So important is Rembrandt van Rijn’s Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Bannick Cocq aka The Night Watch to Amsterdam’s Rijkmuseum that the authorities are proposing from July to restore it under public gaze, a curious form of watching paint dry. Completed in 1642, it is a colossal piece and rightly considered to be one of the painter’s finest works.
Commissioned in around 1639 by the company to hang in the banquet hall of their newly constructed Meeting Hall and funded by subscriptions from Cocq and seventeen of his comrades, their names appear on a shield, a later addition dating to 1715, it defied the conventions of group portraiture by adding a strong sense of movement and drama to the composition. Clever use of light and shade leads the viewer’s eye to the principal characters at the centre of the picture. It is laden with symbolism and a dash of humour, the half-seen face of a male character, perhaps Rembrandt himself, lurking in the background and peering over the shoulder of a top-hatted and moustachioed contributor.
Its sheer size was to cause difficulties. When, in 1715, the picture was moved to the Amsterdam Town Hall, it would not fit in the space allocated to it between two columns. The answer to the predicament was blindingly obvious; trim all four sides of the painting, losing along the way two of the figures on the left-hand side, the top of the arch, the balustrade and the edge of a step. This done, the picture fitted perfectly but this piece of artistic vandalism destroyed the symmetry of the composition and removed two of the props Rembrandt had used to enhance the impression of forward movement.
Taking commissions was a double-edged sword for Rembrandt. For an impecunious painter it could guarantee welcome income but in return you needed to pander to the tastes and sensibilities of your paymasters. Amsterdam’s new Town Hall, now the Royal Palace, was built in 1655 and Govert Flinck, a better-connected painter who had had the sense to marry the daughter of a director of the powerful Dutch East India Company, was commissioned to paint some pictures to adorn the walls. But in 1660 Flinck rather inconveniently died, leaving unfinished his homage to the Batavian leader, Gaius Julius or Claudius Civilis.
The subject matter was a seminal moment in proto-Dutch history, a feast, in which Civilis gathered together the tribal chiefs and soldiers and, according to the Roman historian, Tacitus, roused them to rebel against their Roman oppressors, binding them “with barbarous rites and strange forms of oaths”. Whilst the rebellion, in 69 CE, was initially successful, superior Roman military muscle forced the Batavi to sue for peace.
The Batavi, hailing from southern end of what is now the Netherlands, were seen by the Dutch as their ancestors and gave their name to the hub of the Dutch Eastern trading operations, Batavia, now modern-day Jakarta in Indonesia. Their uprising could be viewed as the first signs of the emergence of the now thriving, prosperous Dutch nation and a picture commemorating Civilis, who had served in the Roman army for 25 years, losing an eye in battle before turning rebel, appealed to the burgeoning sense of Dutch nationalism.
In 1661 Rembrandt was commissioned to pick up from where Flinck had left off but, instead, he started from scratch with his own radical and dramatic reinterpretation of this pivotal moment. The resulting The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis, shows Civilis as a mountain of a man, a strong and powerful leader, dressed in lavish costume with striking headgear, sword in hand. His fierce stare shows his steely determination, Rembrandt’s choice of a frontal profile emphasising Civilis’ missing eye.
The rebels, their rather crude and primitive forms highlighting their barbarism, show their intent by crossing swords rather than shaking hands. Rembrandt’s use of light is clever. It shines from the table, the source obscured by figures in the foreground, giving the figure of Civilis an almost messianic quality. The picture is truly astonishing and, in my opinion, is right up there amongst the best of his work.
His putative paymasters, alas, did not agree. At five and a half metres square it was Rembrandt’s largest work and whilst it was hung, it soon fell into disfavour. The city officials probably found Civilis’ piercing eye unsettling and the unconventional portrayal of the scene and its primitivism disturbing. Rembrandt almost certainly wasn’t paid for the work and to add insult to injury, it was returned to him and he had the indignity of seeing Jürgen Ovens complete Flinck’s version, which adorned the City Hall walls instead.
What do you do with such a large painting? Taking a leaf out of the book of the City fathers, Rembrandt cut it down to a more manageable size, it is now just 196 by 309 centimetres in size, a mere snapshot of the original, repainted parts, dampening down some of the colours in Civilis’ garb along the way, and sold it. By 1782 it had found its way to Sweden and now hangs in Stockholm’s Nationalmuseum. It came to London in 2014 as part of the National Gallery’s excellent Rembrandt: The Late Works exhibition.
Is it too fanciful to think that the figure peering over the shoulder of the man with a top hat in the Night Watch, one eye visible, is a nod to the first Dutch hero, Civilis? I wonder.