Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Figures in the Night : Rembrandt's dead wife and two dead children are immortalized in the "Night Watch" : REMBRANDT'S NIGHT WATCH: The Mystery Revealed, By Georges Boka in collaboration with Bernard Courteau (Les editions Emile-Nelligan, Montreal: $22; 117 pp.)

October 16, 1994|Robertson Davies | Robertson Davies is the author, most recently, of "The Cunning Man" (forthcoming from Viking)

There are a few pictures that seize the public fancy and are known far beyond the world of art appreciation and criticism. Such are the "Mona Lisa," the "Birth of Venus," "Guernica" and Rembrandt's "Night Watch," which is the subject of this monograph by the Montreal portrait painter, Georges Boka. It is a handsome little book, and its title promises great things--nothing less than the revelation of a mystery. What is the mystery?

First, however, what is the picture? Called the "Night Watch," its proper title is "The Corporalship of Captain Banning Coq's Civic Guard"; corporalship is a word no longer used, meaning a body of soldiers under the command of a corporal of the field, who was a much greater person in the armies of the 16th and 17th centuries than the name now implies. In 1638 Banning Coq commissioned this picture as one of six that were to decorate the new hall in the Klovenieisdoelen Armoury; the finest Amsterdam painters were to do the work, and of these Rembrandt was not the most admired; that was Govert Flinck, a pupil of Rembrandt, who was asked for two pictures. When Rembrandt's picture was completed it caused some dissatisfaction, for several members of the Civic Guard had contributed to its cost and they complained that they were not commensurately prominent in the picture; some were in profile, and several were in shadow. The picture as we now have it is incomplete, for in 1715 it was heavily trimmed on its left side and three characters were thus lost. Consequently the picture we see now is not in the proportions Rembrandt planned, and this is important to Georges Boka's argument.

Thirty-three people, however, are to be seen, and when first we look at it we can understand the dissatisfaction of some of them with the way in which they are presented. It is a magnificent picture, filled with action and high spirits, but it does not look much like a military assembly. People are rushing about, people are talking to one another apparently unheeding of the orders of Captain Banning Coq who stands dead in the middle of the front, like the star in an opera. Their costumes are not military uniform in any modern sense; everyone is dressed differently, and a student of costume will observe that some of the outfits are of a time far earlier than 1638. These men are supposed to be harquebusiers (gunners) but not many have brought their weapons. They seem to be bursting out of an arch in an old building, but it is not a building anybody in Amsterdam could identify. To the artistic eye, the picture is an undoubted masterpiece, but to the military eye it is inexcusable confusion.

Banning Coq's division of the Civic Guard, we know, was not in the strictest sense a military assembly. These were citizens of Amsterdam, who had joined this militia group much as one might join a distinguished club; it conferred prestige. Members devised their own military dress, which might incorporate armor from an ancestor, and fanciful headdress. They were not, we may suppose, the best drilled of military men, but could they have been in such a tumble as this picture presents? On the other hand, would a more orderly assemblage have made such a fine picture? Which of the other five have survived, and how do they compare with this?

Now for the mystery, which Georges Boka tells us he has revealed. There are figures in the picture who are so finely involved in the composition that we do not notice at once how incongruous they are. There is a dog, but a dog among a group of soldiers is not a reason for astonishment. But what about the figure that seems to be the real focus of attention, and draws our eyes from the resplendent captain? A small woman, almost a dwarf, or a fairy, radiant with light and dressed in golden garments; behind her head we see two children, one somewhat vaguely depicted. At the woman's girdle hang a number of objects, one of which is a chicken. Children might very well crowd to see soldiers assembling, but surely they would be street urchins, and not finely dressed, radiant creatures such as these. What are they doing in the picture at all? That is the mystery.

Georges Boka's explanation is that they are Rembrandt's dead wife, Saskia, and their two dead children, and that thus, by a bold stroke, the painter has immortalized them. It was not a day when painters and other artists were allowed the freedom they have now. Rembrandt and his Dutch contemporaries regarded themselves as first and foremost superior tradesmen; they kept shops in which their pictures were offered for sale. That a painter should so fly in the face of a distinguished client as to include extraneous portraits in a group picture like this would have been unheard of. But Rembrandt, if Boka is right, got away with it. Did no one ask at the time who these unlikely figures were? We do not know.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|