Researchers Have Uncovered a Hidden Sketch in Rembrandt’s The Night Watch

The Night Watch, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642
The Night Watch, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642 / Rijksmuseum

Unless they left behind notes for posterity, the creative processes of history's greatest artists are often a mystery. That's starting to change: Using new technology, researchers can now uncover elements in paintings the artist never intended the public to see. That's the case with Rembrandt's masterpiece The Night Watch. As ART News reports, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has found a preliminary sketch of the scene the painter drew directly onto the canvas.

Rembrandt van Rijn completed his painting Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, more commonly known as The Night Watch, in 1642. Instead of showing a static portrait, the Dutch painter captured a military company in motion. It's his largest piece, measuring 11.9-by-14.3 feet, and it's considered a crowning achievement of the Dutch Golden Age.

Experts have long suspected that Rembrandt made rough sketches of his work on the same canvas he would later paint on, and the new findings confirm this. For two and a half years, researchers at the Rijksmuseum have analyzed Rembrandt's most ambitious painting as part of Operation Night Watch. Advanced imaging technology allowed them study the canvas beneath the paint, revealing an early version of the piece sketched in beige paint with a high chalk content.

Calcium map of The Night Watch showing Rembrandt’s hidden sketch in the upper part of the painting.
Calcium map of The Night Watch showing Rembrandt’s hidden sketch in the upper part of the painting. / Rijksmuseum

"The discovery of the sketch represents a breakthrough in this research," Taco Dibbits, director of the Rijksmuseum, said in a statement. "It is fascinating to see Rembrandt searching for the right composition. We have discovered the genesis of The Night Watch."

The discovery shows us how the painting evolved from conception to final product. In the sketch, Claes van Cruijsbergen's helmet sports feathers that were omitted from the painting. The artist also adjusted the leg positions of the military men and added and removed weapons as he refined his work.

In addition to studying the painting, Operation Night Watch is using technology to restore it to its original state. Earlier in 2021, the researchers used A.I. to reconstruct sections missing from the scene. Other parts have deteriorated or faded over the centuries, and the conservation team at the Rijksmuseum hopes to have the painting fully restored by early next year.

[h/t ART news]