Rembrandt's Eyes (Allen Lane History)

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9780140288414: Rembrandt's Eyes (Allen Lane History)

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 face-paint, the full repertoire and gesture and gimace, 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; and how to sin and how to atone. 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. More than three centuries after his death, Rembrandt remains the most deeply loved of the great masters of painting, his face so familiar to us from the self-portraits painted at every stage in his life, yet still so mysterious. Like Shakespeare, the facts of his life are hard to come by: the Leiden miller's son who briefly found fame in Amsterdam, whose genius was fitully recognized by his contemporaries, who fell into bankruptcy and died in poverty. So there is probably no painter around whose life more legends have grown up, nor to whom more unlikely pictures have been attributed (a process now undergoing rigorous reversal). "Rembrandt's Eyes", about which Simon Schama has been thinking for over 20 years, shows that the true biography of Rembrandt is to be discovered in his pictures. Through a succession of brilliant descriptions and interpretations of Rembrandt's paintings threaded into this narrative, he allows us to see Rembrandt's life clearly, and to think about it freshly. But this book moves far beyond the bounds of conventional biography or art history. With imaginative sympathy, and based on his profound knowledge of Holland and the Dutch in the 17th century, Schama conjures the world in which Rembrandt moved - its sounds, smells and tastes as well as its politics - and the influences on him of the wars of the Protestant United Provinces against Spain, of the extreme Calvinism of his native Leiden, of the demands of patrons and the ambitions of contemporaries. He shows us the central importance of Rembrandt's beloved wife Saskia and, after her death (Rembrandt was later forced to sell her grave, so complete was his ruin), of his mistress Hendrickje Stoffels. Above all, he demonstrates the profound effect on Rembrandt of the leading master of the immediately preceding generation, the great Catholic, Antwerp painter Peter Paul Rubens, "the prince of painters and the painter of princes" with whom Rembrandt was obsessed for the first part of his life, and against whose biography Schama sets Rembrandt's in illuminating counterpoint.

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Review:

The great 17th-century Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn left us so many arresting self-portraits, painted at every stage in his eventful life, that his distinctive face and bearing are a familiar part of the 20th-century cultural landscape, a recognizable presence in galleries across Europe and North America. Nonetheless, the artist himself remains an enigma. Rembrandt was a notoriously difficult man and an inveterate risk taker in life and art: his aspirations to a grandiose Amsterdam lifestyle in the heyday of his popularity as a painter of portraits and large-scale historical works bankrupted him, and he died in relative poverty. His personal effects and treasured collection of paintings and natural rarities were sold off and dispersed, leaving the historian with a tantalizingly scant body of fragmentary records around which to build a convincing biography.

In Rembrandt's Eyes, Simon Schama--the leading historical craftsman of our era, with a career-long commitment to Dutch history--succeeds with consummate skill in bringing the heroic painter of such masterpieces as The Night Watch and Portrait of Jan Six vividly to life. Returning to the bustling Dutch world with which he first made his reputation in the bestselling Embarrassment of Riches (1987), Schama re-creates Rembrandt's life and times with all the verve and panache of a historical novelist--while never for an instant losing his scrupulous grip on recorded fact and detail. The telling surviving fragments of archival information about Rembrandt's personal and professional history are skillfully embedded in a rich, dense tapestry of the commercial whirl and political hurly-burly of the 17th-century Low Countries--a divided territory, split between the Catholic and Protestant faiths and the contested powers of the Spanish Hapsburgs and the Dutch Republic--with the tentacles of the tale reaching into the most unexpected shadowy corners of European love and war, aspiration and intrigue.

Rembrandt's Eyes is, in fact, two biographies for the price of one. From the outset, Schama contrasts the life of Rembrandt with that of his older, equally talented countryman Peter Paul Rubens, whose meteoric rise and sustained success as a society painter forms a revealing contrast with Rembrandt's unhappier relationship with fame and fortune. The comparison is a telling one. Where Rubens furnishes the wealthy and powerful with glorious reflections of, and visual foils for, their social and political aspirations and glory, Rembrandt can never resist testing the envelope of taste and stylistic acceptability. His challenge to his clients to embrace the shock of his painterly experiments with technique, texture, and composition ultimately produced his downfall. The Amsterdam town council took down his The Oath-swearing of Claudius Civilis, rolled it up, and returned his masterpiece to him to be cut down in an attempt to sell it to a suitable buyer.

This is a gorgeous book to own, too. Rembrandt's Eyes is printed on heavy, high-gloss paper and lavishly illustrated throughout in full color. The double-page color spreads of the most memorable of Rembrandt's works will take readers' breath away. But above all, this is narrative history at its very best, a page-turner and an adventure story that will make the reader laugh and cry by turns in the time-honored tradition of masterly writing. --Lisa Jardine

About 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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