Missing figures of Rembrandt's 'Night Watch' restored by artificial intelligence

WION Web Team
Amsterdams, NetherlandsUpdated: Jun 23, 2021, 10:30 PM IST

Rembrandt's famed Night Watch is seen back on display for the first time in 300 years, in what researchers say is its original size, with missing parts temporarily restored in an exhibition aided by artificial intelligence at Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands Photograph:(Reuters)

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Rembrandt finished the large canvas, which portrays the captain of an Amsterdam city militia ordering his men into action, in 1642

Rembrandt's famed "The Night Watch" is back on display for the first time in 300 years, with missing parts temporarily restored in an exhibition aided by artificial intelligence.

Rembrandt finished the large canvas, which portrays the captain of an Amsterdam city militia ordering his men into action, in 1642.

Although it is now considered one of the greatest masterpieces of the Dutch Golden Age, strips were cut from all four sides of it during a move in 1715.

Though those strips have not been found, another artist of the time had made a copy, and restorers and computer scientists have used that, blended with Rembrandt's style, to recreate the missing parts.

"It's never the real thing, but I think it gives you different insight into the composition," Rijksmuseum director Taco Dibbits said.

The effect is a little like seeing a photo cropped as the photographer would have wanted.

The central figure in the painting, Captain Frans Bannink Cocq, now appears more off-centre, as he was in Rembrandt's original version, making the work more dynamic.

Some of the figure of a drummer entering the frame on the far right has been restored, as he marches onto the scene, prompting a dog to bark.

Three restored figures that had been missing on the left, not highly detailed, are onlookers, not members of the militia. That was an effect Rembrandt intended, Dibbits said, to draw the viewer into the painting.

Rijksmuseum Senior Scientist Robert Erdmann explained some of the steps in crafting the missing parts, which are hung to overlap the original work without touching it.

The museum always knew the original, uncut, painting was bigger, in part thanks to a far smaller copy painted at the same time that is attributed to Gerrit Lundens.

Researchers and restorers who have painstakingly pored over the work for nearly two years using a battery of high tech scanners, X-rays and digital photography combined the vast amount of data they generated with the Lundens copy to recreate and print the missing strips.

“We made an incredibly detailed photo of the Night Watch and through artificial intelligence or what they call a neural network, we taught the computer what color Rembrandt used in the Night Watch, which colors, what his brush strokes looked like,” Dibbits said.

The machine learning also enabled the museum to remove distortions in perspective that are present in the Lundens copy because the artist was sitting at one corner while he painted Rembrandt’s painting.

The reason the 1642 group portrait of an Amsterdam civil militia was trimmed is simple: It was moved from the militia’s club house to the town hall and there it didn’t fit on a wall between two doors. A bit of very analog cropping with a pair of scissors ensued and the painting took on the dimensions that have now been known for centuries. The fate of the pieces of canvas that were trimmed off remains a mystery.

Under relaxations of the Dutch COVID-19 lockdown, the museum can welcome more visitors from this weekend, but still only about half of its normal capacity.

During the restoration project, the painting was encased in a specially designed glass room and studied in unprecedented detail from canvas to the final layer of varnish.

Among that mound of data, researchers created the most detailed photograph ever made of the painting by combining 528 digital exposures.

The 1642 painting last underwent significant restoration more than 40 years ago after it was slashed by a knife-wielding man and is starting to show blanching in parts of the canvas.

Dibbits said the new printed additions are not intended to trick visitors into thinking the painting is bigger, but to give them a clear idea of what it was supposed to look like.

“Rembrandt would have definitely done it more beautifully, but this comes very close,” he said.

(With inputs from agencies)