Recently art restoration and conservation have emerged from museum back rooms and moved into the public square. Headlines about such work focus the public’s attention on great masterpieces restored as well as the unmasking of potential fakes and other rare events. Yet such breathless reports rarely if ever account for the slow process that goes on in conservation studios every day. How does that unglamorous work and the lessons it has to tell us about the works themselves translate to an Instagram public? Some museums have undertaken to do restoration work in public as another means of capturing public attention as well as explaining the work of conservators. These projects raise important questions about the appropriate role of such efforts in educating the public about the role of conservation and the complexity of what conservators do. This panel, comprised of conservators from leading international institutions, examines these questions and how to balance them with long standing conservation and museum practices. Robert van Langh of the Rijksmuseum will talk about Operation Night Watch during this panel.
Never before has such a wide-ranging and thorough investigation been made of the condition of The Night Watch. The latest and most advanced research techniques will be used, ranging from digital imaging and scientific and technical research, to computer science and artificial intelligence. The research will lead to a better understanding of the painting’s original appearance and current state, and provide insight into the many changes that The Night Watch has undergone over the course of the last four centuries. The outcome of the research will be a treatment plan that will form the basis for the restoration of the painting.
Operation Night Watch can also be followed online at rijksmuseum.nl/nightwatch
From art historical research to artificial intelligence
Operation Night Watch will look at questions regarding the original commission, Rembrandt’s materials and painting technique, the impact of previous treatments and later interventions, as well as the ageing, degradation and future of the painting. This will involve the newest and most advanced research methods and technologies, including art historical and archival research, scientific and technical research, computer science and artificial intelligence.
During the research phase The Night Watch will be unframed and placed on a specially designed easel. Two platform lifts will make it possible to study the entire canvas, which measures 379.5 cm in height and 454.5 cm in width.
Advanced imaging techniques
Researchers will make use of high resolution photography, as well as a variety of advanced imaging techniques, such as macro X-ray fluorescence scanning (macro-XRF) and hyperspectral imaging, also called infrared reflectance imaging spectroscopy (RIS), to accurately determine the condition of the painting.
56 macro-XRF scans
The Night Watch will be scanned millimetre by millimetre using a macro X-ray fluorescence scanner (macro-XRF scanner). This instrument uses X-rays to analyse the different chemical elements in the paint, such as calcium, iron, potassium and cobalt. From the resulting distribution maps of the various chemical elements in the paint it is possible to determine which pigments were used. The macro-XRF scans can also reveal underlying changes in the composition, offering insights into Rembrandt’s painting process. To scan the entire surface of the The Night Watch it will be necesary to make 56 scans, each one of which will take 24 hours.
12,500 high-resolution photographs
A total of some 12,500 photographs will be taken at extremely high resolution, from 180 to 5 micrometres, or a thousandth of a millimetre. Never before has such a large painting been photographed at such high resolution. In this way it will be possible to see details such as pigment particles that normally would be invisible to the naked eye. The cameras and lamps will be attached to a dynamic imaging frame designed specifically for this purpose.
Operation Night Watch is for everyone to follow and will take place in full view of the visiting public in an ultra-transparent glass chamber designed by the French architect Jean Michel Wilmotte.
The Rijksmuseum has extensive experience and expertise in the investigation and treatment of paintings by Rembrandt. The conservation treatment of Rembrandt’s portraits of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit was completed in 2018. The research team working on The Night Watch is made up of more than 20 Rijksmuseum scientists, conservators, curators and photographers. For this research, the Rijksmuseum is also collaborating with museums and universities in the Netherlands and abroad, including the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency (RCE), Delft University of Technology (TU Delft), the University of Amsterdam (UvA), Amsterdam University Medical Centre (AUMC), University of Antwerp (UA) and National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.
The Night Watch
Rembrandt’s Night Watch is one of the world’s most famous works of art. The painting is the property of the City of Amsterdam, and it is the heart of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, where it is admired by more than two million visitors each year. The Night Watch is the Netherland’s foremost national artistic showpiece, and a must-see for tourists.
Rembrandt’s group portrait of officers and other civic guardsmen of District 2 in Amsterdam under the command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch has been known since the 18th century as simply The Night Watch. It is the artist’s most ambitious painting. One of Amsterdam’s 20 civic guard companies commissioned the painting for its headquarters, the Kloveniersdoelen, and Rembrandt completed it in 1642. It is Rembrandt’s only civic guard piece, and it is famed for the lively and daring composition that portrays the troop in active poses rather than the traditional static ones.
Donors and partners
AkzoNobel is main partner of Operation Night Watch.
Operation Night Watch is made possible by The Bennink Foundation, PACCAR Foundation, Piet van der Slikke & Sandra Swelheim, American Express Foundation, Familie De Rooij, Het AutoBinck Fonds, Segula Technologies, Dina & Kjell Johnsen, Familie D. Ermia, Familie M. van Poecke, Henry M. Holterman Fonds, Irma Theodora Fonds, Luca Fonds, Piek-den Hartog Fonds, Stichting Zabawas, Cevat Fonds, Johanna Kast-Michel Fonds, Marjorie & Jeffrey A. Rosen, Stichting Thurkowfonds and the Night Watch Fund.
With the support of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, the City of Amsterdam, Founder Philips and main sponsors ING, BankGiro Loterij and KPN every year more than 2 million people visit the Rijksmuseum and The Night Watch.