Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Staring Back into Rembrandt's Face and Life

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Staring Back into Rembrandt's Face and Life

Article excerpt

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. …

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