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Rembrandt Used Lead to Protect The Night Watch from Moisture

New research has revealed that Rembrandt impregnated the canvas for his famous 1642 militia painting The Night Watch with a lead-containing substance even before applying the first ground layer. Such lead-based impregnation has never before been observed with Rembrandt or his contemporaries. The discovery underlines Rembrandt’s inventive way of working, in which he did not shy away from using new techniques.

Rembrandt knew that his painting would hang on the inner side of the (damp) outer wall of the large hall of the Kloveniersdoelen in Amsterdam. A lead-rich oil impregnation provides better protection against moisture and mold than the glue layer typically applied on canvasses in the seventeenth century.

The discovery was made using multiple techniques. A paint sample was examined at the PETRA III synchrotron radiation source at DESY in Hamburg, revealing the presence of a lead-containing layer beneath the paint. The Night Watch was also analyzed using non-invasive imaging techniques in the Gallery of Honor at the Rijksmuseum, confirming the presence of the lead layer. The lead map obtained with the Macro-XRF scanner shows that this layer was applied with large semi-circular brushstrokes. Even an imprint of the original stretcher on which the canvas was mounted when the preparation layers were applied is visible in the lead distribution map.

The research is part of Operation Night Watch, the public conservation project that started in 2019, and is conducted in collaboration with the University of Amsterdam, the University of Utrecht, the University of Antwerp, and DESY. It is also part of the research project 3D Understanding of Degradation Products in Paintings by the Netherlands Institute for Conservation+Art+Science+ (NICAS), funded by NWO. The study is published in Science Advances (vol 9, issue 50).