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mhoutzager's picture

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It's called the Nightwatch because it was coated in a varnish that darkened, and people mistakenly thought the scene took place at night. People also mistakenly though that the group in the painting was setting out to keep watch. However, at the time that this scene was painted, Amsterdam was at peace and there was really nothing to warrant keeping a watch, so the real purpose of the group was just to parade around looking cool.

Also, the real name of the painting is "Officieren en andere schutters van wijk II in Amsterdam onder leiding van kapitein Frans Banninck Cocq en luitenant Willem van Ruytenburch" (Officers and other arquebusiers of neighborhood II in Amsterdam under the leadership of captain Frans Banninck Cocq and luitenant Willem van Ruytenburch) and that is just way too long.

Unless you take into account that the painting is 12 feet by 14 feet, so per square foot, the name "Officers and other arquebusiers of neighborhood II in Amsterdam under the leadership of captain Frans Banninck Cocq and luitenant Willem van Ruytenburch" is not that long after all. The original paintng was 13 by 16 feet, but then it was moved, and as part of the move, some idiot decided to cut it down to 12 by 14 feet so that it could fit better into its new room, thereby chopping off almost half of the people visible in the original painting (but leaving the most important ones in the center).

Each of the sixteen members of the group in the painting paid Rembrandt 100 Guilders. Rembrandt added the little girl cheerleader/mascot and the drummer for free. The guys in the background, and the ones who got cut off when the painting was trimmed, all snuck in for free.

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Here is what Wikipedia says about The Night Watch

Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, also known as The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch, but commonly referred to as The Night Watch (Dutch: De Nachtwacht), is a 1642 painting by Rembrandt van Rijn. It is in the collection of the Amsterdam Museum but is prominently displayed in the Rijksmuseum as the best-known painting in its collection. The Night Watch is one of the most famous Dutch Golden Age paintings.

The painting is famous for three things: its colossal size (363 cm × 437 cm (11.91 ft × 14.34 ft)), the dramatic use of light and shadow (tenebrism) and the perception of motion in what would have traditionally been a static military group portrait. The painting was completed in 1642, at the peak of the Dutch Golden Age. It depicts the eponymous company moving out, led by Captain Frans Banninck Cocq (dressed in black, with a red sash) and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch (dressed in yellow, with a white sash). With effective use of sunlight and shade, Rembrandt leads the eye to the three most important characters among the crowd: the two men in the center (from whom the painting gets its original title), and the woman in the centre-left background carrying a chicken. Behind them, the company's colors are carried by the ensign, Jan Visscher Cornelissen. The figures are almost life-size.

Rembrandt has displayed the traditional emblem of the arquebusiers in a natural way, with the woman in the background carrying the main symbols. She is a kind of mascot herself; the claws of a dead chicken on her belt represent the clauweniers (arquebusiers), the pistol behind the chicken represents clover and she is holding the militia's goblet. The man in front of her is wearing a helmet with an oak leaf, a traditional motif of the arquebusiers. The dead chicken is also meant to represent a defeated adversary. The colour yellow is often associated with victory.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about The Night Watch.