Social distancing is an unnatural act for the human condition hard-wired to connect. And if you’re an art lover locked out of shuttered museums, the sense of alienation piles on.

But wait, a museum experience - in effect, if not, in fact, is possible – a.k.a. the virtual tour frees you to get up to the very surface of the world’s greatest paintings held in as many as 500 museums, “thanks to Google,” says Artnet: “Virtual Museum Tours has been among the most popular search terms.”

Rembrandt redux

To that end, The Guardian names 10 of the world’s best virtual museum tours. But when it comes to seeing paintings at close range, nothing beats the chance to scrutinize Rembrandt’s wall-size group portrait of a military company called The Night Watch in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.

(And that’s saying a lot because this treasure house boasts 80 galleries worth of artwork).

Big goof

The virtual tour at the Rijksmuseum puts you on top of every brush stroke. This is key to viewing The Night Watch because you’ll notice that the portrait is set in a sunlit room, not at night. Or even dusk or dawn. One may well wonder who the fool was - reportedly someone at the end of the 18th century - to wrongly tag Rembrandt’s most famous and largest painting, The Night Watch when it’s nothing of the kind. Made in 1642, it certainly wasn’t Rembrandt.

Day into night

Sun streams into Night Watch so strongly that you imagine the uniformed men overheated from the radiating glare. To be fair, whoever named this picture at the end of the 18th century saw a darkened portrait from all the accumulated layers of dirt and varnish.

This has since been cleaned. Given the sunlight now made clear as it pours into the scene, you may wonder why the Rijksmuseum doesn’t correct the picture’s title.

Seeing red

The Rijksmuseum did, even more, to reveal the sunlight in Night Watch than remove grime. It installed LED light, so illumination is at its peak. So now you can see even better the brightness of Rembrandt’s palette – his flaming reds and golds.

Early 18th-century artist William Blake didn’t like what he saw, faulting the high hues as “bad color.” Art historians Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves quoted Blake in their 1945 Book Artists on Art: Rembrandt “always got it wrong.”

Who’s kidding who?

Blake had some excuse having lived in the early part of the 18th century before the layers of dirt and varnish darkened the painting.

Likely he saw what you could see today – high-intensity color. But what excuses Jean-Auguste Ingres, who lived between 1780 and 1867, a period when the painting was named Night Watch. Surely, he saw the darkened version. Yet, he also complained about the bright colors, saying, “Let us not admire Rembrandt…(or compare) to the divine Raphael and the Italian school: That would be blasphemy.” (qtd in Goldwater and Treves).

Allow me to blaspheme. A group portrait is static, but Rembrandt’s Nigh Watch shows his subject in motion. Who does that? The image is not only alive for the coloring, but for the action. It’s no wonder the painting gave rise to Gustav Mahler’s 7th Symphony. None of the Italian school artists can say that.

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