Over the course of the centuries, the Nightwatch has repeatedly suffered. Despite the tightest possible security, this work of art of national importance has turned out to be quite vulnerable. While the government went to extreme lengths to keep the painting safe during wartime, its greatest threats were in times of peace. Nonetheless, it has survived multiple relocations and targeted attacks.
Rembrandt spent many years working on the Nightwatch. In 1642, when he finishes the painting, he presents it to his patrons: the guardsmen of the Amsterdam Kloveniersgilde. In the guild’s festival and meeting room, the Nightwatch is hung on a long wall near the chimney. It would remain there for more than 70 years.
In lots of ways, the Nightwatch differs from the other military themed paintings in the room, and not all sitters are clearly visible. Many therefore believe that the company was not particularly pleased with the result, but proof to support this has never been offered. Quite the contrary in fact – seeing that Rembrandt received 1600 guilders for the painting, a king’s ransom at the time. Moreover, the Nightwatch was hung in the room of the Kloveniersdoelen, as had been previously agreed. The proud Frans Banninck Cocq even had a water colour of the Nightwatch painted for his personal collection.
By 1715, the militia guilds are well past their heyday, and the Amsterdam city government now decides to relocate the Nightwatch to the city hall on Dam Square. There is one problem, however: the Nightwatch is simply too big and will not fit in the allocated space. And so it is decided to cut off a sizeable section from the painting. This particular piece of the canvas has disappeared, never to be found again.
In 1816, the Rijksmuseum moves into the Trippenhuis on Kloveniersburgwal. It’s not easy to see, but the Trippenhuis facade actually comprises two identical houses, mirrored in design. The Nightwatch was hung in the ‘’Big Hall’ of the house to the left. In 1885, the new and still current building of the Rijksmuseum is completed, and the entire collection, including Rembrandt’s military piece, is moved to its new location. The Nightwatch is given pride of place, at the very heart of the new Rijksmuseum.
Over the centuries, the painting has carried different titles, but the name that stuck, ‘the Nightwatch’, was definitely not the one Rembrandt had in mind. By the 19th century, the varnish layer that covered the painting had become dirty and darkened. Back then, the only conclusion that could be drawn was that the militia had been assembled in the hours of the night. That’s how it earned its current name, the Nightwatch. It was not until after the canvas had been cleaned that the militia members proved to be standing in a dark space lit by daylight.
On 13 January 1911, a visitor suddenly steps across the cord that is there to keep people at a distance from the Nightwatch. Pulling out a cobbler’s knife, he repeatedly lashes out at the painting. Guards manage to subdue him before he can cause permanent damage. He turned out to be a sailor who had been declared unfit for work and who, out of frustration, wanted to take revenge on the government. He is sentenced to one year of imprisonment.
By the late 1930s, the threat of a new world war has become imminent. The country’s chief works of art now need to be moved to a safe location. The dunes along the Dutch west coast seem safe enough, so a start is made with constructing purpose-built art storage bunkers near Heemskerk, Zandvoort and Castricum.
The Rijksmuseum is facing a monumental task: approximately 2,000 paintings and more than 30.000 precious artefacts need to be relocated to their temporary safe storage. The Nightwatch ends up in the knight’s hall of Radboud Castle, in the town of Medemblik.
When the Germans invade the Netherlands, only the art bunker in Castricum is finished. On 13 May 1940, dr. Schmidt Degener, then director of the Rijksmuseum, decides that is where the Nightwatch should be moved to. Upon its arrival, the painting is laid out on a lawn in order to remove its frame. Next, the Nightwatch is taken down to the storage space, several metres below the Castricum dune sands. About a year later, the painting is again moved, now to a bunker near Heemskerk.
For a long time, the dunes remained a safe area, but as the war progresses, the frontlines are also getting nearer to the coast. This prompts the Germans to build a defence line that would protect them against an Allied invasion. Once again, the priceless Dutch works of art are under threat, and can no longer remain hidden in the dunes.
And so it is decided to build a large vault in the marl caves of the Sint-Pietersberg, in the province of Limburg. On 24 March 1942, the Nightwatch is installed there. The vault offers protection to a total of 750 paintings, and is guarded 24/7 by police and museum staff.
In July 1945, the vault in Limburg is cleared out, and the Nightwatch is put on a boat to Amsterdam. After years of travelling and being hidden away in castles, dunes and caves, the Nightwatch finally returns home: to the Rijksmuseum. In the museum’s inner courtyard, the painting is rolled out and reframed. Much to the relief of all, the Nightwatch turns out to have survived the war unscathed.
In 1975, the Nightwatch once again falls victim to an attack by a confused person. Eye-witnesses state that, on 14 September, a by all appearances respectable gentleman entered the museum. Heading straight for the Nightwatch, he produces a serrated knife and, to the horror of all those present, starts slashing away at the painting. Assisted by a visitor, the guard manages to wrestle the attacker to the ground. But the damage is already done – the bottom section of the Nightwatch is in tatters. Particularly the captain’s and lieutenant’s legs have suffered badly. Lying on the floor in front of the painting is a triangular piece of canvas. “I didn’t attack a human being, only a painting. I couldn’t help it", the confused man is supposed to have cried out. It would take the restorers the best part of eight months to repair the damage to the painting. Despite their best efforts, a permanent scar remains in the Nightwatch: just above the dog we can still make out the traces of a cut.
In 1990, yet another attack. This time a man armed with a syphon filled with sulphuric acid assaults the Nightwatch. A guard responds swiftly, striking the syphon from his hands and instantly spraying the painting with specially distilled water. Rijksmuseum experts soon conclude that only the varnish has been affected, but that the damage would have been a lot more serious had it not been for the museum guard’s vigilance. Later, the attacker stated to the police that he was an ‘art lover’.
In October 2018, the Nightwatch becomes breaking news in both the Dutch and international media: the Rijksmuseum announces a large-scale research project and subsequent restoration of the Nightwatch. The researchers will try to explore and unravel mysteries that have hitherto remained hidden inside the painting. The canvas will remain on display behind a glass wall, so the public can watch the process both live and online. It’s there for the whole world to see. After all, the Nightwatch belongs to us all.
After all those years, the Nightwatch is still able to move many people. Each year, more than two million pairs of eyes gaze at the Rijksmuseum’s centre piece. Its visitors include such famous and diverse names as Barack Obama, Barbra Streisand and Miffy. Rembrandt and his Nightwatch never cease to inspire. Hardly surprising, therefore, that the Nightwatch tends to turn up in the most unexpected places.
For example, who would have believed that one of Rembrandt van Rijn’s apprentices would make an appearance in Duckburg? And yet that’s exactly what happens when, in 2006, the Rembrandt year is celebrated and a special themed issue of Donald Duck children’s magazine appears. The painting entitled The Duckwatch by Rembrandt apprentice Quackbrandt van Rijn appears not only in this merry children’s magazine, but also on billboards and posters all over the Netherlands.
In the same year, cartoon characters Spike and Suzy embark on an adventure in a predominantly 17th-century setting. Professor Barabas receives the Nightwatch on loan from the Rijksmuseum for research purposes. But then disaster strikes, as aunt Sidonia accidentally takes the place of the young girl in the painting. Spike and Suzy now decide to form ‘The Nightwatch Brigade’ in order to save the vanished girl, as well as the painting, from certain doom.
It’s not just the merry ducks from the world of Donald Duck that sat for a re-enactment of the Nightwatch. Football club FC Utrecht decided that the Nightwatch deserved a place in their stadium as well, and so in 2015 a customised version was unveiled at Galgenwaard football stadium. Rembrandt also proved an inspiration to the eastern region of Twente, with the Twente fire brigade creating its own masterpiece: the Fire Watch. There is even a version of the Nightwatch that includes only women. Here, captain Banninck Cocq is replaced by Neelie Kroes, while business woman Sylvia Toth has assumed the role of lieutenant Van Ruytenburch.
The Nightwatch has repeatedly made a cameo appearance in films, TV series and video clips. One example is ‘Jab Harry Met Seja’, a successful 2017 Bollywood film. And the painting also becomes a topic of discussion in a scene in the well-known Netflix serial Sense8. In the video clip entitled ‘Twirl’ by the double act Coockachoo, Dutch folk singer Dries Roelvink plays the role of a security guard at the Rijksmuseum. Dancing down the Gallery of Honour, he ends up in front of the Nightwatch doing an extended pirouette.
The renowned Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf fell under the spell of a Rembrandt self-portrait when he was just a young boy, during a field trip to the Rijksmuseum. Later, more of the painter’s works would serve as a inspiration to him. Even his photo entitled ‘Liberty – plague and famine during the Leyden siege’ reminds us of the Nightwatch’s composition.
In 2014, the world-famous novelist Dan Brown was invited by the College Tour TV show to be interviewed in the Rijksmuseum’s Gallery of Honour. Brown was offered the privilege of stepping across the cord to study the Nightwatch from very close by. ‘It sent shivers down my spine,’ he commented, confessing that he had instantly become enthralled by the painting. Brown is yet to publish a book featuring the Nightwatch, but who knows what the future may bring.