Rembrandt`s "Night Watch" to Undergo Years of Restoration

NYTimes- The Rijksmuseum announced on Tuesday that it will restore Rembrandt’s “Night Watch,” a monumental group portrait that holds pride of place in the Dutch national museum here and the hearts of the Dutch people. The restoration will last several years, while the painting remains on display in the museum’s Gallery of Honor, so that the public can observe the process.

Taco Dibbits, director of the museum, said in an interview that this will be a “huge undertaking” and the Rijksmuseum’s “biggest conservation and research project ever.” He compared it in scale to the restoration of the frescoes of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. He did not provide an estimate the cost of the renovation, but said it would be “millions over at least several years.”

Rembrandt’s 1642 painting, formally known as “Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq,” has not been restored since 1976, after a museum visitor attacked it with a bread knife, jabbing two-foot-long knife marks into the surface, cutting a seven-foot-wide hole, and ripping off a section of the canvas.

At that time, the museum was able to restore the painting and retouch the surface, but some of the retouching has now turned yellow, Mr. Dibbits said, and needs to be redone. The museum conservators have also noticed that the bottom left-hand corner of the painting, where there is a small dog, has become blanched over time, and they don’t know why.

The Rijksmuseum plans to first study the painting for about eight months, using new scanning technologies that were not available during previous restorations, such as macro X-ray fluorescence scanning, which can explore different layers of the paint surface to determine what needs to be done.

The restoration itself is likely to take at least a couple of years, Mr. Dibbits said. Throughout the whole process, a transparent showcase will be built around the painting, the scientists and the restorers, so that visitors can view the progress.

Mr. Dibbits recalled watching the previous restoration of the “Night Watch” when he was a child growing up in Amsterdam. “I was 9 and we went as a family several times to watch it,” he said. “It’s very impressive because you can see the process and you’re basically standing in the operation theater.”

When it is completed, Mr. Dibbits hopes that the investigation and restoration will give scholars more insight into the work, and offer visitors a clearer sense of the original painting. “Visually it will be a big change,” Mr. Dibbits said. “You will be able to see much more detail, and there will be areas of the painting that will be much easier to read.”

“There are many mysteries of the painting that we might solve,” he added. “We actually don’t know much about how Rembrandt painted it. With the last conservation, the techniques were limited to basically X-ray photos and now we have so many more tools. We will be able to look into the creative mind of one of the most brilliant artists in the world.”