Rembrandt—The Master of Paintings and Prints
The Night Watch and Christ Healing the Sick

Rembrandt painted and etched hundreds of masterpieces throughout his life, but two stand out as the greatest of the great—visual “symphonies” of perfection that narrate comprehensive stories. One is his masterpiece oil painting, “Night Watch” and the other is his masterpiece etching, “Hundred Guilder Print.”

The oil painting was untitled by Rembrandt, as it was simply a portrait commissioned by a ceremonial guard unit in Amsterdam. As the varnish atop the paint yellowed and increasingly darkened, the painting appeared to be set at night, which led to its colloquial name, “The Night Watch” (Dutch: “De Nachtwacht”.) Many years later, when the layers of varnish were removed, it became apparent that the scene actually took place in the daytime—but the misnomer was retained forever.

There was no nighttime, nor was there any waiting or watching. The reality is that the guards wanted a group portrait to be displayed in their unit’s militia hall, which for all intents and purposes was a clubhouse as there was only the slightest chance that this part-time group of soldiers would ever be called to defend their city of Amsterdam. Each member paid a fee to be included, more or less 100 guilders, depending on the individual’s prominence.

When the work was delivered, it was displayed in the unit’s Grote Zaal (“Grand Hall”) alongside other, equally monumental works, as this rendering of the scenes shows, with The Night Watch in the back corner:

rembrandt. night watch art

In 1715, the painting was moved to the Amsterdam town hall, which was constructed after the painting was finished. The building still exists, but was converted from its original use to its current use as a royal palace, Het Paleis op de Dam(“The Palace on the Dam”.) This was done by Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon Bonaparte, who decided that he would like it for his residence. He was briefly made King Louis I of Holland in 1806. A few years later, France annexed Holland, which made the kingdom of Holland obsolete. When the French conquerors were expelled, the Dutch royal family made it their official residence in  Amsterdam—which it remains to this day.

Unfortunately for the Night Watch, it was too large to fit in the space to which is was assigned in its new home. To correct that situation, it was decided to cut it down as necessary.

About two feet was cut from the left side, and smaller amounts were taken from the other three sides. Two figures who were on the left were removed, as can be seen in this image showing how the original version looked, along with the cut lines:

About the same time, well after the artist died, another painter added the shield containing the names of 18 people atop the archway in the center top of the painting, behind all of the figures.

The work is so important for a series of reasons. The artistic genius of Rembrandt is shown in all of its glory, some aspects being more subtle than others. The outstretched hand of the leader, Captain Frans Banning Cocq appears to be three-dimensional because of the brushstrokes and colors Rembrandt deployed. Similarly, Cocq’s lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch, is holding a weapon, which Rembrandt painted in a similar way. The end of the “partisan” (a ceremonial weapon with a spear on the end of a wooden pole) appears to protrude from the canvas as a result.

It goes without saying that the portrait uses the chiaroscuro lighting typical of Rembrandt, where it takes dark to show light.

What is as fascinating as his artistic brilliance on a technical level is his equal genius in telling stories. This was no static portrait typical of the day, but one filled with plots and subplots. One of the more obvious components focuses again on the captain’s hand—or more precisely the shadow of his hand on van Ruytenburch’s jacket’s embroidery. Upon closer examination, the captain’s hand appears to cradle Amsterdam’s coat-of-arms with its heraldic lion and shield with three crosses, thereby signifying the role of the guards in protecting the city. Similarly, the captain’s clothing is comprised of the colors of the coat-of-arms—black, red and white.

The others in the portrait are portrayed in varying clothing styles representing different professions and social standings. The man in red, Jan van der Heede, is shown in fashionable dress, with an expensive lace collar and even more expensive musket. On the contrary, the sergeant on the work’s right, with his right hand extended, was a Calvinist, and is therefore shown in humble, plain, black clothes, with a millstone collar.

Rembrandt adds action everywhere. For example, he shows that the drummer is actually making noise by the reaction of the dog at the drummer’s feet. The boy in the lower left is running to get more powder for the muskets. The muskets themselves are shown in three stages of use. The militiaman shown to the left of the captain is loading his weapon. The one immediately behind the captain is actually firing it (the smoke is barely visible behind van Ruytenburch’s hat) and the man shown to the right of the lieutenant is blowing the spent powder away in preparation for reloading.

                             The drummer and dog        Loading the weapon      Firing (behind the captain and lieutenant)     Cleaning     Sgt. Rambout Kemp

                             Capt. Cocq’s outstretched hand                                                  Lt. Ruytenburch’s weapon, using brush strokes and color to indicate proximity

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The girl, brightly illuminated, is not a real person, but a metaphor—a mascot of sorts—for the company. She holds a chicken by its claws within her belt, alongside a pistol. The militia company’s shield bore the image of two talons, perhaps because the two Dutch words, “klover” (“arquebus” [gun]) and “klauw” (“claw”) are somewhat similar. The girl appears to be shown as an image of Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia, who died as the painting was being completed.

Detail showing bird’s feet

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Rembrandt’s Etchings

Just as The Night Watch is at the pinnacle of all oil paintings ever created, both for its technical virtuosity and narration, so is Christ Healing the Sick (“The Hundred Guilder Print”) at the zenith of all etchings ever created—and for the same reasons. The incredible detail, the manner in which those details are rendered, and the ability to fit the better part of a biblical chapter into one scene, measuring a mere (though very large for a Rembrandt etching) 11 x 15 1⁄4 inches make this a masterpiece for the ages.

Each small section is a masterpiece unto itself. The level of detail is beyond astonishing.

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Rembrandt’s Etching Masterpiece: Christ Healing the Sick

The chapter from the Bible that Rembrandt narrates in this etching is Matthew 19. The chapter begins with Jesus’ final departure from Galilee on his way to Jerusalem. Jesus was followed by large crowds and he healed many people. Rembrandt depicts various ages

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Rembrandt’s Christ Healing the Sick: The Multitudes

Jesus has attracted a multitude of followers, each desiring a healing miracle either for themselves or for another. One person begs at Jesus’ feet while casting a shadow on Jesus’ robe with his hands and head. Another points at the person lying in the wheelbarrow with their eyes in bandages. A sick woman attempts to raise her hands toward Jesus as a relative prays for intervention on her behalf. An old man, steadied by both his wife and a walking stick approaches Jesus. Everyone has an active part to play in this dramatic scene. For Rembrandt, the hands are as helpful as the faces in conveying messages. (Matthew 19:1-2)

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Rembrandt’s Christ Healing the Sick: The Pharisees

A significant part of the chapter (verses 3-10) is devoted to a confrontation between a group of Pharisees and Jesus. The Pharisees were a sect within the Jewish faith and society which placed equal religious weight on the biblical scriptures and the oral traditions that had been passed down through the generations. Disputes in interpretation of the laws were therefore commonplace. In this instance, they attempted to corner Jesus by asking about the legality of divorce, because Jesus was teaching that divorce should be unnecessary, while the scriptures forbade it except for adultery. Moses taught that divorces were permitted in a far broader context. Rembrandt captures the Pharisees plotting to trap Jesus in the left of the image—the only ones who are not paying any attention to Jesus. His lines and inking are very sparse.

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Rembrandt’s Christ Healing the Sick: The Children

The chapter then moves to Jesus blessing little children—after his disciples told them to go away. The hand of Peter is shown obstructing the young mother who is swaddling her infant child. Jesus stretches out his hand in front of Peter to touch the child. Another child is shown pulling at his mother’s clothes in order to be able to get to Jesus. (Matthew 19:13-15)

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Rembrandt’s Christ Healing the Sick: The Rich Young Man

Matthew describes a very wealthy and pious young man who asks Jesus what it will take to attain eternal life. Jesus tells him to sell everything he has and then follow Him. As the man, dressed in fine clothes, sits down despondently, with his hand cradling his head, Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Rembrandt shows a camel in the back of the room to bring that passage to life. (Matthew 19:16-30)

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Rembrandt’s Christ Healing the Sick: The Disciples

Rembrandt shows seven disciples, with three very much in the background. (one is just a wisp showing the top of his head, on the left.

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Rembrandt’s Christ Healing the Sick: The Unbelievers

An unbeliever, whose left foot points away from Jesus toward the others in his group, faces away from Jesus. All of the skeptic’s ears are covered showing their reluctance to hear Jesus’ words, while one’s eyes are also covered with a head dressing. The leader, with his oversized beret and feather, is engaged in conversation with another, whose gaze is on the leader, rather than Jesus.

The person on the left is shown in total darkness.

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Rembrandt’s Christ Healing the Sick: The Masterpiece

Rembrandt is well known for his chiaroscuro techniques in requiring dark to show light, but his contrasts do not stop there. In the case of this work, he shows many others: rich versus poor, healthy versus sick, open- versus closed- mindedness, blind versus sighted, adult versus child, Jew versus Gentile, humility versus arrogance.

This diminutive work relays a whole series of messages within its very small size. Its composition, with Jesus being the tallest among the myriad, with the total darkness behind Jesus and the total light in front, with Jesus in the center and all others leading the viewers’ eyes toward Jesus, all point to the fact that Rembrandt was the most remarkable etching artist of all time.

His artistic techniques scream perfection. His use of cross-hatching and ink applied to the plate prior to printing show his genius. This very small work every bit as enormous as “The Night Watch”. They are both giants in the history of art.

Relative size of the etching with a ruler and U.S. dollar bill. There are many masterpieces within the masterpiece.

Richard P. van Pelt, Ph.D.  •  February 11, 2020