In September, I visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to see the latest stage in the restoration of the Rembrandt masterpiece known as The Night Watch. The huge and imposing canvas is out of its frame and being stretched between metal clamps and protected behind a thick glass screen. It’s a sight to behold!
Layers of varnish are being removed that darkened the painting for centuries – leading it to be falsely called The Night Watch. It’s actually not a dark, nocturnal setting at all. But removing the varnish has been a very worrying process. In taking this gunk off – will the paint strokes of Rembrandt come away as well?
Operation Night Watch – as the museum calls it – has been examining the effect of vibrations on the Rembrandt painting as well as removing the varnish. The work has been undertaken deliberately in public behind the glass screen so that visitors can share the experience. The operation is a collaboration with the Dutch chemicals company AkzoNobel which decades ago merged with the Swedish weapons manufacturer Nobel and its main business today is paint – for consumers and industries.
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Rembrandt The Night Watch – subjected to repeated attacks
As we know in Europe and the United States – attacking art works has unfortunately come back into fashion as a form of protest. It’s nothing new by the way. Though why art and sculpture held in a public institution paid for by taxpayers should be vandalised is beyond me.
Two protestors who threw paint recently at a Van Gogh in the National Gallery in London claimed to be doing so for “the poor”. Without realising that the poor can only ever see these works in such a museum – as opposed to the private collection of a Saudi prince or Russian oligarch. These days, public galleries couldn’t afford to buy a Van Gogh or a Rembrandt. But enough of my ranting on that subject!
The Night Watch was attacked with a knife in 1911 but the thick varnish stopped much damage being done. However, in the 1940s some of that varnish was removed. So when the painting was knifed again in 1975 – in a frenzy this time – it was much harder to restore and evidence of the slashing is still visible if you look closely. As if that wasn’t bad enough, an escaped psychiatric patient sprayed The Night Watch with acid in 1990. Yet somehow the Rembrandt masterpiece has endured!
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