Nightwatching In Amsterdam

by Mike.Martin

Anyone coming out of Peter Greenaway’s film Nightwatching will be bursting to hop over to Amsterdam to have another look at Rembrandt’s masterpiece The Night Watch, which the film dramatises

It’s quite a sight to see Martin Freeman of The Office naked, angry and swearing at everybody, but he’s brilliant as Rembrandt in newly-released film Nightwatching. He plays the cocky, brilliant painter who falls out with the rich people who are paying him to be in his group painting of the Amsterdam Military Watch. He gets his revenge by putting all sorts of clues into the picture – clues which Nightwatching goes into in forensic detail. It’s a gorgeous-looking film, set mainly in Rembrandt’s house which you can also easily visit on a weekend in Amsterdam.

It’s a perfect time to go as the Rijksmuseum (www.rijksmuseum.nl/), home to Rembrandt’s masterpiece The Night Watch, is having major restoration work and actually appears from its scaffold-covered exterior to be closed. About 95% of it is indeed shut, but the museum has kept open one small entrance at the side and just 13 rooms to keep its masterpieces on display. Bizarrely this is actually good news for the tourist as the numbers are way down and the Mona Lisa-like crowds which normally surround The Night Watch are absent. The Rijksmuseum won’t be back to full capacity until 2014 so there’s plenty of time to see The Night Watch in its new home.

The Rijksmuseum’s architect PJH Cuypers might turn in his grave at the suggestion that The Night Watch actually looks better than in its normal home on the second floor – after all, he practically built the place based around displaying the painting. However, its usual spot is at the end of a massive, barrel-vaulted room surrounded by other pictures and lots, and lots, of tourists. Now, in room 12, it’s on its own, nicely lit and with a scattering of admirers all pouring over what it could all mean. You feel you can really gaze at the picture without being bumped into or having to crane over someone’s head.

According to Greenaway’s film almost everything in the painting is a clue or has a meaning. The leading man Frans Banning Cocq’s outstretched hand is much-admired, but where does it cast its shadow? Are the riflemen loading their weapons correctly? Why is one of the guns going off? Why is the most-lit spot a woman who resembled Rembrandt’s wife Saskia, and why does she look so upset? Look closely at the back row of people and you can see a fraction of a man’s face, just a brown beret, forehead and one all-seeing eye. Everyone is pretty much agreed this is Rembrandt himself, but Greenaway’s film even suggests he deliberately painted his ‘bad’ eye, his right eye, as some sort of comment on the picture. The film ends with a huge close-up of that deep brown eye – what did it see?

After a quick look at a wonderful Rembrandt self-portrait and the two exquisite Vermeers still on show, it’s time to keep the Rembrandt vibe going. It’s worth mentioning that the Rijksmuseum is still charging full price, €12.50, for its vastly reduced display, so the answer is to invest in an Amsterdam City Card. This gives you a travel card plus a culture card with entry into all the big museums and lots of discounts in shops and cafes. It also saves you having to queue. Check out www.iamsterdam.com for details.

Emerging from the Rijksmuseum it’s a short tram ride to the Rembrandthuis (www.rembrandthuis.nl), which features heavily in the film. Rembrandt bought this house for a huge sum and painted The Night Watch here. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric place, with the ground floor restored and displaying some of the master’s collection of paintings, plus his touching portrait of wife Saskia as Flora. It was here he wooed the rich merchants he was to paint, and here that he slowly lost his fortune, as a direct result of The Night Watch - according to the film.

The real draw is Rembrandt’s studio room, which faces north so the light is constant. It has the original peat burners at both ends of the room, and lots of strange objects that he collected, including skulls, turtle shells and stuffed baby alligators. Like the Rijksmuseum – and half of Amsterdam apparently – it’s being renovated, so not all of Rembrandt’s etchings are on display, but there are still two rooms of them and they are charming and detailed.

The third place to visit to get the full Rembrandt vibe is the Historical Museum (www.ahm.nl), which gives a real flavour of life in Rembrandt’s age. It reveals how Amsterdam became so rich, and how the men who benefitted had themselves painted by the best artists of the day. It also features a collection of military group paintings much like The Night Watch, worth looking at to see how static, dull and poor they were compared to Rembrandt’s masterpiece, which has a fantastic, vibrant composition.

After all of that culture you’ll need to refuel, and you can do so in an old-fashioned tavern right opposite the Historical Museum which invokes the atmosphere of Rembrandt’s time. The restaurant Haesje Claes (Spuistraat 273-275; www.haesjeclaes.nl) has some paintings the museum opposite would like, and its lovely wood-panelled rooms and candles give a gorgeous atmosphere. The food is not Michelin-starred but it’s healthy, hearty and hot Dutch-influenced fare, and washed down with local beers it’s just the job. The waitresses are friendly and give tips on everything from the best Dutch wine to the current exhibitions in Amsterdam.

The perfect spot to stay is the gorgeous, art-nouveau influenced Eden Amsterdam American Hotel, a two-minute tram ride to the Rijksmuseum and perfect for bars.

A word of warning though – too many of those beers and you might end up like Martin Freeman in Nightwatching – naked, drunk and shouting about what a genius you are.