President Barack Obama stands in front of Rembrandt's The Night Watch, explaining a point with his hand outstretched in the same gesture as the painted figure behind him: Frans Banning Cocq, captain of the guard. At the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, he stares at an unseen audience, though, while the captain turns to his fellows of the watch. Both are dressed for their job—the President in a sober business suit with a light blue tie that sets off his face; the part-time military man in finery becoming of his stature. Together, they are prepared to ward off the forces of evil and protect the polity.
The symbolism inherent in the photograph of Obama speaking in front of Rembrandt’s Night Watch, which appeared in the news around the world, was perfect and, no doubt, fully intentional. Rijksmuseum general director Wim Pijbes gave the president a tour, emphasizing especially those paintings with moral and ethical values as he toured Obama through the “Gallery of Honor,” the grand corridor at the heart of the newly reopened museum that is festooned with the greatest Dutch paintings of the Golden Age of the 17th century and culminates in The Night Watch.
We have no idea whether the President listened, or, for that matter, whether Pijbes made sense, but the thought alone of our highest leader walking through this neo-gothic space while the scenes of the first middle class, capitalist republic gazed down on him, were inspiring. Instead of the fake colonial trappings of power with which Obama had surrounded himself even before he was elected, he was here framed by a march of columns and the broad apses that have opened the condensation of culture and wealth up to a democratic world since the 19th century. The paintings told of a world presented with meticulous care not as a mythical or biblical place, but as the middle class interiors, the churches where people gathered to trade and gossip as well as to pray, and the urban scenes in which the people who first made and bought them lived.
Then Obama arrived at The Night Watch, where the lectern was set. This immense painting, measuring 12’ by 14’, dwarfed even the 6’1” President. It also enveloped him and drew him into this picture of ordinary citizens acting together to protect their city. It was, of course, also a display of wealth and power, and a marking of territory by one particular clique of gentlemen, but the manner in which Rembrandt portrayed this band makes it clear that they are moving into the light from the dim recesses of the city to bring order and clarity. Rembrandt painted relationships between clearly delineated characters in deep and full space.
If this scene is large and deep, the usual space of our politics is shallow, flattened by the television in space and lighting, and brought down to a small scale. We almost never see the full reach of the architecture in which our three powers operate. We also see emblems and icons with no subtlety. Outside the Rijksmuseum, Obama was in his cocoon, the vast square where he landed kept empty, with one side, where the Van Gogh Museum stands, shielded off with a temporary wall of shipping containers.
The Rijksmuseum is a place of many complex spaces in which the Dutch government recently invested nearly $500 million to bring both the culture it frames and the building back to life, to open it up and clarify it without dumbing it down. The building stood ready to receive all of the pomp and false circumstance we build up around our leaders, swallowed them up, and made them part of a richer drama about how we can together see, remake, and collectively own our space. Obama might be gesturing at us, but the captain is including him in his ageless work.
Note: We have corrected President Obama's height to 6'1".
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.