Rembrandt’s The Night Watch painting is by far the most popular item in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. My favourite exhibit is less of a draw and doesn’t even make the pages of the museum’s 250 Highlights book.
Don’t get me wrong, I am one of the many people impressed by the famous group portrait of Amsterdam’s arquebusiers’ guild, in which sash wearing officers – Captain Frans Bannick Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch – stand in the foreground.
The painting measures a whopping 4.53 by 3.79 metres but was even larger when Rembrandt finished work on it, back in 1642. When the picture was moved to Amsterdam’s town hall, in 1715, it was simply too large to be displayed on the available wall space, so The Night Watch was trimmed. That might sound unthinkable today, criminal even, but sections were actually cut away from Rembrandt’s masterpiece.
The Dutch Golden Age
As you wander into the Gallery of Honour, on the second floor of the Rijksmuseum, it’s hard not to be impressed by the golden aura surrounding The Night Watch like the halo of a saint in some medieval altarpiece. (If you’re not sure about my simile take a look at the museum’s extensive collection of religious artwork, dating from the 12th century through to the Renaissance.) The Night Watch draws your gaze from beneath an arched portal as you enter the grand hall containing dozens of oil paintings dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, the Netherland’s Golden Age.
With over 800 years of artworks and historical artefacts on display – including paintings by Vincent van Gogh and a biplane dating from 1918, the oldest airplane in the Netherlands – you may well wonder why I find seven woolly hats so fascinating. Yes, my favourite exhibit in the Rijksmuseum features wool caps within a glass cabinet. Wander along to gallery 2.9, The Netherlands Overseas, if you want to see them.
The Dutch on Spitsbergen
They’re not, as far as I’m aware, made of exquisite merino wool and are by no means pristine. In fact, some of the headgear in question is heavily darned and was once worn by fishermen – or whalers to be precise – working on Spitsbergen. The men whose heads they once kept warm were active in the Northern Company’s Smeerenburg settlement, harvesting oil from the blubber of whales.
Did the oil they produced help light an artist’s studio? Did the viscous fruit of their labour illuminate offices managing the trade of goods with colonies in the East Indies? Did captains of one of the world’s great sea empires view their charts at night thanks to the efforts of the whalers in Spitsbergen?
Cornelis de Man’s painting
Cornelis de Man’s oil painting of life at the Smeerenburg whaling station hangs above the glass cabinet. The work dates from 1639. The icy, jagged mountains that prompted the Dutch to name Spitsbergen so are visible across the bay in which sailing ships lie at anchor. On the shoreline a whale is being cut into strips while men work at ovens, rendering down the blubber into vats while smoke spews from brick chimneys.
Gentlemen in broad brimmed hats – not dissimilar to those worn by the officers in The Night Watch – stand chatting in the foreground of the painting, wearing knee-length leather boots with cavalier-like flaps. The painting shows a fair day; the weather is calm.
I wonder if the men who wore the woolly hats displayed in the cabinet below would say the painting is romanticised? The reality is that life at Smeerenburg was harsh. The station was abandoned in 1657.
Excavating graves on Spitzbergen
In 1980 archaeologists excavated the graves of 185 Dutch whalers and found the wool caps now displayed in the Rijksmuseum close to the skeletons. Each of the caps was different. The archaeologists surmised that the sub-zero temperatures of Spitzbergen forced the whalers to wear many layers of clothing and, by necessity, only their eyes would remain exposed.
One of the caps has a rim, reminding me of the shape of a boat. Another is speckled orange, heavily patched and bears a bobble; due its narrow, elongated shape it reminds me, anachronistically, of the headwear worn in the first series of Blackadder. A striped blue and beige cap has a felt-like appearance. One has with a lump missing from its patterned rim; of course, that’s unlikely to stem from a polar bear’s bite but perhaps it originated from a work-related accident or simply from years of wear and tear?
The hats allowed the men to identify each other, hence their unique designs. The names of their wearers are not displayed, suggesting they were forgotten centuries ago.
Perhaps, on an Amsterdam street during the Dutch Golden Age, some of those men who worked in Smeerenburg passed by Rembrandt and the guild members he depicted in The Night Watch?
See the Rijksmuseum website for information about exhibitions, entry prices and opening times. You can purchase tickets online and print them at home. The Rijksmuseum opened in 1885 and, following major modernisation and renovation, reopened in April 2013.