UAntwerp helps ensure the future of the Night Watch

Scientists analyse world-famous painting in great detail with unique scanner

Rembrandt's Night Watch is currently undergoing a thorough examination. Researchers from the University of Antwerp are also doing their part, analysing the masterpiece down to its crystal structure with their special scanner.

The Night Watch, painted by Rembrandt van Rijn in 1642, is one of the most famous works of art in the world. It has been on display in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam since 1808. And that's where it should stay for a very long time to come, preferably in excellent condition. In July of 2019, the museum launched 'Operation Night Watch', subjecting the painting to thorough examination and preparing it for restoration.

"The painting was last restored in 1976," says Robert Van Langh, Director of Conservation & Science at the Rijksmuseum. "It's starting to show some signs of old age. During an extensive examination, we took thousands of ultra-high-resolution photographs, and scientists are now using scanners and lasers to analyse the canvas down to the microscopic level."

For the duration of these efforts, The Night Watch is displayed in a glass enclosure. This way, the public can still admire the painting, and even follow the examination activities. Over the past few days, scientists from UAntwerp's AXES research group (Antwerp X-ray analysis, Electrochemistry and Speciation) have been hard at work in this glass room. With their unique MA-XRPD scanner (Macroscopic X-ray Powder Diffraction), they're studying the masterpiece with the help of X-rays.

Researcher Geert Van der Snickt explains: "The rays hitting the crystal structure of the pigments in the painting are deflected and reflected in specific ways. Each type of crystal has its own unique pattern. This way, we can identify the crystalline pigments in The Night Watch without touching the painting. The scanner – a unique prototype – also provides crucial information about the condition of the paint layers, and more specifically about the so-called degradation products. These substances are formed in the paint over time through chemical reactions."

Signs of paint ageing
The detailed results are particularly valuable for the coming restoration process. While the Antwerp scientists have not yet finished their analysis, Prof. Koen Janssens is willing to give us a sneak preview:

"In the face of the central figure, Banning Cocq, we can clearly see traces of paint ageing in the shadow sections. And in the red band of fabric across his chest, we've noticed a darkening of the red pigment, which we've seen before in the work of Rubens – fortunately only to a limited extent. We're also studying the impact of the 1990 attack with sulphuric acid.  Our research results will provide important information for the Rijksmuseum's research & restoration team to properly assess the condition of the paint. These results will inform the restoration treatment and determine the best course of action."


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