New lighting shows off Rembrandt’s famed ‘Night Watch’ as a vibrantly lit scene

AMSTERDAM – Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” may need a different nickname after the painting was put under new lighting on Wednesday that makes it look like a day scene.

The change at the national Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is startling, as characters once barely visible or relegated to the background now stand out in vivid colour.

The 1642 painting was commissioned for one of Amsterdam’s citizen militias and is officially titled “The Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch,” the two most prominent and central of 34 figures depicted on the large canvas.

Museum director Wim Pijbes said Wednesday the painting – widely considered Rembrandt’s greatest masterpiece for its composition, dynamic motion, and use of light, colour and shadow – may in fact only have acquired the “Night Watch” title because of a dark varnish that was removed decades ago.

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“It’s a reasonably dark painting, and with aging it’s gotten darker,” Pijbes said. “It’s not certain that it’s a night scene and the story goes that some of the militiamen complained from the start that they would have liked to have had more light on them.”

The new LED lighting system custom designed for the work by lighting giant Philips mimics daylight, helping return the work closer to its original appearance and bringing out, for instance, greenish stone arches in the background.

Previously, the painting had been under halogen spotlights that had the disadvantage of warming the canvas by more than one degree Celsius while they were turned on. The new LED lights that beam down from above illuminate the canvas more evenly and emit only a fraction of the heat.

Philips lighting expert Rogier van der Heide said the project took about three months. The light used was a “very complex spectrum” of carefully chosen white light, perhaps comparable to the sunlight in the afternoon while facing West.

“It’s pretty close – but of course real daylight has the most complete spectrum of light imaginable.”

Pijbes said the museum had considered using natural light, but that idea faced insurmountable practical difficulties. It would make it difficult for the more than a million tourists who want to see the painting annually to view it during the many dark months and cloudy days in the Netherlands. Any exposure to direct sunlight was out of the question due to the damage it could cause the canvas, he said.

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The painting has been on display in a side wing of the museum for almost a decade as the building undergoes a massive renovation. It is due to return to its place of honour at the centre of the museum’s hall of honour in spring 2013.