THE NIGHT WATCH

(REMBRANDT)

EUGÈNE FROMENTIN

We know how the Night Watch is hung. It faces the Banquet of Arquebusiers by Van der Helst, and, no matter what has been said, the two pictures do not hurt each other. They oppose each other like day and night, like the transfiguration of things and their literal imitation, slightly vulgar and clever. Admit that they are as perfect as they are celebrated and you will have before your eyes a unique antithesis, what La Bruyère calls "opposition truths that illuminate one another."

I shall not astonish anyone in saying that the Night Watch possesses no charm, and the fact is without example among the fine works of pictorial art. It is amazing, it is disconcerting, it is imposing, but it absolutely lacks that insinuating quality that convinces us, and it almost always fails to please us at first. In the first place, it shocks our logical sense and that habitual visual rectitude that loves clear forms, lucid ideas, and clearly formulated boldness; something warns us that our imagination as well as our reason will be only half satisfied and that even the mind that is most easily won over will not submit till the last and will not surrender without dispute. This is due to various causes that do not all arise from the picture,—the light is detestable; the frame of dark wood in which the painting is drowned spoils its middle values, and its bronze scale of colour, and its force, and makes it look much more smoked than it is; and, lastly and above all, the exigencies of the place prevent the picture from being hung at the proper height, and, against all the laws of the most elementary perspective, oblige you to look at it from the same level.

The Night Watch. Rembrandt.

The Night Watch.
Rembrandt.

You are aware that the Night Watch, rightly or wrongly, passes for an almost incomprehensible work, and that constitutes its chief prestige. Perhaps it would have made far less noise in the world, if for two centuries people had not kept up the habit of trying to find out its meaning instead of examining its merits, and persisted in the mania of regarding it as a picture enigmatical above all.

Taking it literally, what we know of the subject seems to me sufficient. In the first place, we know the names and quality of the personages, thanks to the care with which the painter has inscribed them on a plate at the bottom of the picture; which proves that if the painter's fancy has transfigured many things, the chief idea at least deals with the customs of local life. It is true that we cannot tell for what purpose these men are going out armed, whether they are going to practise shooting, or on parade, or what; but, as there is no matter here for the deeper mysteries, I am persuaded that if Rembrandt has failed to be more explicit it is because either he did not wish or he did not know how to be, and there is a whole series of hypotheses that might be very simply explained by some such matter as inability or intentional reticence. As for the time of day (the most vexed question of all and the only one, moreover, that could have been settled when first it arose), for fixing that we have no need to discover that the Captain's outstretched arm casts a shadow upon the skirt of his coat. It suffices to remember that Rembrandt never treated light otherwise; that nocturnal obscurity is his habit; that shadow is the ordinary form of his poetic feeling and his usual means of dramatic expression; and that in his portraits, in his interiors, in his legends, in his anecdotes, in his landscapes, and in his etchings, as in his paintings, it is generally with night that he makes day.

It is agreed that the composition does not constitute the principal merit of the picture. The subject had not been selected by the painter, and the manner in which he intended to treat it did not allow of its first sketch being very spontaneous, nor very lucid. Therefore the scene is indecisive, the action almost null, and, consequently, the interest is greatly divided. From the very beginning is betrayed an inherent vice in the first idea, and a kind of irresolution in the manner of conceiving, distributing, and placing it. Some men marching, others standing still, one priming his musket, another loading his, another firing, a drummer who poses for the head while beating his instrument, a somewhat theatrical standard-bearer, and, finally, a crowd of figures fixed in the requisite immobility of portraits,—so far as action is concerned, these, if I am not mistaken, are the sole picturesque features of the painting.