This dazzling, unconventional biography shows us why, more than three centuries after his death, Rembrandt continues to exert such a hold on our imagination. Deeply familiar to us through his enigmatic self-portraits, few facts are known about the Leiden miller's son who tasted brief fame before facing financial ruin (he was even forced to sell his beloved wife Saskia's grave). The true biography of Rembrandt, as Simon Schama demonstrates, is to be discovered in his pictures. Interweaving of seventeenth-century Holland, Schama allows us to see Rembrandt in a completely fresh and original way.
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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 recognisable presence in galleries across Europe and North America. Nonetheless, the artist himself remains tantalisingly an enigma. A notoriously difficult man and an inveterate risk-taker in life and art, Rembrandt's 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 his treasured collection of paintings and natural rarities were sold off and dispersed, leaving the historian with a tantalisingly 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 again. Returning to the bustling Dutch world with which he first made his reputation in his bestselling The Embarrassment of Riches (1987), Schama recreates Rembrandt's life and times with all the verve and panache of a historical novelist, whilst 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 embedded skilfully in a richer and denser 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 Habsburgs 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 artistically 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 rise 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, lavishly illustrated throughout in full colour, with double-page colour spreads of the most memorable of Rembrandt's works, which take one's breath away as one turns the page. But above all, this is narrative history at its very best, a page-turner and an adventure story, which will make the reader laugh and cry by turns, in the time-honoured tradition of masterly writing. --Lisa JardineReview:
Its skill at reconstructing the artist and his age suggests that we no longer need look only towards novelists and poets for "creative" writing. The music of history and biography can be equally powerful (Peter Ackroyd The Times)
A capacious, generous book full of new ideas and information about not only Rembrandt but also his life, his times and his contemporaries. With Schama you look at a picture and see it as you hadn't before (Doris Lessing Daily Telegraph Books of the Year)
With Rembrandt's Eyes, he has, as the cliché goes, found his subject - a perfect match for his talent and sympathies...moving and revealing...a Rembrandt very much for our time...[and] an extremely coherent, satisfying work (Alain de Botton Independent on Sunday)
[A] supreme contribution to art history (Anita Brookner Spectator Books of the Year)
A bravura performance...Schama is an outstanding historian...In this new book he brings to his perception of Rembrandt not only a profound knowledge of the seventeenth century, but also a greedy fascination with the material expression of culture in every nook and cranny of life...Schama deepens and enriches our familiarity with Rembrandt, and makes us understand more fully why he has often been called the greatest painter of all time (Frances Spalding Literary Review)
The Rembrandt riddle has now been tackled by that superbly gifted historian, Simon Schama...Schama speaks as an expert, but he wears his learning lightly; and few convey that learning more felicitously or fluently...this book holds the attention and fires the imagination...a portrait of the artist in the Baroque manner (Roy Porter Independent)
Sumptuous...Impassioned and learned, expansive and discursive, Rembrandt's Eyes not only leaves us with a fierce appreciation of the artist's work but also immerses us inexorably in his world (Michiko Kakutani The New York Times)
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