Enjoy the restored Night Watch, but don’t ignore the machine behind the Rembrandt

This morning’s Observer column:

In the late 1970s I lived and worked briefly in the Netherlands. Often, on Sundays, I would travel to Amsterdam, go to the morning concert in the Spiegelzaal of the Concertgebouw, and afterwards walk over to the Rijksmuseum, Holland’s national gallery, and spend a couple of hours there. The museum is a wonderful storehouse of Dutch art and there was always much to explore. But on nearly every visit I found myself being drawn back to one of Rembrandt’s most famous pictures – The Night Watch – which I guess is to the Rijksmuseum what the Mona Lisa is to the Louvre.

Its official title is Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq. It came to be called The Night Watch because by the end of the 18th century it had darkened considerably through the accumulation of layers of dirt and varnish, leading to the belief that the painted scene had occurred after dusk.

It’s a huge painting (379 x 453cm) and it has an overwhelming presence. One is stunned by its sweep and scale. What I hadn’t known, all those years ago though, was that I was only contemplating a part of the original painting…

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