Restoring Rembrandt

Posted: November 5, 2018

Here’s something surprising. Rembrandt’s famous painting, The Night Watch, isn’t a picture of night! But people thought it was when they gave it its name. Why? Because it had gotten so dirty!

When The Night Watch got its name in the 1800s, it needed to be cleaned and restored. And the painting has needed restoring several times since. In World War II, Germans occupied the Netherlands. The Night Watch was hidden with other valuable artworks in a cave. In 1975, a man slashed it with a knife, leaving 12 scars in the canvas. In 1990, an attacker sprayed acid on the canvas damaging the varnish. Each of those times, restorers had work to do. It was last restored 40 years ago.

Art restorers at Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, will start restoring the painting again next year. People will be able to watch the project unfold in person and online. The masterpiece will be held in a specially built glass chamber. Workers will start by studying the painting. The will look at every part of it, from the top layer of varnish all the way down to the canvas. They will use a precise microscope.

Rembrandt is known for the way he painted light into artworks. Can you see why? He painted The Night Watch in 1642. It earned him enough to buy an expensive house. The painting shows a militia. A militia is a group of people ready to fight for their country in an emergency.

The museum director says it will look much better after the restoration. Details will be easier to see. In the past, art restorers usually fixed paintings behind closed doors. But now more museums open up the process to the public.  More than 2 million people visit the Rijksmuseum each year. The museum has the world’s largest collection of Rembrandt works—22 paintings, 60 drawings, and 300 prints.

Rembrandt’s The Night Watch with equipment to study it in Amsterdam, Netherlands (AP Photo)

Explore It!
Oil? Tempera? Fresco? Watch a 3-minute tutorial on how Rembrandt and other artists created paintings in the past, and the challenge those methods and materials present to modern-day art restorers.