Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama

This is a remarkable book. Ostensibly a biography of the Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn, it is also a fascinating study of Rembrandt’s work and techniques, as well as a mini-biography of Peter Paul Rubens—whose paintings and reputation would dog Rembrandt for his entire life and continue to do so to this day—and a kind of political and religious history of the Netherlands before, during and after Rembrandt’s life.

Before reading this book, I knew next to nothing about the role the Netherlands played in the history of Europe. I don’t feel like I know a lot more about it now, but my interest sure had been piqued. It had a central role to play, apparently, in opposing the Spanish Inquisition, and struggled through this difficult period with conflicts and wars between religious fundamentalists and religious liberals. As the author describes at one point, it sought to answer the question, “Was it to be a republic dominated by Calvinist Protestantism, or a place where no one single Christian confession had coercive power?”

But that’s not the focus of the book. Rembrandt’s work is—and Schama’s in-depth analysis and evocative prose helps a layman like me understand why Rembrandt’s work is truly so remarkable. The title of Rembrandt’s Eyes was especially well chosen.

All his life, Rembrandt would be fixated on the idea of spiritual, inner blindness, even among those who supposed their physical vision to be acute. This was but one of the qualities which set him apart so drastically from the mainstream of Dutch painting, which defined itself strikingly in terms of optical precision. His own perception, even in his stripling years, was shockingly acute, as those donkey teeth bear witness. But he was already haunted by a paradox. The light that came to us in the clarity of the day, that led us to embrace the material, visible world, was a gift of immense power, but it faded into insignificance beside the other light, the interior light of the Gospel truth, the enabler of in-sight, especially strong in Protestant culture, though inherited from a tradition that went back all the way to Augustine, that the power of sight was spiritually dangerous: a sorcerer’s spell.

“Those donkey teeth” refers to an early painting Rembrandt made, Balaam and the Ass (1626), depicting a story from Numbers in which God opens the eyes of the Moabite Balaam to the angel He sent to keep Balaam out of Israel. But the painting depicts the scene just before Balaam’s eyes are so opened, and they are shown as nothing more than dark crevices.

It is a theme he would return to again and again, this juxtaposition between earthly sight and divine blindness, between earthly blindness and divine sight.

Again in 1626, with Anna, Tobit, and the Kid, in which the blind prophet Tobit prays for his own destruction moments before he is cured of his blindness by the archangel Raphael.

In 1628, with The Supper at Emmaus, when a disciple’s eyes are opened to the knowledge that the passer-by he has been dining with is in fact the risen Christ.

And, most hauntingly, in 1629, in The Artist in His Studio, where he shows his own eyes as nothing more than black holes—“cavities behind which something is being born rather than destroyed.”

This struggle between earthly and divine sight is not the only struggle Rembrandt would face as a painter. Harkening back to the role of the Netherlands as a place of religious opposition to the Catholic Inquisition, Rembrandt often found himself struggling to please his Protestant patrons with his demonstrably “Catholic” style. To whit:

But this laboriously additive collection of Catholic motifs only points up Rembrandt’s painful difficulty in converting the conventions of the public, inspirational Catholic altarpiece into a Protestant, private devotional painting. The most acute problem turned on the place of sacred spectacle in the strengthening of faith. For Catholics, pictures had to be powerful enough to give the beholder a bodily sense of participation in the Passion, so that the boundary between their own persons and that of the Savior, the Virgin, and the apostles all but dissolved. But that was precisely the boundary which Protestantism insisted on respecting, believing the Catholic ardor for physicals, rather than symbolic, communion an act of presumptuous sacrilege. Luther and Calvin had both dismissed as deluded, if not actually blasphemous, the notion that salvation could depend at all on the actions of Christians. Instead, it was argued, salvation was bestowed by grace alone. Faith, as St. Paul had taught, became essentially a passive condition: the meek acceptance of sin and unworthiness; the hope that God’s abundant mercy would redeem the sinner. Protestant painting, then, ought to have no pretensions to transport the communicant into the material presence of Christ. It should instead point up the virtues of watching, waiting, believing; it should illuminate not the closeness between mortal man and the Son of God but the insuperable distance between them.

It was an order Rembrandt would ultimately be unable to fill, as his natural style focused on the direct, intimate physical experience, on domestic details which bring the figures painted within the compass of human experience. Schama describes Rembrandt’s The Holy Family (1634) as follows:

Like any new mother’s, the Virgin’s left hand plays with the Christ child’s toes; her breast touches his forehead. Joseph, at once part of the mystery and separated from it, leans carefully toward the baby, his hand going no further than the crib blanket. And all around the room are the tools of his trade as well as a cut branch—allusions, for those searching for them, to the Crucifixion, the ultimate meaning of the birth of the Savior, but embodied in the commonplace clutter of a carpenter’s shop.

Despite these difficulties, Rembrandt’s fame would grow until he almost destroyed it with perhaps his most famous painting of all—1642’s The Night Watch.

It violated every convention for group portraiture at the time. As Schama says:

Classicist critics were right to be appalled by The Night Watch because, despite its fine calculations of color, tonal values, composition, and form, it pays such scant attention to the rules of decorum. It was the most immodest thing Rembrandt ever did, not in self-advertisement but in terms of what he thought he could achieve in a single work. It is the acme of Baroque painting because it does so much, because it is so much. It is group portrait, quasi-history painting, emblematic tableau, visionary apparition, and, not least, I think, a personal statement about the transcendent, living quality of painting itself. All this happens on one canvas. It is a painting of Rabelaisian inclusiveness, one that mocks the academic hierarchy of genres in favor of a display of social performance. It is a noise, a brag, a street play. It is how we all are. But because it’s all that, it’s a picture that keeps threatening to disintegrate into incoherence. For it takes the chance that all the picture types that it wants to bring together will end up, not in agreement, but at war with each other. Instead of sublime synthesis, there might be a dissonant rout. And that is exactly how its hostile critics through the centuries have written it off as the most overrated painting in seventeenth-century art.

And it was mostly downhill from there, a slow slide into obscurity and poverty as Rembrandt’s genius continued to grow but outpace the conventions and fashions of his time. His later works are almost Impressionistic in their use of color and paint. Look at this Portrait of Jan Six (1654):

The picture is, then, a virtual encyclopedia of painting, from the loosest handling to the dry brush, sparely loaded with yellow, dragged over the surface at the edge of Six’s right cuff; from the finest detail to the most impressionist daring. Yet Rembrandt manages to bring all this diversity of technique into a totally resolved single image. So that Jan Six does indeed stand before us much as we would dearly wish to imagine ourselves, all the contradictions of our character—vanity and modesty, outward show and inward reflectiveness, energy and calm—miraculously fitted together.

And this, The Oath-Swearing of Claudius Civilis (1661-62):

which had been intended for a tremendous corner lunette in Amsterdam’s city hall, but which had so shocked its patrons that it was quietly rejected outright and cut down dramatically in order to be suitable for handing in some eclectic collector’s house.

Indeed, many of Rembrandt’s later works were cut down from the original artistic vision in order to make them sell-able and able to please to prevailing tastes of the time, perhaps none more appalling so than The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Jan Deyman (1656).

Rembrandt was already struggling for commissions at this time, and he received this one probably because of the fame he had garnered from an earlier group portrait, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (1632). But Rembrandt the artist had grown well beyond this popular acclaim.

In fact, this later anatomy was as startlingly unconventional as the earlier one. But the focus of Rembrandt’s vision had changed from animated action to interior self-examination. Dr. Tulp had been all about the divinity of dexterity, with the instruction to reflect on mortality indicated only by the meaningfully pointing finger of Dr. van Loenen. In the Deyman anatomy, the mortal element, as well as sense of judgment, conveyed by the solemnly gathered figures is overwhelmingly present. The exposure of the brain of the subjectum anatomicum suggests that thought, even more than dexterity, the sapient mark of humanity, was both a mass of viscous, blood-filled matter and a supreme marvel of God’s work. For Rembrandt has made a church of this anatomy theater lodged in the upper story of the Meat Hall, and the painting is its altarpiece. The low angle of vision in front of the painting hung up in the chamber of the surgeon’s guild would have obliged the beholder to look up over the startlingly foreshortened feet and directly into the deep shadowy cavity of the eviscerated stomach, still supported like a tent by the intact rib cage. The foreshortened large hands and trunk and the incongruously serene face, painted as though shrouded in a veil of grace, are unmistakably reminiscent of the depiction of dead Christs, in particular those of Borgianini and Mantegna. And the body has been lined up (at ninety degrees to the picture plane) directly with Dr. Deyman himself, who stands, paternal and godlike, over the head of the miscreant, lovingly peeling back the dura mater membranes and separating the two cerebral hemispheres as if administering a benediction. The touching but unsettling sacramental quality of the scene is completed by the assistant surgeon, Gijsbert Calkoen (the son, no less, of Matthijs Calkeon, whom Rembrandt had shown leaning close to Dr. Tulp’s right hand in his earlier anatomy), holding the detached skullcap tenderly in his palm as if it were the cup of the Eucharist.

There are more paintings, dozens more, that I could describe here, all illuminated in-depth by Schama’s wonderful prose. Through these pages, it felt somewhat like Rembrandt himself had come alive, striking me as someone I would very much liked to have known.

Even so, no painter of his time was more bookish, or, perhaps more accurately, more scriptural, then Rembrandt; none more obviously besotted with the weight of books, moral and materials, their bindings, clasps, their paper, their print, their stories. If the books were not on his shelves, they would certainly be everywhere in his paints and prints: piled high on tottering shelves; reposing authoritatively on the tables of preachers or anatomists; clasped in the hands of eloquent ministers or musing poets. No one would better describe the moment of imminent writing (for many of us, lasting too many hours of the day), the quill poised over the page. And thought the subject of reading was popular with his contemporaries, no one would make it such an act of intense, transfiguring absorption as Rembrandt. One of his old women, usually characterized as his mother, Neeltgen, but certainly in the persona of the aged prophetess Anna, who frequented the Temple around the time of Christ’s birth “day and night,” is shown by Rembrandt in a painting in his Leiden manner deep in her Scripture. Anna mattered to Rubens, too. He had included her in the scene on the side panel of The Descent from the Cross together with the high priest Simeon, for she too had recognized the infant Jesus as the Savior. But for Rubens, Anna’s source of light is of course the body of Christ. For Rembrandt’s Anna, the radiance lies on the glowing page.


  1. I recommend this book. I think the way you described the eyes of Rembrandt is remarkable. Thanks for this review.

  2. Thanks, Dale. I'm glad you enjoyed it.