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 ...
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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Schama writes well. However, he exhausts the subject to a point just shy of losing sight of Rembrandt. Art and history lovers will be fascinated, but the casual reader will get lost in the side streets of history.
That said, it is a valuable contribution to the life and times of Rembrandt.
May 10, 2007
Here is the complete Rembrandt. The man, his art, all in the context of his times. Only Schama in our generation could paint the picture so completely, depict the daily life of the people Rembrandt lived and worked among and whom he chose as the models for his biblical and genre paintings. The technology of the work, the contemporaries who painted and etched in the Low Countries, the battles that raged without, the personal loss, the joys, the tribulations in his life. Rembrandt's brief time in the sun of fashion and his humiliation at the hands of the people who could not share his vision. The whole world, in other words, made comprehensible, flesh and blood. Schama makes us artists alongside Rembrandt and we see the world through his eyes. We also see the miracle of his self-portraits and we look into his eyes and at last we see the life reflected in them and understand the man. A real achievement of story-telling, art history scholarship and the writer's craft. Schama at his best.
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