REMBRANDT'S SELF-PORTRAITS: A STUDY IN SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY IDENTITY. By H. Perry Chapman, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 189 pp., illustrated, $39.50 LOOKING like an Oriental despot, Rembrandt van Rijn peers out of the darkness. That face has launched a thousand books. What is it about Rembrandt that provokes such extreme responses?
H. Perry Chapman tells us in her new book, ``Rembrandt's Self-Portraits: A Study in Seventeenth-Century Identity.'' Make no mistake: This is a defense of Rembrandt. Chapman rejects the narrow interpretations of recent critics who argue variously that Rembrandt was an arrogant entrepreneur or a failed yuppie.
True, as Chapman shows in detail, this 25-year-old son of a miller took his solid education in the classics and his reputation as a history painter to Amsterdam in 1631 because he believed in himself. But what was that self?
Chapman provides many contexts - political, religious, artistic, personal. The independence of the Netherlands from Spain, the introspective culture of Calvinism, the role of the artist in society, Rembrandt's humble origins and prodigious talents: No angle is missed.
The later self-portraits build on the earlier. Young Rembrandt made faces at himself in the mirror, studying the signs of the emotions. He saw himself as a thinker, a melancholy artist, probing the inner man, like Hamlet. As he gained confidence, he compared himself to Italian Renaissance masters, borrowing poses, bits of clothing. He married into a powerful Amsterdam family and saw himself as a prosperous merchant, like many of his sitters.
As Chapman shows, all the while Rembrandt grew in independence. ``In comparison to Rubens,'' she writes, ``Rembrandt fashioned himself not as an honored gentleman but as an artist of Honor, claiming nobility solely on the basis of his personal artistic excellence.''
Pride or arrogance, it stood him in good stead when the wheel of fortune continued to turn, threatening him with ruin. His wife, Saskia, died, leaving him with their year-old son. In his later self-portraits, Rembrandt ``abandoned the humanist ideal of the gentleman-painter, replacing it with an original and independent image of the artist as craftsman.'' Gone the big hats and golden chains; berets and painter's smocks would have to do. Rembrandt was scolded by his peers for mixing with common people.
Chapman supplies the essential context: Calvinism. Good works avail nothing; we all need grace; long live good works (paintings). As a history painter, Rembrandt had earlier developed what Chapman calls the participant portrait. When he painted Jesus being crucified, he painted in himself as one of his torturers. ``We need Christ, and him crucified,'' wrote Paul. Chapman makes a case for the influence of Paul's complex sense of himself as a saved sinner. Rembrandt would paint a portrait of himself as Paul.
Chapman is a graceful writer. Her arguments are balanced, well-documented, and vigorously pursued. She says of one of Rembrandt's religious paintings: It was ``a demonstration of his faith.'' She's on to something big here, even the probability that such works of art, which start from assumptions so different from modern, secular ones, can bring us into contact with the sources the artist tapped while working out his unique identity in 17th-century Amsterdam.
The publication of this book is cause for gratitude and joy.