The patriotism of the Dutch is seen through the entire history of "brave little Holland." Early in the sixteenth century every town of considerable size had a military company composed of the most prominent citizens. Each company, or guild, had a place of assembly, or doelen, and a drilling-ground. The officers were chosen for a year, and the highest appointments were those of captain, lieutenant, and ensign. Upon these civic guards rested the responsibility of maintaining the order and safety of the town. Sterner duties than these were theirs when in the late sixteenth century (1573), at the call of William of Orange, the various guilds formed themselves into volunteer companies to resist the Spanish. How well they acquitted themselves is a matter of history, and Spain recognized the republic in the treaty of 1609. After the war, many of the corporations were reorganized and continued to be of great importance in the seventeenth century.

The picture we have here represents the Civic Guard of Amsterdam during the captaincy of Frans Banning Cocq in 1642. Cocq was a man of wealth and influence who had purchased the estate of Purmerland in 1618 and had also been granted a patent of nobility. So it was natural that Lord Purmerland, one of the most distinguished citizens of the town, should be called to a term of office as captain of the Civic Guard. His magnificent stature and manly bearing show him well fitted for the honor.

SORTIE OF THE CIVIC GUARD Ryks Museum, Amsterdam
Ryks Museum, Amsterdam

The picture represents an occasion when the guard issues from the assembly hall, or doelen, in a sudden call to action. Captain Cocq leads the way with Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenberg, of Vlaerdingen, and as he advances gives orders to his fellow officer. The drum beats, the ensign unfurls the standard, every man carries a weapon of some sort. One is priming a musket, another loading his gun, another firing. A mass of lance-bearers press on from the rear. In the confusion a dog scampers into the midst and barks furiously at the drum. A little girl slips into the crowd on the other side, oddly out of place in such company, but quite fearless. It has been suggested that she may have been the bearer of the tidings which calls the guard forth. The quaint figure is clad in a long dress of some shimmering stuff, and she has the air of a small princess. From her belt hangs a cock, and she turns her face admiringly towards the great captain.

We do not know of any historical incident which precisely corresponds to the action in the picture. Indeed, it is not strictly speaking an historical picture at all, but rather a portrait group of the Civic Guard, in attitudes appropriate to their character as a military body. They may be going out for target practice or for a shooting match such as was held annually as a trial of skill; it may be a parade, or it may be, as some have fancied, a call to arms against a sudden attack from the enemy. In any case the noticeable thing is the readiness with which all respond to the call—the spirit of patriotism which animates the body. The Dutch are not naturally warlike, but rather a peace-loving people; lacking the quick impulsiveness of a more nervous race, they are of a somewhat heavy and deliberate temper; yet they have the solid worth which can be counted on in an emergency, and in love of country they are united to a man. Benjamin Franklin once said of Holland, "In love of liberty, and bravery in the defense of it, she has been our great example."

The picture cannot be fully understood without some knowledge of its history. Painted for the hall of the Amsterdam Musketeers, it was to take its place among others by contemporary painters, as a portrait group in honor of the officers of the year, and as a lasting memorial of their services. The other pictures had been stiff groups about a table, and the novelty of Rembrandt's composition displeased some of the members of the guild. Each person who figures in the scene had subscribed a certain sum towards the cost of the picture for his own portrait, and was anxious to get his money's worth. Consequently, there were many who did not at all relish their insignificance in the background, quite overshadowed by the glory of the captain and lieutenant. They thought they would have shown to much better advantage arranged in rows.

It was Rembrandt's way when painting a portrait to give life and reality to the figure, by showing the leading element in the character or occupation of the person. Thus his shipbuilder is designing a ship, the writing master, Coppenol, is mending a pen, the architect has his drawing utensils, and the preacher his Bible. So in the Civic Guard each man carries a weapon, and the figures are united in spirited action. All this artistic motive was lost upon those for whom the picture was painted, because of their petty vanity. So the great painting, now so highly esteemed, was not a success at the time.

In the following century it was removed to the town hall; and in order to fit it into a particular place on the wall, a strip was cut off each side the canvas. It is the loss of these margins which gives the composition the crowded appearance which so long seemed a strange fault in a great artist like Rembrandt.

The original colors of the painting grew so dark with the accumulation of smoke in the hall that the critics supposed the scene occurred at night, hence the incorrect name of the Night Watch was given to it. Since the picture was cleaned, in 1889, it is apparent that the incident occurred in the daytime, and if you look carefully you can plainly see the shadow of Captain Cocq's hand on the lieutenant's tunic.