Rembrandt's Eyesby Simon Schama
This dazzling, unconventional biography shows us why, more than three centuries after his death, Rembrandt continues to exert such a hold on our imagination. Deeply familiar to us through his enigmatic self-portraits, few facts are known about the Leiden miller's son who tasted brief fame before facing financial ruin (he was even forced to sell his beloved wife Saskia's grave). The true biography of Rembrandt, as Simon Schama demonstrates, is to be discovered in his pictures. Interweaving of seventeenth-century Holland, Schama allows us to see Rembrandt in a completely fresh and original way.
It's unlikely that Simon Schama will ever produce a book anyone accuses of being too short. The Columbia University history professor and author of the widely praised Landscape and Memory and Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution is among the reigning champions of the lush and massive tome. Schama doesn't so much write books as deliver immense objects to his readers.
His latest undertaking, an investigation of Rembrandt van Rijn's intricate connection to another 17th century master, Peter Paul Rubens, is close to the heftiest volume I have ever read. This is a 728-page book, sized to fit 359 illustrations. The pages, when not simply walls of print, are walls of print broken only by densely painted Baroque masterpieces, reproduced in full color. Visual overload is always just a licked fingertip away.
Which is just the way Schama wants it; overload is his accomplice. This is the kind of monumental undertaking most historians would gladly trade their rustbucket Volvos for a shot at. But would their ambition be the equal of their envy? Schama, after all, is the jet set, the Mac Daddy of historians. He gets to write gargantuan books because he delivers the goods.
He made his mainstream reputation in 1987 with An Embarrassment of Riches, a you-are-there channeling of life in the Netherlands in the 1600s. It's another gigantic book -- 698 pages -- but, really, the Netherlands? Who cares? We should, argued Schama, because in the burgher republic of the Dutch Golden Age, we can find the seeds of our own current lifestyle, our embrace of plenty and our neurotic misgivings about whether all that plenty is somehow robbing us of our souls.
Rembrandt -- the most important artist to emerge from this milieu -- was certainly sensitive to the tension between the desire for excess and the penalties that excess invites. As talented as he was extravagant, Rembrandt was the perfect painter for Calvinist Amsterdam of the 1630s and '40s: Apparently predestined for greatness, he became, by the end of his life, an anachronism laid low by his foibles.
This is far from the whole story Schama has to tell in Rembrandt's Eyes, however. He makes the case that Rembrandt's career was shaped by an anxiety-of-influence relationship to the then-greatest painter in the world, Peter Paul Rubens. True to form, Schama is anything but direct in the way he details this connection.
They were night and day, Rubens and Rembrandt. While the older painter was the soul of taste, a stoic and a devout Catholic, Rembrandt was a Calvinist vulgarian. "Rubens's most ardent admirers...[celebrated] the Flemish painter's commitment to discrimination," writes Schama. "Rembrandt, on the other hand... had no idea when to avert his gaze." Fittingly, Rubens died a painter-aristocrat who dabbled in diplomacy and was universally mourned. Rembrandt went bankrupt and expired penniless in a hovel just seven years after he had disinterred his wife's bones so that he could sell the grave to stave off his creditors.
Rubens painted only four self-portraits, Rembrandt more than 40. "Unlike Rembrandt's restless makeovers," Schama writes, "Rubens's sense of himself was constant." The irony here is that Rubens was the more overtly flamboyant painter. Rubens' "Christ on the Cross" (c. 1613) gives us the Savior as a martyred Catholic muscleman. Rembrandt's 1631 painting of the crucifixion, by contrast, depicts a scrawny hippie: "A Calvinist image of the body," in Schama's estimation, "pathetically slight, broken, and bleeding." Rubens, the more practical man, had his head in the Platonic clouds. Rembrandt, the captive of his own appetites, had his eyes focused on the Aristotelian everyday, "the piebald, the scrofulous, the stained." His most famous painting, "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp," depicts an autopsy.
Of course, where Simon Schama is concerned, one takes comfort in simple dualities at one's peril. Partly this is a function of his style, which is both elliptical and intense. No one can match him at translating visual detail into scholarly porn, but neither can anyone veer more maddeningly from the straight path of historical narrative. I used to think Citizens was the most willfully disorganized book ever written. I now realize that Schama just can't help himself. The man thinks entirely in codas and arabesques.
But fighting to keep up with Schama is worth the struggle. Rembrandt was among the most complex, compelling -- and flabbergasting -- artists who ever lived. He is well served by an equally daring biographer, one who isn't afraid to take some chances in the service of his craft.
Talk Magazine's 10 Best Books of 1999
Christian Science Monitor
- Penguin Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
Rembrandt had taken to painting himself in armor. Not the full body suit. No one except cuirassiers, who were vulnerable to being jabbed by pikemen below the crupper, went in for that anymore. But every so often Rembrandt liked to wear his gorget. It was a hinged collar-piece, covering the base of the neck, collarbone, and upper back, and it looked good lying below a wound silken stock or scarf; a touch of steel lest he be thought too much the dandy. It was not that he was about to report for duty, even though, at twenty-three, he was of an age to serve in the militia, especially since an older brother had had a disabling accident at the mill. But this was social armor, military chic, not unlike the studiously worn fatigues affected by twentieth-century politicians gone sedentary, or the flak jackets of the urban paratrooper. Rembrandt's gorget with its glinting studs gave him the bearing of a soldier without the obligations.
And then, quite suddenly, peril chilled the summer. In early August 1629, to general consternation, the city of Amersfoort, not forty miles from Amsterdam, had fallen to the invading imperial army with scarcely a shot fired in anger. Worse, the trembling city fathers had opened their gates to the Italian and German soldiers, who swiftly set about reconsecrating its churches to the Virgin. Censers swung. Nones and complines were sung. The panic would not last long. A lightning counterattack on the imperial citadel at Wesel had surprised the garrison at dawn and cut off the Catholic army from its rear, dooming the whole invasion to sorry retreat.
But while it lasted, the sense of crisis was real enough. Companies of part-time militia -- brewers and dyers, men who, for as long as anyone could remember, had done nothing more threatening than parade around on Sundays in fancy boots and gaudy sashes, or who shot at wooden parrots atop a pole -- were now being sent to frontier towns in the east. There they were supposed to relieve the professional troops for active combat in the embattled theaters of war. On the surface, much seemed the same. There was still stockfish and butter for the table. Students at the university still slept through lectures on Sallust and got tight in the evenings, braying at the fastened shutters of the respectable. But the war had not bypassed Leiden altogether. Propaganda prints reminding citizens, in literally graphic detail, of the horrors endured when the towns of Holland were themselves besieged fifty years earlier issued from patriotic presses. Students enrolled in the school of military engineering were required to make wooden models of fortifications and gun emplacements. Some were even taken to the battlefield in Brabant to see if their notions could stand the test of fire. On the Galgewater and the Oude Rijn, barges rode low at the waterline, their holds crammed with morion helmets and partisans alongside crates of turnips and barrels of beer.
So it suited Rembrandt to get himself up as a military person. Of course, a "person" in the seventeenth century meant a persona: a guise or role assumed by an actor. Rembrandt was playing his part, and the deep shadow and rough handling of his face complicate the mask, suggest the struggling fit between the role and the man. No painter would ever understand the theatricality of social life as well as Rembrandt. He saw the actors in men and the men in the actors. Western art's first images of stage life -- the dressing room and the wardrobe -- came from his hand. But Rembrandt's drama did not stop at the stage door. He also painted historical figures and his own contemporaries in their chosen personae, rehearsing their allotted manners as if before an audience. And he cast himself in telling bit parts -- the executioners of St. Stephen and Christ; a scared sailor on the churning Sea of Galilee -- and just occasionally in a significant lead: the Prodigal Son, whoring in a tavern. For Rembrandt as for Shakespeare, all the world was indeed a stage, and he knew in exhaustive detail the tactics of its performance: the strutting and mincing; the wardrobe and the face paint; the full repertoire of gesture and grimace; the flutter of hands and the roll of the eyes; the belly laugh and the half-stifled sob. He knew what it looked like to seduce, to intimidate, to wheedle, and to console; to strike a pose or preach a sermon; to shake a fist or uncover a breast; how to sin and how to atone; how to commit murder and how to commit suicide. No artist had ever been so fascinated by the fashioning of personae, beginning with his own. No painter ever looked with such unsparing intelligence or such bottomless compassion at our entrances and our exits and the whole rowdy show in between.
So here is the greatest trouper who never trod the boards playing Youngman Corporal, his I-mean-business gorget belied by the soft fringed collar falling over the studded metal, the slightly arched, broken eyebrow line (absent from the copy in The Hague), the deep set of the right eye, and the half-shadowed face, sabotaging the bravura, hinting at the vulnerability beneath the metal plate: the mortal meeting the martial. There is a touch too much humanity here to carry off the show. The light reveals a full, mobile mouth, the lips highlit as if nervously licked; large, liquid eyes; a great acreage of cheek and chin; and, planted in the center of his face, the least aquiline nose in seventeenth-century painting.
And then there is the liefdelok, the lovelock trailing over his left shoulder. Huygens, who would never be accused of indulging in frivolous exhibitionism, had written a long poem satirizing the outlandish fashions affected by the young in The Hague: slashed breeches, over-the-shoulder capes, and flying knee ribbons. But flamboyantly long hair was being singled out by the Calvinist preachers as an especial abomination in the sight of the Lord. Rembrandt evidently paid none of this any heed. He must have taken great pains with his lovelock -- also known from its origins in the French court as a cadenette -- since of course it took immense care to produce the required effect of carelessness. The hair had to be cut asymmetrically, the top of the lock kept full while its body was thinned to taper along its length, ending in the gathered and separated strands.
And yet the picture is quite free of vain self-satisfaction. Rembrandt looks at himself in the glass, already committed to catching the awkward truth, trying to fix the point at which temerity is shadowed by trepidation, virile self-possession unmanned by pensive anxiety. He is Hamlet in Holland, an inward-outward persona, a poet in heavy metal, the embodiment of both the active and the contemplative life, someone whom Huygens was bound to commend. . . .
iv Leiden, 1629
Rembrandt was giving his full attention to the matter of painting, and in particular to a small patch of plaster in a corner of his walk-up studio. At the point where the wall met the upright beam of the doorjamb, projecting into the room, plaster had begun to flake and lift, exposing a triangle of rosy brick. It was the Rhine-water damp that did it; the oily green river which exhaled its cold mists out over the canals, insinuating itself through the cracks and shutters of the gabled alley-houses. In the grander residences of well-to-do burghers -- professors and cloth merchants -- that stretched along the Houtstraat and the Rapenburg, the invading clamminess was met, resisted, and, if all else failed, obscured by rows of ceramic tiles beginning at the foot of the wall and climbing upward as means and taste dictated. If means were modest, the householder could make a serial strip -- of children's games or proverbs -- to which further items could be added as fortune allowed. If he were already fortunate, an entire picture -- of a great vase of flowers, an East Indiaman in full sail, or the portrait of William the Silent -- could be constructed from brilliantly colored pieces. But Rembrandt's studio was bare of any of these conveniences. Unhindered, the damp had eaten its way into the plaster, engendering blooms of mold, blistering the surface, opening cracks and fissures in corners where the moisture collected.
Rembrandt liked this. From the beginning, he was powerfully drawn to ruin; the poetry of imperfection. He enjoyed tracing the marks left by the bite of worldly experience: the pits and pocks, the red-rimmed eyes and scabby skin which gave the human countenance a mottled richness. The piebald, the scrofulous, the stained, and the encrusted were matters for close and loving inspection; irregularities to run through his fingering gaze. Other than the Holy Scripture, he cared for no book as well as the book of decay, its truths written in the furrows scored on the brows of old men and women; in the sagging timbers of decrepit barns; in the lichenous masonry of derelict buildings; in the mangy fur of a valetudinarian lion. And he was a compulsive peeler, itching to open the casing of things and people, to winkle out the content packed within. He liked to toy with the poignant discrepancies between outsides and insides, the brittle husk and the vulnerable core.
In the corner of his room, Rembrandt's eye ran over the fishtail triangle of decomposing wall, coming apart in discrete layers, each with its own pleasingly distinct texture: the risen, curling skin of the limewash; the broken crust of the chalky plaster, and the dusty brick beneath; the minute crevices gathering dark ridges of grunge. All these materials, in their different states of deterioration, he translated faithfully into paint, and did so with such intense scrutiny and devotion that the patch of crumbling fabric begins to take on a necrotic quality like damaged flesh. Above the door another veinous crack is making swift progress through the plaster.
To give his gash in the wall physical immediacy and visual credibility, Rembrandt would have used the most precisely pointed of his brushes: a soft-bristled instrument made from the pelt of some silky little rodent, the kind the miniaturists favored, a brush capable of making the finest pencil line or, turned and lightly flattened against the surface of the panel, a more swelling stroke. Slick with pigment -- red lake, ocher, and lead white for the brick; lead white with faint touches of black for the grimy plaster -- the squirrel-hair brush deposited perfect traces of paint over a scant few millimeters of space on the panel, one set of earthy materials (the painter's) translating itself into another (the builder's). It seems like alchemy. But the transmutation happens not in the philosopher's alembic but in our beguiled eye.
Was the description of the patch of crumbled wall achieved in a matter of minutes or a matter of hours? Was it the result of painstakingly calculated design or imaginative impulse? Rembrandt's critics, especially once he was dead, disagreed on whether the problem with him had been that he worked too impetuously or too laboriously. Either way, he is generally, and not incorrectly, remembered as the greatest master of the broad brush there ever was before the advent of modernism: the bruiser's meaty fist slapping down dense, clotted pigment, kneading, scratching, and manipulating the paint surface as if it were pasty clay, the stuff of sculpture, not painting. But from the outset, and through his entire career, Rembrandt, quite as much as Vermeer, was equally the master of fine motor control; the cutter of facets of light; the tweaker of reflections, glinting minutiae like the beads of brightness swimming on the metal bar laid across the door, a mote of sunshine on the tip of the painter's nose. This was a talent that Huygens and Hondius, who both had goldsmiths and jewellers as forebears, might have been expected to appreciate. It was entirely logical for Rembrandt to believe that before he could aspire to be anything else, he first had to prove his credentials as a master craftsman. That, after all, is what his contemporaries meant by "art" -- ars -- manual dexterity in the service of illusion.
Meet the Author
SIMON SCHAMA has taught history at Cambridge, Oxford, and Harvard universities, was art critic for the New Yorker, and is currently a professor of history and art history at Columbia University. He is a prizewinning author whose books include The Embarrassment of Riches, Citizens, Landscape and Memory, The Story of the Jews, and The Power of Art, which has been made into an Emmy-winning television series.
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Just finished reading the 1999 edition of this book. It is a true jewel among all the art books. Schama is an excellent writer; he captivates the reader in a very special way. You'll know this after you are done reading the book. A very comprehensive list of sources provided at the back...an amazing piece of work. Highly recommended.
I have read Schama through Embarrassment of Riches, Citizens and Landscape and Memory. This time, in Rembrandt's Eyes, he takes us on a journey back to 16th and 17th Century Netherlands and recreates the world that Rembrandt was formed by and recreated in his art. Not only is it a beautiful looking book, but it is simply a good read.
I have read several other books on the life and works of Rembrandt, but by far and away , this one is the most thorough and informative. Clearly, the author has done his homework and knows his subject well. The book is liberal with renditions of the artist's works, and the insights regarding the 'behind the scenes' factors involved in the paintings are most helpful. Written in clear style, the book was a treasure from beginning to end. I will refer to it over and over through the years.
This is the book to read if you really want to understand Rembrandt and his times. (It also gives an excellent account of Rubens!) Schama is University Professor at Columbia University. He has taught history at Oxford and Cambridge and Harvard. He is very thorough in his treatment and does not miss any significant detail. A long book but his style is exciting and, above all, readable. You will feel as if you are walking the streets of 17th century Amsterdam - as well as learning about Rem
This is both an art book filled with beautiful paintings and a comprehensive biography. It's rare to find a book that does both, and here it's done masterfully. This would make a beautiful gift for a friend or for yourself as a special treat.