Book Review: Rembrandt's Eyes by Simon Schama

Updated on March 2, 2019
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Adele Cosgrove-Bray is a writer, poet, and artist who lives on the Wirral peninsula in England.

2 stars for Rembrandt's Eyes by Simon Schama

What's it About?

Marketed as a "dazzling and unconventional biography", Schama's book aims to look afresh at the life of one of the world's most famous painters.

Rembrandt's Eyes describes the friendships and rivalries, loves and tragedies which littered the artist's life. The reader follows Rembrandt's progress from his early efforts to become established as a professional artist, to the heights of his career and then down into bankruptcy.

Much space is given over to considerations of the art of Rubens. Rembrandt was a great admirer of Rubens' art and, consequently, he was a major influence on Rembrandt's own work.

Schama considers Rembrandt's art within the context of cultural, religious and political events in the Netherlands during the 17th century. There are detailed descriptions of the markets and canals, of outbreaks of plague, of the diverse people who lived in close proximity to Rembrandt, such as the money lenders who would come to play such a pivotal role in Rembrandt's later life.

In 1634, Rembrandt married Saskia van Uylenburgh and for a time they enjoyed an affluent life.

Unfortunately, he took out a mortgage on a house that was beyond his means. Coupled with his poor social charms, which alienated many of his wealthy patrons, this became a large factor in his descent into debt and poverty.

But Rembrandt wanted to emulate his idol Rubens, and like Rubens he wanted to amass a vast collection of art and artifacts, and to live in a grand house in a desirable area, and to accumulate social gravitas. His self-portraits have him dressed in the fashionable garb of the day, and wearing big gold chains to imply status and wealth.

Child Mortality

Tragedy struck, however, when their first child, Rumbartus, died two months after his birth in 1635. A daughter, Cornelia, died at just three weeks of age in 1638, and then another child, also named Cornelia, lived for one week longer. High infant mortality rates were a merciless feature of life in those times, with many women also dying of infection following childbirth.

Fortunately a healthy son was born, named Titus, and he survived into his mid-twenties until the plague took his life. As a young adult, Titus had worked reasonably well as business manager for his hapless father.

Saskia died in 1642, not long after Titus's birth, and Rembrandt hired Geertje Dircx as a housekeeper and nurse for the baby. She soon became Rembrandt's lover - or at least until the younger and prettier Hendrickje Stoffels arrived in the household. Dircx was now superfluous to requirement.

Rembrandt's Malice

Schama reveals how Rembrandt arranged for his discarded housekeeper-cum-lover to be cruelly incarcerated in a mental asylum for five years until women friends were able to discover Geertje Dircx's whereabouts and secure her release. Rembrandt seems to have escaped all justice for his malicious act, (though when viewed within historical context, similar incarcerations were not uncommon among wealthy supposed gentlemen).

Some might say that Rembrandt got his comeuppance when he lost virtually all but the shirt on his back to creditors.

Now he, his family and his common-law wife Hendrickje - who had been denounced by her church as a whore - lived in a small rented home in a much poorer area, though it was hardly a slum. Schama describes the lively neighbourhood of entertainers, artists, makers of goods, pleasure seekers and, inevitably, the prostitutes who trod the streets in endless, dismal routes looking for trade.

Rembrandt lived there until the end of his life, dying just one year after his son Titus, in 1663. He was buried in a pauper's grave.

About the Author

Simon Schama is a Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University in New York, America.

He earned his MA at Christ College, Cambridge in England in 1969. He has taught art history since the mid-1960's, variously at Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales.

Schama has won the Wolfson Award for History, the W.H Smith Prize for Literature, the National Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature, and the National Book Critics' Circle Award for Non-Fiction.

He has written for The New Yorker since 1994, winning the National Magazine Award for art criticism in 1996.

Schama has also written and presented more than thirty documentaries for TV, including The Power of Art, which won the 2007 International Emmy for Best Arts Programming.

He was born in 1945 in London, England. He is married to Virginia Papaioannou, who is a Special Lecturer and Professor in Genetics and Development at Columbia University. They have one daughter.

What's to Like?

SImon Schama possesses an encyclopedic vocabulary and he is not shy about using it. His prose presents the reader with a narrative so laced with descriptions of locations and characters that I have to wonder why he hasn't tried his hand at writing fiction. Maybe that's just not his bag.

This book brings together paintings, etchings and sketches to illustrate Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn's life - not just the artist's own work, but also that of his contemporaries in order to offer the reader fair comparisons. These are, as would be expected, interesting to look through, and enable the reader to observe how Rembrandt's painterly approach evolved over the decades.

Clearly a huge amount of research has gone into this large book, which extends to 702 pages excluding chapter notes and the bibliography.

What's Not to Like?

Weighing 2kg/4.7oz, Rembrandt's Eyes is heavy. Not the sort of thing you'd pop into your bag to while away the daily commute, then.

I was disappointed by this verbose and speculative book. Perhaps the MS ought to have been split into three separate books, one about Rembrandt, the second about Rubens, and the third about the history of the Netherlands.

Instead, all these subjects are covered at considerable length, and unfortunately the result is a fractured book without clear focus. Though the title implies that the focus would be on Rembrandt, his biographical facts are scattered thinly through a ponderous text.

Schama's states, on page 578, that Rembrandt's three-quarter length portrait of Jan Six is "the greatest portrait of the seventeenth century".

Schama is, of course, fully entitled to his opinion, but try placing 100 art historians and critics together and ask them to choose the best 17th century portrait. After first heatedly debating various definitions of "great art", they would offer a list of rival portraits by Rembrandt's contemporaries such as Sir Anthony Van Dyke, Mary Beale, Sir Peter Lely or Sir Godfrey Kneller. Each possess plenty of greatness of their own.

Sources

The biographical and bibliographical information in this article came from:

  1. http://www.columbia.edu/cu/arthistory/faculty/Schama.html
  2. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0769988/
  3. https://www.genetics.cumc.columbia.edu/profile/virginia-e-papaioannou-phd
  4. https://www.amazon.com/Simon-Schama/e/B000AQ8WPO
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rembrandt

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© 2019 Adele Cosgrove-Bray

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