Rembrandt was a genius in the way he was able to paint darkness and light. But his talent went beyond technique, it was his ability to illuminate the darkness of human nature that made his paintings such masterpieces.
This is the theme Peter Greenaway explores in his film, Nightwatching.
Before gaining prominence as a director with the film The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover, Greenaway trained as a painter.
Watching this film was like seeing Rembrandt's paintings themselves brought to life, each frame carefully lit in darkness.
The film revolves around a particular commission, The Night Watch. Musketeers hired Rembrandt to paint their portraits, but the artist couldn't resist editorializing. He added visual embellishments that alluded to facts these heroes would prefer to have hidden from posterity, and brought them from darkness into light.
Look closely. Hinting at hypocrisy you will see:
- the two girls (illegitimate children)
- the red sash (reference to homosexuality)
- a muscat (murder weapon)
- a posthumous portrait of one of the musketeers (he was reported to be on holiday at the time he was rumoured to have been accidentally shot during muscat practice)
Consider the predicament of the muskateers. They've been painted by a true genius. They look handsome. They have been preserved for posterity....and yet... will their true nature be seen by others? Although the subjects were enraged that their various secrets were exposed, they remained vain enough to assume that the general populace wouldn't 'get' the references. Lucky for us, the canvas didn't burn... it was the famous Rembrandt, after all, and the portraits themselves were flattering enough.
The scandals are largely lost on modern audiences. In this sense, the musketeers are right. The painting stands on the artist's flattering technique. But consider how truly audacious Rembrandt was, to do this, and to 'get away with it' for so many centuries.