The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 14 July 2002

Rembrandt's Eyes

by Simon Schama

The author of this massive history clearly reveres the work of one of the world's most famous master artists. The historical record, though, is quite thin on details of Rembrandt van Rijn's life. What we do have, of course, are many of his great works of art, many of those revolutionary for their time. Simon Schama uses these paintings as landmark events in the history of 17th century Holland. He sets them within their historical and social context and through them brings the paintings and the painter to life.

The story opens with the life of Peter Paul Rubens, revered in his own time as the greatest of painters. Without question, Rubens influenced just about every painter at work in the early 1600s, and Rembrandt was no exception. Schama interweaves Rembrandt's early years with Rubens's later years, and shows how the former moved beyond the latter into a realm of truly modern painting. He delineates Rembrandt's life within wonderfully detailed evocations of the political and social milieu in which he moved. Rembrandt was a tragic figure, though, never reaching the heights of fame and fortune reached by his hero. Yet, his painting speaks for itself. In a realm of derivative "smooth" painting, Rembrandt's later work was radically "rough" and, as we might say today, painterly. Schama sensuously describes the individual works and explores their images and meaning. Perhaps, at times, his interpretations go a little far into imagination, but he clearly loves the work. He also seems to be responding to over-academic analysis and criticism of Rembrandt's legacy, returning the argument to a personal reaction to some terrific painting.

This giant book is prodigiously illustrated with hundreds of paintings by Rubens and Rembrandt, as well as many of their contemporaries. Schama takes some of his thoughts on painting from James Elkins's What Painting Is, which is itself an idiosyncratic look at the lush relationship between paint and painter. In the end, one feels that, with few available personal details of Rembrandt's life, his paintings appear almost miraculously upon the history of his times. We learn about the painter almost solely through his work, which, of course, is that which he wanted most to share. Rembrandt was more personal in his art than his contemporaries, and he was more sympathetic to the human condition. But the reader can come away feeling an intimate knowledge of history, a greater knowledge of the art, and still unfortunately disconnected from the man. This reader didn't know much about this era in history to begin with, so it is hard to judge how good Schama is in bringing it to life. However, his book is detailed, lively, personal and highly engrossing.

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Also by Schama:[Landscape and Memory]

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