Visitors to the Rijksmuseum can now enjoy “The Night Watch” in its original form, for the first time in 300 years.
From the museum:
Several sections were cut from “The Night Watch” in the past. The Operation Night Watch team has successfully recreated these missing pieces, which have now been mounted around Rembrandt’s world-famous work. This reconstruction based on the 17th-century copy attributed to Gerrit Lundens was made with the help of artificial intelligence. The result is a significant component in the art historical research conducted as part of Operation Night Watch. The reconstructed painting will remain on public display at the Rijksmuseum for the coming months.
“‘The Night Watch’ as it is displayed in the Rijksmuseum is etched into our collective memory,” said Taco Dibbits, director of the Rijksmuseum. “Thanks to this reconstruction, we can now see that the composition as it was painted by Rembrandt was even more dynamic. It is wonderful to be able to now see with our own eyes ‘The Night Watch’ as Rembrandt intended it to be seen.”
There are a number of differences between “The Night Watch” as we know it today and the painting in its original form. On the left of the reconstructed version, for example, we can now see three figures on a bridge: two militiamen and a young boy. And the painting’s main figures, Captain Frans Banninck Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch, are now positioned to the right of centre, rather than in the middle of the canvas. These factors add a considerable sense of movement and dynamism to the painting.
It is now also clearer that the powder boy in the left foreground is grasping a balustrade. The boy has furthermore gained space into which he can move, with the result that he seems more clearly to be running away, ahead of the militia.
The helmet worn by the militiaman on the extreme right is now complete, and there is space above the standard, making the motion of the ensign as he raises the company’s colors more convincing.
Art historical research
The reconstruction of “The Night Watch” is an important component of the art historical research conducted as part of Operation Night Watch. By reconstructing the missing sections, printing them on panels, and temporarily placing them around the original painting, researchers can now experience the effect of the painting in its original form.
Operation Night Watch is the largest and most wide-ranging research project ever conducted into Rembrandt’s masterpiece. The research began in summer 2019, and conservation work will only commence following completion of this phase.
Rembrandt finished “The Night Watch” in 1642. The militia commissioned Rembrandt to make the painting for its new banqueting hall at its headquarters, the Kloveniersdoelen. Hanging in this hall, the painting formed part an ensemble comprising seven militia portraits, or schuttersstukken. Experiencing the original composition allows for a better comparison with the six other works. It is not the museum’s intention to incorporate the lost pieces in the actual restoration of “The Night Watch.”
In 1715, the painting was moved to what was then Amsterdam’s City Hall, now the Royal Palace on Dam Square. It was too large for its new location, so it was reduced in size. Strips were cut from all four sides, with the largest section being removed from the left side.
“The fate of the missing pieces of ‘The Night Watch’ remains a great mystery,” said Pieter Roelofs, Head of Paintings and Sculptures, Rijksmuseum. “Each generation has used the tools available to it to attempt to reconstruct the painting. Now we are doing the same, using the most advanced techniques currently available.”
We know what the painting originally looked like thanks to the copy commissioned by Captain Frans Banninck Cocq – and probably painted by Gerrit Lundens in the period from 1642 to 1655. This copy served as the basis for the reconstruction made with the help of artificial intelligence.
In the first step, the team taught Rembrandt’s technique and use of color to so-called ‘artificial neural networks’. Once this phase was complete, the computer recreated the missing parts in the style of Rembrandt.
“This project testifies to the key importance of science and modern techniques in the research being conducted into ‘The Night Watch,'” said Robert Erdmann, Senior Scientist, Rijksmuseum. “It is thanks to artificial intelligence that we can so closely simulate the original painting and the impression it would have made.”
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