Amsterdam museum begins live restoration of Rembrandt masterpiece

Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum has begun work on a major new restoration project. From this week, “The Night Watch,” one of Dutch master Rembrandt’s most famous paintings, will be painstakingly restored in front of what could be millions of onlookers.

The restoration is being livestreamed and is taking place inside a special glass chamber designed by French architect Jean Michel Wilmotte. That will allow the museum to keep the painting, completed in 1642, on display for the more than two million visitors that come to see it each year.

The project aims to go deep into the history of the “The Night Watch,” investigating Rembrandt’s technique and the impact of previous restorations, analyzing the canvas with the latest imaging technology, and eventually coming up with the best possible plan to preserve the artwork for future generations.

To start, the huge painting — measuring 12.5 feet by 15 feet and weighing 740 pounds — will be unframed and placed in a rig with two platform lifts that will allow researchers to reach across its surface. It will then be scanned millimeter by millimeter using X-rays, which will result in a map of the exact chemical elements that it is made of, laying Rembrandt’s painting process bare. Each scan will take 24 hours and 56 scans will be required to cover the entire canvas.

The research team is made up of more than 20 Rijksmuseum scientists, conservators, curators and photographers.

The research team is made up of more than 20 Rijksmuseum scientists, conservators, curators and photographers. Credit: Rijksmuseum

In addition, more than 12,000 high-resolution photographs will be taken from a distance of up to 5 micrometers (a thousandth of a millimeter), revealing never before seen details in the pigments.

“The Night Watch” — the official title of which is the less catchy “Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq” — depicts one of Amsterdam’s civil guard companies and was commissioned by its leader, Frans Banninck Cocq, who was also the city’s mayor.

The painting was completed in 1642.

The painting was completed in 1642. Credit: Rijksmuseum

Its nickname derives from the fact that the many layers of varnish applied to the painting over the centuries darkened it to the point that it seemed to depict a night scene. The varnish was removed in the 1940s, revealing a much brighter composition, but the name stuck.

“The Night Watch” has a troubled history. In 1715, when it was removed from its original location, it was trimmed on all sides to make it fit between two columns in its new home, at the Amsterdam Town Hall, cutting off a portion of Rembrandt’s original work and losing two figures.


In 1911 it was attacked with a knife by a visitor who wanted to protest the fact that he was unemployed. The painting was slashed again In 1975, this time by an unemployed schoolteacher with a history of mental illness. It was left with several cuts up to 12 inches long, leading to the last major restoration work. In 1990, a man sprayed acid on it from a concealed bottle, damaging the varnish.

Because the painting has never been sold, it’s hard to put a value on it and it is considered priceless. In 2016, two Rembrandt portraits were sold privately for a combined 160 million euros (around $179 million), but because of its size and popularity, the value of “The Night Watch” is likely to be far higher.

The research phase will take almost a year, a representative of the Rijksmuseum team confirmed via email, and only then a final restoration plan will be presented. In the meantime, they added, the public will still have the opportunity to see Rembrandt’s biggest masterpiece through the 28-feet-by-22-feet glass chamber, which will make the research work “more exciting.”

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