Rembrandt's Eyes

Article excerpt


Rembrandt's Eyes

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. 728 pp.; 359 color and b/w ills. $50

What does it mean to see through Rembrandt's eyes? Simon Schama aims in his new book to restore an appreciation of Rembrandt's genius, under assault from both conservative and radical camps inside and outside art history, in part because of what he humorously calls the countersuggestibility of academics. At its most extreme, this revisionism culminates in "the endeavor to get rid of the idea of authorial originality altogether," whereas Schama addresses himself to "the unnumbered millions who respond intuitively to [Rembrandt's] painting" (pp. 225), Schama's account is accordingly a return to the traditional "life and work" monograph, transformed through his unique narrative idiom as history-in-the-present. His story also incorporates an extended account of the life and work of Rembrandt's ostensible primary model and rival, Peter Paul Rubens. Schama wants to teach us to recognize Rembrandt, to understand him as he saw himself, and to see the world around him through his eyes. Not everyone will be able to embrace these goals, although I certainly do. No one can deny Schama's sparkling, engaging, and amusing prose, his brilliant capacity to synthesize information, and his good-natured common sense, which will inform and entertain everyone who reads Rembrandt's Eyes.

Schama's book can also serve as a challenge to scholarship, for he opens up questions that he is not able to answer entirely by himself Among other things, there is still confusion about attribution, or the ability to distinguish between paintings by the master and those of his students. These include some of Schama's key examples, such as the "self portrait" from which he took the detail of eyes for his cover, so that his confidence about his own or others' intuitive response to Rembrandt's painting is open to doubt. Schama's point about the overreaction to the cult of genius is well taken. But current resistance to the "g word" is not solely politically correct. The concept has been implicated in the worst kind of projections, dubious investments, and mediocre commentary. Schama also does not sufficiently acknowledge the role of art historical literature both in the popular reception of Rembrandt and in his own account. Earlier periods had if anything a less accurate understanding than we do of Rembrandt's autograph oeuvre and his genius, both of which are highly dynamic constructions of scholarship and commentary. Even the status of Rembrandt's famous works (and arguably his own status as an artist), together with related issues taken up by Schama-such as the significance of Rembrandt's self portraits, his relation to his patrons, his representations of women, and his use of paint-are very much open to debate. The only means to accomplish the goals set out by Schama, in my view, is to work through the errors and to build on the achievements of existing scholarship. That he could not exhaust the Herculean tasks he has taken on in his characteristic fashion is a good thing, because he points us in the right direction-and leaves the rest of us something to do.

Like Saving Private Ryan, Schama's book opens in the midst of a dramatic battle, in this case, between the Spanish and the Dutch at 's Hertogenbosch in 1629. Schama then shifts the scene to Rembrandt's hometown, Leiden, in 1629 and his frontispiece, Self-Portrait in a Gorget in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg. This painting was until recently assumed to be a student's copy after Rembrandt's famous Self-Portrait in a Gorget in the Mauritshuis, The Hague. This past year, the curators of the exhibition of Rembrandt's self portraits, Rembrandt by Himself, on view in The Hague until January 9, 2000, declared the Nuremberg version the original and the Hague version the copy. The grounds for this reversal were the discovery of an underdrawing in the Hague painting, unprecedented in Rembrandt's oeuvre, and its fine style, now seen as less characteristic of Rembrandt's work than the "free and spontaneous" style of the Nuremberg painting. …