Rembrandt – The Night Watch

This is Rembrandt’s most complex and elaborately developed composition. It applies his consummate mastery of light and shade to the task of organizing many figures into a design in deep space. Not often in his later years did that task interest him. Having shown in his youth—in The Anatomy Lesson and many of the Biblical etchings—that he could do it with ease, he was often content with single figures, portraits, and fragmentary sketches. Their marvellous finesse in shading, and their haunting psychological expressiveness, are enough as a rule to atone for any lack of pattern; but when that also is provided, the result is a work of monumental power as well as subtlety.

The basic conception, a contrast between long straight lances and the irregular curves of human figures, was not original with Rembrandt, We have seen it in Uccello, and it was used by the ancient Romans in the Battle of Alexander mosaic, now at Naples. Nor was the ability to organize many figures in space new with him: it had become common property by the end of the Renaissance. Rembrandt’s distinctive contribution was to build up such a design with his own unique materials: his dusky, sombre adaptation of the glowing Venetian atmosphere; his half-lights, containing countless intermediate tones of colored shadow; his drastic simplifications, characteristic of the seventeenth century.

To do the work full justice, we should notice in detail the inventive variation of linear themes in the weapons and costumes; the submerged but graphic expression of individual character (always of vital interest to Rembrandt); the masterly treatment of surface textures — flesh, steel, wood, wool, silk and stone — not in detail, but with terse rendering of essential differences in lustre. We should follow the pure music of light and color: the sudden climaxes, and the slower, gradual wellings of deep red and greenish gold out of a gloom that is never murky, always pulsating with mysterious tints and shadows. All these are qualities observable to some extent in other works by Rembrandt, however.

So it is wise in this case to return and look long at the way in which he arranges objects in space, with a complexity unsurpassed. There are many easy methods of space composition: converging perspective lines, diminishing the size of distant figures, making nearby figures overlap the farther, and having nearer figures lighter, more distinct, brighter in color. Any of these, when used too obviously and exclusively, gives a mechanical effect, soon tiresome. Rembrandt uses them all at once, with perfect control, lacking only the full use of color-contrasts such as Veronese and Cezanne employ. Light is his chief tool, as always. Far from using it in a crude way—such as making figures lighter and clearer in exact proportion to nearness—he brings in all manner of surprising variations. A face in near, far or middle ground may be brought out in clear emphasis; a hand here, a spear-tip there, is touched by golden light. Let a cloud pass the sun outside the museum window, and they move in and out of the canvas in ghostly animation, but never in confusion. All this in the hands of a lesser man might be mere virtuosity; but here it is so lacking in ostentation, and so well combined with other qualities, as to rest on a firm structure of artistic form.