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Rembrandt's huge Night Watch painting made bigger still

Museum director Taco Dibbits explains how Rembrandt's biggest painting the Night Watch just got bigger with the help of artificial intelligence in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Wednesday, June 23, 2021 (AP Photo/Peter Dejong) 
Mike Corder Associated Press

One of artist Rembrandt van Rijn’s biggest paintings has just been made that bit bigger.

A marriage of art and artificial intelligence has enabled Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum to recreate parts of the iconic Night Watch painting that were cut off 70 years after Rembrandt finished it.

The printed strips now hang flush to the edges of the 1642 painting in the museum’s Honour Gallery. Their addition restores to the work the off-centre focal point that rebellious Golden Age master Rembrandt originally intended.

“It can breathe now,” museum director Taco Dibbits told The Associated Press.

The crowded painting’s two main characters, Captain Frans Banninck Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch, are central in the chopped-down painting. With the new digital additions — particularly a strip on the left of the painting that features two men and makes clear that a boy is looking over a balustrade — the main figures are effectively shifted to the right.

“It really gives the painting a different dynamic,” Mr Dibbits said.

“And what it taught us is that Rembrandt never does what you expect.”

The museum had always known that the original, uncut painting was bigger, in part thanks to a far smaller copy painted at the same time, 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 colour Rembrandt used in the Night Watch, which colours, what his brushstrokes looked like,” Mr 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 1642 group portrait of an Amsterdam civil militia was trimmed down after it was moved from the militia’s clubhouse to the town hall and did not fit on a wall between two doors.

The painting was cropped with a pair of scissors and it 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.

The digital recreation that will go on show in coming months is part of a research and restoration project called Operation Night Watch which began just under two years ago, before the global pandemic emptied museums for months.

Under relaxations of the Dutch Covid-19 lockdown, the museum can welcome more visitors from this weekend, but will operate at half its normal capacity still.

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.

Amid 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.

Mr Dibbits said the new printed additions were not intended to trick visitors into thinking the painting was 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.

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