The Night Watch: A Close Look at Rembrandt’s Famous Artwork

One of the greatest attractions of Rjiksmuseum, The Night Watch is a 1642 painting by Rembrandt that carefully depicts popular Dutch art subject of the time, cortegaardjes.

The Night Watch

Among all the masterpieces of European art, Rembrandt is an artist whose paintings were acknowledged only until the present times. During his lifetime, he was consistently underrated due to his painting’s comparison with that of Rubens and other artists. One of the nineteenth-century art critics, John Ruskin, wrote, “It is the aim of the best painters to paint the noblest things they can see by sunlight. It was the aim of Rembrandt to paint the foulest things he could see by rushlight.” However, many other art critics have compared him to Shakespeare. Similar to the poet, Rembrandt thought that the world was indeed a stage where people were just playing their parts. He was just perfect with his observations because he exactly knew the details of these performances: whether it be the strutting and mincing, the wardrobe and the face paint, the full repertoire of gesture and grimace, the belly laugh and the half-stifled sob. He knew what it looked like to cry, to be disappointed, to seduce, to preach a sermon, to wheedle, to console, to commit murder, to commit a sin, to be generous, or to commit suicide. One of the fascinating things about him was his obsession with his self-portraits. And this is the reason why he painted so many of them that it can be proudly said that no other artist had ever been more enraptured by himself than Rembrandt did. One of the critics, Delacroix, said, “Perhaps we shall one day find that Rembrandt is a greater painter than Raphael.” Well, I certainly mind competing any artist with another as each of them has a vision and value, which they have shown through their paintings and are incomparable in every form. But, I do agree that Rembrandt is one of the of greatest painters the history saw. To see him more clearly, however, we are learning about one of his famous artworks, The Night Watch.

General Information About The Night Watch by Rembrandt.

1. Artist’s Statement

“Of course, you will say that I ought to be practical and ought to try and paint the way they want me to paint. Well, I will tell you a secret. I have tried, and I have tried very hard, but I can’t do it. I just can’t do it! And that is why I am just a little crazy.”

2. Subject Matter.

The Night Watch painting was world famous and is one of the greatest attractions in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam now. The title of the artwork concludes that the intention of the artist was to paint an anecdotal genre scene in the style of cortegaardjes, a popular subject of seventeenth-century Dutch art. Not to confuse, Cortegaardjes simply represents the corruption of the French corps de garde and was significantly used to refer to the genre scenes of soldiers in their courtyards of barracks or guardhouses. Among the volunteer companies of Amsterdam burghers, the militia company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq occupied a very special place in the military system of the seventeenth century, along with the mercenary armies. As Rembrandt shows, this particular group of civil guards is engaged in an activity that defines their status as a whole. In the center foreground, the leader’s eloquent gesture indicates that he is ordering his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburgh, to march. There are several onlookers and other militia members in the background. We will learn the entire subject matter in later sections of the article.

The Night Watch by Rembrandt
The Night Watch by Rembrandt | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

3. Artist.

Rembrandt, one of the great tellers of stories who portrayed biblical, mythological, and historical scenes with great perfection, painted The Night Watch. In Rembrandt’s works, darker backgrounds are broken by irregular patches of light. There is more darkness on the canvas than light. However, the lightness is in or near the center, where it balances the dark, and draws the viewer’s attention. As in Renaissance or modern painting, the artist’s paintings are rich in color, but are not pure or evenly applied, nor are they divided into areas of different colors. The colors of Rembrandt’s earlier works were broken and changing, like a brocade woven with gold or silver threads or like the embers of a fire. We will learn more about the artist in the following sections.

Rembrandt, Self Portrait at the Age of 34
Rembrandt, Self Portrait at the Age of 34 | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

4. Date.

The painting, The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq or The Night Watch, dates back to 1642.

5. Provenance.

An overview of the painting’s provenance shows that Rembrandt was commissioned to paint it by Captain Banning Cocq, who appears in the center of the artwork dressed in black with a red stack. Next to him is his lieutenant, Willem van Rustenburg. Most of the biographers of Rembrandt tell us that 1642, the year when the painting was completed, was a turning point in his life, work, and fame. Also, this year, his wife, Saskia, died. All the events of his life marked the end of Rembrandt as a famous painter in the eye of the public. In addition to this, this was the last year he painted Baroque paintings, as after this year, his insistence grew on the external qualities of the subject for art more concerned with spiritual values and deep human emotions. I will make sure to add a detailed account of all these events in upcoming sections for more clarity of supporting circumstances.

In 1715, when The Night Watch was transferred from the Civic Guard Building to the Town Hall of Amsterdam, the canvas was probably trimmed on all four sides to fit through a door. An oversized watercolor drawing by Rembrandt in the family album of Captain Banning Cocq and a copy of the painting by Gerrit Lundens, both displayed in the Rijksmuseum, give some idea of what was cut away. The left side of the artwork includes two male figures, and the other three sides have been removed in both copies. To see the complete painting, one can see the preserved copy of the original and intact composition by Gerrit Lundens.

The Company of Captain Banning Cocq The Night Watch Gerrit Lundens
The Night Watch by Gerrit Lundens (After Rembrandt) | Source: francois dutrisac / Flickr

6. Location.

The Night Watch by Rembrandt is on exhibition in Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

7. Technique and Medium.

The painting was done through oil on canvas medium with the Baroque style. Rembrandt used chiaroscuro techniques with soft brush strokes.

Year Painted1642
GenreCortegaardjes Style in an anecdotal genre scene
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions359 x 438 cm (143 x 172 in)
PriceNot on sale
Where is it housed?Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The Night Watch | Fast Knowledge

The Night Watch, one of the famous artworks by Rembrandt, is a 1642 oil on canvas scene of Captain Banning Cocq and his company. Residing in Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, it portrays Banning Cocq as the central subject guiding his lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburgh to march on.

In-Depth Description of Rembrandt’s Night Watch.

About the Artist: Rembrandt.

The life of Rembrandt began in the significant towns of the province of Holland, Leyden. Now, Leyden was particularly distinguished by the other towns during the rebellion of 1574 as it resisted a lengthy siege by the Spaniards. This is why as a reward for the courage and tenacity of the burghers and magistrates, Prince William of Orange granted a university to the town, which remained the pillar of growth of the population. The childhood and youth of Rembrandt were spent among the industrious and reformed lower burgher class. His father, Harmen Gerritsz, was a miller, and his mother, Neeltie Willemsdr van Zuytbruck, was the daughter of a baker. Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn was born on July 15, 1606. The surname ‘van Rijn’ was an addition to the family name as it represents the citing of the town of the Leyden on the branch of Rhine. Rembrandt grew up in sufficiently well-off surroundings, having a religious upbringings. He first attended the Leyden grammar school, essential for everyone who wanted to hold public office. Then, on May 20, 1620, when he turned fourteen, Rembrandt was enrolled in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Leydon. His first biographer, J. Orlens wrote in his Beschrijivinge der Stadt Leijden (Descriptions of the Town of Leyden),

“When he came of age, he could serve the town and municipality and help to further its interests.”

However, Rembrandt had other plans for his career as he did not long remain in the university. Maybe he told his parents about his interest in pursuing arts and paintings, which led him to get apprenticed to the Leyden master, Jacob Issacz van Swanenburgh. During three years of his apprenticeship with Van Swanenburgh, he made good progress. Then, in 1624, he was apprenticed under the famous history painter, Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam. And this is how Rembrandt took his track of painting.

Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar Rembrandt
Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar, Rembrandt | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

History and Background of the Painting.

To learn more about Rembrandt’s Night Watch, you have to look into the detailed provenance of the Rubens’ Descent From the Cross. If you have any questions about it, trust me, put it aside for a little and you will know everything. 

So, the foremost fact is that harquebusiers, the kloveniers, were the patrons of these masterpieces, Descent From the Cross by Rubens and Rembrandt’s Night Watch. But why? Now, you can’t neglect the fact that both of the masterpieces didn’t have much difference in their purpose and effect as they both were responses to the commission from the shooter militias of Antwerp and Amsterdam. Kindly understand that though both the painters belonged to different regions, their fame and work revolved around these paintings, which had similar purposes, as I told you. But, one more question arises, how come only these two painters were thought to be commissioned with such paintings, despite having numerous other options too? It was because both of them were immediate neighbors of the harquebusiers. As Ruben’s garden was adjacent to the kloveniersdoelen in Antwerp, and the militia guild was constructing a new assembly house during the 1630s, the construction noise and dirt intruded on the artist’s sheltered yeard, which resulted in the increased pleasure of Rubens in his bucolic country retreat at Steen. Now, when Rubens shifted his living for a while on the Nieuwe Doelemstraat after leaving Van Uylenburgh’s house, Rembrandt stepped in as he didn’t mind working under the situation. By the time, Rembrandt was hired in 1640, he was to paint the company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq. This was the case in Antwerp.

In 1640, or during this same time, in Calvinist Amsterdam, the cathedral was replaced by the Town Hall and doelen, which hallowed civic values. In the early years of the Dutch revolt, Amsterdam’s history was conspicuously free of epics, sacrifices, and sieges; its militiamen were still at the center of the city’s belief in its independence and liberty, a shield against foreign and domestic princes who were despicacious. The rank-and-file of the military companies were open to all citizens, although the senior officer corps was recruited from the city’s wealthiest citizens. Thus, the crossbowmen, longbowmen, and harquebusiers became symbolic representations of the entire community rather than mere political representation of the whole city. Now, you know the importance of the subject of the painting and probably the answer to the questions I asked in this section itself. After you have a good understanding of these facts, let us now study a little provenance of The Night Watch.

Having failed to dislodge Richelieu, Maria de’ Medici, the Queen Mother of France, was permanently exiled from France. A year later, in 1642, she was followed by her own daughter, Henrietta Maria, another queen on the run, this time from England, now embroiled in a civil war. The Stuart Queen (Henrietta) found friendly shelter at the Stadholder’s court in the Hague after she and Charles had just wed their daughter Mary to Willaim II, the son of Frederik Hendrik and Amalia van Solmns. But Henrietta did want more than the courtesies of court. Her husband’s war against Parliament required hard cash, so she pawned the British crown jewels to Portuguese Jewish gem merchants or Mennonite bankers to secure a large loan. It was in the spring of 1642 that the English Queen and her daughter and son-in-law were welcomed into Amsterdam with a full-dress entry, despite the frosty relations between the city and the Stadholder at the time. Andries Bicker and his fellow oligarchs were able to make a clear cautionary point to their prince regarding the power and dignity of Amsterdam’s own citizen-in-arms when the city threw an elaborately pompous reception for the fugitive queen hated in her own country. And Henrietta Maria was regally entertained in the Groote sael, the great hall of the handsome new Kloveniersdolen with the six-foot-tall windows. Up until the construction of the new Town Hall on the Dam with the enormous Burgerzaaal at its center, the groote sael was the largest chamber in the city, which was the only option to the city for all manner of feasts and entertainments. It may have seemed to the Queen of England hardly more than a pitiful closet, grossly unworthy of comparison with the magnificent Banqueting House painted by Inigo Jones in White Hall Palace, whose ceiling was decorated with Rubens’ eulogy of her deceased father-in-law, King James I. It must have seemed comical to the Queen of England to see pictures of Amsterdam merchants guise as soldiers among such celestial visions of divine kingship. You might think that why I am telling you a history which has nowhere mentioned The Night Watch. So, the thing is I am giving you a little relevance to the words, ‘Kloveniersdolen’ and ‘groote sael’ as this is where Rembrandt would paint his composition, The Night Watch. Also, when she came to Amsterdam, the civic militia played a significant role as a guard of honor. So, one might find relevance that this schutterstukken might commemorate this event. In the left-sided space of Kloveniersdolen lies the work of Rembrandt, which celebrated the company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, a work that animates the entire room with the glory of Baroque art. 

The painting was probably commissioned by Captain Frans Banning Cocq himself. In addition to this The Night Watch painting, there were five other schutterstukken decorated in the large hall of the Klovenierdoelen. Not to confuse with the term, Schutterstukken simply means a group portrait of civic guards formed in Dutch towns during the warms of independence. In one sentence, if I were to sum up this painting, it must be remembered as one of the first and foremost schutterstuk. 

Joachim von Sandrart, the German painter, who had an illustrious international career, was the first Rembrandt severe critic who accused him of “not hesitating to oppose and contradict the rules of art.” Samuel van Hoogstraten, one of Rembrandt’s pupils during the late 1640s published a treatise on painting, which he wrote about The Night Watch,

“Rembrandt has observed this requirement of unity very well. Though in the opinion of many, he went too far, making more of the overall picture according to his individual preference, that of the individual portraits he was commissioned to do. Nonetheless, the painting, no matter how much it is criticized, will, in my opinion, survive all its rivals because it is so painterly in conception and so powerful that, according to some people, all the other pieces in the doelen look like playing cards alongside it.”

Well, this is not the end of the story. There’s more! I know you are purely dedicated to learning more about the painting, but one foremost question is that the painting does not have any connection with the watch or night, so why it is named so? To answer this question, I have to take a few more seconds of your reading. In the book of Rembrandt by John William Mollet and Carel Vosmaer, he explains,

“The painting is not mentioned under this name by any of the older Dutch authors or critics; it is entirely inaccurate, and was first given to it by the French writers of the eighteenth century, who called it ‘le Guet’ or ‘patrouille de nuit’, and Sir Joshua Reynolds followed their error by calling it ‘The Night Watch.’ Nevertheless, a superficial observer, especially one but little acquainted with Rembrandt’s works, might be led to think of a night effect. The painting was so ‘obscured by oil and varnish, that it seemed to have been tarred,’ so writes an artist bearing the honored name of Van Dyck in 1758.”

By now, you might have understood that the painting’s original name was misread in the first place, which got it famous by term, The Night Watch. 

Now, that you know a little historical provenance of the painting, let us now move towards the next section.

Subject Matter Analysis.

Rembrandt puts Banning Cocq’s company in a great representative enough scene, but he doesn’t forget to add the effects of liveliness, movement, and even surprise. In his work, he adds a fair amount of theater. According to historical records, Rembrandt attended several performances of Gysbreccht van Aemstel, by the seventeenth-century poet Joost van den Vondel, at the Amsterdam Theater. Rembrandt drew several sketches of the characters from this play, showing a keen interest in the performances. A model for The Night Watch is believed to be from the opening scene of Gybrecht’s play, in which he introduces the events that follow.

The painting depicts the militia company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, one of the volunteer companies of Amsterdam burghers that, along with the mercenary armies, occupied a significant position in the seventeenth-century military system. Rembrandt portrayed this group of civil guards engaged in one of their habitual activities.

The Night Watch painting Subject Matter
The Night Watch | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

At the center of the painting, there is an eloquent gesture of the leader’s hand, which indicates that he orders his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburgh, to march on. Of course, he is easily visible through his dazzling costume: a stunning buff coat, in a yellow hide, ornamented with French bows. The leader, dressed in black with an orange-red sash wound about his chest, is Banning Cocq, who is well-heeled and educated. In the background, there are several other guards or members of the militia doing their duties. In the background, the viewer sees Jan Claesz, the center in the back row, dressed in the blue and gold of the Kloveniers with the most youthful personification. Amongst all of them, one girl is dressed in a bright yellow dress with shimmering borders, having glimmering light over her. An inverted chicken suspends from her waist and the dwarfish figure of the mostly invisible, helmeted figure discharges his weapon behind the captain and lieutenant.

Despite the excellent number of movements depicted in the painting, Rembrandt managed to show a disorderly scene with a highly convincing way of reality. The figures stand in front of the town gates, which are barely visible in the foreground. It is argued by advocates of ‘theater theory’ that this vague shape at the back of the composition represents the monumental throne that was situated in the center of the backdrop at the Amsterdam theatre. Regardless of the intent, the background is effectively closed off, emphasizing the group’s forward movement. Despite the absence of light sources, certain areas of the The Night Watch are highly illuminated, defining its spatial structure.

One more fascinating thing, which must be known is that the civic guards were painted almost a hundred times before the artist painted it. But it was only Rembrandt who conceived the idea of catching them as if they were hurried at the sound of a drum to practice their March. He wittingly captures the one instant before March, which makes it more outstanding work. In Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama, he mentions,

“For the Night Watch is designed to be a Cornelis Drebbel machine, a thing in perpetual motion, a group perpetually forming up, firing off, banging a drum, barking like an officer, barking like a dog, waving a flag, marching out. It’s a movie frame that refuses to freeze.” 

The Night Watch is not just the depiction of the two center figures but an homage to the entire crowd of undifferentiated extras falling in behind. Additionally, 16 men in the second precinct, including cloth merchants, paid for their portraits, and Rembrandt certainly intended to honor his commissions, but not in the cumbersomely cumulative manner of conventional militia pieces, contrary to critics then and since.

In the leftmost section, one sees the figures with their swords, just like a troupe of street performers. There are varied poses with generous expressions, alert for the parade. As you see a little down, there sits a clownlike man with an oversized helmet, or should I call him a powder monkey to exaggerate the scene? In addition to these, the civic guard wearing an orange uniform extra-ordinarily contrasts well with the group of figures in the foreground. In the extreme right and left of painting, there are two sergeants: Rombout Kemp and Reijnier Engelen respectively, whose heads are brightly lit and are captured instantly by the viewer through their dramatic gestures. Engelen, on the left, wears an antique warrior helmet while he holds a grandiose halberd.

And similar to this, in the rightmost part of the painting, the civic guards hold themselves in dramatic postures. But one of the things that makes the scene more alive is the bark of the little dog in the right section of the painting.

Dog in The Night Watch by Rembrandt
Dog in the composition | Source: Steven Zucker, Smarthistory / Flickr

The Night Watch by Rembrandt not just is a gathering of officers but is a unique move of the company to show all his players. The scene completes with the drummer hired for the day; the powder monkey, pikemen, and musketeers.

Learning The Night Watch Analysis.

1. Line.

There is the presence of diagonals not to depict instability but to delimit the space in the work through varied poses and heavy sticks. Through the diagonal lines, the artist portrays a subtle movement in the scene as if there are literally moving civic guards with the commoners. Even the flag hoisting, drum beating, and few postures of figures show diagonal lines but they all fit in the space perfectly.

The Night Watch Analysis
Line analysis of The Night Watch (Diagonal lines)

2. Light and Value.

Rembrandt used chiaroscuro and tenebrism techniques to perfect the lightness and darkness in The Night Watch painting. It is originally in a dim light setting, without the source of incoming light. 

3. Color Analysis.

Rembrandt used wisdom in choosing colors as he was concerned with maintaining an optical effect of color in space. For this, he held light colors advancing and dark ones receding. For instance, look at the two center figures, Willem and Banning, who have bright dresses compared to the background to achieve this effect. There is a darker background in the painting in general with the use of blue and black colors, adored by the contrasting orange-red colors and golden-yellow hues.


The Night Watch by Rembrandt is an explosion of action without any artistic disorders. It has meaningful movements, thrilling drama, perfect chiaroscuro techniques, and an energetic band, which makes it an epitome of discipline and liberty. The painting is indeed an exemplary paradigm of the premodern artist, Rembrandt, who not only beat Rubens but Caravaggio and Titian to embrace operational freedom through the presence of animation, volume, noise, and bodily presence.


1. Rembrandt by Henriette Bolten-Rempt and J. Bolten.

2. Rembrandt by John William Mollet and Carel Vosmaer.

3. Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama.

4. Rembrandt: The Painter Thinking by Ernst Van De Wetering.

5. Rembrandt: Colour Library by Michale Kitson.

Frequently Asked Questions.

Who painted The Night Watch?

Rembrandt van Rijn, the Dutch artist, was commissioned in 1640 to paint The Night Watch. The painting was completed in 1642 and portrayed a civic militia in a dimmed atmosphere with traces of light over it.

What is the medium used in The Night Watch?

The Night Watch by Rembrandt is an oil on canvas painting.

What is the subject of the painting The Night Watch?

Rembrandt’s Night Watch portrays Captain Frans Banning Cocq with an eloquent gesture towards his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburgh to march on. In addition, it displays Banning Cocq’s company standing with weapons, and flags dramatically in front of the Town Gate.

Why is The Night Watch a Masterpiece?

The Night Watch is a masterpiece for Rembrandt’s detailing to the postures of various men in the composition, similar to that of a theatre. Additionally, it displays varying postures and subtle movements with excellent use of chiaroscuro and tenebrism.

What are the characteristics of The Night Watch painting?

Use of Diagonal lines, Chiaroscuro, and Tenebrism as well as figures inspired by theatrical stances.

What is the full name of The Night Watch?

The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburgh.

What is an interesting fact about The Night Watch?

The Night Watch is not the real name of the painting. The painting was addressed incorrectly as le Guet or patrouille de nuit by 18th-century French writers, followed by The Night Watch by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Why is The Night Watch so famous?

The Night Watch was the last Baroque painting Rembrandt created, after which he inclined towards painting religious and pyschologically emotional themes.


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