Rediscovering Rembrandt’s Night Watch

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Night Watch (1642). Source: Rijksmuseum

The Night Watch, Rembrandt’s iconic 17th-century masterpiece displayed at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, has revealed a previously unknown layer beneath the varnish and paint—a departure from Rembrandt’s typical technique, which involves applying a glue layer followed by an underlying pigment base.

The Night Watch depicts Dutch civilian soldiers preparing to defend their city. The painting underwent a detailed analysis, combining data from X-rays, spectroscopy, and 3D digital reconstructions. The investigation, named Operation Night Watch, marked the first time in the painting’s 400-year history that such advanced techniques were applied simultaneously.

Operation Night Watch aimed to delve into Rembrandt’s artistic process. A tiny paint sample was digitally modeled in 3D, offering insights into how the painting was assembled. The discovery of the lead layer laid to rest a longstanding mystery concerning the appearance of lead crystals in unexpected areas of the painting.

Believed to be a protective measure against moisture damage, the lead-saturated layer challenges Rembrandt’s conventional methods. It also highlights Rembrandt’s departure from his usual double ground layer, opting for a single layer—possibly lighter and more flexible—due to the painting’s significant size.

The study suggests that the painter might have been influenced by a publication on the chemistry of painting by Théodore de Mayern, a Geneva physician. Mayern’s observations about glue and paint layers separating on damp walls may have prompted Rembrandt to experiment with a lead-rich layer for added protection.

This multidisciplinary approach, involving conservation, chemistry, and curatorial interpretation, brings “The Night Watch” into the modern age, offering art lovers and researchers a deeper understanding of Rembrandt’s innovative techniques and the preservation of this masterpiece for future generations.


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