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Rembrandt’s Damaged Masterpiece Is Whole Again, With A.I.’s Help

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AMSTERDAM — Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” has been a national icon in the Netherlands ever since it was painted in 1642, but even that didn’t protect it.

In 1715, the monumental canvas was cut down on all four sides to fit onto a wall between two doors in Amsterdam’s Town Hall. The snipped pieces were lost. Since the 19th century, the trimmed painting has been housed in the Rijksmuseum, where it is displayed as the museum’s centerpiece, at the focal point of its Gallery of Honor.

Now, from Wednesday — for the first time in more than three centuries — it will be possible for the public to see the painting “nearly as it was intended,” said the museum’s director, Taco Dibbits.

Using new high-tech methods, including scanning technologies and artificial intelligence, the museum has reconstructed those severed parts and hung them next to the original, to give an idea of “The Night Watch” as Rembrandt intended it.

The cutdown painting is about 15 feet wide by 13 feet high. About two feet from the left of the canvas was shaved off, and another nine inches from the top. Lesser damage was done to the bottom, which lost about five inches, and the right side, which lost three.

Temporarily restoring these parts will give visitors a glimpse of what had been lost: three figures on the left-hand side (two men and a boy) and, more important, a feel for Rembrandt’s meticulous construction in the work’s composition. With the missing pieces, the original dynamism of the masterpiece is stirred back to life.

“It gives us an insight into the composition that Rembrandt made,” Dibbits said.

Rather than hiring a painter to reconstruct the missing pieces, the museum’s senior scientist, Robert Erdmann, trained a computer to recreate them pixel by pixel in Rembrandt’s style. A project of this complexity was possible thanks to a relatively new technology known as convolutional neural networks, a class of artificial-intelligence algorithms designed to help computers make sense of images, Erdmann said.

“It’s only recently that we’ve had powerful enough computers to even contemplate something like this,” he said.

Indications already existed of how the original “Night Watch” likely looked, thanks to a copy made by Gerrit Lundens, another 17th-century Dutch painter. He made his replica within 12 years of the original, before it was trimmed.

Lundens’s copy is less than one-fifth the size of Rembrandt’s monumental canvas, but it is thought to be mostly faithful to the original. It was useful as a model for the missing pieces, even if Lundens’ style was nowhere near as detailed as Rembrandt’s. Lundens’ composition is also much looser, with the figures spread out more haphazardly across the canvas, so it could not be used to make a one-to-one reconstruction.

The Rijksmuseum recently made high-resolution scans of Rembrandt’s “Night Watch,” as part of a multimillion-dollar, multiyear restoration project, initiated in 2019. Those scans provided Erdmann with precise information about the details and colors in Rembrandt’s original, which the algorithms used to recreate the missing sections using Ludens’ copy as a guide. The images were then printed on canvas, attached to metal plates for stability and varnished to look like a painting.

Rembrandt’s composition features a large group of Amsterdam’s civic guards led Capt. Frans Banninck Cocq and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch. The original was asymmetrical: The large arch that stands behind the crowd was in the middle, and the group’s leaders were on the right. Rembrandt painted them this way to create a sense of movement through the canvas.

Once the new pieces were restored, so was the balance, Dibbits said. “You really get the physical feeling that Banninck Cocq and his colleagues really walk towards you,” he added.

Looking at the group of militia men standing just over Banninck Cocq’s shoulder, it is possible to see the top of someone’s head — a hat, a nose and an eye, looking out at the viewer. The figure looks suspiciously like the artist.

“That’s so like Rembrandt,” Dibbits said. “To position himself right in the middle.”

“It’s part of the process of getting to know the painting,” he added. “We didn’t know it before.”


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