March 12, 2009 / 5:32 PM / in 10 years

Historian reveals men in Rembrandt's Night Watch

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - New life has been breathed into Dutch master painter Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’, the famous dark-toned 17th-century painting of city guards gathering to march.

Then-U.S. First Lady Hillary Clinton (R), wife of the Dutch Prime Minister Rita Kok (C) and Dutch Princess Margriet (L) listen to the explanations of a guide as they admire the "Night Watch" painted by Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, in this file photo from May 27, 1997.

For more than three centuries, the identity of the men depicted in the massive portrait hanging in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum have been unknown, but a Dutch historian now claims to have identified them all.

The painting, some 363 cm by 437 cm, is considered the Rijksmuseum’s most famous painting.

The Rijksmuseum said on Wednesday retired historian Bas Dudok van Heel has identified the men after years of research.

“It is great for both the museum and the public because the Night Watch is not only a beautiful image, it comes to life when you read the story of the people and see the faces of the people on it,” said Taco Dibbits, Director of Rijksmuseum Collections.

The Night Watch, also known as the ‘Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch’, is a massive group portrait of a division of the Amsterdam civic guard, depicted as though they have just moved into action and are about to march off.

The civic guard were used to defend the city from the Spaniards and to keep order, but at the time of Rembrandt’s painting they had become more like a gentlemen’s club.

In about 1715, a shield was painted onto the Night Watch containing 18 names, but only a few were known to belong to identified figures in the portrait.

But Dudok van Heel has been able to link each name to a figure in the painting after researching families, their financial position and their business contacts, the museum said.

“He even found items of clothing and accessories depicted in the Night Watch mentioned in inventories of estates,” the Rijksmuseum said in a statement.

He then collated the information with the age of the various militiamen in 1642, the year the painting was completed, to identify each of the figures.

Collections director Dibbits said the museum will make a display in coming months for the public to identify who is who in the portrait.

Reporting by Aaron Gray-Block, editing by Paul Casciato

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