Rembrandt in Schama's eyes: seeking the man

December 26, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | By Glenn McNatt,Sun Staff

"Rembrandt's Eyes," by Simon Schama. Alfred A. Knopf. 640 pages. $50.

The problem with Rembrandt has always been that precious little is known for sure about the artist's life. This has left scholarly biographers with a dilemma: Either paint the life in broad strokes while concentrating mainly on the work (not so easy, actually, since the authenticity of so many Rembrandts remains in dispute), or indulge in massive, albeit informed, speculation about the life and risk blurring the line between history and historical fiction.

Simon Schama, a historian by trade, opts for the latter in this huge, obsessively documented account of Rembrandt's life and times. But while he manages to convince me he knows his subject, he never quite succeeds in making Rembrandt get up off the page and persuade me he is a real human being rather than a scholarly abstraction.

For Rembrandt, that most richly human of artists, this is a pity. Schama sets out to dazzle but ends leaving me wondering whether his tart, knowing descriptions of 17th-century Dutch society and mores (he could have been the Dominick Dunne of the Baroque era) might have worked better as a novel along the lines of, say, "The Agony and the Ecstasy," Irving Stone's admittedly fictional but dramatically compelling portrait of Michelangelo.

The contours of Rembrandt's life are familiar enough, from the artist's appearance as a youthful prodigy, to the wild successes of his early career, followed by the premature eclipse of his popularity and the long, inexorable decline after the death of his wife Saskia that culminated in the final years of desperate poverty with his mistress, Hendrickje Stoffels.

Had Schama been content to relate this tragic but relatively straightforward tale, his impressive mastery of atmospheric detail might have produced a compulsive pager-turner. Instead, he insists on hanging the interest of the whole enterprise on a dubious (and not particularly original) conceit: that the key to Rembrandt's art lies in the artist's early attempts to emulate his great predecessor, Peter Paul Rubens.

Not only does this scheme lead Schama to devote inordinate space to Rubens' career, it reduces Rembrandt's role for much of the book to that of hapless spectator in his own biography. And to little apparent point: after all, what ambitious young artist hasn't adopted, for a time, at least, the mannerisms of a successful older master?

The upshot is that Schama has produced a book whose minutiae specialists will debate for years but which many general readers will likely find annoyingly discursive (There are endless digressions on everything from the sectarian disputes of the Protestant church to Ruben pere's amorous entanglements with the Princess of Orange.) and needlessly prolix (The author is all too obviously a man in love with the sound of his own voice.).

No wonder "Rembrandt's Eyes" tends to become a bit tedious after the first few hundred pages. For all its brilliance, the book is not, as advertised, the world through Rembrandt's eyes but rather a prodigious outpouring of shrewd, yet maddeningly unpurposeful speculation that, in the end, delivers less than the title promises.

Glenn McNatt, The Sun's art critic, for 10 years was an editorial writer and wrote a regular column on arts and society for The Sun's Op-Ed page. Before joining The Sun, he was a writer for Time-Life Books, and was a correspondent for Time magazine.

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