Staring back into Rembrandt's face and life

Rembrandt's Eyes By Simon Schama

When Rembrandt van Rijn died in 1669, he was regarded as an important, but not necessarily great, painter. He was unsurpassed in his capacity to render light and shade, and his ability to represent human emotion was widely admired. But his coarse, rough handling of paint (one early biographer said he had applied paint with a "bricklayer's trowel") contrasted starkly with the smooth, polished finish and great attention to detail that characterized Dutch painting at the time.

It is this artist and his world that Simon Schama examines in "Rembrandt's Eyes." Schama, an eminent historian at Columbia University, knows this period well. An earlier book, "The Embarrassment of Riches," analyzed the emergence of the middle class in 17th-century Holland.

Any biographer of Rembrandt faces a challenge. Despite his importance in art history, there is considerable controversy about his life. There is agreement on the basic facts, but many of the details are unknown. After great success and popularity as a young man, his fortunes slid downhill. His wife and all but one of his children predeceased him. So did the mistress he lived with for many years. He was forced into bankruptcy and died a pauper.

The key to understanding Rembrandt's art, Schama believes, is to appreciate the complex events that shaped Dutch life in the early 17th century. While the Dutch established themselves as a great economic power at this time, constant wars with Spain and religious intolerance were facts of daily life. The plague regularly carried off a large number of citizens.

In addition to the social-political milieu, Schama writes, Rembrandt's artistic output was greatly shaped by his ambition to equal and surpass the accomplishments of the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, the most widely known artist of the time.

Put all of this together in a single volume and you get a magisterial book that defies classification. It combines political and religious history, biography (of both Rembrandt and Rubens), and art history. Schama devotes as much attention to the Dutch wars for independence, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, as he does to the analysis of Rembrandt's art.

But Schama excels at describing Rembrandt's paintings. He provides lucid description of the shadows and shading, the texture of the paint, the fabric in the clothing, the perspective used for dramatic effect, the positioning of the figures, the brushwork, and even the small dabs of color used as highlights. In addition to describing the paintings themselves, he tells us about the sitters: who they were, what they did, whom they married, and why they had their portraits painted.

The effect is a seminar with a learned professor who is also a great storyteller. Consider his description of Rembrandt's productivity:

"The crucial years were 1635 and 1636. Plague shrouded Amsterdam, but Rembrandt, in his late twenties, was robustly alive, the throttle of his creativity kicked wide open. It roared and surged. An entire procession of masterpieces appeared at a phenomenal rate over the next two years; big, violent, visceral things packed with lurching, lunging, bone-crunching action. Bodies are pitched about. Fists are clenched. Knives are out. A baby screams, emptying his bladder. A face is clawed. An eyeball is punctured with malice aforethought. The colors are hotter and sharper than anything yet seen from Rembrandt's hand.... They are eye-openers, heart stoppers, mind-benders."

This is a long, expensive book with all the trappings of an academic volume: endless footnotes, a bibliography, a detailed index, plenty of foreign phrases, and more than 350 photographs. But the volume will appeal to both the scholar and the lay reader. Its breadth and depth are balanced by the extraordinary writing.

There are a small number of historical figures - like Rembrandt - who are so transcendent, so central to history, that each era must study them anew and reassess their lives and accomplishments. Schama has written such a reassessment for our age. The reader of "Rembrandt's Eyes" looks over the artist's shoulder as he stands at his easel.

*Terry W. Hartle is senior vice president of the American Council on Education.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.