According to recent research published today in Science Advances, Rembrandt coated the canvas’ surface for his well-known oil painting The Night Watch in 1642 with a material containing lead before applying the initial base layer of paint.
Despite his willingness to try out new methods, Rembrandt never used a lead-based layer in any of his paintings. Neither had his contemporaries used this technique before.
Operation Night Watch, a study and preservation initiative centered on the masterpiece’s past, is the source of this latest finding. On a paint sample removed from the painting, researchers used computational imaging to conduct an advanced study.
The sub-microscale chemical components along the lower layers of the canvas were identified and visualized using a combination of X-ray fluorescence and ptychography. Beneath the quartz-clay ground layer was a lead-rich layer, as the study showed.
In The Night Watch as well as in other works, Rembrandt employed quartz-clay ground layers, painting a first ground of red earth pigments with a second ground of lead white.
Rembrandt might have required a less expensive, more adaptable substitute to fit The Night Watch’s dimensions. Another possibility is that he was attempting to shield the canvas from the damp environment of the outside wall of the painting’s intended hanging location, the great hall of the Kloveniersdoelen (a range for muketeers in Amsterdam).
Afterwards, an X-ray fluorescence scanning was used to compare the outcomes with a lead distribution map of the complete painting. The fact that lead is present everywhere indicates that thick, semi-circular brushstrokes were used to apply the lead layer. The lead distribution map also displays an imprint of the stretcher bars, indicating that the lead layer was applied immediately following the stretching of the canvas.