Remastered Amsterdam presents
The complete digital restoration of Rembrandt's 'The Night Watch’.
A project by Digital Artist Edwin Nikkels.
My name is Edwin Nikkels and I've been a professional filmmaker and digital artist for over thirty years. In July 2021, I visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to see their 'The Night Watch – The Missing Pieces'–exhibition, where Rembrandt van Rijn’s world famous 1642 painting 'The Night Watch' was displayed in its original – uncut – size (the original 'Night Watch' was cut down to its current size in 1715, more on that later).
Unfortunately, I was sorely disappointed by what I saw and after several minutes of biting down on my frustration, I walked out. In my opinion, this presentation was unworthy of both the Rijksmuseum and Rembrandt. Why? For example, the transition between canvas and the added 'missing pieces' was too much of a simple 'cut and paste'-job. Additionally, there was a significant difference in colour and texture between the painting and the added parts.
To add insult to injury, the painting wasn't even presented in its correct height, as it was still missing twenty to thirty centimetres at the top. And the museum only allowed this work to be admired from behind a pane of distractingly reflective glass. At that moment only one thing went through my mind: this could and should have been done better. And so, the 'Night Watch Remastered'–project was born.
While visiting 'The Night Watch – The Missing Pieces'–exhibition, I was frustrated about the botched execution of the reconstruction, thinking this could and should be done better. The texture and colour–differences were very distracting, as can been seen above.
A Faithful Restoration Rembrandt Would be Proud Of
As an art lover and digital artist, I firmly believe Rembrandt’s 'The Night Watch' deserves a faithful digital restoration, even though I’m fully aware that the final product will – at least for the time being – be a high-quality print on canvas. However, I know that many people in and outside of the art world will be curious about the outcome. That’s why I’m currently in contact with potential sponsors and other (technical) parties to exhibit the final result.
These are the unique aspects of my version of 'The Night Watch', a world first:
– Presented in its original format (including the pieces that were cut off);
– One seamless composition;
– Every pixel painted by Rembrandt himself;
– And it's in the colours on the day it left Rembrandt's studio.
Watch the Trailer
Every Pixel Painted by Rembrandt
The main problem with all the known reconstructions of 'The Night Watch' is that the much smaller 'Lundens–copy' (shown below) was used one-on-one to fill in all the missing pieces, resulting in a particularly unhappy marriage of two painting styles. Rembrandt–expert prof. Ernst van de Wetering did it in his reconstruction, and for their 'The Night Watch – The Missing Pieces'–exhibition, the Rijksmuseum also made use of the 'Lundens–copy', – albeit aided by artificial intelligence.
Main image: The 28:1–scale copy by Gerrit Lundens (ca. 1642 – ca. 1655), commissioned by Captain Frans Banninck Cocq. The white lines show where ‘The Night Watch’ was cut off. Insert top left: The reconstruction aided by artificial intelligence by the Rijksmuseum. Lower right: A magnification of the actual faces as depicted in the Lundens–copy. There is barely any difference, with or without the use of artificial intelligence.
My reconstruction of 'The Night Watch' is unique in that every pixel you see is painted by Rembrandt himself. How? By sourcing or re–using elements from the original painting, like faces, hands, cloth and a variety of other textures. This makes my version a 'first' in art history: the most authentic and complete 'Night Watch' since it was cut down to its current size in 1715, over 300 years ago.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 'Self–Portrait in a Flat Cap', signed and dated 1642, the same year he finished 'The Night Watch' at the age of 36.
Facts about Rembrandt & The Night Watch
One can fill a sizeable library with books on Rembrandt's life and his paintings. This isn't the time or place to share a complete biography on the Dutch master, but here are a few interesting facts about Rembrandt's life that are linked to his 'Night Watch':
– Rembrandt van Rijn was born in Leiden (then the Dutch Republic) in 1606. He's known as the master painter of the Dutch Golden Age with over 300 paintings, 300 etchings and 2000 drawings to his name. He's most famous for his masterful use and manipulation of light and dark, called chiaroscuro, that provides a lot of depth in his paintings.
– Officially known as 'Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq', but commonly referred to as 'The Night Watch' ('De Nachtwacht' in Dutch), was painted by Rembrandt in 1642. It is permanently on display in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and is the most famous painting of the Dutch Golden Age (1588 – 1672).
– Rembrandt was commissioned for the painting in 1639, when he was 33 years old. In 1642, three years later, the painting was delivered at the 'Kloveniersdoelen' where it was placed on a wall amongst six other civic guard portraits.
– The 'Kloveniersdoelen' (the 'Musketeers' shooting or target range) was a complex of buildings in Amsterdam which served as the headquarters and target range for the local civic guard. The companies of 'Kloveniers' were armed with an early type of rifle musket known as an 'arquebus', known in Dutch as a 'klover', hence the name 'Kloveniers'.
– The Kloveniersdoelen was located at the corner of Nieuwe Doelenstraat and Kloveniersburgwal–canal, both named after the former shooting range. Rembrandt's painting 'The Night Watch' was commissioned for the great hall of the Kloveniersdoelen. The 19th–century 'Doelen Hotel' now stands on the spot.
To paint a painting the size of 'The Night Watch', Rembrandt had a special extension built in the courtyard of his studio–home on the Breestraat in Amsterdam.
Main image: 'De Kloveniersdoelen te Amsterdam' by Hendrik Schepper (1765). Lower left: a 3D–reconstruction of 'De Groote Sael', or the 'Grand Hall', at the Kloveniersdoelen, with – in the left corner – the location on the wall where 'The Night Watch' used to hang. Lower right: The remnant of the original wall on the first floor of the present day Doelen Hotel in Amsterdam. Top Right: A drawing of the plaque on the facade of the Kloveniersdoelen–building, depicting the muskets and the symbol of the Kloveniers: rooster's feet clutching a musket ball.
– The 'Schutterij' was a voluntary city guard or citizen militia intended to protect the town or city from attack and act in case of revolt or fire. Their training grounds were often on open spaces within the city walls. They're mostly grouped according to their district and to the weapon that they used: bow, crossbow or rifle. Its members were collectively known as a 'Shooter's Guild'.
– 'The Night Watch'–shooting company may look heavily armed, but in truth, little fighting happened at the time; the Eighty Years' War with the Spanish had more or less run its course, and the militia company would turn up mostly at ceremonies or parade through the streets of Amsterdam. The civic guard led by Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant van Ruytenburch had effectively developed into a social club for wealthy citizens, in this case predominantly cloth–merchants.
– Contrary to popular belief, the painting was well received by the members of the militia company.
– A total of thirty-four characters appear in the painting, yet Rembrandt was paid by eighteen of them, earning him between 1600 and 2600 guilders for three years of work, a small fortune at the time. In 1715 a shield with a list of the eighteen paying members was added to the painting and it wasn't until 2008 that historian Bas Dudok van Heel, after many years of research, managed to link the names to each character.
– As for inspiration for his composition, Rembrandt made use of his extensive print–collection. In it were prints of Leonardo da Vinci's 'The Last Supper' and Raphael's 'The School of Athens'. Though he refused to travel to Italy to study the old(er) Renaissance–masters, Rembrandt was clearly inspired by their work.
How Rembrandt was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael: There is a clear 'V–shaped' composition, drawing the viewer's eye to the centre of the composition where the main figures are placed; coincidence or not, in all three the works of art, one can observe – on the left side – two people gossiping, and on the right side, one can clearly see a man pointing his arm directly from right to left.
– Sadly, not long after Rembrandt finished the painting – in July 1642 – his beloved wife Saskia van Rijn (née, van Uylenburgh) died of tuberculosis.
A Turbulent Life
Much like Rembrandt van Rijn’s own life, the turbulent story of 'The Night Watch' reads like a Dan Brown–novel. During the Second World War, the painting was moved around multiple times to various locations to keep it safe from Nazi bombings. On several occasions before and after the war, the painting was attacked – with knives and once even with acid – by disturbed individuals. Fortunately, the damage inflicted to the painting was able to be restored.
Top left: In 1940, while waiting for the secret art bunkers to be completed, 'The Night Watch' was kept hidden in 'Castle Radboud' in Medemblik, a village just north of Amsterdam. Lower left: 'The Night Watch' safely stored away in the special underground bunkers, near the Dutch coast. Left middle: 'The Night Watch' is moved out of the bunker, as Hitler ordered the Atlantic Wall to be built along the Dutch coast. Top middle: The painting arrives safely home after the war in the Rijksmuseum. Lower right: Two images showing 'The Night Watch' after an attack: on the left with a knife and on the right with acid.
Before starting with the actual retouching, I spent a lot of time researching Rembrandt, his painting techniques, the colours (pigments) he used and of course 'The Night Watch'–painting itself.
Much is known about Rembrandt's painting techniques and his use of colours because of extensive research done by various museums, scholars, scientists and art historians. An important part of my digital restoration is to use the original colours of the pigments as reference in the final result, taking in consideration that the current colours of 'The Night Watch' have faded over time.
Top left: By examining Rembrandt's choice of pigments and colours, I intend to restore 'The Night Watch' to its original state, the way it was nearly 400 years ago. Lower left: A paint–fragment of 'The Night Watch' as seen under a microscope. Top right: A close–up look at the thick impasto Rembrandt used to create texture and depth in the painting. Lower right: A scan of the sleeve of van Ruytenburch, showing the use of a particular pigment.
Before and After
Left: Before retouching; Right: After the retouching, and by colour–referencing the applied pigments, the colours are brought back to their original state. This results in a less yellow–brown painting, giving it an overall fresh look.
The Added Shield
The addition of the names of eighteen people in the painting are attributed to a mysterious painter who added a shield with the names of 'paying clients' to the gatehouse in the background in 1715. As the shield wasn't originally painted by Rembrandt, the shield had to be taken out.
Left: The added shield with the militia company members' names. Right: The reconstructed space.
Original Size, Original Splendour
In 1715, 'The Night Watch' was moved to the royal palace on Amsterdam's Dam Square. However, the imposing canvas turned out to be too large for the space available and so pieces were cut off on all sides, with the largest part removed on the left.
Unfortunately, these pieces have never been recovered and – as stated earlier – only by a copy made in the 17th century by miniaturist painter Gerrit Lundens do we know today what the original painting looked like. To me, this Lundens–copy has only served as a blueprint to reconstruct the missing parts, meaning none of that painting is visible in my version. Sadly – when observing the painting in its original size – it's clear how much of the original dynamic of the composition was lost.
Locked between two doors: In 1715, when the painting was moved to the royal palace on the Dam–square in the city centre, 'The Night Watch' had to be cut to size to fit between two doors in the 'Krijgsraadzaal', the 'Court Martial Hall'.
The Missing Beat
The dynamic of the original composition is like a choreography to the rhythm of the drum roll, induced by the drummer on the far-right side of the painting. It's as if, with each beat, more men –  from the left, right and back – are marching into the frame, walking towards the middle, striding down the steps onto the bridge and marching towards the camera.
As a filmmaker who regularly works with professional sound mixers, I got interested in applying the dynamics of sound to 'The Night Watch'. While doing that, I noticed that by cutting off the large piece on the left of the painting, the viewer doesn’t just miss a key visual beat, but an audible one as well.
To make the 'The Night Watch' as dynamic as possible, Rembrandt applied various 'tricks'. For example, he placed many elements in the painting 'off–centre', such as the gate in the background and the men in the foreground as if they 'break out' of the symmetry. This 'shift' in opposing layers causes a parallax–effect, which enhances the dynamics in the painting tremendously. Another trick is working with positive and negative space, which are also not perfectly symmetrical.​​​​​​​
3,2 Billion Pixels
The first step of the project was to retouch the original painting as it exists today. I used the original file that was made available online by the Rijksmuseum. This scan originated from the current 'Operation Night Watch'–project and was of an extremely high resolution and thus quality. In the end it came down to 'cleaning' 1920 squares measuring 40cm x 40cm (16 in x 16 in) each (at a resolution of 72 pixels per inch), and that was the most time–consuming part of the job.
After many, many weeks of painstakingly retouching 1920 squares, I had only eight squares to go.
Hidden in Plain Sight: Decoding 'The Night Watch'
While painting 'The Night Watch', Rembrandt took the opportunity to add many mysterious elements and symbols to the painting. Why? Did the artist want to just enrich the narrative or do the added details just enrich the dynamic of the composition? It's up to the viewer to decide. Below is an overview of thirty-two 'secrets' of 'The Night Watch', some are well known, some are lesser known. (Click to zoom in.)
An Amsterdam Affair
Rembrandt made sure that the scene of marching militiamen was a truly Amsterdam–affair as he painted many symbols in the painting referring to the city of Amsterdam. For starters, Rembrandt dressed up Frans Banninck Cocq in the city–colours from its coat of arms: red, white and black and in the outfit of his lieutenant he painted three coats of arms; to top it all off, on the banner one can clearly see the three 'St. Andrews–crosses', which according to legend meant to safeguard the city from 'fire, floods and the black plague' (you’ll find this symbol on many thousands of poles in the city of Amsterdam too).
Main image: The coat of arms on the banner, held high by Jan Visscher Cornelissen. Top left: The coat of arms of Amsterdam. Lower left: Captain Frans Banninck Cocq dressed in the city colours: black, white and red. Top right: one can make out the coat of arms on the ‘gorget’, the neck guard of Lieutenant van Ruytenburch. Middle right and lower right: the two coats of arms on the lapels of his jacket.
The Mystery of the Rose
While retouching 'The Night Watch', I stumbled upon a pink white rose on the floor near the feet of the running boy on the left side of the painting. Why did Rembrandt add this single delicate rose in a painting depicting mainly elderly men? While researching, I couldn't find an unambiguous answer.
With the help of various (art) historians, I came to the following conclusion: the rose symbolizes (as it has done since Roman times) drunkenness, heroism (vanity) and secrecy ('Sub rosa'); it's Rembrandt's subtle reminder to the members of the militia to behave (and misbehave) within the walls of the clubhouse as if he wanted to say: enjoy, drink in moderation and behave like proud, civilized men.
The mysterious rose before and after the restoration. Insert: 'The Night Watch' and where the rose can be found.
The Big Reveal
After more than three months of working around the clock to finish 'my' version of 'The Night Watch', as of the 17th of October 2021, I can declare that the reconstruction is finished. As stated before, I'm currently talking to technical parties to present my 'Night Watch' to the public in full scale.
The ultimate goal of the project is to have 'The Night Watch' printed in 3D, utilizing a process called 'elevated printing'. Due to technical limitations, this is not yet possible. Hopefully, as research and development in this printing technique progresses over time, the most complete 'Night Watch' can be revealed within the coming years.
Top left: 'The Night Watch' is being scanned as part of the 'Operation Night Watch–project' to capture the data of Rembrandt’s rich 'impasto' in 3D (top right). Lower right: A detail of the end result of an 'elevated print' of the painting 'The Jewish Bride' by Rembrandt. Main image: An artist impression of how the final reconstruction should be presented: iconic, as the crown jewel of the city of Amsterdam.
So, why this passion project? Why spend three months painstakingly and faithfully restoring and researching a four centuries old painting and its maker? For me, it's not just about the 'man vs. machine'–aspect. More than anything, this was about finding the right narrative for (or dialogue with) arguably one of the most famous paintings in the world and its genius creator.
After getting inside the head of a master painter like Rembrandt, I can only wish the Rijksmuseum hadn't taken the 'artificial intelligence–route' to complete 'The Night Watch'. I guess it comes down to that age-old question: What makes 'art' 'art'?  To me, it embodies the creative expression of a human being. And is teaching a neural network to 'paint' like Rembrandt not somewhat of a paradox when it comes to 'human expression'?
Sure, use of a neural network makes for a nifty press–release and marketing campaign, yet is this the correct way to find the true Rembrandt and his 'Night Watch'? Who was he? What was his lifestyle? How did he interact with his loved ones? Did he have a great sense of humour (he sure did!)? Was he a social person or was he a 'savant' obsessed by his work? That's something that I as a storyteller can relate to and ultimately distil from that what the missing pieces would have looked like and help reminding us that he was a man of flesh and blood and not a machine.
Lastly, I would like to mention, that this project isn’t about bashing the Rijksmuseum; they choose 'data' over 'blood, sweat and tears' and in this day and age of new technology I can't blame them. The Rijksmuseum is one of the finest art museums in the world, and one day I hope we'll join forces to recreate the ultimate 'Night Watch', looking like it was on the day it left Rembrandt's studio.
About the Artist
Edwin Nikkels: Film Director and Digital Artist
A filmmaker and digital artist by trade, a passionate storyteller at heart: Edwin Nikkels (Dordrecht, 1973) is always looking for visual impact by creating captivating imagery. Currently he is one of the most experienced and award–winning cross–media film directors and digital artists working out of Amsterdam.
At a young age, Nikkels' talent surfaced when he directed the first fully 3D–generated music video in the Netherlands. After completing The Netherlands Film and Television School (NFTA), specializing in visual effects and multimedia, Nikkels started to work as a freelance film director and digital artist.
Since then, he has collaborated with national and international advertising agencies, interactive studios and other media related companies like film and television production houses on projects for Coca–Cola, Nike, Nintendo, Nissan, Sony PlayStation, Volvo and many others.
Nikkels experienced his big break in 2006 when he worked as a film director and digital artist on Volvo's 'The Hunt', promoting part II and III of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies by Disney. This online experience, enriched with dramatic elements, received countless international awards, i.a. a Cannes Lion, a Webby Award and a Golden Epica.
Next to his main work, Nikkels has shared his knowledge as a guest lecturer at his alma mater, the NFTA, and the Communication and Multimedia Design department at the Haagse Hogeschool in The Hague, The Netherlands. One of his clients says about him: "Edwin is one of the best directors and digital artists in The Netherlands. He has a great eye for detail and his creativity is beyond imagination."
If you ask Nikkels about his work, he comments: "It's about the visual. I want to lure the spectator in with captivating imagery and provide solace and comfort to a certain degree. There is a word for that: escapism."
Nikkels is a firm believer in the cross–media approach: "These are fascinating times. There is an unlimited amount of creative energy out there: advertising, art, entertainment, science... As a media–junkie I live and breathe to do it all."
The view of my studio overlooking Amsterdam, with to the right of the middle, the spire of the 'Westerkerk', or 'Western Church', where Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (Leiden, 15 July 1606 – Amsterdam, 4 October 1669) lays buried.
Please contact me for further information or inquiries: | | +31 (0)6 - 14 69 01 69
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