How Rembrandt Reveals Your Beautiful, Imperfect Self: Life Lessons from the Master

Overview

Rembrandt, one of the greatest artists of all time, was spectacularly successful in his twenties and thirties, bankrupt by his fifties, and died an unsung death in 1669 at the age of sixty-three. Along the way, he had to bury four of his five children and the two loves of his life, and he had to look on while his patrons chose the predictable but uninspired work of his pupils over his own increasingly innovative style. Yet adversity seemed only to deepen his faith and his genius. His self-portraits, especially, ...
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2005 Hardcover New 1400082293. Flawless copy, brand new, pristine, never opened--224 pp. With 28 ills. 20 x 14 cm.

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Overview

Rembrandt, one of the greatest artists of all time, was spectacularly successful in his twenties and thirties, bankrupt by his fifties, and died an unsung death in 1669 at the age of sixty-three. Along the way, he had to bury four of his five children and the two loves of his life, and he had to look on while his patrons chose the predictable but uninspired work of his pupils over his own increasingly innovative style. Yet adversity seemed only to deepen his faith and his genius. His self-portraits, especially, are testimonies to the human spirit, to eyes that can see beyond the confines of the visible world, but also to the human soul, its tenacity and its aspirations, and to the human body, its beauty, its sagging truth, its essential loveliness, whatever its shape or form.

This is a deeply moving and uplifting book. Part biography, part history, part art appreciation, it takes the example of Rembrandt's life and work as inspiration for the strength we need to live with passion and an unflinching acceptance of who we are.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
More than any other artist in history, Rembrandt bears witness to the eternal joy and struggle of our own human soul and to the poignant bittersweet reality of our physical mortality, Housden (Ten Poems to Last a Lifetime, etc.) writes in his accessible meditative guide to the artist's life, work and meaning for our times. Recollecting how he was profoundly moved by Rembrandt's Self Portrait, 1669, Housden marvels at the artist's ability to face himself with intense truthfulness and acceptance. Housden charts the Dutch master's rise as a successful painter winning lucrative commissions, as well as his tragic domestic life, sexual scandal, fall from professional grace and poverty-stricken old age. Above all, Housden admires Rembrandt's dedication to observation his long, slow look which, he points out, is so unlike our own age's emphasis on rapid action, immediacy and clarity. Although Housden occasionally quotes art historian Simon Schama, his account is largely unmediated by experts, consisting instead of his own firsthand descriptions of Rembrandt's paintings, complete with historical background and insights into 17th-century Protestant values. Housden's reflections and observations (like his title too reminiscent of How Proust Can Change Your Life) are far from original or penetrating, but he fully succeeds in communicating the artist's enduring appeal. 28 b&w photos. (On sale Apr. 26) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400082292
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/26/2005
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.81 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.98 (d)

Meet the Author

Roger Housden emigrated from England to the United States in 1998 and now lives in New York City. He is the author of numerous books on cultural and spiritual themes, including the bestselling Ten Poems series. You can email Roger Housden at tenpoems@juno.com
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: Lesson One—Open your eyes

Look in the Mirror

He wore a simple cloth cap, a brown one, pulled back to the edge of a receding hairline, with loose gray curls spilling out from both sides. His brow was wrinkled, his cheeks were flaccid; he looked in poor health. Or perhaps he was just tired. His large bulbous nose stood out like a sentinel. The face, which was turned toward me, glowed with a light that seemed to come from within. His mustache, and the little tuft of hair below his lower lip, were the same brownish-gray as his hair. The rest of his body, in three-quarter-length pose, faced to the right and merged into the dark, except for his clasped hands. The whole composition was a mass of thick shadow from which the face emerged like the sun.

He was in the National Gallery in London. So was I. It had been raining, and with an hour or more to kill, the Gallery seemed a good option. I had momentarily forgotten how walking through any national gallery is liable to lead to overload. One minute you are in the Renaissance, with all the gold angels bent over Mary; the next you can be drifting between men in powdered wigs, all of them so prim and tight, and women in flouncy ballroom attire. Or if you take a left turn without thinking—after all, the place is a maze, it’s so easy to get lost—you might find yourself flitting past David, not the one who defeated Goliath, though he is likely to be up there on the wall as well, but Jacques-Louis David, the Frenchman who did all those historical wide-screen and heavy-gilt-frame things with Napoleon as the star. No wonder museum gift shops do so well. It’s far easier to shop than to stagger through corridors. The museum maze can be confusing. I was beginning to feel confused, that day in the National Gallery.

But then as I walked through yet another open archway, something happened: a pair of eyes grabbed me from the other side of the room and wouldn’t let go. The eyes of an old man whose rumpled face glowed against a background of darkness. My tiredness and boredom began falling away. I walked slowly across the room and sat down on the bench before him.

He gazed down at me from under hooded lids. At first glance he seemed to be sad, almost melancholy; but then that first impression gave way to something else. I began to feel that his eyes conveyed a profound, even rigorous kindness. Yes, rigor and kindness, all in the same gaze. A kindness toward himself, for his condition, physical and psychological; but also, it seemed, for me—for anyone who cared to look. I don’t think I have felt such unconditional regard from another person, painted or otherwise.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix
Prologue: Why Rembrandt Really Matters 1
Lesson 1 Open Your Eyes 5
Look in the Mirror 7
Follow Your Calling 15
The Multitude You Call Yourself 21
The Art of Double Vision 32
The Long, Slow Look 43
Lesson 2 Love This World 51
The Smell of Success 53
The Good Life 60
Learning from the Past 73
For the Love of Woman 79
The Feeling for Others 89
Lesson 3 Troubles Will Come 95
The Flower Fades 97
A Troubling Masterpiece 104
Trials of the Heart 112
Losing It All 121
No Further to Fall 134
Lesson 4 Stand Like a Tree 147
The True Taste of Yourself 149
Giving Yourself Completely 157
Lesson 5 Keep the Faith 169
Trust Your Own Way 171
The Light in the Dark 179
We Are Not Alone 186
Love Leads to Forgiveness 193
Saints and Sinners 201
The Sanctity of Human Love 206
Lesson 6 Embrace the Inevitable 213
Age Will Come 215
When Death Comes 221
Notes 231
Resources 235
Picture Credits 237
Acknowledgments 239
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First Chapter

How Rembrandt Reveals Your Beautiful, Imperfect Self


By Roger Housden

Random House

Roger Housden
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1400082293


Chapter One

Chapter 1: Lesson One—Open your eyes

Look in the Mirror

He wore a simple cloth cap, a brown one, pulled back to the edge of a receding hairline, with loose gray curls spilling out from both sides. His brow was wrinkled, his cheeks were flaccid; he looked in poor health. Or perhaps he was just tired. His large bulbous nose stood out like a sentinel. The face, which was turned toward me, glowed with a light that seemed to come from within. His mustache, and the little tuft of hair below his lower lip, were the same brownish-gray as his hair. The rest of his body, in three-quarter-length pose, faced to the right and merged into the dark, except for his clasped hands. The whole composition was a mass of thick shadow from which the face emerged like the sun.

He was in the National Gallery in London. So was I. It had been raining, and with an hour or more to kill, the Gallery seemed a good option. I had momentarily forgotten how walking through any national gallery is liable to lead to overload. One minute you are in the Renaissance, with all the gold angels bent over Mary; the next you can be drifting between men in powdered wigs, all of them so prim and tight, and women in flouncy ballroom attire. Or if you take a left turn without thinking—after all, the place is a maze, it's so easy to get lost—you might find yourself flitting past David, not the one who defeated Goliath, though he is likely to be up there on the wall as well, but Jacques-Louis David, the Frenchman who did all those historical wide-screen and heavy-gilt-frame things with Napoleon as the star. No wonder museum gift shops do so well. It's far easier to shop than to stagger through corridors. The museum maze can be confusing. I was beginning to feel confused, that day in the National Gallery.

But then as I walked through yet another open archway, something happened: a pair of eyes grabbed me from the other side of the room and wouldn't let go. The eyes of an old man whose rumpled face glowed against a background of darkness. My tiredness and boredom began falling away. I walked slowly across the room and sat down on the bench before him.

He gazed down at me from under hooded lids. At first glance he seemed to be sad, almost melancholy; but then that first impression gave way to something else. I began to feel that his eyes conveyed a profound, even rigorous kindness. Yes, rigor and kindness, all in the same gaze. A kindness toward himself, for his condition, physical and psychological; but also, it seemed, for me—for anyone who cared to look. I don't think I have felt such unconditional regard from another person, painted or otherwise.

There was rigor in his looking, too. It felt as if I had nowhere to hide from the honesty of his gaze. It was not that I felt scrutinized or challenged. It was that he was so fully present to the truth of his condition, so unapologetically who he was, that he summoned something of the same in me. He was hiding nothing and, I felt, was encouraging me to do the same. This is how I look, those eyes seemed to say. This is who I am, no nips, no tucks.

And this is how I look, I started to feel in return. This is who I am, without any disguises. My bald head, my furrowed brow, my wrinkled eyes. My uncertainties, anxieties, and aspirations. You see me, and you accept me.

I was aware that my back had straightened and my head was now erect. Those eyes had stirred in me a feeling of myself that lay beneath the province of words. At the same time, I imagined he might wink at me at any moment. Those eyes were advising me not to take him or myself too seriously. It was a strange mixture—an utmost seriousness, yet without any of the weight of self-importance. As if he was transmitting some hard-won wisdom, and for whatever reason—a surfeit of Davids or the time of day—I was receiving it.

He was showing me who he was, and in so doing, he was showing me who I was. Resonance. Human being to human being. We are aging, we are dying, we are full of sorrow, full of feeling, full of life, we are beautiful however we look, we are who we are. That's all.

That's all. In seeing into the core of himself, this man was letting me in on a secret about my own life. Secret, only because I hadn't known to look in the way he had. My own face is enough, he tells me, if I can dare like him to look in the mirror and see into the layers that are there. Infinite layers, waves of the sea. We are finite and infinite and everything in between. I walked up to the frame. “Rembrandt Van Rijn,” it said. “Self-Portrait. 1669. The year of his death.”

I have never forgotten that first encounter with Rembrandt. It was one of those moments that stand out for being intensely real, a moment when I was more fundamentally alive than I usually am. And all I was doing was looking at a painting of an old man. An old man whose eyes did not let me go. From then on I began to look for Rembrandt whenever I entered an art museum. I began to discover that he had a great deal to say about what it's like to be human, not just in one but in many of the faces that he captured on canvas throughout his life.

I discovered in his portraits the joy, the sadness, the swell of success and the humility of defeat, and also the deep faith that can emerge merely from the fact of being alive. He shows us the pride and also the arrogance of youth, and he shows us that even old age and death need cause us no fear. His life and his work—and they are inextricably bound one in the other—are the great arc, the dramatic trajectory, of a man dedicated to something more than himself; to capturing, through art, the mysterious whatever-it-is that goes to make up a human being.

Many artists can help us to open our eyes. The painter of still lifes can appreciate a lemon, or an apple, in ways we may never have considered. He can help us see objects in such a way as to lift them out of the ordinary blur and give them their uniqueness of color and form. Suddenly, a bowl or a piece of cloth can acquire a meaning we have never sensed before. In the same way, the painter of the nude can heighten our appreciation of the human body, so that we are no longer mesmerized by conventional attitudes to beauty. But Rembrandt was able to see in ways that few people have ever dared to see. First, more than any other artist before or since, Rembrandt turned his gaze on himself. The human face, and specifically his own, was his recurring theme, as the sun was for Van Gogh, or water for Turner. He painted, etched, and sketched almost a hundred self-portraits in his sixty-three years. Taken as a whole, they amount to an intimate autobiography, intended or otherwise, that began in his youth and ended only with his death.

Soon after my first encounter with him, I came across a book with color plates of Rembrandt's self-portraits. I opened it to one he did in 1630, when he was just twenty-four. It hangs now in the National Museum in Stockholm. The same directness of gaze was there, though these eyes bore the proud, somewhat challenging look of a young man sure of himself without having been tested. Rembrandt was already sought after as an artist then and had reason to be satisfied with his standing in the world. He was the son of a miller and had already far outgrown his social origins. He was a man of talent and great potential, and in this painting, he knows it.

As in the portrait I saw in London, he faces the viewer directly, though with his body turned slightly to the left. This time he wears a black artist's beret over hair that is long, curly, and carefully brushed. His face is clear and fresh and lit from the left. He has the soft stubble of a young man's beard, the same vertical cleft between his eyebrows, and the strong fleshy nose that will be his hallmark. The pleated collar of a white shirt circles his neck, and a simple though elegant cape or shawl is draped over his shoulders.

I look at him and I see the somewhat self-satisfied youth that I was. I even used to wear a similar beret and, like Rembrandt, tended to think I cut a fine figure. There is more. I see an enormous curiosity in this young man's face; his whole being seems to be carrying, embodying a question. And I see that there is something true in his air of command: as if the flame of youth is meant to be cocksure; as if this is part of its nature, which it is the job of the world, not to undermine, but to temper through the contingencies of time.

In the case of these two self-portraits by Rembrandt, the young and the old man, I like to think I can see something they have in common. What remains, after decades of success, tragedy, and disappointment, is something in the look in those eyes. When I look at Rembrandt in his twenties and then in his sixties, I think I can see something there that does not die. Something unique to him, an irreducible personality, and yet also recognizable by anyone.

That essential humanity is what, more than anyone else before or since, he managed to communicate through art; and today we can read his life's work, not just as autobiography, but as the universal, perennial story of everyman's journey from innocence to experience, from ignorance to wisdom. For we are human too, and little different from the way people were then. This is why his face can tell us as much about us as it can about him—if, like Rembrandt, we are willing to look ourselves in the eye and to accept whatever we see there.

Follow Your Calling

He was born in 1606, the eighth child of a miller and his wife who lived on the banks of the Rhine near the town of Leiden, in Holland. His name was Rembrandt van Rijn, Rembrandt of the Rhine.

Leiden was the second largest city in Holland at the time, though its population was less than half the size of Amsterdam. The University of Leiden was the most famous in northern Europe, and Rembrandt's parents, who were fairly prosperous, sent their boy there at the age of fourteen to study Latin and the State Bible. It was 1620, the same year the Mayflower sailed to the New World with forty-one Pilgrim fathers and their families.

Rembrandt must have shown signs of unusual intelligence, because he was the only child in his family to be sent to school. His eldest brother stayed home to work at the family mill, while the second eldest became a shoemaker. The rest of his siblings were girls, two of whom died young. He wasn't at university long, barely nine months, when he must have told his father that, instead of studying, he spent most of his time sketching and drawing. That is what he loved to do. And he wanted to paint. He wanted his father's blessing to become an artist.

However Rembrandt broke the news, it was enough for his father to swallow his high expectations and have his son apprenticed to the master Jacob Isaacsz. van Swanenburgh, a well-known painter in town. He must have had faith in his son's talent. Even so, his decision to bow to his son's wishes was a risky one, considering a painter's prospects in seventeenth-century Holland. The churches liked their walls white and bare. There was no place in a church for a painting, not in Calvinist Holland; nor for frescoes, stained glass, statuary, or finely wrought altar screens.

Nor were there any royal figures to make up for the lack of church patronage. In 1609 Philip IV, king of Catholic Spain and also of Flanders, finally retreated from his claim to the separatist provinces of the neighboring Low Countries. The seven Protestant provinces banded together to form a government with its headquarters in The Hague. At its head was the Stadtholder, a military leader whose function was more of a national figurehead than anything else. The real authority in the United Provinces, as they became known, was the property-owning middle class. The United Provinces, of which Holland was the largest, was the modern world's first republic, and it was there, especially in Amsterdam, that the seeds of democracy began to take root.

In Holland, no painter could aspire to the life of a court painter like Velázquez in Spain, Rubens in Flanders, or Van Dyck at the court of King Charles in England. As for the grand reputation and patronage of a Michelangelo or Raphael, forget about it; their kind of luck was over long before. With neither church nor crown available as a patron, a painter in Protestant Holland had to rely on commissions from his fellow citizens, which, after all, was only proper to the character of an emerging democracy.

While it's true that everyone from the butcher to the Stadtholder wanted a painting on his wall—one that would declare their prosperity and sober values—none of these people, not even the Stadtholder, had the kind of funds or the frame of mind that would encourage them to be an artist's patron.

So an artist, along with everyone else, was in the marketplace looking for clients. His standing, despite the general popularity of painting, was not high. In general, he was still considered more of a master craftsman than someone with a unique artistic talent. Art, at the time, meant “manual dexterity in the service of illusion.” His prospects for success, in a crowded market, were not great.

Patronage or no patronage, the miller went ahead, apprenticed his son into the trade of his choice, and in so doing, without knowing it, launched into the world one of the greatest masters there would ever be. Greatness can, indeed, come from such humble and innocent beginnings—a fact that was still something of a novelty in Rembrandt's time, when class privilege dictated destiny for the vast majority of human beings.

Swanenburgh was no great artist, but he would have taught Rembrandt to prepare a canvas and grind colors;he would have shown him the elementary principles of drawing, perspective, and anatomy. Pigments were ground with linseed oil on a large, flat stone—the grindstone—to make the paint. Rembrandt would have made white paint from white lead and chalk, violet blue from ground glass, and lacquers from insects or plants.

Whatever else he learned, it was not enough to keep him in the Swanenburgh studio for long. Within three years, his father transferred him to the studio of the famous painter Pieter Lastman, who was twenty-five miles away in Amsterdam. You might imagine him, then, the young artist, mind full of grand ambitions and hopes for the future, sitting among the chickens, the goats, the other travelers and tradesmen, in a flat-bottomed barge, inching along the canal on his way to the big city at the pace of a tow horse.



Excerpted from How Rembrandt Reveals Your Beautiful, Imperfect Self by Roger Housden Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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