Remembrance of Things Past

Coffeetable Books

December 17, 1999:

Rembrandt's Eyes

by Simon Schama

Knopf, 640 pp., $50

Simon Schama has written something like a biography of Rembrandt ... but not exactly.

We know we are in an unorthodox text in the very first chapter. Schama moves from Rembrandt to Constantijn Huygens, one of his patrons and an important figure in Dutch intellectual history. Framing his figures like this is a familiar Schama tactic, one he employed in his history of the French revolution, Citizens. Since the players there were relatively well-known, one felt less inclined to bitch at his tossing out larger historical constructs, like class. But here things go rapidly awry. The intersection of Huygens and Rembrandt, it is soon clear, is staged more in Schama's mind than in reality. Huygens knew of Rembrandt early in Rembrandt's career, was wildly enthusiastic about him, and wrote rapturously about a painting entitled The Repentant Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver. What does Schama do? Analyzes, at length, a painting, The Artist in his Studio, to place Rembrandt before us as he was in 1629, only to concede, after a couple of pages, that Huygens might never have seen it. This is an odd way to comment on Huygens' feelings about Rembrandt. It gets worse, though, as Schama's seeds his paragraphs with "must have-s," "may have-s," "seems to have," mixing conjecture and facts, making us wonder if we are reading history or historical fiction.

The first chapter, luckily, is the worst of that kind of thing. Schama, to give him his due, has wonderful narrative powers and an encyclopedic command of facts. He has a trope up his sleeve that comes from Vasari: Rembrandt's will be the story of a rivalry. The rival is Peter Paul Rubens. In fact, after presenting us with our vision of Rembrandt and his patron in the first chapter, he jump-cuts to Rubens' life, hardly mentioning Rembrandt for 100 or so pages. This is a little confusing. Rubens is a courtier, a Catholic, lives in Antwerp, and speaks Flemish, French, and Latin. Rembrandt lives in Holland, a provincial boy from Leiden, Protestant, moves to Antwerp, is never entrusted with any vital state business, goes bankrupt, and gets in a little trouble, after his wife dies, for sleeping with his maid.

There is one problem, however. Surely Rembrandt copped poses and suggestions from Rubens. But the competition seems to be entirely Schama's projection, and he herds us toward finding it plausible by surrounding it with a bullying amount of irrelevant facts. When Rembrandt paints a fur trader, we learn all about the fur trade. We learn all about Rubens' diplomacy. We learn way too much about the House of Orange. Schama practices Dolby surround-sound history, beating on our ears until we surrender our disbelief, and making us wonder if the virtuoso we are supposed to admire here is Rembrandt or the author.

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