Rembrandt’s damaged ‘The Night Watch’ made whole again

Masterpiece has missing sections restored using artificial intelligence at Rijksmuseum

Workers help attach the new panels of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch  at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Photograph:   Ilvy Njiokiktjien/The New York Times

Workers help attach the new panels of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Photograph: Ilvy Njiokiktjien/The New York Times

 

Rembrandt’s masterpiece The Night Watch is back on display as originally intended by the artist more than 350 years ago – before movers transferring it to Amsterdam’s city hall in 1715 cut four strips off so that it could hang neatly between two doors.

The painting, an oil on canvas completed in 1642 which shows the city’s militia being ordered into action by the captain of the guard, is considered one of the great works of the Dutch Golden Age. It’s the centrepiece of the national collection at the capital’s Rijksmuseum.

The missing sections, sliced off pretty roughly, have never been found. The restoration has been possible, however, due to developments in artificial intelligence and the fact that a much smaller copy of the original by one Gerrit Lundens, an awestruck artist of the time, is still in existence.

The Night Watch remounted at the Rijksmuseum. Photograph: Remko De Waal/ANP/AFP via Getty Images
The Night Watch remounted at the Rijksmuseum. Photograph: Remko De Waal/ANP/AFP via Getty Images

Essentially, what the experts did was photograph the original and the Lundens work, feed that data and everything known about Rembrandt’s style of painting and colouring into the AI software, and allow it to practise literally millions of times until the result impressed even world experts.

In other words, a computer taught itself to paint like Rembrandt.

The outcome was so impressive, says Robert Erdmann, senior scientist at the Rijksmuseum, that the AI even “imagined” cracks in the paint in the new sections in places that are consistent with cracks in the original. The technology, he anticipates, will continue to improve.

The scale of The Night Watch, at 363cm by 437cm, has always been one of the reasons it makes an immediate impact. Now it has additional scale on all four sides, showing for the first time what the artist himself intended.

The new sections have been printed out, varnished, and mounted on a metal frame that surrounds the original but doesn’t touch it. It stands fractionally in front of it, as if adding a new dimension.

The result is that the central figure of the painting, Captain Frans Bannink Cocq, is now more off-centre, as he was in the original. Similarly, a drummer entering the scene from the right can now be seen for the first time. He was intended by Rembrandt to draw the viewer into the painting.

“It’s never going to be the real thing,” says Rijksmuseum director Taco Dibbits, “But it certainly gives valuable new insights into the composition – making this great work even more dynamic.”