A challenging new take on an old master

Rembrandt's Eyes
January 14, 2000

A luscious history of Rembrandt encourages us to view his work more closely, says Martin Kemp.

From The Embarrassment of Riches in 1988 to an embarrassing richness 11 years later? This, at least, is what the scholarly reception of Simon Schama's latest dazzling extravaganza of historical word painting might suggest to be the case. Schama's much heralded monograph on Rembrandt - or, rather, virtual duograph on Rembrandt and Rubens - is a grandly Baroque theatrical machine of a book, full of Rubensian plenitude, replete with buxom prose, teeming with sumptuous detail, furnished with picturesque nooks and crannies into which the eye is invited to stray, yet somehow held together by complex compositional devices and recurrent motifs.

The most conspicuous of these motifs are Rembrandt's perceived obsession with becoming the "Dutch Rubens" (somewhat overplayed) and the author's repeated reassertion of the notion of the great artist as historical misfit ultimately obeying the diktats of his own driven genius.

When Schama exults in the abundant female nudes of Rubens's Three Graces for "their voluptuously fleshy overspill and their heavy horticultural ripeness", we gain a sense of the tone of his rich prose and are in effect provided with a description of the book itself. Typical Schama quotes sprout luxuriantly on every page, awaiting harvest by eager students.

It is difficult to know which example to choose. A nice one occurs when he reasserts Rembrandt's status as "the greatest master of the broad brush there ever was before the advent of modernism": "the bruiser's meaty fist slapping down dense, clotted pigment, kneading, scratching, and manipulating the paint surface as if it were part clay, the stuff of sculpture, not painting".

This strikingly empathetic account of the very materiality of the painter's manipulation of his medium is characteristic of Schama's concern to conjure up the sensory stuff of perceived reality, whether then or now. It is indicative of this concern that his first illustration from a Rembrandt painting (after the obligatory self-portrait) should be a tiny detail of a triangle of flaked plaster at floor level behind the looming easel and confrontational panel in the early Artist in his Studio from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Schama is a vivid recorder of textures, colours, shades, smells, sounds, spaces and motions, and an uninhibited evoker of the emotional landscapes behind the eyes of those who observe the passing parade.

He is particularly drawn to the stubborn cussedness of great individualists - whether dressed in the diplomatic finery of Rubens or in the more eccentric costumes of Rembrandt posed as the actor of his own personal drama - telling us more about their thoughts than most historians would dare. At one point, he refers to "the historians" as if he is not himself a member of that breed of cautious pedants.

Indeed, one of the problems that reviewers have faced in dealing with this book is defining it as "history" at all, in the conventional sense. It belongs more to the great tradition of literary ekphrasis , or the Roman descriptio , that virtuosic form of humanist picturing through words, than to the central strand of analytical history generally approved by the academy. More in tune with Lucian's Calumny of Apelles , or even Philostratus's visionary Imagines , than with Pliny's step-by-step historical description, it exploits densely descriptive language in order to bring before the spectator's eyes the images that have arisen during the author's quest for deep naturalisation in remote time and distant place. That he for the most part succeeds in conveying the excitement of his immersion in people, places and their artistic endeavours is the result of levels of hard looking and emotional absorption of a kind that recent art history has feared, devoted as it is to more cynically distancing strategies.

At their best, the results are literally eye-opening. At their occasional worst, they veer from overly literal to unnecessarily comic. On one hand there is a tendency to think that a picture of "real life", such as the Boston image of the painter, dwarfed by panel and easel according to perspectival diminution in his virtually empty studio, or the speaking concourse of the shipbuilder and his note-bearing wife in the portrait of Jan Rijksen and Griet Jans (in Buckingham Palace), reveal "lived reality" as a "single moment ... visualised in a split second".

As Schama well knows, when he thinks about it, there is not one image in the book that does not work according to the rhetorics of its genre rather than the demands of documentary, even if that genre is being redefined or even invented by the artist in question.

On the other hand, there is the ridiculing account of the water-borne nymphs in Rubens's Hero and Leander at Yale University, which comes all too close to Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's hilarious speculations about the presence in the store-rooms of our major galleries of censored pictures in which the fickle breeze has not fortuitously wafted wispy drapery across the naughty bits of naked beauties.

The structure of Schama's text is very unlike a linear history. The narrative is punctuated by numerous shifts of episode in place and time, back to the 16th-century Antwerp of Rubens's father and mother, and as far forward as New York in 1995 for the exhibition of "Rembraandt/Not Rembrandt". The technique is cinematographic, or even that of a demanding work of literary fiction.

Particularly germane is Joseph Heller's clever novel Picture This (1988), with its regular switches from the philosophical Greece of antiquity to the business-like studio in which Rembrandt makes his picture of Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer and devises his spectacular portrait of Jan Six (of which Schama gives a splendid and non-dogmatic account).

Heller yields nothing to Schama in empathetic observation: "He scumbled his impasto on the silken robe, added glazes and enhanced his chiaroscuro. He turned light into gold in Aristotle's billowing sleeves, shot golden rays of reflection through other white areas. He blended more green and blue-green into the folds and ripples.

"He molded the gold chain in full relief with thicker additions of white paint, and on top of this white he laid glaze after glaze of yellows, browns and blacks. That was how Rembrandt manufactured gold for Aristotle.

"'The gold looks real,' said Rembrandt's model.

"'It is real,' mumbled Rembrandt."

And here is Schama, describing what Don Ruffo, the Sicilian patron, saw when he unpacked Rembrandt's picture: "The chain was painted in an extravagantly dense impasto, crusts, clots, beads, blisters, knots and ridges of richly mixed paint, white and yellow slathered together on the brush itself, rising from the canvas, in some passages, to a quarter of an inch."

The odd thing is that when Heller sets Rembrandt in his society, he characterises the painter's blend of pragmatism and obstinacy in a way that shares more in its underlying assumptions about an artist in context with the current social history of art, exemplified by Svetlana Alpers's Rembrandt's Enterprise (published in the same year as Heller's novel), than with the warhorse genius favoured by Rembrandt's Eyes .

Schama's unfashionable emphasis on the inherent isolation of wilful genius is only one of the points at which his book openly revels in provoking anticipated irritation among much of today's historical community. He is more overtly concerned with entering into his characters' personalities, looking out most notably through Rembrandt's eyes, than with undertaking sober assessments of the position of the artist in the rising art market.

He is more involved in telling human stories, which he does with humane generosity, than in analysing the great collective thrusts of society against which individuals struggle in vain. He is committed to helping the surviving images of the past speak to us on common grounds, particularly the great masterpieces, than in demonstrating how much of the past is an irredeemably foreign country.

He is more excited by the building of beguiling models of the human theatre of past events than in providing hesitant reconstructions constrained by the limits of the evidence. He is less interested in the conventional "life and works of" than in treating the material and psychological biography of the artist as the story of the works, and vice versa.

When the studious and orthodox inquirer after historical facts cannot tell when existing evidence is being retailed or when we are being borne along by Schama's imagination, the reaction is likely to be annoyance. Yet the book is history, not a work of fiction. In a sense it is very honest about the passion of the historian who is driven to absorb every scrap of information concerning figures and events about which we have no utilitarian need to know. When historians talk about "their" characters in informal gatherings, they often do just what Schama has done - imaginatively placing human flesh on the often dry bones of the historical record in a way that most would hesitate to do in print. Indeed, any historian of interest is in the business of sculpting models and painting pictures of the past as necessary acts in the process of historical reconstruction - testing the model (as an essential device) against the direct evidence and what can be deduced from cognate episodes. The historical novelist and playwright do the same, but are free of the constraint to acknowledge where derived fact and invented fiction begin and end.

The historical and literary territories inhabited by Schama make more open use of the novelist's diverting pathways than is quite approved in "straight" history. But there is enough "straight" history around, certainly in the case of Rembrandt. And there certainly is more than enough attributionism in Rembrandt studies to satisfy the most ardent enthusiast for connoisseurship. If Schama's book encourages many people to look with more intense engagement at paintings by Rembrandt and Rubens, as I am sure it will, he will have done so on foundations of a great, if not infallible, depth of knowledge of Holland and Flanders in the 17th century rather than relying on a series of slick formulas for art appreciation or resorting to the ungenerous strategies of social deconstruction.

Along the way, he confirms, as few current critics can, that sustained looking can reap extraordinary rewards and remains essential if the irreducibly visual qualities of artefacts are to be respected. For these attributes, a broad reading and looking public will have cause to be grateful.

Martin Kemp is professor of the history of art, University of Oxford.

Rembrandt's Eyes

Author - Simon Schama
ISBN - 0 713 99384 7
Publisher - Pengiun
Price - £30.00
Pages - 750

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