Rembrandt’s Eyes

By Simon Schama

The epigraph for Rembrandt’s Eyes comes from Paul Valery: “We should apologize for daring to speak about painting.”

It’s good advice, but nevertheless Simon Schama is someone who has spent much of his life speaking, and writing about painting – and doing it very well. Rembrandt’s Eyes is another chapter in his exploration of the Dutch Golden Age, this time focusing on the life, times, and art of the 17th century master.

There are three adjective that have to be applied to Rembrandt’s Eyes: It is big, beautiful, and expensive.

As with most art books, beauty and expense go together. The production here is hard to fault. The pictures (of which there are over 350, many in colour) are beautifully reproduced in a large, sturdy and open format. It’s pricey indeed, but more than just another Christmas coffee-table book.

For one thing, it has a lot more text. The reason this is such a long book is Schama’s need to run his narrative down every – and I mean every – historical alley. For example: To understand Rembrandt you have to first understand Rubens; to understand Rubens you have to know something about his mentor, Otto van Veen; now Otto, you should note, was a protégé of Dominicus Lampsonius, and “to have been educated by Lampsonius was important” for a number of reasons . . .

So we track backwards, forwards, and every which way, creating a full-length portrait out of setting alone.

But the presentation never drags. Schama is not just a learned man, he’s clever. A learned author might know all about life in 17th century Amsterdam, but it takes a clever one to “anatomize” the city by each of the five senses as an introduction (of course) to the famous Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp.

Then there is the use of language. It’s one thing to have the kind of wide vocabulary Schama employs (I was running for a dictionary more than once), but another to use it with such gusto and wit. And the modern analogies, like the description of a forehead “traced with minute loops as fine as velcro,” are both arresting and precise.

The virtuosity of Schama’s verbal art brings us back to Valery’s warning. The reason we should be wary of talking about painting is because of the dangers of translating from one medium to another. Unlike abstract art, which invites us to fill in the blanks and indulge in a more or less free association, history and portraiture place some limits on interpretation. With a canvas where even a shaft of light may be a narrative device, the commentator has to know how to stay within the lines and avoid reading more into the painting than is really there.

But is a critic’s imaginative response a bad thing, especially when engaged with a painter who became “supremely good” at suggesting “an entire story encapsulated in a single moment”? Schama seems to want it both ways, sometimes quick to reproach others for describing what is a subjective interpretation, but often incapable of stopping himself from doing the same.

Thus his Bathsheba has lips that are “on the verge of trembling, the eyebrows tightly arched as though battling against the onset of tears.” This is very nice, and has the ring of truth, but it’s only one way of looking at the picture.

In form, Rembrandt’s Eyes is not so much a biography as an investigation of the history and art of the period that uses Rembrandt as a unifying theme. The text moves easily from analyses of the brushwork in individual works of art all the way to their broadest social and political contexts.

Insofar as it is a biography it doesn’t try to break any new ground. The first part of the book focuses on Rembrandt’s obsession with Rubens, “the prince of painters and the painter of princes.” For Rembrandt, Rubens was a “paragon,” meaning both the acme of perfection and an object of competition. He was also a proto-celebrity, and in Rembrandt’s lifelong obsession with self-portraiture we can see something of the celebrity watcher’s fascination with the way character can be transformed into popular image.

From this early infatuation Rembrandt moved on to his striking reinventions of conventional modes of history and portraiture. His knack, as Schama sees it, was to provide his patrons with everything they wanted, but also something more than they expected. His greatest triumph in this regard was his most celebrated composition, The Night Watch: “The crowning glory of Dutch painting and of all Baroque art.”

Then, the denouement. Bankrupt and out of favour, his family felled by plague and sued by a wild mistress, Rembrandt quietly returned to starkly dramatic variations on his central motif, the interplay of light and dark as metaphors for spiritual blindness and insight.

The Old Master’s slide out of fashion is, of course, a career trajectory not peculiar to Rembrandt. While art may be a mystery, it is taste that is truly inexplicable. Genius simply does not relate to popularity in the arts. For a while Rembrandt was hot, then – within his own lifetime even – he was yesterday’s man. Today he is again in vogue, and Rembrandt’s Eyes makes the case for his abiding vision.

Review first published December 11, 1999.


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