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Rembrandt's Eyes
By Simon Schama
(Book Review)

Alfred A. Knopf
November 2001
© Simon Schama 1999
750 pages, 352 full-color and
black-and-white illustrations
ISBN 0-375-709819
Softcover, $35.00

Dexterity, then, is divinity. But to know that is to know, alas, only a partial truth. And this work of Rembrandt's is, in the literal sense, from the Greek, an autopsia, an act of direct witness or seeing for oneself. But what they see, what we see, is that the same body which is stamped with the genius of godly engineering is also chasteningly limited by its fleshly housing... What Rembrandt has painted, then, is a moment of truth, another instant in which both the immediate and the eternal stand simultaneously illuminated.

Simon Schama on The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, 1632, in Rembrandt's Eyes

Tantalizing, adept, lyrical, Rembrandt's Eyes draws the reader into a compelling vision of the art and ambitions of the Dutch master, Rembrandt van Rijn (1609-1669). Melding historic knowledge, art interpretation, and a recounting of biographical information, the book is firmly based on solid scholarly foundations; but the author's true gift is the ability to weave 750 pages of such academic knowing and interpretation into a deftly readable narrative. Such writing is not always found in art books or biographies, and makes this alloy of art and history an engaging delight.

Rembrandt's Eyes opens in 1629, with the siege of Netherlandish town 's Hertogenbosch, and the search, despite ongoing military troubles, of Constantijn Huygens, Secretary to the Prince of Orange, for "painters who might ornament a court that could hold its own with the Habsburgs, Bourbons and Stuarts" -- someone to serve as a "Protestant Rubens." Rembrandt is 20 years old, an ambitious and talented young buck, one of three painters solicited by Huygens. The narrative interpretations of Rembrandt's art are delivered with a certain flair, and potent with technical and psychological detail. The 'young buck' is painting what was later to be called The Artist in His Studio, a "calling card" as it were, "painted on a small oak panel -- scarcely bigger than this book turned sideways," and

...we are mischeviously led to suppose that this is a casual, quite freely painted sketch of the painter's working space: a visual inventory of his tools and practices. ...We can smell the oils and emulsions, especially the astringent linseed. At first sight, the picture looks like the virtuoso flaunting his stuff: the bravura rendering of material surfaces, not just that plasterwork but the coarse-grained planking of the floor with its own web of cracks, stains and scuff marks; the dull iron hardware on the door. But even as we discount the painting as a brag, a flourish, something cunning begins to register. The painter has chosen to show off his master of ars through the description of the materials of which it is constituted. With that anvil-like grindstone so prominent, we can almost see him making paint.

An excerpt from a description running several pages gives only a flavor of the engaging quality of Schama's ability to bring the work alive in terms open to the layman. Such perception and the ability to express it well is one of the significant pleasures of Rembrandt's Eyes. The book also compares works among contemporary artists, for example, delineating Caravaggio's The Supper at Emmaus (1606) ("a jaw-dropping, napkin-spilling epiphany") as well as Rubens's (1610) -- and then the one painted by Rembrandt (1628):

The painting is sensational. Literally. A transformation of the knowledge conveyed by the senses; a transformation of the senses by knowledge. The extreme chiaroscuro is not just there as a cocky demonstration of technique: "Caravaggio? Really. Now watch what I can get away with." The chiaroscuro is the subject. Light from darkness; the Scripture reconceived of (once more) as a cure of blindness.... To walk down the pictorial road to his Supper at Emmaus...is to see how greedily Rembrandt absorbed the lessons of the masters, only to depart from them in a stroke of shocking conceptual bravery.

The Supper at Emmaus, c. 1628
Paper placed on panel
37.4 x 42.3 cm
Musee Jacquemart-Andre

One would hope for a book so richly descriptive to be lavishly illustrated as well, and Rembrandt's Eyes is: 352 plates of oil works, drawings, etchings, many of them in dazzling full color, provide abundant visual counterpart to the text.

It was Rembrandt's "conceptual bravery," his streak of the "incorrigibly peculiar," that would eventually lead to him alienating his patrons and public. The biographical study of Rembrandt's Eyes is complex, but remains readable thanks to Schama's storytelling talent. With the precision of a symphony conductor, the author moves back and forth across the waters of time and place; even the side journey into the entire (!) life of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1642) is deftly relinked with the Rembrandt narrative. It is not a spurious digression. Throughout the book, Schama highlights Rembrandt's craving to be the rich, lauded gentleman painter, to be Rubens. "He had lifted an entire identity, tried it on for size, walked about in it, and decided that it suited him uncommonly well." And yet, Rembrandt's character and taste, his own specific genius, is not Rubens:

With Rubensian constancy is how we should like to behave; with Rembrandtian inconstancy is how we do behave. Rubensian nonchalance, Baroque cool, is how we should like to picture ourselves, full length in the mirror, showing a trim leg. But Rembrandtian hamming, sucking in our cheeks, tensing our abdominals and checking for the ostrich plume, is the reality of our antic condition.

Biographically, Schama is factual, almost journalistic. He presents the data, and leaves the reader to empathize, or not. The true biographical flow comes (and perhaps rightly so) from the analysis of the paintings, right down to the Master's final self-portraits in 1669. A further pleasure of Rembrandt's Eyes is its historic descriptions, which bring times, places and people to life. Having previously authored The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (1987), Schama is able to bring a wealth of historic detail to Rembrandt's Eyes, and his textual flair brings this data to life. The section "Amsterdam Anatomized" in particular includes a chapter entitled "The City in Five Senses", a tactile stew of sights, sounds and smells: an economic and cultural rendering, but from a unusually vivid vantage.

Rembrandt's Eyes rewards the reader with a complex portrait of Rembrandt van Rijn and engaging analyses of the art he created. The Dutch master is a worthy subject for masterful author Simon Schama, who makes the fruit of an encyclopedic knowledge of art and history superbly accessible with his lyrical text. In fact the only danger is in forsaking narrative and giving oneself up to the pleasures of the author's writing itself, a yielding which bears its own secret delights. Blessed with scholarship and eloquent expression, the author lays on each sentence with the care of the painter and his loaded brush. Rembrandt's eyes saw the inner illumination, "the light that lives in darkness." Simon Schama's eyes see history, a man's life, and his ouevre of paintings and drawings as a complex, living organism -- and through his writing, so do we.

--Katherine Rook Lieber

Katherine Rook Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual and Performing Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Editor and Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: All quotes, unless otherwise identified, are from the reviewed book itself. Simon Schama has taught history at Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard Universities, and is currently University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University in New York. His works include Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Knopf:1989), and Landscape and Memory (Knopf:1995) which are, like Rembrandt's Eyes, adventures in art and history both. The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (Knopf:1987); Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations) (Knopf:1991), and A History of Britain (Hyperion/Talk Miramax:2000) focus more specifically on history. All provide worthwhile reading. Schama has also done work for television as a writer and presenter, including "Rembrandt: The Public Eye and the Private Gaze." Rembrandt's Eyes was originally issued in hardcover in 1999. This review refers to the 2001 softcover edition.

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