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.

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.

Is this indeed sufficient to give it the facial, anecdotal, and local feeling that we expect from Rembrandt when he paints the places, things, and men of his time? If Van der Helst instead of seating his arquebusiers had made them move in any manner whatever, do not doubt that he would have given us the truest if not the finest indications of their ways. And as for Frans Hals, you may imagine with what clearness and order, and how naturally he would have disposed the scene; how piquant, lively, ingenious, abundant, and magnificent he would have been. The idea conceived by Rembrandt then is one of the most ordinary, and I would venture to say that the majority of his contemporaries considered it poor in resources; some because its abstract line is uncertain, scanty, symmetrical, meagre, and singularly incoherent; others, the colourists, because this composition, so full of gaps and ill-occupied spaces, did not lend itself to that broad and generous employment of colours which is usual with able palettes....

Thus there is no truth and very little pictorial invention in the general disposition. Is there more in the individual figures?

What immediately strikes us is that they are unreasonably disproportioned and that many of them have shortcomings and so to speak an embarrassment of characterization that nothing can justify. The captain is too big and the lieutenant too small, not only by the side of Captain Kock, whose stature crushes him, but also beside accessory figures whose height or breadth gives this somewhat plain young man the air of a youth who has grown a moustache too soon. Regarding the two as portraits, they are scarcely successful ones of doubtful likeness and thankless physiognomy, which is surprising in a portrait-painter who had made his mark in 1642, and which affords some excuse for Captain Kock's having a little later applied to the infallible Van der Helst. Is the guard loading his musket rendered any better? Moreover, what do you think of his right-hand neighbour, and of the drummer? One might say that all these portraits lack hands, so vaguely are they sketched and so insignificant is their action. It follows that what they hold is also ill rendered: muskets, halberds, drum-sticks, canes, lances, and flag-pole; and that the gesture of an arm is impotent when the hand that ought to act does not do so clearly, quickly, or with energy, precision, or intelligence. I will not speak of the feet, which, in most cases, are lost in shadow. Such in reality are the necessities of the system of envelopment adopted by Rembrandt, and such is the imperious foregone conclusion of his method, that one general dark cloud invades the base of the picture and that the forms float in it to the great detriment of their points of support.

Must we add that the clothes are very similar to the likenesses, sometimes uncouth and unnatural, sometimes rigid and rebellious to the lines of the body? One would say that they are not worn properly. The helmets are stupidly put on, the hats are outlandish and ungracefully worn. The scarfs are in their place and yet they are awkwardly tied. Here is none of that unique ease of carriage, that natural elegance, thatnégligé dress, caught and rendered to the life in which Frans Hals knows how to attire every age, every stature, every stage of corpulence, and, certainly also, every rank. We are not reassured on this point more than on many others. We ask ourselves whether there is not here a laborious fantasy, like an attempt to be strange, which is not at all pleasing or striking.

Some of the heads are very handsome, I have mentioned those that are not. The best, the only ones in which the hand of the master and the feeling of a master are to be recognized, are those which, from the depths of the canvas, shoot their vague eyes and the fine spark of their mobile glances at you; do not severely examine their construction, nor their plan, nor their bony structure; accustom yourself to the greyish pallor of their complexion, question them from afar as they also look at you from a distance, and if you want to know how they live, look at them as Rembrandt wants us to look at his human effigies, attentively and long, at their lips and eyes.

There remains an episodical figure which has hitherto baffled all conjectures, because it seems by its traits, its carriage, its odd splendour, and its inappropriateness, to personify the magic, the romantic feeling, or, if you prefer, the misrepresentation of the picture; I mean that little witch-like personage, child-like and crone-like at the same time, with her hair streaming and adorned with pearls, gliding among the guards for no apparent reason, and who, a not less inexplicable detail, has a white cock, that at need might be taken for a purse, hanging from her girdle.

Whatever right she has to join the troop, this little figure seems to have nothing human about her. She is colourless and almost shapeless. Her figure is that of a doll and her gait is automatic. She has the air of a beggar, something like diamonds covers her whole body, and an accoutrement resembling rays. You would say that she came from some jewry, or old clothes market, or Bohemia, and that, awaking from a dream, she had attired herself in the most singular of all worlds. She has the light, the uncertainty, and the wavering of a pale fire. The more we examine her, the less we can grasp the subtle lineaments that serve as envelope for her uncorporeal existence. We end by seeing in her nothing but a kind of extraordinarily strange phosphorescence which is not the ordinary light of things, nor yet the ordinary brilliance of a well-regulated palette, and this adds more sorcery to the peculiarities of her countenance. Notice that in the place she occupies, one of the dark corners of the canvas, rather low in the middle distance, between a man in deep red and the captain dressed in black, this eccentric light has much greater force than the most sudden contrast with a neighbouring tint, and without extreme care this explosion of accidental light would have sufficed to disorganize the whole picture.

What is the meaning of this little imaginary or real being, who, however, is only a supernumerary while yet holding, so to speak, the chief rôle? I shall not attempt to tell you. Abler people than I have allowed themselves to inquire what it was and what it was doing there, without coming to any satisfactory conclusion.

But if to all these somewhat vain questions Rembrandt replied: "This child is a caprice no less strange than and quite as plausible as many others in my engraving or painting. I have placed it as a narrow ray amid great masses of shadow because its exiguity rendered it more vibrating and it suited me to awaken with a ray one of the dark corners of my picture. It also wears the usual costume of my female figures, great or small, young or old, and in it you will find the type frequently occurring in my works. I love what glitters, and that is why I have clothed her in brilliant materials. As for those phosphorescent gleams that astonish you here, whilst elsewhere they pass unnoticed, it is only the light in its colourless splendour and supernatural quality that I habitually give to my figures when I illuminate them at all strongly."—Do you not think that such a reply ought to satisfy the most difficult, and that finally, the rights of the stage-setter being reserved, he need only render account of one point: the manner in which he has treated the picture?

We know what to think of the effect produced by the Night Watch when it appeared in 1642. This memorable attempt was neither understood nor relished. It added noise to Rembrandt's glory, increased it in the eyes of his faithful admirers, and compromised it in the eyes of those who had only followed him with some effort and attended him to this decisive point. It made him a painter more peculiar and a master less sure. It heated and divided men of taste according to the heat of their blood, or the stiffness of their reason. In short, it was regarded as an absolutely new but dangerous adventure which brought him applause and some blame, and which at heart did not convince anybody. If you know the judgment expressed on this subject by Rembrandt's contemporaries, his friends and his pupils, you know that opinion has not sensibly varied for two centuries, and that we repeat almost the same thing that this great daring man might have heard during his lifetime....

Save one or two frank colours, two reds and a deep violet, except one or two flashes of blue, you cannot perceive anything in this colourless and violent canvas to recall the palette and ordinary method of any of the known colourists. The heads have the appearance rather than the colouring proper to life. They are red, purple, or pale, without for all that having the true paleness Velasquez gives to his faces, or those sanguine, yellowish, greyish, or purplish shades that Frans Hals renders with such skill when he desires to specify the temperaments of his personages. In the clothes and hair and various parts of the accoutrements, the colour is no more exact nor expressive than is, as I have said, the form itself. When a red appears, it is not of a delicate nature and it indistinctly expresses silk, cloth, or satin. The guard loading his musket is clothed in red from head to foot, from his hat to his boots. Do you perceive that Rembrandt has occupied himself for a moment with the varied physiognomy of this red, its nature or substance, as a true colourist would not have failed to do?...

I defy any one to tell me how the lieutenant is dressed and in what colour. Is it white tinged with yellow? Is it yellow faded to white? The truth is that this personage having to express the central light of the picture, Rembrandt has clothed him with light, very ably with regard to brilliance and very negligently with regard to colour.

Now, and it is here that Rembrandt begins to show himself, for a colourist there is no light in the abstract. Light of itself is nothing: it is the result of colours diversely illumined and diversely radiating in accordance with the nature of the ray that they transmit or absorb. One very deep tint may be extraordinarily luminous; another very light one on the contrary may not be at all luminous. There is not a student in the schools who does not know that. With the colourists, then, the light depends exclusively upon the choice of the colours employed to render it and is so intimately connected with the tone that we may truthfully say that with them light and colour are one. In the Night Watch there is nothing of the kind. Tone disappears in light as it does in shade. The shade is blackish, the light whitish. Everything is brilliant or dull, radiant or obscure, by an alternative effacement of the colouring principle. Here we have different values rather than contrasted tones. And this is so true that a fine engraving, a good drawing, a Mouilleron lithograph, or a photograph will give an exact idea of the picture in its important effects, and a copy simply in gradations from light to dark would destroy none of its arabesque.

What is his execution in the picture before us? Does he treat a stuff well? No. Does he express it ingeniously, or with liveliness, with its seams, folds, breaks, and tissue. Assuredly not. When he places a feather at the brim of a hat, does he give it the lightness and floating grace that we see in Van Dyck, or Hals, or Velasquez? Does he indicate by a little gloss on a dead ground, in their form, or feeling of the body, the human physiognomy of a well adjusted coat, rubbed by a movement or worn with use? Can he, with a few masterly touches and taking no more trouble than things are worth, indicate lace-work, or suggest jewellery, or rich embroidery?

In the Night Watch we have swords, muskets, partisans, polished casques, damascened cuirasses, high boots, tied shoes, a halberd with its fluttering blue silk, a drum, and lances. Imagine with what ease, with what carelessness, and with what a nimble way of making us believe in things without insisting upon them, Rubens, Veronese, Van Dyck, Titian himself, and lastly Frans Hals, that matchless workman, would have summarily indicated and superbly carried off all these accessories. Do you maintain in good faith that Rembrandt in the Night Watch excels in treating them thus? I pray you, look at the halberd that the little lieutenant Ruijtenberg holds at the end of his stiff arm; look at the foreshortened steel, look especially at the floating silk, and tell me if an artist of that value has ever allowed himself more pitifully to express an object that ought to spring forth beneath his brush without his being aware of it. Look at the slashed sleeves that have been so highly praised, the ruffles, the gloves; examine the hands! Consider well how in their affected or unaffected negligence their form is accentuated and their foreshortening is expressed. The touch is thick, embarrassed, awkward, and blundering. We might truly say that it goes astray, and that applied crosswise when it should be applied lengthwise, made flat when any other than he would have rounded it, it confuses instead of determining the form....

At length I come to the incontestable interest of the picture, to Rembrandt's great effort in a new field: I am going to speak of the application on a large scale of that way of looking at things which is proper to him and which is called chiaroscuro.

No mistake is possible here. What people attribute to Rembrandt is really his. Without any doubt chiaroscuro is the native and necessary form of his impressions and ideas. Others have made use of it; but nobody has employed it so constantly and ingeniously as he. It is the supremely mysterious form, the most enveloped, the most elliptic, and the richest in hidden meanings and surprises that exists in the pictorial language of the painter. In this sense it is more than any other the form of intimate feelings or ideas. It is light, vaporous, veiled, discreet; it lends its charm to hidden things, invites curiosity, adds an attraction to moral beauties, and gives a grace to the speculations of conscience. In short, it partakes of sentiment, emotion, uncertainty, indefiniteness, and infinity; of dreams and of the ideal. And this is why it is, as it ought to be, the poetic and natural atmosphere in which Rembrandt's genius never ceased to dwell.

In very ordinary language and in its action common to all schools, chiaroscuro is the art of rendering the atmosphere visible, and painting an object enveloped with air. Its aim is to render all the picturesque accidents of shadow, of half-tints, of light, of relief, and of distance; and to give in consequence more variety, more unity of effect, more caprice and more relative truth either to forms or to colours. The contrary is a more ingenuous and more abstract acceptation, by virtue of which objects are shown as they are, viewed close at hand, the atmosphere being suppressed, and consequently without any other than linear perspective, which results from the diminishing of objects and from their relation to the horizon. When we speak of aërial perspective, we already presuppose a little chiaroscuro.

Any other than Rembrandt, in the Dutch school, might sometimes make us forget that he was obeying the fixed laws of chiaroscuro; with him this forgetfulness is impossible: he has so to speak framed, co-ordinated and promulgated its code, and if we might believe him a doctrinaire at this moment of his career, when instinct swayed him much more than reflection, the Night Watch would have a redoubled interest, for it would assume the character and the authority of a manifesto.

To envelop and immerse everything in a bath of shadow; to plunge light itself into it only to withdraw it afterwards to make it appear more distant and radiant; to make dark waves revolve around illuminated centres, grading them, sounding them, thickening them; to make the obscurity nevertheless transparent, the half gloom easy to pierce, and finally to give a kind of permeability to the strongest colours that prevents their becoming blackness,—this is the prime condition, and these also are the difficulties of this very special art. It goes without saying, that if anyone ever excelled in this, it was Rembrandt. He did not invent, he perfected everything; and the method that he used oftener and better than anyone else bears his name.

When explained according to this tendency of the painter to express a subject only by the brilliance and obscurity of objects, the Night Watch has, so to speak, no more secrets for us. Everything that might have made us hesitate is made clear. Its qualities have their raison d'être; and we even come to comprehend its errors. The embarrassment of the practitioner as he executes, of the designer as he constructs, of the painter as he colours, of the costumer as he attires, the inconsistency of the tone, the amphibology of the effect, the uncertainty of the time of day, the strangeness of the figures, their flashing apparition in deep shadow,—all this results here by chance from an effect conceived contrary to probability, and pursued in spite of all logic, not at all necessary, and with the following purpose: to illuminate a real scene with unreal light, that is to say, to clothe a fact with the ideal character of a vision. Do not seek for anything beyond this audacious project that mocked the painter's aims, clashed with received ideas, set up a system in opposition to customs, and boldness of spirit in opposition to manual dexterity; and the temerity of which certainly did not cease to spur him on until the day when I believe insurmountable difficulties revealed themselves, for, if Rembrandt resolved some of them, there are many that he could not resolve.

Maîtres d'Autrefois (Paris, 1876).