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Rembrandt's eyes (1999)

by Simon Schama

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601629,797 (4.2)34
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.… (more)
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This monumental study of Rembrandt, the product of what the author describes as “the attentiveness of an engaged beholder,” uses the recoverable facts of the artist’s life and close readings of his rich body of work in an act of mutual illumination. Both are set against a detailed description of the turbulent times: the war of independence from Spain and the decades of Amsterdam’s sway as the Venice of the North. By the time I finished, I was convinced that Rembrandt was indeed, as I suspected, the premier artist of the 17th century.
Rembrandt’s life followed an arc appropriate for such a towering artist: talent recognized early, spotted by an advisor to the Dutch court, the years of fame and lucrative commissions, the death of his wife, years of bankruptcy and scandal, and the masterpieces of the late years, scorned at the time since they were out of step with changing fashion.
He didn’t arise in a vacuum, any more than any artist does. In particular, he was inspired (and to a certain degree oppressed) by the example of his older contemporary on the other side of the new divide in the Spanish Netherlands, Rubens in Antwerp. Schama terms Rubens Rembrandt’s “paragon” in the full sense of the word, including both emulation and competition. To document this, Schama even includes a book within a book: a roughly two-hundred-page biography of Rubens.
Recurrent themes—physical blindness and spiritual insight, for instance—run through Rembrandt’s lifelong output. One feels his quest was not only artistic but also spiritual. In a time and place torn by confessional strife, Rembrandt remained the outsider. No record of his baptism has been found. He numbered among friends and clients Catholics, Mennonites, and Jews, as well as representatives of both sides of the quarrel over predestination and free will among the Protestants in the land. Schama calls him one of nature’s ecumenicals. Although not a church member, many of his best works have biblical themes. Among the thirteen canvases found in his studio in various stages of completion when he died are a pair, “The Return of the Prodigal Son” and “Simeon in the Temple with the Christ Child,” that, taken together, seems a final confession and absolution.
Rembrandt’s entire life and career took place after the Dutch, inspired by the Reformation, banished all images from their churches, influenced by the command to make no graven images. Yet Rembrandt created what Schama calls Protestant icons. I think he is correct. When I first visited the Rijksmuseum, fifty-five years ago, one of the reproductions I bought, mounted on beaverboard, was “Peter’s Denial of Christ,” despite my Puritan fervor at the time that convinced me it was wrong to have depictions of God or Christ. Nevertheless, that print has traveled with me through every move and has hung in every one of a succession of home offices.
Be careful when you read this book: it is large and heavy. You might avoid aching wrists if you place it on a stand when you read it. Other than that, the only quibble I have is that sometimes the writing is too fine. In particular, Scham enjoys opening a new section circuitously, novelistically. This was disorienting at times. Aside from that, this book is a remarkable achievement, worthy of its subject. ( )
  HenrySt123 | Jul 19, 2021 |
I just finished this book today, after reading it in bits and pieces for about a year. And wow, what a staggering work of art this book is! I don't really have a clue how to 'review' it adequately. What even is Rembrandt's Eyes? It's many things: a joint biography of Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt Van Rijn; a highly accessible and absorbing history of 17th century Netherlands - political, religious and social - and it's also a book about art. Is it ever. The book as a whole is a horizon-widener and an immersion into worthwhile things. Reading it has taught me more about how to look at art, how to understand it in my own way - actually how to be less afraid of it. Also, I now realise something of the magnitude of Rembrandt's genius - how ahead of his time he was, and how marvellous his vision was. Without understanding the context, I would have seen him as a shadowy, browny-black kind of painter, and his later style especially wouldn't have had any meaning for me at all (blind fool that I would have been!). I owe a debt of gratitude to Simon Schama for this book - as I've said elsewhere, Schama is one of the few genuine men of letters still writing today. Real scholarship (as opposed to research grants and PhDs) with personality and individuality. A modern-day Hazlitt or Pepys. ( )
10 vote ChocolateMuse | Feb 24, 2013 |
Collection of Classic Rembrandt,
  binker57 | Sep 14, 2011 |
A beautiful book, full of color and b/w images, recounts the lives of Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt. Schama masterfully weaves art history, Dutch history, and religious-political history into a seamless story. The time period is described with real-world accuracy and an immersive quality. Besides the real and immediate, he also describes the complex and abstract issues -- from political disputes to religious quarrels -- with the same vigor and enthusiasm. If you are interested in the history of art, Dutch history, or for a rip-roaring biography, "Rembrandt's Eyes" is a book I can highly recommend. ( )
1 vote kswolff | Feb 11, 2009 |
beautiful publication with lots of images
  robertg69 | Oct 29, 2008 |
Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
Although there are too many of them, some of the descriptions of individual pictures are vivid and moving. Schama is at his best talking straight about what he sees, when he doesn't get carried away by the aspiration to verbal pyrotechnics or by the desire to say too much of what he knows.
 
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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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