As It Happens

Scans reveal hidden sketch under Rembrandt's masterpiece, The Night Watch

A hidden preparatory sketch has been revealed under Rembrandt's famous masterpiece, The Night Watch — the enormous painting that hangs in a museum in Amsterdam.

Preliminary sketch had more spears, other features than final painting, says expert

Rembrandt's 1642 masterpiece The Night Watch depicts Capt. Frans Banninck Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch and their militia. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Story Transcript

A hidden preparatory sketch has been revealed under Rembrandt's famous masterpiece, The Night Watch — the enormous painting that hangs in a museum in Amsterdam.

"This is like the first beginnings of the composition that he worked up directly on the canvas," Petria Noble, the Rijksmuseum's head of paintings conservation, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"And of course, that's very exciting for us."

The discovery is part of ongoing work to restore, research and preserve the 1642 painting, which is more than three metres high and over four metres wide. Previously, the staff used artificial intelligence to recreate missing parts of the painting, which had been trimmed off when it was moved in 1715. 

The painting was commissioned to celebrate Amsterdam's civic militia. It's a "huge group portrait," explains Noble, that shows two men of the era — Capt. Frans Banninck Cocq in the centre, and Lt. Willem van Ruytenburch — and musketeers loading guns. There's even a drummer and a dog. 

A 'calcium map' of the painting reveals an arch and more spears, according to the museum official Petria Noble. (Rijksmuseum)

Rembrandt used a beige paint with a high chalk content for his sketch, which the team picked up by using macro X-ray fluorescence scanning to create what they call a calcium map. 

The hidden sketch is especially visible toward the top of the image. Light areas show a high concentration of calcium, and are easier to see because they're where the build-up of paint is thinner, according to Noble.

Rembrandt may have planned to include another sword between the captain and the lieutenant. (Rijksmuseum)

"What we see now is quite a dark painting, and that is why the sketch is so important, because when we look at the sketch, you see lots of lines and shapes in the background," she said. 

Rembrandt used a technique, called impasto, of heaping paint on the canvas so thickly that brush strokes are visible and the paint reflects light in a specific way. 

But thanks to the discovery of the sketch, other details of Rembrandt's work are being revealed. Noble says Rembrandt put more spears in the sketch than appeared in the final painting. It also appears he planned to put another sword between the captain and the lieutenant.

Noble says they're also able to see a bit more about some of the architecture Rembrandt had planned in the background, such as an arch, but the team is still in the process of discovering what all of the lines in the sketch mean.

"It takes actually quite careful comparison going back and forth between this kind of image and the actual painting. And that's actually quite a long process," said Noble. "When you first discover something like this, you really have to investigate what it means and what it is."

There are other curved lines she plans to investigate, along with "other kinds of suggestions."

"As time goes by … we will probably be able to ascribe more meaning to some of these lines," she said.

This dog shows lighter on the painting than Rembrandt would've intended. That's because paint is wearing away and parts of the sketch underneath, in a lighter colour, are showing through. (Rijksmuseum)

Written by Andrea Bellemare with files from Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. 

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