A hidden sketch by Rembrandt has been discovered beneath the thick paint of the Dutch master’s most famous work, The Night Watch, revealing for the first time the artist’s original vision for the vast canvas.
The preparatory drawing, made with beige paint with a high chalk content, was found following a two-and-a-half-year investigation by restorers, data experts and art historians at the Rijksmuseum in ‘Amsterdam.
The sketch reveals to researchers evidence of a series of changes Rembrandt van Rijn made to his arrangement of 34 different figures and the array of feathers, spears and swords surrounding them, before the painting was completed in 1642.
The night watch, representing a militia under the command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, took three years to complete after being commissioned by the Amsterdam Civic Guard for a banquet hall at its headquarters in Kloveniersdoelen.
Pieter Roelofs, the head of paintings at the Rijksmuseum, said that it had been possible to make Rembrandt’s secret sketch visible through a “calcium map” of the work thanks to the artist’s use of a chalk rich paint that could be recovered by the latest scanning technology. .
He said, “We see straight lines and curves. With the curves, he created an initial sketch of the architecture in the background. You may ask why is this so important? Well, that makes us feel like we can peek over Rembrandt’s shoulder while he was working on The Night Watch.
“We always suspected that Rembrandt must have sketched it on campus before starting this complex composition. But that has always been a guess.
“Now that we can see beneath the surface better than ever, we now have proof of that, it gives us for the first time a real insight into Rembrandt’s creative process. It’s fascinating to see how he searched for the right composition. We found out about the origins of The Night Watch.
Since the summer of 2019, staff working on what they have called Operation Night Watch have been using the latest technology to research new information on the painting before it is restored.
Rembrandt used the impasto technique, which involves applying thick paint to the canvas to achieve a three-dimensional structure that reflects light.
Imaging methods were used to get under the layers. They discovered that Rembrandt originally painted feathers for the helmet of militiaman Claes van Cruijsbergen, but that he later repainted them.
He drew more spears than he painted, adjusted the position of Sergeant Rombout Kemp’s legs and there are signs that there was an extra sword in the original between the captain and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch.
“Why did Rembrandt change his mind, you might ask?” Said Roelofs. ” We do not know. But he probably removed the feathers, because they attracted too much attention because Van Cruijsbergen is the center of the composition.
The main focus of the latest research on The Night Watch was to prepare for its first restoration in over 40 years.
Although the paint endured four tumultuous centuries, including transport to a bunker in the coastal dunes at the start of World War II, its condition is said to be very good despite traces of abrasion, discoloration and loss of paint over the years. time.
The priority, Roelofs said, was to tackle the warping of the canvas seen particularly in his upper left corner, which allegedly happened during his stay in the Philips wing of the Rijksmuseum during the renovation of the main building. between 2003 and 2013.
The 3.63 meter by 4.37 meter painting will be taken from its current wooden frame, the frame to which the painting has been held by metal nails since 1975, said Petria Noble, the museum’s paintings conservation manager.
She said: “We strongly believe that the wood frame is contributing to the problem because a wood stretch actually reacts differently to the canvas. It will then be put on a new colander, a non-reactive material, which we believe is actually much more stable for painting. The deformations are then expected to relax and the paint to take on a flatter and more uniform surface.
“One of the first things you need to do is remove these bedbugs very gently and systematically. And of course, we have to use light weight to actually push out these warps, which we see along the left and right edges. “
The process will begin in January and is expected to take up to three months, after which other possible conservation techniques will be considered, including removing several coats of varnish from the surface of the artwork.