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The Rijksmuseum has just launched a cutting-edge research project into one of its most famous paintings, Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. With military precision, Operation Night Watch will unfold in full public view as conservators and scientists work in a specially designed chamber made from glass by French architect Jean Michel Wilmotte. The aim of the project is to ensure the long-term preservation of the painting resulting in a plan for the painting’s restoration into the future. During the Operation Night Watch project, the painting will remain on public display.

Making use of the latest and most advanced research techniques including digital imaging, computer science and artificial intelligence, the study will provide insight into the painting’s fascinating history over the past four centuries. Throughout the research, the painting will be unframed and placed on a specially designed easel allowing researchers to get up close and study every detail of the entire canvas. That’s quite a feat as the canvas measures about 3.8 metres tall by just over 4.5 metres wide.

Eyes on the future

A key aspect of the research is the use of technology, which will be used to determine the condition of the painting live on site. High-resolution photography combined with macro X-ray fluorescence scanning (macro-XRF) and hyperspectral imaging will shed light on Rembrandt’s painting process. Every square millimetre of The Night Watch will be scanned. Over the course of the research some 12,500 high-resolution photographs will be taken, a first for such a large painting. The high-quality images are expected to reveal details normally invisible to the naked eye.

The Night Watch in a snapshot

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.

It depicts officers and other civic guardsmen of District 2 in Amsterdam and was originally titled Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq. Completed in 1642, the painting has been known as The Night Watch since the 18th century.

One of Amsterdam’s 20 civic guard companies commissioned the painting for its headquarters, the Kloveniersdoelen. It is Rembrandt’s only civic guard piece and his most ambitious painting.

What sets The Night Watch apart is its daring composition for the time, its use of light and shadow and its mammoth size, which was probably even larger as it is believed the painting was trimmed in 1715 to fit into its then new home in the Dam Palace. The painting has survived several malicious attacks including slashings and an acid dousing. The colours in the painting have changed over the years, fading and the application of varnishes being the culprits. There is much to unravel in The Night Watch, peppered as it is with symbols across the canvas that reveal secrets and details about the scene and times.

This ambitious research project comprises more than 20 scientists, conservators, curators and photographers from the Rijksmuseum as well as collaborations with national and international museums and universities.

Follow updates on Operation Night Watch at rijksmuseum.nl/nightwatch and social media or visit the Rijksmuseum in person to experience this fascinating project firsthand.