The most puzzling aspect of the The Night Watch is the figure of the small girl, the so-called mascot of the civic guard, located just left of center in the middleground of the painting. Taking another look, one must ask oneself: is this that same girlish little girl we saw in earlier paintings of Rembrandt’s — all endearing innocence with blue eyes and fair hair — now resembling more an overblown infanta, flagrantly out of wack not only with the rest of the painting but with her own petite stature? The viewer is abruptly confronted with some sort of eerie makeshift incarnation, a transmogrified figure fully grown up now with incipient jowls —a matronly and yet somewhat puckish sprite possessing the body of a dwarfish woman. It boggles the mind that so highlighted a personage, this girl-woman compilation, should wind up right smack in the middle of this canvas. A master illustrator of narrative content, what was Rembrandt up to in depicting such a disconcerting, mismatched trope?
Age is not the only glaring contradiction in the portrayal of this female presence. Note that she stands alone in an otherwise all male assembly: the only female amongst The Militia Company of District II. Yet her significance to the group is primal and ostensibly symbolic. Attached to her body are The Guild’s costly drinking horn and a dead fowl, the prominent claw of which is an emblem of the musketeers’ purpose and mission. (Its heraldic essence reduced to an egregiously banal stand-in — no eagle or otherwise noble fowl here — just an ordinary white chicken plucked from a local butcher shop, perhaps a last minute expedient on the part of Rembrandt to advance some transcendent meaning, such as the truism that the Marvelous could be imbedded in the Everyday.) Or is there some kind of vulgar irony at play here, a certain Mennonite frugality, to downplay the pretentiousness of the discredited Guard, no longer employed in a military capacity other than as ‘Citizens in Arms’? Ambiguities seem to abound in this painting, enough to make any naïve take on its meaning troubling.
1642 was the year that Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn completed the painting entitled The Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Bonninct Cocq and Lieutenant Willem Van Rytenburch, also known as The Shooting Company of these aforesaid gentlemen of note. The title The Night Watch is a popular appellation that has nothing to do with the history of its making, its original meaning or intent or purpose, but rather with its predominant mood of unrelenting lugubrious gravitas. So this popular title, although tacked on in the years after the painting’s completion on some erroneous supposition that it’s all about a night patrol, nonetheless has been maintained to this very day, a conviction that seems central to the painting’s cosmology. It is as though the piece had a subconscious will of its own that surfaced over the centuries, shifting its relevance to modify the entire mood of the painting, haunted as it now is by the diffuse inscrutability of a cosmic Night.
1642 was, coincidentally, also the same year that Rembrandt’ wife, Saskia Van Uylenburgh, died of tuberculosis. This sad event happened on June 14, just short of her thirtieth birthday, barely a year after having given birth to Titus. Her other three children had not made it much past childbirth. All this while Rembrandt was hard at work filling in his large canvas, 12 by 15 feet, with portraits at 100 guilders apiece. He had been involved for three years in a seemingly fruitless process of painting all these townies garbed in funny boots and hats, then scraping them out, and then repainting them in, one by one, again and again. The effort was, seemingly, to accommodate these 32 figures in a brand-new, earth-shaking, and mind-boggling group portrait: men on the move, in collegial action. But the more he futzed around with the painting, the more impossible it became for him to finish. Could these endless revisions and accommodations have been a kind of acting out on Rembrandt’s part of his frustration with his home life, with the sense of unavailing futility at not being able to alter his fate, that at the summit of his career, Rembrandt felt cursed with a dying wife?
Saskia, from an affluent Frisian family, was only twenty-nine years old when she died. She was a strong woman of independent character and lots of attitude to boot. She married Rembrandt on 2 July 1634, just eight years before her demise. That she married him in spite of the objections of her patrician family, who believed him beneath her station, is proof of the stubborn independence of her nature. It was her money that allowed Rembrandt, a man of extravagant appetite, to live the high style, to collect all manner of bric-a-brac for props, to acquire a fancy studio and move to one of the most desirable addresses in Amsterdam, with a double stairway entrance and a view of the river Amstel. With conjugal majesty she was his major muse, his model. During the eight years they had together, she posed for so many spectacular portraits, such as her several personifications of Flora, the Roman goddess of prostitution, in the full flowering of her ample pulchritude, or The Return of the Prodigal Son where she’s the perky doll-like wife propped bolt upright on her husband’s lap, her bold gaze the quintessential image of proud possessive poontang. Meanwhile she was busy at home dutifully having all those kids, four in all, three of whom died before her. And as the most intimate threads in the fabric of their life together were unraveling, it is inconceivable that Rembrandt, whose artworks attest to the extraordinary reach of his empathy and compassion, could stave off thoughts of his dying wife from influencing the daily regime of painting the largest commission of his career. Being Rembrandt, he could not but help obsessing about this foul misstep of fortune. He could not prevent the malevolent weight of his private despair and sorrow from impinging on the practice of his craft in this, his most important public commission.
So say that it is a highly probable conjecture that his wife Saskia was the subject for the girl/woman amalgam looming out of the space between the man loading gunpowder into the barrel of his musket and the dark repoussoir of the loose glove dangling off Captain Cocq’s hand. This image resembles Saskia in all the ways that so many of the paintings of her do: a certain physiognomic snap and presumption in her look of entitlement (she seemed to like being looked at), her characteristic pearl earring lost in the strands of fluttering hair. All luminous effulgence, she is clearly the only one in the whole assembly of troopers that looks out from the confines of this funky yet colossal gathering — except for the solitary eye topped by a beret, representing most certainly Rembrandt himself, the artist-observer, lurking spookily way in the back among shifting shadows. Only the important difference to note here is that Saskia is inside the heart of the painting, looking out into the world with a pure omnipresent clarity; whereas hubby van Rijn, a mere peripheral speck of curiosity, remains on the outside– fragmentary, alien– looking in. This double engagement of the gaze both joins them and separates them simultaneously, making the ubiquity of this ambivalent moment the real subject of the painting.
With such a poignant reciprocity of grief stamped eternally on this pageant of movement, how best to portray Saskia, how best to embody both the flush and wayward fervor of youth with the maturity of a decisive woman in charge of the domestic realm? Rembrandt’s solution was to collage both images together, each at a decisive but different stage of her life, into one dominant impossible confection. Unprepared for the sudden death of his wife, Rembrandt had initially perhaps not thought to include her in such a prominent way. Given the large number of dour military personages, whatever the original design for the painting was now had to be altered to make room for her. The space was small, cramped, challenged; so he had to aggressively scrape out the surrounding figures from an earlier stage of the painting in order to fit her in. You can still see the ghostly remnants of former members of the militia, through all the ragged scrapes of the palette knife, on either side of her —a floating palimpsest of facial features in fractional outrage at having been so crudely and summarily banished from the scene.
If one can get past the present image of Saskia, so oddly compacted and problematic, she is all about painterly immediacy, immersed in a transcendent golden glow. Every vestige of tenebrous drama has been eliminated, as if a flash suddenly went off in the mental camera, or a phrase from one of Bach’s Sunday cantatas escaped the celestial bourne. Now all is sheer glory of melded intervals, like a pervasive sheen of sound extending forever the present moment. Pitched to such a high key of tonality, the various colors of her equipage are blended to a universal chroma, to one ecstatic note, ringing the way a tuning fork holds sway in the ionized air. Nothing else in the painting is like it. Or rather it’s the very nature of the rest of this painting’s pervasive gloomy presence, its saturnine aspect, its intrinsic melancholy of purpose, so to speak, to provide the foil that sets Saskia wholly apart, that makes her its inadvertent primary subject, its incarnation.
It was the English printmaker, Stanley William Hayter, who stumbled upon the fundamental truth that in all things graphic, things naturally move towards the right. In printing an etching or engraving, one naturally reverses the image, sometimes to the surprise of the artist’s intention. For example, take any old etching of Zeus’ abduction of Ganymede. In the beak of the dark eagle, who is really Zeus in one of his many disguises, a reluctant cherubic baby is carried aloft, bawling and urinating in dribbling fright. This reluctant pudge-pot of a baby could just as easily be seen, because of the reversal of the image, as descending from the heavens instead.
In The Night Watch Saskia seems to be going against the tide of the militia’s marching, heading in the opposing direction, from the left to right instead of from the drummer on the right to the left, strangely detached from the dominant current. One’s eye, which is used to scanning events from left to right, now has to resist its natural tendency; the entire militia now seems to be headed the wrong way. At least that must have been the way it seemed to Rembrandt in all his grief: the world has no right to continue on after Saskia’s death, but it does so anyway, unfeeling, indifferent. This parade of militiamen all decked out with swords and bucklers, responding to beckoning drumbeat and wave of flag, becomes a surrogate for the World, with Rembrandt outside it, no longer able to take the dear heart of his loving partner along with him. With pragmatic insistence, this parade of men rejects and mocks the depths of Rembrandt’s grieving by continuing to go in the wrong direction. But by painting such a painting as this, of a group of soldiers moving off, in such a way as to conflate his private world with the public, Rembrandt thereby converts a civic event into an authentic painting of mourning. He manages to rescue Saskia from oblivion, to commemorate her having lived in one luminous embrace, suspended forever in the breach between past and future. This painting ends up being a transformative infraction of nature, where fiction triumphs over loss and death, and thus earns the right to be called by its mistaken title The Night Watch.