Skip to main content

Supposing Rembrandt’s The Night Watch


ISSUE:  Winter 2007
The Night Watch

You go to the museum and you see this huge Thing staring you in the face and there doesn’t seem much you can say or feel about it except: Wow! The Thing has been producing this effect since 1642, though it’s gotten darker over the centuries and it was cut down on the left side in 1715. The uncut version contained full or partial views of thirty-four human figures and one barking dog. Eighteen of the former are the sitters named on the framed shield in the background. Some brandish pikes or partisans or double-edged swords while others do things with muskets. Pretty weird things. I mean, here are Captain Banning Cocq and his Lieutenant preparing to lead their company to an unspecified site of assembly or action. The Captain steps confidently forward with hand outstretched to “give the order to his Lieutenant … to march,” when bang! goes a gun right behind their heads. We can see the barrel angle up from the Captain’s shoulder to the Lieutenant’s hat brim and we can make out the puff of fiery smoke it discharges perilously close to the ostrich plumes, which seem flattened back by the blast.

Where did that bullet go? Only a few sitters appear to be paying attention to the blast. They include the guardsman deflecting the gun with outstretched hand, the sergeant at the right who points in its general direction, two or three guardsmen at the left edge of the painting, and the golden girl who bustles by and could well be eyeing the incident. The two officers soldier on as if it hadn’t happened, which may testify to their remarkable discipline, or insensitivity, or something else. Maybe they were in on the joke and the musket shot was part of the compositional program they worked out with Rembrandt.

Night Watch Detail

The perpetrator is the young—or at least the short—shooter between the Captain and the golden girl. He wears a large antique helmet and old-fashioned clothes, and he looks like he’s putting a lot of himself into his work. He’s one of six musketeers in the painting. You can barely make out two in the upper left background and one at the right behind the arm of the pointing sergeant. More conspicuous are the red musketeer in the left foreground and the stooped older man just to the right of the Lieutenant. The red musketeer is loading his weapon and the old musketeer is blowing unexploded powder out of the firing pan. We’ll see later that these two shooters have problems of their own, but nothing so drastic as shooting up neighbors.

Next to the red musketeer that girl materializes in a brilliant shaft of light, with another one barely discernible behind her. The visible girl, complete with drinking horn, purse, and dead chicken, stares either at the unruly shooter or at Captain Cocq himself.

Who is this strange intruder? She’s been variously called a kitchen girl, a symbol, and “a female dwarf.” Some militia portraits organized as banquet scenes include man-servants. This is the only one I can recall that includes a female figure; a figure gorgeously dressed, centrally placed, scintillating with her own and the painter’s energy, and, above all, a pistol-packing figure not to be trifled with. You can see ends of the weapon lurking behind the chicken.

Night Watch Detail
Detail of the “golden girl.”

The golden girl has often been said to resemble pictures of Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia. It’s a likeness for which Saskia may or may not have had time to pose. She died in June of 1642, the year The Night Watch was completed. Why does Rembrandt include a figure whose proper place is not in the shooters’ parade but in the household? And who possibly was—or, at any rate, had been—a member of, the mistress of, the painter’s own household?

*  *  *  *  

Before saying more about The Night Watch, I want to review the familiar features of the social and political history within which it’s framed. Apart from the obvious reasons for doing this, I’m interested in making the case for a particular range of effects I find in militia group portraits; effects that can be described generally as signs of performance anxiety, and specifically as signs of uneasy manhood.

The historical context for this discussion is the Eighty Years War between the Dutch and the Spanish. It began in 1568 and was officially terminated in 1648 when the Dutch Republic was recognized by the Treaty of Muenster. During this period the only real respite from war was a Twelve Years Truce that lasted from 1609 to 1621. In 1579 the seven northern provinces of the Netherlands formed into a defensive alliance against Spain and gradually, more or less accidentally, morphed into a loosely centralized Republic whose opposition to Catholic Spain took a Calvinist rather than Anglican turn.

The survival of this state depended on its ability to balance the opposing pressures of centralization and decentralization. Centralizing forces were generated primarily by the military needs of a state constantly at war, while the decentralizing forces of provincial autonomy were generated by the economic power of the cities in the maritime provinces, Holland and Zeeland. Compromise between these opposed tendencies was built into the Republican constitution. The provinces were represented by an assembly of provincial delegates, the Estates General. The state’s military and administrative power was vested in an officer elected by the Provinces and called the Stadholder. From 1586 to 1650, the office was held by two sons and a grandson of William of Orange, the major hero of the early stages of the war with Spain.

What paid for the war and kept the Republic solvent was the trading empire. Since this was based in the cities and towns of the province of Holland, the Republic was compelled not only to tolerate Holland’s unruliness, but also to promote and protect its mercantile ventures. From the 1580s on, and really within the next two decades, the merchant elites in the cities of Holland came to dominate world trade. So rapid an emergence produced not merely a large number of self-made and newly rich individuals; it produced a self-made and newly rich class of individuals, a class that had the opportunity to take an active part in its own formation, and this involved taking control over the conventions and media in which it represented itself.

Those members of the new merchant elite who served on town councils became known as the regent class. The regents were not an oligarchy defined by birth or social status. Few could trace their genealogies back as far as three generations. Instead, they became a class (some say a caste) through economic and ultimately political achievement. But they were appointed to the council for life, they used alliance strategies to keep the office in the family, and sons often ended up replacing their fathers on the council. The wealth generated by the more exotic rich trades sent many Dutch merchants merrily up the ladder toward a higher style and a more patrician culture. But the rapidity of change left them often conflicted about the proper styles of self-representation. They teetered nervously (in J. L. Price’s words) “between a burgher … identity and a quasi-noble sense of family tradition and inherited status.”

These political, economic, and social features were complicated by the moral influence of the Calvinist Church. Among the most important activities and effects of the Reformation clergy in Protestant Europe was its articulation of the ideal of the nuclear family household, a unit centered not on the extended family’s “band of brothers” but—if I can borrow another phrase that’s been thrown about a lot lately—on the bond between one man and one woman. In northwestern Europe this pattern of residence had been around for a long time (at least since the late Middle Ages). What changed was that the Reformation clergy began to promote it. Two closely interrelated consequences of this development were central: one was the increase in status accorded the role of the individual male householder; the other, ironically enough, was a correlative increase in the power and authority of the role of the householder’s wife.

As to the first, Lena Cowen Orlin explains that the state “designated the individual household, in the absence of the old authoritarian church, … as the primary unit of social control” and “identified the householder as responsible for the maintenance of moral order in his immediate sphere.” This responsibility demands attention not only to moral character but also to behavioral appearances or performances. As to the second, when the Reformation clergy aimed its ideological searchlight at the nuclear household, the resultant illumination cast a strange pattern of lights and shadows over the domestic role of wife/mother.

Reformation discourse sent mixed signals about the wife’s place. On the one hand, it continued the old tradition of the head-body and Adam’s rib symbolism. On the other hand, the discourse paraded the reciprocity of desire and affection as family values. The positive message was reinforced by several existing practices in Dutch society: marriages were consensual rather than arranged; people didn’t usually marry until their middle or late twenties; there was usually little or no age gap between partners. Thus the wife was normatively perceived as a kind of secunda inter pares. The result was that the old expectations based on the residual inequality of women to men and of wives to husbands came into conflict with the new ideals. The ideal of reciprocity was easy to confuse with the ideal of equality, and this put pressure on the husband to be mindful of the need to reinforce his own authority at his wife’s expense.

Evidence of men’s anxiety about the behavior of Dutch wives in general comes from another source. The travel journals of several English visitors to the Netherlands in this period all agree in finding the Dutch housewife unusually independent, which is to say, big, voluble, and bossy. Maybe the observers were just projecting. But in Holland as elsewhere, the literary debates of the era centered on such themes as The Battle for the Pants and The Power of Women.

Nanette Salomon has recently gone so far as to claim that in the visual arts “images of women dominating men,” whether in or out of marriage, whether in households or in bordellos, contributed to a popular myth of national identity during the long period of time in which “a politically determined national Netherlandish identity remained problematic.” I don’t think Salomon means to claim that the form given national identity was castration. But it’s true that the various institutional arenas, or sites of performance, I’ve just touched on present difficulties that affect the social construction of gender. For males the problem she raises has less to do with the task of achieving manhood than with that of properly representing it while performing the overlapping roles of husband, householder, and citizen.

Since the males with which I’m especially concerned are those who pose for militia portraits, I should say something about the institution of the militia itself. The basic tasks of civic guard companies, which go back to the fourteenth century, included peacekeeping, night watch, riot prevention, drilling, and weapons practice. During the war, companies occasionally (but not often) went on expeditions to relieve neighboring towns under siege.

Some of the other things they did are repeatedly depicted in the standard portrait formats. Such portraits contribute to abiding questions about the militia’s military function and political reliability. Scholars disagree as to whether or not they declined into sport clubs and drinking societies (and, if they did, when). Some insist that the militias were never very effective. Others argue that the presence of an armed (or potentially armed) force helped preserve the balance of power both in times of factional controversy among regents and in times of tension between the city and state.

These arguments are still going on. Many scholars continue to minimize the militia’s militariness. Simon Schama sharply distinguishes the army’s mercenary soldiers from the guardsmen whose ineffectiveness and “pseudo-military ensembles” he sees as testifying to the Dutch “aversion for military force.” But opinions like Schama’s have often been challenged. Critics like to point out that the militia’s chain of command was borrowed from the professional army: it included the military ranks of colonel, captain, lieutenant, ensign, sergeant, and corporal.

Gary Schwartz recently used the group portraits as evidence of the warlike spirit of both the Dutch people and their militias, noting how all the portraits painted during the war (as opposed to those painted before or after) featured military poses. This interpretation accords with linguistic usage. The Dutch flat-out call the militiamen Shooters. (They don’t have an NRA problem.) But even if we concede Schwartz’s point that the Shooters preferred to look warlike, I’m still left with a question. Is it really a “meaningful military function” their portraits communicate? This question isn’t simply, do the shooters look warlike, but do they look like they’re pretending to be warlike while posing for their picture? Or, to boil it down to the real issue, do they look like they’re posing for their picture? Do they look like they’re in a portrait? And what’s a portrait?

*  *  *  *  

My own ongoing thinking about portraiture in the pre-photographic era has been guided by two premises. The first is that the portrait imitates not merely the likeness of the sitter, that is, the person who poses, but the likeness of the act of posing itself. The second is that since we can’t assume every portrait was painted from life or that what we see is a copy of what happened, all we can safely say is that it visualizes, as if copying from the life, a performance that may or may not have occurred. The portrait gives you a selective or an idealized version of whatever posing took place. It gives you the fiction of a pose.

It’s especially important to take this fiction into account when you approach the genre of group portraiture. For example, what story does the painting before you tell? Try this: you’re looking at the painted record of an event that must have occurred before the painting was finished. Several men entered a room and assumed their places as sitters. The painter proceeded to paint away while the sitters patiently held the poses that are registered and preserved in the image you see. The picture is copied from life. These are likenesses of real people and this is the likeness of a real event.

Does anybody have a problem with this? Or, rather: Does anybody not have a problem with it? Do you really think the men who commissioned and sat for their portraits in The Night Watch were actually there when the gun went off, if it went off? And do you really imagine that all those guys just stood there like that for hours, days, however long it took? Of course you don’t.

Granted, the group portrait feints in the direction of that story. It pretends to deliver the likeness of a collective event. That’s part of its message. The other part of its message is that the first part is sheer nonsense. The end product must largely have been the result of sessions involving the painter and individual sitters or their likenesses. Only a handful of preliminary sketches survive from this period and not much textual or archival evidence, but there’s enough to give art historians a pretty good idea of what the procedure may have involved.

The patrons choose a painter, who proposes a format for their approval. The format may be a lineup or a group around a table in which men pose as if participating in a meeting or a banquet or an anatomical demonstration. Each sitter pays to have his likeness included, and since it’s customary for some to pay more than others, payment as well as rank seems to have determined whose head gets to sit atop which body. Presumably those negotiations lead to modifications of body shape and thus of the compositional format. Presumably also (there’s no hard evidence) the painter does most if not all of the faces from life, which would require individual sessions.

But whether or not—or to what extent—copying from life actually occurred, it is not so much a prescription as a desired effect: the premise of the fiction of the pose is that the pose preceded its representation; the portrait is a record of reality.

All portraits pretend to be copies of those who sat for them, but the group portrait as a genre foregrounds the element of pretense. That scholars take this for granted is suggested by their disinclination to overstate the symptomatic importance of banquet portraits as testimonies to the real-life propensities of sitters. Evidence of those propensities occasionally crops up. Seymour Slive cites civic ordinances, passed in Haarlem during the first two decades of the seventeenth century, that prohibited members of the militia from partying on for more than three days at a time. A note found in the 1672 register of Amsterdam’s St. Peter’s Hospital “revealed that for more than seventy years it had been a tradition among the regents and their guests to weigh themselves before and after” the annual Easter banquet.

It may well be that portliness symbolizes manliness. It certainly contributes to crowdedness and motivates competitiveness. The portrait pretends that its sitters posed together. But if they seem to pose with each other, they also seem to pose against each other, and the effect of crowdedness is to increase the sense of competition.

Cornelis van Haarlem’s 1583 portrait of the Haarlem militia carries this effect to a bizarre level in which what seems at first glance to be high spirits quickly changes into high anxiety. Flurries of hands accentuate the impossibility of posing with any facility or grace when so many sitters press together in the often strained postures made necessary by inadequate space. The oversized ensign smashes the two drinkers on his right against each other. On the other side the diagonal force of his tightly furled standard and expressive left hand seems partly responsible for the way the man in the light doublet shrinks backward and the man above him ducks forward as if to preserve his visibility. Figures at either end worriedly push in or look out to assure themselves they will catch the painter’s and the observer’s eye. Cornelis’s group portrait does more than simply commemorate the militia’s personnel, their sociability and good morale after a term of service. It commemorates their attack on the dilemma of posing in cramped quarters.

Were such effects occasionally, always, or never intended? Were they conventional and therefore invisible? I’m always tempted to treat the militia portrait as a comic genre, and to wonder what some of the painters thought they were doing with or to their sitters.

*  *  *  *  

I’m less puzzled by the fact that the sitters themselves tend to parade their sharply pointed elbows, fancy footware, and well-turned calves. In the context of the gender-sensitive scenario of domestic life and culture, those preferences are predictable. The scenario reinterprets the militia portrait as a kind of homosocial pastoral, a form of institutional escape: escape from a cultural fantasy of “home” as an increasingly feminized institution, “or at least a place under feminine control” and, according to contemporary observers, a place afflicted by “strong wives.”

Civil Guard Banquet
Cornelis van Haarlem, Civil Guard Banquet of 1583, Haarlem City Museum.

I think of The Night Watch as a homosocial pastoral of this sort. But as soon as I entertain the idea that it performs a parody of militant manliness, I’m faced with an obvious difficulty, which is, How could Rembrandt have gotten away with it? How stupid could Frans Banning Cocq and his company have been? And my answer will probably be the kind you’ve come to expect and distrust in an age of hermeneutical suspicion. It’s that the artist was less stupid, or more canny, than his patrons: the homosocial parody is submerged within another that would be more congenial to Rembrandt’s sitters, one in which they may be the agents rather than the targets of parody.

It’s easy to see what makes The Night Watch special. More than any other militia portrait, it’s set up as an action picture—so much so that for a long time Rembrandt was thought to have subordinated the conventions of portraiture to those of the history genre. In this view, the company is said to be falling in at the Captain’s command and preparing to set out at night to guard the city gates or to greet a visiting dignitary.

But the idea that this is a credible scene of integrated action no sooner presents itself than it goes up in gunsmoke. Rembrandt targets both fictions, collective posing and a narrative event, by introducing a motif that dramatizes their impossibility. For if the gun is going off, how can you say the shooter only poses as if shooting? Van der Helst’s portrait of the company of Captain Roelof Bicker features a shooter who looks like Buffalo Bill and who poses in a faux-aggressive and self-conscious manner. There’s disagreement about whether it was completed before or after The Night Watch. Some of those who think the Helst was later surmise that Rembrandt’s shooter was the target of parody. But I like to imagine that Buffalo Bill was completed first and made Rembrandt snicker and that by having his shooter actually shoot he spotlights the essential silliness of Buffalo Bill’s attitudinizing. Firing gives the lie either to itself or to the fiction of the pose. It’s a hyperbolic expression of the fictiveness of posing.

Company of Captain Bicker
Bartholomeus van der Helst, Company of Captain Roelof Bicker and Lieutenant Blaeuw, 1643, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Another line of interpretation is to minimize the narrative elements by fastening on the cues to allegory. In this view, the shooter and the girls are “exclusively symbolic” figures. The girls are emblem-bearers who “personify the company.” The shooter and the other musketeers personify the art of musketry. Let’s look into these assertions.

In 1522 the militia’s weapon of choice changed from the cross-bow to a primitive musket called klover. As a result, the militiamen came to be called Kloveniers. In the seventeenth century the word klovenier was falsely derived from the word klauw. A claw, the symbol of a bird of prey, was the traditional emblem of the militias. So the claim that the girl personifies the Kloveniers is based on the opinion that the object at her waist is included for the sake of its claws, which are, as one critic puts it, “a late and reduced derivation of the larger claw of a bird of prey.”

But if that’s so, why is she carrying a dead chicken and not a dead eagle? Why a symbol of consumption and not one of martial valor? And, more to the point, of impotence rather than of power? According to these alternatives, the golden girl must symbolize a decline in military prowess. Maybe, after all, she isn’t an emblem carrier. In another interpretation, the chicken is just a chicken, and the girls are kitchen maids. How would the iconographer handle this? Well, he could say, the girls are rushing to the kitchen so they can prepare the feast that will reward the shooters for their arduous and heroic campaign of posing. The most important function of the company may be to dine together, which is no doubt why the chicken is their emblem.

Night Watch Detail
Detail of old musketeer blowing powder.

But we can do better than that. There’s got to be a moral message here. And it’s obvious what the substitution of a chicken for an eagle, a prey for a predator, signifies: it means that instead of preying on their enemies, the guardsmen are preyed on by their appetites. Finally, the connection between the chicken and a captain named Coc[q] is visually secured by the way the claw echoes his glove. The chicken must be his emblem. Doesn’t this get rid of all the trouble spots and smooth out the meaning?

Almost, but not quite. The problem is that the shooter is only one of three examples of musket mischief in The Night Watch. Another occurs in the action of the old musketeer blowing powder. Margaret Carroll points out that he holds the burning wick dangerously close to the firing mechanism; closer than in the picture that was probably Rembrandt’s source; one of the plates in Jacques de Gheyn’s famous illustrated manual of arms, entitled Weaponhandling, that was published in 1607. The third example is the way the red musketeer holds his musket. The shadow that flattens the form of both the left hand and the musket leaves us with the impression that the hand doesn’t so much grasp the gun stock as rest upon it. By rights, the musket should drop. That it doesn’t when it’s so lightly held suggests weightlessness. Scholars who notice this attribute the error to Rembrandt: they say he was dumb about guns.

Night Watch Detail
Detail of the red musketeer.

But something else is clearly going on. For all three examples of misguided musketry resemble and allude to comparable maneuvers illustrated in de Gheyn’s manual. The objective of this manual was to demonstrate the sequence of individual maneuvers necessary to produce the integrated collective action of the countermarch (as in The Last Samurai). To the degree that the mistakes depicted by Rembrandt remind the observer of the manual’s ideal of weapon-handling, they perform a travesty of that ideal.

This travesty provides the basis of the reading by Margaret Carroll. She shows that The Night Watch suffers a conspicuous “lapse in martial decorum.” She finds the lapse intentional and justifies it on historical grounds. Her argument begins with the general observation that during the 1630s, relations chilled between the Amsterdam regents and Prince Frederick Henry, the Stadholder. He needed their financial support for his military campaigns in the south. They withheld it and argued for troop cuts and reductions in spending because their trading interests were better served by peace with Spain. The regents themselves, however, were divided between hawks and doves. The hawks tended to be more conservative Dutch Calvinists who favored war with Catholic Spain, whereas the doves were more liberal and tolerant in their beliefs. Sound familiar? But the kicker in the situation was that the Calvinist hawks held back because they resented the prince for making a pact with Catholic France.

Carroll connects this state of affairs with the fact that during the 1620s Amsterdam’s civic guard companies went out on a few missions of relief to military garrisons in the vicinity. The paintings of that time celebrated the militia’s warlike character. But after 1633 there was no record of any comparable missions. Nor were there any records of the companies engaging in practice drills or weapon-handling. By the late 1630s they “had largely abandoned their military function.”

Details from Weaponhandling
Drawings from Jacques de Gheyn’s Weaponhandling, with Calivers, Muskets, and Pikes.

In Carroll’s reading, the “lapse in martial decorum” is a critical reference to this truancy. She notes how many of the sitters in The Night Watch wear historicizing costumes and carry antique weapons, and after linking this to the examples of maladroit musketry, she comes to two conclusions. First, Rembrandt “was deliberately exposing a contradiction between an ideal of military conduct and its flawed execution.” Second, he intended to evoke “the military accomplishments of the country’s former citizen-soldiers” while calling “into question the military … effectiveness” of the present-day successors “to those earlier heroic traditions.” The Night Watch thus becomes a parody of ineffectual guardsmanship. Though Carroll doesn’t explicitly say so, her argument suggests that Captain Cocq and his company must have been in on the joke. They must have been members of the hawk party. And indeed Frans Banning Cocq was one of a group of Amsterdam regents who either continued to favor or were forced to support the Stadholder’s militant policies.

If Carroll’s account is congenial to the idea that the sitters were agents of parody, it doesn’t shut the door on the possibility of parody at another level: a level at which Rembrandt is not only doing things with and for his sitters but also doing things to them. The collective failures in musketry are accompanied by ironic touches that re-aim the parody of ineffectual guardsmanship at Captain Cocq’s company if not at Captain Cocq himself. I’ll get to these in a minute, but first I’d like to mention a different effect, one that I find profoundly strange and compelling even if it does contribute to the parody function.

*  *  *  *  

Night Watch Detail
Detail of the red musketeer.

Let’s grant that we’re encouraged by the general organization of figures to think this an action pose. That only renders the opposite effect more striking. Look again at the red musketeer. He poses as if in the process either of executing a maneuver or of demonstrating its execution: loading or reloading and preparing to shoot. Yet the chiaroscuro that models his form here, and flattens it there, turns the demonstration of martial art into a reverie. His attitude is trance-like.

Inattention and self-absorption are suggested by other means. There’s lack of coordination not only within the figure—between the slackness of the lower gun-bearing hand and the finicky finger-work of the upper hand—but also between this sitter and the others. For example, Rembrandt emphasizes the visual interaction between the red musketeer’s figure and those of the Captain and Ensign. The diagonal of his musket rhythmically repeats that of Cocq’s baton, that of the shadow of Cocq’s hand across the Lieutenant’s doublet, and that of the Ensign’s staff above him. The color of his outfit picks up the color of Cocq’s sash. The shape of the shadow under his foreshortened arm eerily repeats that of either of Captain Cocq’s extended arms.

Yet the very repetition that draws these figures together points up their isolation from each other. As Captain Cocq energetically steps forward, the meditative musketeer floats dreamily in place. His trance-like attitude is underscored by the contrasting treatment of the two guardsmen above the shield that circles his right arm. Although the shield-bearer stands behind him in pictorial space, his more sharply delineated features and insistent gaze project him forward toward the viewer. He demands attention. Meanwhile soft focus enables the red musketeer with downcast eyes to withdraw further into his mystery.

A similar effect is produced in the twilight zone behind and above the musketeer, where the Ensign’s expansive figure diminishes the posing space available to those around him. The treatment of the three figures to his left (our right) is particularly complex. At first glance they appear to be looking leftward as if their attention is caught by something in the neighborhood of the drummer and pointing sergeant. The impression of concerted focus quickly fades, however, because each sitter seems enclosed in an invisible bubble of self—-not so much looking as giving themselves to be seen, as if their attention is fixed on a sustained act of posing.

In fact, Rembrandt seems to depict the guardsmen in the twilight zone as so seriously involved in their playtime posing that they ignore the Captain’s command. In doing so they make his energetic gesture seem even more flamboyant—and more hapless. This may be one reason the Captain didn’t get much respect from Lord Kenneth Clark. In one of his finest moments Clark complains that the captain’s “pink, inarticulate face does not suggest a high degree of intelligence.” Elsewhere he takes off the kid gloves and lets Cocq have it: “He is said to have been the stupidest man in Amsterdam and he looks it.”

Clark doesn’t name his source, but in singling out the Captain, the comment diverts attention from the possible source of or motive for Cocq’s gesture: his competition with the Lieutenant. The Captain and Lieutenant seem to be dancing in step, but in fact they’re jockeying for position. Physically and positionally the Lieutenant is “no match” for the Captain. His face is a profile, not a frontal view, and he poses as if listening, one step behind. But “in painterly terms” he “outshines” Captain Cocq. He moves more decisively forward, his is a more fully modeled and rounded figure, and his warm colors bring him even further forward. Carroll finds him a “cavalier and somewhat dandyish figure.” Finally, he’s ever so discreetly displaying Macho-Man’s universal signifier, the arm akimbo, or Renaissance elbow.

The fate Rembrandt confers on his two sitters is to be locked forever in a struggle for posographical preeminence. As the Captain strains forward and upward, the Lieutenant deferentially marks time while his costume seizes the light. The braiding on his coat and weapon are so thickly painted that they project forward in three dimensions. The complex interplay of actual and imaginary depth pulls the viewer in toward the Lieutenant, too close to see the painting as a whole. In this context, it’s interesting that Amsterdam’s coat of arms is embroidered in the Lieutenant’s jacket, not the Captain’s.

The Captain’s response to this challenge is to stretch his hand across the finish line, so that its shadow darkens and besmirches the Lieutenant, neutralizes his modest elbow-work, and threatens his manhood. One art historian succumbs to the lure of the obvious and wonders whether “the form and placing” of the Lieutenant’s weapon in front of his groin is “a phallic symbol.” But the obvious becomes more interesting when you realize that Captain Cocq’s gestures resemble those of the husband in a double portrait Rembrandt finished a year before The Night Watch—the portrait of the Mennonite preacher, Cornelis Anslo, and his wife. In both works there’s a rhetorical misfire: the preacher aims his words and gesture past his wife; Cocq aims his past his Lieutenant. Both figures are more fully engaged in posing for the observer than in interacting with their partners.

The spatial relation between the heads of the Captain and Lieutenant resembles that between Anslo and his wife, as does their positional relationship. More generally, the Lieutenant’s relation to the Captain resembles that of wives to their husbands in portrait pendants. The contrast between his intricately detailed outfit and the Captain’s sober black strangely echoes a characteristic pattern of sartorial contrast in portrait pendants. Captain Cocq’s glove dangling on the other side provides a displaced echo of another familiar pendant motif. Thus the shadow of domestic competition between husband and wife featured in pendants hovers over the two officers. To such feminizing threats the Lieutenant responds by parrying protectively with his partisan, a compensatory response “represented in [such] stunning foreshortening” that it sticks out almost as much as the Captain’s hand.

Rembrandt's double portrait of Cornelius Anslo and his wife
Rembrandt’s double portrait of Cornelius Anslo and his wife, 1641, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin
(Web Gallery of Art)

How much of all this could Captain Cocq and his fellow sitters have picked up when they first saw the newly completed painting? Did they appreciate Rembrandt’s attempt to capture their stagy parody of ineffectual guardsmanship? Were they all equally pleased when so many of them had to squint to make out fragments of themselves struggling for recognition in a pastiche of interrupted forms? Were they amused by the funny thing that happens in the left foreground? Where the gloom now settling over the paint surface threatens to deepen, its curtain is lifted by a glimmer of half-light that bounces downward from the red musketeer’s raised arm to expose a dwarf-like boy in a battered oversized helmet. He carries his large powderhorn as if it were a concertina. As he runs out of the picture he looks back over his shoulder at the main action—though “looks back” assumes more than we know since the helmet hides his eyes. Maybe he complies with the Captain’s order to fall in by hurrying out of the way. Or maybe he defies it, refuses to fall in, and bounces jauntily offstage.

Detail of the dwarflike boy
Detail of the dwarflike boy in the corner.

Commentators come to different conclusions. One sees a boy who “runs off, perhaps because he has been frightened by the commotion behind the Captain.” Another sees “a thin smile on his face” and thinks the figure “adds a humorous note to the seriousness of these earnest citizens.” These opposed reactions can be reconciled with the help of the following interpretive fantasy:

Let’s imagine that our “caddy,” as he’s been endearingly called, has just supplied someone with powder, and that the special someone has just used it to all but blast the Lieutenant’s hat off his head. Such an achievement could not only account for the smile on the face of the caddy. It could also motivate his fear of being apprehended and add briskness to the pace of his departure.

This fantasy may be ridiculous, but it isn’t irrelevant. The tiny powder boy’s oversized helmet and horn join with the little shooter’s unruly discharge, and with the other episodes of mangled musketry, and together they gently mock the manly militancy of the Captain, the Lieutenant, the standard-bearer, and their fellow sitters. They mock militiamen everywhere who are like overgrown boys in their eagerness to dress up for their painter and play soldier for their fans.

The challenge to their manhood doesn’t stop there. As the officers try in vain to move the company leftward and forward into formation, a burst of angelic fire materializes in the form of the two chicken girls and competes in intensity with the Lieutenant’s glowing figure. But the girls are going the wrong way. They lead the opposing army. Just as the form of the dead chicken parodies that of the Captain’s glove, so the girls initiate a strong left-to-right movement that contravenes the will of the officers. The energy of their countermarch surges through the diagonals of the two ill-managed gun barrels, then pushes the pointing sergeant backward, and finally keeps the official drummer from moving all the way into the picture. It beats against the vectors of orderly assembly generated by the repetitive leftward pulses of the drum, the Captain’s baton, the banner, and the red musketeer’s gun.

The other sitters don’t look at the golden girl. The composition swirls them round her in a ring of self-absorbed dancers. In fact, very few of them seem to notice each other. Several are almost dreamily lost in their own acts of posing—the red musketeer, the ensign, the three men in the half-shadow to his right. Even the drummer, with his hat shading his eyes, poses as if performing his rattattoo in a trance—or as if, like the others, he hears the music of a different drummer.

But the girl is something else; she’s there. She eyes either the young shooter or the Captain with intensity, or maybe curiosity, or maybe incredulity. It’s the gaze of someone who finds herself in the wrong parade and wonders what is going on. She is in Cocq’s company but not of it. As Ben Binstock puts it in an excellent comment, she embodies “elements outside or subordinated to the male, civic, businesslike world of the militia,” elements that nevertheless “threaten to subordinate this world in turn.”

Rembrandt's self-portrait
Rembrandt’s self-portrait and drawing of Saskia.

Let’s name these elements: woman, say, or wife; Saskia, maybe, dressed to kill as she so often was in life, now poignantly revived to bless this work, to bestow on it both kinds of wonder, a sense of astonishment and a sense of doubt. And let’s try to imagine a meaning behind or beneath her pose. Suppose she’s there to remind you of Rembrandt’s secret parody, the one under the historical parody picked out by Margaret Carroll? Suppose she’s an invisible household spirit sent by Rembrandt into an area cordoned off For Men Only; sent to disrupt the homosocial pastoral of manly posing, and to deride its heroics? Suppose she’s been put there to disrupt Rembrandt’s homosocial escape into the pastoral of manly painting? Suppose she’s there as his final pentimento, his act of repentance, to memorialize what he lost?—a friend; a fellow sitter and ironist; his competitor; his lover; their particular home. Suppose any number of things. I dance round in a ring and suppose. But the secret sits in the middle and knows.

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading