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03 December 2019

2020 welcomes the exciting possibility to observe a team of 20 conservators carry out an in-depth investigation and restoration of Rembrandt’s masterpiece The Night Watch in the world-renowned Rijksmuseum.

A Fresh Look at The Night Watch

By Gemma Cooper


A visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 2020 will give art lovers the unique opportunity to be present as Rembrandt’s The Night Watch is transformed during Operation Night Watch, the most extensive (and visible) research in the painting’s history. It is an exciting project that began in July 2019 and will continue into 2020, aiming to examine and determine the best restoration and treatment techniques that will ensure the masterpiece remains in its best condition for years to come.


Restorers at work in the Rijksmuseum (c) Piroschka van de Wouw, courtesy of the Rijksmuseum


One evening in July after closing time, the 400 year old canvas - with a frame alone weighing 330 kilos - was painstakingly transferred to another wing of the museum in order for a glass building to be temporarily built around where the painting normally hangs. This temporary glass building allows the cutting edge research to take place entirely in the public eye.

This move was a daunting undertaking in itself - the painting is not insured as the premium is unaffordable, and this was the first time since World War II that it had been temporarily relocated (in 1939, the painting was rolled up and hidden in caves near Maastricht.)

The Night Watch that we see today is not exactly the same as that which Rembrandt completed centuries ago. With the help of imaging techniques, high-resolution photography and highly advanced computer analysis, Operation Night Watch hopes to answer the following questions: what is the best way to remove the varnish that has been liberally removed and reapplied around 25 times over the past 400 years? How have the various restoration techniques affected the painting in its current condition? And what were the causes of the numerous small damages to the painting? The work has, in its colourful history, been subjected to an acid attack by an escaped psychiatric patient, slashes in the canvas by a visitor wielding a knife, and finally, an animal wax-resin varnish has been applied, giving the painting a darker tonality.


Restorer's at work in the Rijksmuseum (c) Piroschka van de Wouw, courtesy of the Rijksmuseum


At the time of writing in November 2019, the team of conservators are using stereoscopic microscopes and taking both high and low resolution photos to map the painting in detail. Their images have already given us some intriguing insights into the artist’s way of working.

For example, Rembrandt used smalt, a deep blue coloured glass. He employed it not only for its cobalt blue colour, but also used it to enliven his brown mixtures and to thicken his paint to make it dry faster.

In the 17th century, the cobalt ore came via Saxony, Germany to the Netherlands, which was a large production centre. Within the small cracks that have started to appear in the canvas of The Night Watch, the team have identified the presence of smalt. This discovery suggests that Rembrandt probably used a cobalt-rich layer first (smalt), before painting over the detailed embroidery on the mantle of Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch, to ensure a vibrant finish.

The recent high resolution images taken during the restoration reveal exceptional detail in the embroidery section. The shadow of Captain Frans Banning Cocq’s hand falls upon the Lieutenant's mantle, as seen in the picture below. In the embroidery three crosses, the coat of arms of Amsterdam, are placed between the shadow of the Captain’s thumb and fingers: here Rembrandt implies that the city is safe in the hands of the militia.




All processed data during the operation will be accessible to the public, free of charge, as well as weekly updates being posted on the Rijksmuseum’s website. Led by Rupert Dickens, ACE Cultural Tours’ upcoming departure to the Netherlands in July 2020, The Golden Age of Dutch Painting, will take in this extraordinary work, and by this time, it remains to be seen how many more visual tricks of the artist will be uncovered.

Operation Night Watch has started 8 July and is ongoing. The Night Watch will be visible in the glass chamber during the entire project.


More Information on The Golden Age of Dutch Painting available here.

More Information on all of Rupert Dickens' tours with ACE in 2020 available here.