This is R. Brovender’s second “The BEST” entry on works of classic art. Read his recent column on paintings by Vermeer.
Summary: Rembrandt van Rijn painted “The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq” in 1642. More commonly known as “The Night Watch,” this colossal (11.91 × 14.34 foot) work depicts the eponymous company moving out, led by Captain Frans Banninck Cocq (dressed in black, with a red sash) and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch (dressed in yellow, with a white sash). With effective use of sunlight and shade, Rembrandt leads the eye to the three most important characters among the crowd: the two men in the center (from whom the painting gets its original title), and the woman in the center-left background carrying a chicken.
Why this is The BEST? The picture contains a message about humanity. It is a painting of enormously impressive size, and it takes up a tremendous amount of space in the hall in which it is hung. Rembrandt is giving us a message. He depicts a company doing the same thing in unison; here a military setting in which people often lose their identities—following the leader, they take instruction and direction. Rembrandt telegraphs to us that even at such a moment, each person’s individual identity cannot be suppressed. Each one’s face is unique and meaningful: He has an expression; he has an identity in the picture; he is not part of the crowd even as he makes up part of the company. Each figure is not quite like anyone else, and recalls to our minds the midrashic observation: “Just as no two people resemble one another, so no two people think alike. Rather, each person has an opinion of his own” (Bamidbar Rabba 21:2).
Rembrandt is showing us that you can paint a still life but you cannot silence life. Every person in this group is an individual; the artist wants us to reach out to them and be with them in some way or another, each figure asks us to protect his or her identity and independence. It is a great statement about freedom that even in this situation, a militia company preparing to go out and defend the city, they are each of them a single, human story. This was Rembrandt’s contribution to portraiture—not only the unparalleled ability to copy the facial features or the look of a person that existed at his time, but to give that person an identity, a sense that every single person has some sort of story that is being told.
Held at Amsterdam’s Rijksmueum, this painting has the largest and most detailed photo ever taken of a work of art, at 717 gigapixels, or 717 billion pixels, in size. Each pixel is smaller than a human red blood cell. View it here.
Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.