'The Night Watch' is a schuttersstuk: an art form in painting commonly known in the Low Countries during the 16th and 17th Centuries. It derives its name from the former civil guards of the cities, the Schutterij. The city of Amsterdam owns about 57 of these paintings, the oldest dating from 1529. 'The Night Watch', by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, is the most famous.
Rembrandt completed his painting of 'The Night Watch' in 1642. The civil guards under the command of Captain Frans Banning Cocq had ordered its painting in 1638, to decorate a wall of the main hall on the first floor in the new headquarters of the city's Schutterij at the Kloveniers Voorburgwal1. Rembrandt's painting shows just one of the companies of the civil guards of the city of Amsterdam. Frans Banning Cocq was the captain of the company of the second district of the city, the area just on the east and north side of the Damrak where the merchants in linen lived.
Traditionally the city's civil guards comprised volunteers. Their tasks were to maintain order within the city walls, act as a fire brigade and, in times of war, to defend the city against enemy attack. Like all other workers and artisans they were organised in an association under the patronage of a saint, usually St Sebastian or St Joris. The members had to provide for their own uniforms and arms. Each association chose its own sort of weapons. In the Middle Ages these weapons were either hand or crossbows, pikes, axes, swords and backswords. With the introduction of gunpowder in Europe the hand and crossbows were replaced by muskets. Since only the rich could afford to by buy firearms, they would become the members of the civil guards.
The civil guards would practise their skills at shooting on the Doelen2. This was originally the name of a field outside the city walls, situated in the east - as the area on the west was reserved for the windmills. Every year, a competition took place on the Doelen, or at a church if the weather was bad. A wooden parrot on a pole served as target. The champion bowman or musketeer would be crowned 'King'. Afterwards the members would feast on a sumptuous meal and drink huge quantities of beer and wine. The civil guards were notorious for their parties. In 1551, a competition in the city of Naarden, twenty kilometers east of Amsterdam, resulted in the looting and plunder of a monastery inside the city walls by drunken members of the civil guards.
Members of the Night Watch
In 1642, Amsterdam had become a prosperous and fast growing city. It benefited greatly from the Eighty Years War (1568–1648). Although Amsterdam was rich, it also meant there were plenty of poor. The city's authorities prevented the poor from becoming members of the guards by ruling that every guard had to earn an annual income of 600 guilders or more. Nevertheless, the city's authorities were regularly faced with complaints about disorderly behaviour in public by drunken civil guards. One official document from Rembrandt's time proclaims that it was forbidden for civil guards to fight, swear and to visit pubs or brothels while on duty.
Membership of one of civil guards companies meant social prestige and political power for the merchants from the second district of Amsterdam. The 18 members under the command of Frans Banning Cocq each paid Rembrandt 100 guilders to become immortalised in paint. The two officers, Captain Frans Banning Cocq and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruijtenburch, probably paid more.
Their names are painted on the shield that seems to be chiselled on the wall in the background of the painting. Still, only seven members of the Company of Civil Guards of Frans Banning Cocq can be identified by official documents, by the clothes they wear and by the weapons they carry in the painting.
The two officers are painted in the centre. For Frans Banning Cocq, being a captain of the civil guards meant a step forward in his political career. He would become the burgomaster of the city of Amsterdam for the first time in 1650. He is clothed in black, the dress code of the ruling classes of the city. He was the only son of the pharmacist Cocq who had married a girl of the rich Banning family. Frans Banning Cocq studied law in France and married Maria Overlander. She was the only surviving child of Volckert Overlander - merchant, ship owner, knight, one of the founders of the Dutch East Trading Company and a few times burgomaster of Amsterdam. After his father-in-law's death, Banning Cocq inherited his properties north of Amsterdam, with the title of Lord of Purmerend and Ilpendam.
Next to Frans Banning Cocq stands Lieutenant Willem van Ruijtenburch van Vlaerding. He is painted in profile and much smaller than the captain. Lesser in rank, his wealth is stressed by the richness of the yellow colour of his clothes. The rim of his jacket bears the arms of the city. Willem van Ruijtenburch came from a family of storekeepers. In 1642, he became a schepen - a councillor. He owned a palace on Herengracht in Amsterdam and his family bought an estate near the city of Vlaardingen together with a title from the aristocratic family Ligne-Arenberg.
At the back of the painting stands the flag-bearer. It was important that he would cut a fine figure during official ceremonies and parades. Therefore the man had to be young, strong and handsome. Because of the vulnerable position of flag-bearer in times of war he was also requested to remain a bachelor. Jan Cornelisz Visscher never married. He came from a rich merchant family. He lived together with his mother and grandmother at the Nieuwezijds Achterburgwal spending his family's fortune on books and art. He died in 1650 at the age of forty, without ever having been near a battlefield and having lived a life of leisure.
The two sergeants of the company are painted on the left and right sides of the painting and can be recognised by their weapons. They both carry a hellebaard, an axe on a long pole. On the right, next to the drummer, Jacob Jorisz, stands Sergeant Rombout Kemp in front of a row of pikes. He was a merchant in linen, the dean of the Dutch Reformed Church and regent of the poorhouses of Amsterdam. As befitted his social position in society, he's also dressed in black with a white collar. On the left of the painting, sitting on a low wall, is the other sergeant, Rijer Engelen, another merchant in linen. In front of him stands Herman Wormskerck. He's wearing a hat and is also a merchant in linen. He is holding up a backsword.
With the money Rembrandt received from the civil guards for painting 'The Night Watch', he and his wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, bought a house in a newly built district in Amsterdam, on the Jodenbreestraat. He painted 'The Night Watch' on a scaffold in the back yard of their new home because it was too big to lean against a wall of one of the rooms in the house. According to the Rembrandt Research Project (which started in 1968 and was concluded in the 1990s) 'The Night Watch' is painted solely by the master himself without the help of one of his many pupils.
In the year 1642, the year Rembrandt finished the painting, his wife died. Behind the musketeer on the left who is loading his weapon with gunpowder, a little girl emerges clad in white with a chicken dangling from her belt. She's talking to the boy who fires a musket just behind the ear of Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch. Rembrandt painted his wife's features on the girl's face.
Rembrandt painted himself as well. A part of his face emerges behind the shoulder of the pikesman on the back of the painting who holds up his pike, pointing towards Sergeant Rombout Kemp. Rembrandt seems to be standing under the archway on his toes, trying to have a better look at his own painting.