The Night Watch, and other lies my grandfather told me

Barring any time machine you might have laying about, it’s going to be impossible to hop back in time to catch Rembrandt van Rijn in the act of painting one of his masterworks. But maybe you can do the next best thing.

It’s 2019, which means this year is marks the 350th year of Rembrandt van Rijn’s death. It’s kind of a big deal in Amsterdam, and especially at the Rijksmuseum, which houses more than 20 of the artist’s masterpieces, most notably the massive work colloquially known as “The Night Watch.”

I saw “The Night Watch” when I was 11, standing side-by-side and hand-in-hand with my mother, marveling at a gargantuan painting that I believed contained the face of some unknown ancestor.

The Night Watch. No ancestors to see here.

If I didn’t know that ancestor’s name or what he looked like, that made my task harder. And if the years and accumulation of soot and dust had darkened the painting had taken their toll, that too had made my job more daunting.

But at long last, that huge painting is due for a bath and a little TLC. Perhaps soon, it will be a little easier to see the details Rembrandt committed to immortality.

Care to watch?

Most of us are bashful when bathing, but the gaggle of folks in the “Civic Guardsmen of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq,” the official title of the painting, are going to have to get used to a few prying eyes. A few million of them.

The Rijksmuseum has decided to livestream the entire process of the painting’s rejuvenation, a job that is expected to take years. Just researching the project will take a year. The team working on the project includes scientists, painting conservationists, photographers, researchers and professors. Then, the restoration team must develop a plan of action and execute it.

While news of the restoration and livestream reached around the world, no stories that I have found carried a direct link to the video stream. This could be because the project infrastructure, such as the glass cube that will contain the painting and the restoration workers, has just been set up in the past 24 hours, and the work has yet to begin in earnest.

However, my best guess is that when the livestream begins, it can be viewed at the Rijksmuseum dedicated page to the project.

This is not a family portrait

But wherever they end up livestreaming the restoration, one thing you won’t be seeing are any of my ancestors being touched up on the painting. That’s because they’re not there, no matter what my grandpa told me when I was in 4th grade.

Back then, my teacher had us make our family trees. As part of that assignment, we were to write our grandparents and ask them to tell us what they knew about our family story.

My father’s father wrote back with some colorful stories. Most of which, I know now, are lies.

Sure, he was right when he said my family came from the Netherlands. Or to be more accurate, his family did. I’m about a a third Dutch and nearly 60 percent German, with a light smattering of Swedish, French, the Baltic region and Scotts-Irish making up maybe a total of 11 percent among them.

But that’s about all he told the truth about.

He also said that one of my great-great…grandfathers was a captain in the queen’s guard depicted in The Night Watch. And I believed it. I wrote it up in my family report, turned it in for the class assignment and stood in front of the class and dutifully told my teacher and classmates that Rembrandt had painted one of my great-greats.

But that was a lie. Let me show you why.

One: The name of the painting itself. Remember, it’s “Civic Guardsmen of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq.” You’ll notice the title is not “The Queen’s Guard” or anything similar. This was a citizen’s militia.

You now why?

Because, two: There was no Queen of the Netherlands in 1642, when this painting was finished. This was the time of the Dutch Republic. Yes, there were Stadtholders from House of Orange and their loyalists who wanted the monarchy restored, and who eventually succeeded. The stadtholders position became heretditary, like a monarchy, and those who held the office did wield considerable power. But there wasn’t a “Queen of the Netherlands” in 1642.

And finally, three: Not a single ding dang person in our family ever lived anywhere near Amsterdam. To a one of us, we all came from Zeeland. That is the province to the extreme southwest of the Netherlands. How southwest? For many of my family members, you could walk a few steps, cross the Schedlt River and be in Antwerp, Belgium. I haven’t measured, but I’m pretty sure you cant go any further from Amsterdam and still be in the Netherlands proper.

So no, that’s not my grandpa among any of those faces.

Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies

But then, what else should I have expected? The man even lied about what our name meant.

According to various sources, the name “Wieland” either comes from the name of the mythic Dwarf blacksmith who forged Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir (the definition I favor) or it means “war land” …. meh.

But grandpa, who probably had no idea what it meant at all, just made up something. What does the Netherlands have a lot of, I imagine he thought? Cows! So … let’s just say Wieland means “cow pasture.” And there I stood before my class telling everyone that my last name meant cow pasture. And they laughed. Thanks, gramps!

Finally, he said that we were related to Christoph Martin Wieland, the man who introduced Shakespeare into the German language. And that would be so, so cool if that were true. But fie on it, fie! It is not so.

Who’s (not) your (grand)daddy? This guy, Christoph Martin Wieland.

C.M. Wieland lived from 1733-1813. More importantly, he only ever lived in places now known as Germany. All the people known as “Wieland” that I am descended from come from that corner of the Netherlands just across the border from Antwerp. In fact, I just went to measure it: It’s just 29 miles. And I can only find records of the name back to 1750 – but even a little after that, the name was fluid, sometimes being spelled Wielandt or even Wienand. On the other hand, there are plenty of German and even Swiss families who stumbled upon the Wieland name independently of us.

I don’t know why grandpa felt the need to lie. A lot of things he did were a goldang mystery. He was a rather cold person, and maybe this was just his idea of funny: making up lies for a school kid to unknowingly retell. Maybe he was too embarrassed to say “I don’t know.” Heck, maybe someone told these stories to him and he believed them.

Well, whatever, grandpa.

You made me interested in a great work of art, and that, at least, was worth it.

4 thoughts on “The Night Watch, and other lies my grandfather told me

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