Operation Night Watch, the Rijksmuseum’s ambitious research and conservation project of Rembrandt’s massive masterpiece begins today, July 8th, in full public view. The monumental oil painting will remain in place instead of being moved to a lab. An ultra-transparent glass chamber has been erected around it to allow conservators and the complex technology they’ll be using to work in controlled condition even as visitors get a clear view of the action.
Never before has such a wide-ranging and thorough investigation been made of the condition of The Night Watch. The latest and most advanced research techniques will be used, ranging from digital imaging and scientific and technical research, to computer science and artificial intelligence. The research will lead to a better understanding of the painting’s original appearance and current state, and provide insight into the many changes that The Night Watch has undergone over the course of the last four centuries. The outcome of the research will be a treatment plan that will form the basis for the restoration of the painting.
Imaging techniques, including macro X-ray fluorescence scanning (macro-XRF) and infrared reflectance imaging spectroscopy (RIS), will help determine its current condition, and macro X-ray fluorescence scans will analyze the chemical make-up of the paint literally millimeter by millimeter. Each scan takes 24 hours and the team will have to do 56 of them to cover the whole work. The data will allow researchers to create an insanely detailed map of the pigments used in every layer, revealing any changes in composition and shedding new light on Rembrandt’s painting process.
The high-resolution photography will be absolutely unprecedented. There will be 12,500 photographs taken ranging in resolution from 180 to 5 micrometres. No painting this size has ever been photographed as so high a resolution. Researchers (and the rest of us peering over their shoulders) will be able to study details invisible to the naked eye.
The Night Watch will be removed from its frame for the initial research phase and placed on a bespoke easel. It will keep the work stable while experts study the entire canvas using two platform lifts to access every part of the masterpiece.
For those of us who can’t attend in person, the Rijksmuseum website will offer video of the work in progress. There will also be special events on social media for the public around the world to learn more about the project. Those kick off today with an Instagram Live chat with Katrien Keune, head of Science at the Rijksmuseum. It starts at 5PM (11AM EST). If you have any questions about the research into the Night Watch and the conservation, pop over to Instagram and ask it.
You can see the extremely cool glass-walled enclosure built and the painting mounted in this time-lapse video: