AMSTERDAM – Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’ has been a national icon in the Netherlands since it was painted in 1642, but even that has not protected it.
In 1715, the monumental canvas was cut on all four sides to fit a wall between two gates of Amsterdam’s town hall. The cut pieces have been lost. Since the 19th century, the carved painting has been kept in the Rijksmuseum, where it is exhibited as the centerpiece of the museum, in the center of its gallery of honor.
Now, from Wednesday – for the first time in more than three centuries – it will be possible for the public to see the painting “almost as intended,” museum director Taco Dibbits said.
Using new high-tech methods, including scanning technologies and artificial intelligence, the museum reconstructed these cut parts and hung them next to the original, to give an idea of ”The Night Watch As Rembrandt had predicted.
The cutout painting is approximately 15 feet wide by 13 feet high. About two feet from the left of the canvas have been shaved and another nine inches from the top. Less damage was done to the bottom, which lost about five inches, and to the right side, which lost three.
The temporary restoration of these parts will give the visitor a glimpse of what had been lost: three figures on the left part (two men and a boy) and, more importantly, a glimpse into Rembrandt’s careful construction in the composition of the artwork. With the missing pieces, the original dynamism of the masterpiece is rekindled.
“It gives us a glimpse of the composition that Rembrandt did,” Dibbits said.
Rather than hiring a painter to reconstruct the missing pieces, the museum’s lead scientist, Robert Erdmann, trained a computer to recreate them pixel by pixel in Rembrandt’s style. A project of this complexity was made possible by a relatively new technology known as convolutional neural networks, a class of artificial intelligence algorithms designed to help computers make sense of images, Erdmann said.
“It’s only recently that we’ve had computers powerful enough to even consider something like this,” he said.
Indications already existed as to the likely appearance of the original “night watch”, thanks to a copy made by Gerrit Lundens, another Dutch painter of the 17th century. He made his replica within 12 years of the original, before it was cut.
Lundens’ copy is less than a fifth the size of Rembrandt’s monumental canvas, but it is believed to be largely faithful to the original. It was useful as a template for missing pieces, although Lundens’ style was nowhere near as detailed as Rembrandt’s. Lundens’ makeup is also much looser, with the characters spread more randomly across the canvas, so she couldn’t be used to perform an individual reconstruction.
The Rijksmuseum recently completed high-resolution scans of Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’ as part of a multi-year, multi-million dollar restoration project, launched in 2019. These scans provided Erdmann with precise insight into the details and the colors of Rembrandt’s original, as the algorithms used to recreate the missing sections using Ludens’ copy as a guide. The images were then printed on canvas, attached to metal plates for added stability, and varnished to resemble a painting.
Rembrandt’s composition features a large group of Amsterdam civic guards led by Captain Frans Banninck Cocq and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch. The original was asymmetrical: the large arch that stands behind the crowd was in the middle, and the group leaders were to the right. Rembrandt painted them this way to create a sense of movement across the canvas.
Once the new parts were restored, so was the balance, Dibbits said. “You really have the physical impression that Banninck Cocq and his colleagues are really walking towards you,” he added.
Looking at the group of militiamen standing just over Banninck Cocq’s shoulder, it is possible to see the top of someone’s head – a hat, a nose and an eye, looking at the viewer. The character strangely resembles the artist.
“It’s so much like Rembrandt,” Dibbits said. “To position yourself right in the middle. “
“It’s part of the process of getting to know painting in the best possible way,” he added, “as we didn’t know it before.”