At the far end of the Rijksmuseum’s Gallery of Honour, Rembrandt’s monumental masterpiece, The Night Watch (1642), has been enclosed in a giant glass chamber since Monday 8 July. Inside, a digital device known as a macro X-ray fluorescence scanner is positioned before the painting, moving at a snail’s pace across its surface.
Petria Noble, head of paintings conservation at the Rijksmuseum, explains that the machine is collecting digital data on all the elements of pigments it can detect: iron in earth pigments, copper in blue pigments like azurite, and calcium from the bone black pigments.
To scan the entire painting, which is about 4 metres wide by 3.5 metres high, she says, will take about 56 days, spread over about three months. After that, the museum will take high resolution photographs under different kinds of lighting conditions, such as infra-red, ultraviolet and raking light, ultimately producing a total of 12,500 high resolution images of the work.
‘Operation Night Watch,’ as the EUR€3 million research and restoration project is known, is expected to last a few years. Because the museum could not take the jewel of its collection away from its visitors for such a long period, the investigation and restoration is taking place in full view of the public, in the museum galleries.
After the research ends, a restoration of the painting will likely brighten it up, by repairing some of the ‘cracked, matt and gray varnish’ to lift the ‘grayish haze’ that currently seems to cover the work, said Noble, revealing more of its nuances.
Researchers, conservators and curators are also interested to answer several important questions about the work through this process: how did Rembrandt compose the painting? Did he sketch it out first with an underdrawing? Is the work closer to the technique we associate with his earlier works, or with the looser, more bold brushwork associated with the Late Rembrandt? And is that dog in the bottom right-hand corner meant to look so sketchy?
Taco Dibbits, director of the Rijksmuseum, says that this is the largest and most comprehensive research and conservation project that the painting has ever undergone since it came into the museum in 1808. The work was last restored in 1975, after a visitor slashed it 12 times with a bread knife, saying he ‘did it for the Lord.’
The restoration before that was in 1946, after the painting had been rolled up and hidden in an underground cave during World War II, to protect it from the Nazis. The painting was partially deformed as a result, and there were also some yellowed areas of the surface, which had to be restored. Since then, the technology used to examine and conserve paintings has changed dramatically.
‘The big advances have taken place in the last ten to fifteen years,’ said Noble. ‘It really started around 2007. These non-invasive technologies have really revolutionized the way we do research. What is really a big game changer is the macro-scale information you get from these imaging techniques, scanning the entire paint surface, used in combination with the micro-scale data and information you get from the paint samples.’
The 1975 knife attack released a lot of paint particles, 36 of which were collected and preserved for future study. They will be used in this current research project, so no new invasive paint samples need to be taken.
During my visit, the device was scanning the crown worn by the only female figure in the group portrait, a mysterious saint-like young girl in a gold gown with a white chicken hanging upside down from her waistband. There has been a lot of speculation that the crown she wears was once a halo of feathers, said Noble, but no one has really been sure about it.
‘Every technique gives you a bit of information,’ said Noble. ‘And it’s only when you put all those techniques [together] that you come to a clear understanding of the stratigraphy,’ or topographical structure of the painting. But the current data-collection process will give the museum’s restorers and scholars information that it can explore for decades and decades.
That’s good news for researchers, but also for the public, which will have this crowd-pleaser fully on view once again for a very long time to come.
‘The anticipation is that it should be a couple of hundred years before you have to do this kind of treatment again,’ said Noble – that is, barring world wars or vandalism.
Main image: Operation Night Watch, 2019. Courtesy: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Nina Siegal is an author, editor and journalist based in Amsterdam. She has been a regular freelance contributor for The New York Times from Europe since 2012. Her writing has appeared in publications including Art in America, The Economist and the Wall Street Journal. She is the author of two novels: The Anatomy Lesson (Nan A. Talese/Knopf Doubleday, 2014) and A Little Trouble With The Facts (HarperCollins, 2008). She tweets: @nina_siegal