You’ll Be Able to Watch Rembrandt’s Most Ambitious Work Be Restored In-Person—or Online

Experts at the Rijksmuseum estimate the process of conserving “The Night Watch” is expected to take several years

General Director Taco Dibbits with "The Night Watch" Rijksmuseum

“The Night Watch” is Rembrandt’s most ambitious, and arguably most important painting. A monumental portrayal of Amsterdam’s civic guard, the work was the first group portrait to depict its subjects in the middle of an action scene, and Rembrandt’s masterful use of light is on full display. As Nina Siegal reports for the New York Times, experts at the Rijksmuseum, where “The Night Watch” is a star attraction, are now planning a large-scale, years-long restoration of Rembrandt’s masterpiece—each step of which will be viewable in the gallery and online.

The painting has not been restored since 1976, after a visitor hacked at it with a breadknife, defacing a 7-foot-wide section, and successfully tearing off a piece of the canvas. Conservators were able to patch the painting back together, but some areas where they worked have started to yellow. Additionally, a dog represented in the corner of the work has faded to a ghostly white, for reasons that are not entirely clear.

Taco Dibbits, the director of the museum, tells Siegal that the conservation process will likely take several years, and cost “millions.” Before conservators even start to restore the painting, they will study it with “imaging techniques, high-resolution photography and highly advanced computer analysis” to get a better sense of its condition, according to the Rijksmuseum. These cutting-edge technologies weren’t available the last time “The Night Watch” was restored, and Dibbets says that the new investigation may help experts learn more about how the painting was created.

Rembrandt painted “The Night Watch” in 1642 at the behest of Frans Banninck Cocq, Amsterdam’s mayor and the leader of the civic guard. Officially titled “Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Francis Banninck Cocq,” the canvas became known as “The Night Watch” despite the fact that an earlier cleaning in the 1940s showed the scene actually took place in the daylight. Spanning about 11 feet in height and 15 feet in length, the painting is Rembrandt’s largest work, and the scene swirls with motion; at the center is the captain, giving orders to his lieutenant to command the company to march, while the guardsmen around them take their places.

One of the most beguiling figures of the painting, bathed in a luminous glow, is a young girl amidst the swarm of armed men. A chicken hangs from her belt by its claws, and she stands behind a musketeer. The girl represents the militia company—its symbol was a bird’s claw and a type of musket known as a klover—but some theorize that she was rendered in the image of Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia, who died before the painting was completed.

Restoration of the masterpiece is due to begin in July of next year. Before conservators get to work, “The Night Watch” will be featured in a major exhibition honoring the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death, which will showcase the museum’s entire collection of Rembrandt works—22 paintings, 60 drawings and 300 prints.

Fortunately, the painting won’t be shuffled out of view once the conservation process starts. To avoid taking the masterpiece off display, the Rijksmuseum has opted to build a glass chamber around the painting in the Gallery of Honor, which was built especially to house “The Night Watch,” according to the Guardian’s Kate Connolly. As the conservators carry out work on the painting, they will be on full view to visitors of the museum. According to Janelle Zara of artnet News, a number of museums have recently opted to make their conservation processes public in a similar way—a trend that offers an "intimate look at a normally aloof field."

Curious spectators can also follow the "The Night Watch" restoration from afar; the Rijksmuseum will be broadcasting the process on livestream.

“‘The Night Watch’ is one of the most famous paintings in the world,” Dibbets says of the museum’s decision to keep the painting on display. “It belongs to us all.”

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