I was reading an article in Film Comment about Peter Greenaway’s film Rembrandt’s J’accuse, an essayistic documentary in which Greenaway’s fierce criticism of today’s visual illiteracy is argued by means of a forensic search of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch.
I learned a few things about Peter Greenaway in reading the article, but what I also interested in this painting. I have taken a few Art History course and I was surprised when the article listed Nightwatch as the fourth most famous painting (after the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper and the Sistine Chaple, of course).
So I did some digging, first in my Gardner’s Art through the Ages (10th edition), and to my surpise it was not mentioned. Naturally, my next step was th internet where I found a site called Remrandtpainting.net from which the following bits are from.
The Night Watch was commissioned by Captain Barining Cocq and 17 members of his civic guards; that this was the total of Rembrandt’s clients for the work is assumed from the fact that 18 names, added by an unknown hand after the painting was completed, appear on a shield on the background wall.
The Night Watch is colossal. In its original dimensions it measured approximately 13 by 16 feet.
The Night Watch lies at the center of the most persistent and annoying of all Rembrandt myths. As recently as the tourist season of 1967, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines featured the painting by their illustrious countryman in an advertisement inviting travelers to visit Holland. “See Night Watch,” said the advertisement, “Rembrandt’s spectacular ‘failure’ (that caused him to be) hooted …down the road to bankruptcy.”
The painting was not poorly received; no critic during Rembrandt’s lifetime wrote a word in dispraise of it. Captain Banning Cocq himself had a watercolor made of it for his personal album, and a contemporary oil copy of it by Gerrit Lundens, now owned by the National Gallery in London, offers further proof of the picture’ s popularity.
The fable of the Night Watch may owe its stubborn survival to the fact that it is a simple and convenient means of disposing of a complex matter. In 1642 Rembrandt was at the height of his popularity, and thereafter he slowly fell out of public favor, though never to the extent that romantic biographers suggest. What were the reasons for his “decline”? One of them, certainly, was a change in Dutch tastes in art.
Well, I know this – if you asked Peter Greenaway about the “fable of the Night Watch“, he would certainly tell you that Rembrandt’s fall out of public favor had nothing to do with “a change in tastes in art”.