14 feet long and almost 12 feet tall.

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