Cover image for Rembrandt's eyes
Rembrandt's eyes
Schama, Simon.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1999.
Physical Description:
xi, 750 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 27 cm
Format :


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Material Type
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ND653.R4 S24 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
ND653.R4 S24 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
ND653.R4 S24 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
ND653.R4 S24 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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For Rembrandt as for Shakespeare, all the world was indeed a stage, and he knew in exhaustive detail the tactics of its performance; the strutting and mincing; the wardrobe and the face paint; the full repertoire of gesture and grimace; the flutter of hands and the roll of the eyes; the belly laugh and the half-stifled sob. He knew what it looked like to seduce, to intimidate, to wheedle, and to console; to strike a pose or preach a sermon; to shake a fist or uncover a breast; how to sin and how to atone; how to commit murder and how to commit suicide. No artist had ever been so fascinated by the fashioning of personae, beginning with his own. No painter ever looked with such unsparing intelligence or such bottomless compassion at our entrances and our exits and the whole rowdy show in between. More than three centuries after his death, Rembrandt remains the most deeply loved of all the great masters of painting, his face so familiar to us from the self-portraits painted at every stage in his life, yet still so mysterious. As with Shakespeare, the facts of his life are hard to come by; the Leiden miller's son who briefly found fame in Amsterdam, whose genius was fitfully recognized by his contemporaries, who fell into bankruptcy and died in poverty. So there is probably no other painter whose life has engendered more legends, nor to whom more unlikely pictures have been attributed (a process now undergoing rigorous reversal). Rembrandt's Eyes, about which Simon Schama has been thinking for more than twenty years, shows that the true biography of Rembrandt is to be discovered in his pictures. Though a succession of superbly incisive descriptions and interpretations of Rembrandt's paintings threaded into his narrative, he allows us to see Rembrandt's life clearly and to think about it afresh. But this book moves far beyond the bounds of conventional biography or art history. With extraordinary imaginative sympathy, Schama conjures up the world in which Rembrandt moved -- its sounds, smells and tastes as well as its politics; the influences on him of the wars of the Protestant United Provinces against Spain, of the extreme Calvinism of his native Leiden, of the demands of patrons and the ambitions of contemporaries; the importance of his beloved Saskia and, after her death (Rembrandt was later forced to sell her grave, so complete was his ruin), of his mistress Hendrickje Stoffels; and, above all, the profound effect on him of the great master of the immediately preceding generation, the Catholic painter from Antwerp, Peter Paul Rubens: "the prince of painters and the painter of princes" with whom Rembrandt was obsessed for the first part of his life, and whose career was the shaping force that drove Rembrandt to test the farthest reaches of his own originality. Rembrandt's Eyes shows us why Rembrandt is such a thrilling painter, so revolutionary in his art, so penetrating of the hearts of those who have looked for three hundred years at his pictures. Above all, Schama's understanding of Rembrandt's mind and the dynamic of his life allows him to re-create Rembrandt's life on the page. Through a combination of scholarship and literary skill, Schama allows us to actually see that life through Rembrandt's own eyes. In overcoming the paucity of conventional historical evidence, it is the most intelligently true biography of Rembrandt that has ever been written, and the most dazzling achievement to date of the art historian whose work has been hailed as "marvelously rich and eloquent" ... "rare, imaginative" ... "provocative" ... "astoundingly learned with verve, humor, and an unflagging sense of delight" ... that of "a master storyteller ... and a master of history."* Quotes from the New York Times Book Review, Time, the New York Times, The Independent on Sunday, and  Nature, respecti

Author Notes

Simon Schama is an historian, educator, and writer. He was born in London, England on February 13, 1945. Schama earned a B.A. in history in 1966 from Cambridge University and later became a fellow of Christ College.

Schama was a Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at Brasenose College, Oxford from 1976 to 1980. He also was an Erasmus Lecturer in the civilization of the Netherlands at Harvard University in 1978, and from 1980 to 1993 he was Professor of History and Mellon Professor of the Social Sciences and Senior Associate at the Center for European Studies. Schama has been the Old Dominion Professor of Humanities at Columbia University since 1993, teaching in the history, art history and archaeology departments.

Schama's 1977 book, Patriots and Liberators: Revolution in the Netherlands, 1780-1813, received the Wolfson Prize for history and the Leo Gershoy Memorial Prize of the American History Association. Another book, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, won the NCR Prize for Nonfiction. Schama also worked as an art critic for The New Yorker and has written historical and art documentaries for the BBC. In 2001 he received the CBE. In 2006 Schama earned the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction for Rough Crossings. His more recent works include A History of Britain and The Sory of the Jews, both written in multiple volumes.

(Bowker Author Biography) Simon Schama is the author of The Embarrassment of Riches, Citizens, Landscape and Memory, and most recently, Rembrandt's Eyes. He is currently Old Dominion Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University. The second installment of his epic history of Britain is due to be published in April 2001.

(Publisher Provided)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Three astute biographies define the temperaments, visions, and milieus of one indisputable master and two controversial modern painters. Both Claridge and Weber have written the first comprehensive biographies of twentieth-century artists infamous for denying their Jewish blood and other truths about their lives, and living flamboyantly as aristocrats. Lempicka and Balthus were each profoundly influenced by Italian Renaissance painters, and each painted unnervingly erotic portraits. But while Balthus' reputation has ascended, Lempicka, dubbed an art deco painter, has been all but forgotten. Claridge tells the remarkable story of Lempicka's life, and suggests why an artist o

Library Journal Review

In this fresh, detailed biography, Schama directs our gaze to the famed painter Rembrandt Harmennszoon van Rijn. Rembrandt left a considerable body of work, especially self-portraits. "No other painter before the twentieth century, perhaps no artist ever, has left us with such an exhaustive archive of his face," Schama writes. His painting career was "a forty-year soliloquy, and its inexhaustible, bravura quality inevitably led to the adoption of Rembrandt as the archetype of the self-obsessed artist." Schama explores the painter's complicated life: his birth, marriage, real estate deals, commissions, mistresses, bankruptcy, poverty, and death. But at the center is Rembrandt's obsession: to surpass the Flemish master, Peter Paul Rubens. In his early years, "Rembrandt was utterly in thrall to Rubens... Rembrandt was haunted." But by his career's end, "Rembrandt ended up being the kind of painter Rubens could not even have imagined, much less anticipated." Schama's close examination of a huge body of drawings, etchings, and paintings reflects an extraordinary gift for contextual analysis: we learn not only about Rembrandt's work but about his contemporaries and their art. The book's most vivid passages are set in the studio, where Schama brings to life the materials and techniques of 17th-century oil painting. Though a painter of his age, Rembrandt transcended it: "It's impossible to look at his strongest work, either in painting, drawing, or etching, and still not be struck by the simple truth that he achieved things which, as Durer wrote in another context, `could not in his day be found.'" (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Incisive art criticism, many enlivening anecdotes, and excellent illustrations distinguish this book from other well-researched works about Rembrandt (e.g., by Van Loon, Schmitt, Mens, Mee Jr., and Matton). Schama's own goal in writing, as he has characterized Rembrandt's in art, seems to be to "violate conventional expectations ... but astonish ... with excellence." Blurring the genres of art history and biography, Schama (Columbia Univ.) synthesizes others' rigorous researches and technical studies; the careful student should read the works credited in the footnotes (copious but not complete) before citing this text. Schama's young, ambitious Rembrandt measures himself against Rubens, and his old, diminished Rembrandt paints the imperfections of humanity. Hardly an original thesis, but it is presented with panache. In devoting 150 pages to Rubens, Schama underscores the fascinating relationship between Flemish and Dutch art. For a fuller treatment of Rubens, see Kristin Lohse Belkin's Rubens (1998). The essence of Rembrandt, so earnestly sought by the author, is not found here, nor is it yet contained within a single publication. More thoughtful studies of the integration of Rembrandt's life and art are by Julius S. Held, Rembrandt Studies (1990), and Ernst van de Wetering, Rembrandt: The Painter at Work (1997). Nonetheless, Schama gives an impressive performance in this product of "Rembrandtolatry." All levels. A. Golahny; Lycoming College



Rembrandt had taken to painting himself in armor. Not the full body suit. No one except cuirassiers, who were vulnerable to being jabbed by pikemen below the crupper, went in for that anymore. But every so often Rembrandt liked to wear his gorget. It was a hinged collar-piece, covering the base of the neck, collarbone, and upper back, and it looked good lying below a wound silken stock or scarf; a touch of steel lest he be thought too much the dandy. It was not that he was about to report for duty, even though, at twenty-three, he was of an age to serve in the militia, especially since an older brother had had a disabling accident at the mill. But this was social armor, military chic, not unlike the studiously worn fatigues affected by twentieth-century politicians gone sedentary, or the flak jackets of the urban paratrooper. Rembrandt's gorget with its glinting studs gave him the bearing of a soldier without the obligations. And then, quite suddenly, peril chilled the summer. In early August 1629, to general consternation, the city of Amersfoort, not forty miles from Amsterdam, had fallen to the invading imperial army with scarcely a shot fired in anger. Worse, the trembling city fathers had opened their gates to the Italian and German soldiers, who swiftly set about reconsecrating its churches to the Virgin. Censers swung. Nones and complines were sung. The panic would not last long. A lightning counterattack on the imperial citadel at Wesel had surprised the garrison at dawn and cut off the Catholic army from its rear, dooming the whole invasion to sorry retreat. But while it lasted, the sense of crisis was real enough. Companies of part-time militia -- brewers and dyers, men who, for as long as anyone could remember, had done nothing more threatening than parade around on Sundays in fancy boots and gaudy sashes, or who shot at wooden parrots atop a pole -- were now being sent to frontier towns in the east. There they were supposed to relieve the professional troops for active combat in the embattled theaters of war. On the surface, much seemed the same. There was still stockfish and butter for the table. Students at the university still slept through lectures on Sallust and got tight in the evenings, braying at the fastened shutters of the respectable. But the war had not bypassed Leiden altogether. Propaganda prints reminding citizens, in literally graphic detail, of the horrors endured when the towns of Holland were themselves besieged fifty years earlier issued from patriotic presses. Students enrolled in the school of military engineering were required to make wooden models of fortifications and gun emplacements. Some were even taken to the battlefield in Brabant to see if their notions could stand the test of fire. On the Galgewater and the Oude Rijn, barges rode low at the waterline, their holds crammed with morion helmets and partisans alongside crates of turnips and barrels of beer. So it suited Rembrandt to get himself up as a military person. Of course, a "person" in the seventeenth century meant a persona: a guise or role assumed by an actor. Rembrandt was playing his part, and the deep shadow and rough handling of his face complicate the mask, suggest the struggling fit between the role and the man. No painter would ever understand the theatricality of social life as well as Rembrandt. He saw the actors in men and the men in the actors. Western art's first images of stage life -- the dressing room and the wardrobe -- came from his hand. But Rembrandt's drama did not stop at the stage door. He also painted historical figures and his own contemporaries in their chosen personae, rehearsing their allotted manners as if before an audience. And he cast himself in telling bit parts -- the executioners of St. Stephen and Christ; a scared sailor on the churning Sea of Galilee -- and just occasionally in a significant lead: the Prodigal Son, whoring in a tavern. For Rembrandt as for Shakespeare, all the world was indeed a stage, and he knew in exhaustive detail the tactics of its performance: the strutting and mincing; the wardrobe and the face paint; the full repertoire of gesture and grimace; the flutter of hands and the roll of the eyes; the belly laugh and the half-stifled sob. He knew what it looked like to seduce, to intimidate, to wheedle, and to console; to strike a pose or preach a sermon; to shake a fist or uncover a breast; how to sin and how to atone; how to commit murder and how to commit suicide. No artist had ever been so fascinated by the fashioning of personae, beginning with his own. No painter ever looked with such unsparing intelligence or such bottomless compassion at our entrances and our exits and the whole rowdy show in between. So here is the greatest trouper who never trod the boards playing Youngman Corporal, his I-mean-business gorget belied by the soft fringed collar falling over the studded metal, the slightly arched, broken eyebrow line (absent from the copy in The Hague), the deep set of the right eye, and the half-shadowed face, sabotaging the bravura, hinting at the vulnerability beneath the metal plate: the mortal meeting the martial. There is a touch too much humanity here to carry off the show. The light reveals a full, mobile mouth, the lips highlit as if nervously licked; large, liquid eyes; a great acreage of cheek and chin; and, planted in the center of his face, the least aquiline nose in seventeenth-century painting. And then there is the liefdelok , the lovelock trailing over his left shoulder. Huygens, who would never be accused of indulging in frivolous exhibitionism, had written a long poem satirizing the outlandish fashions affected by the young in The Hague: slashed breeches, over-the-shoulder capes, and flying knee ribbons. But flamboyantly long hair was being singled out by the Calvinist preachers as an especial abomination in the sight of the Lord. Rembrandt evidently paid none of this any heed. He must have taken great pains with his lovelock -- also known from its origins in the French court as a cadenette -- since of course it took immense care to produce the required effect of carelessness. The hair had to be cut asymmetrically, the top of the lock kept full while its body was thinned to taper along its length, ending in the gathered and separated strands. And yet the picture is quite free of vain self-satisfaction. Rembrandt looks at himself in the glass, already committed to catching the awkward truth, trying to fix the point at which temerity is shadowed by trepidation, virile self-possession unmanned by pensive anxiety. He is Hamlet in Holland, an inward-outward persona, a poet in heavy metal, the embodiment of both the active and the contemplative life, someone whom Huygens was bound to commend. . . . iv         Leiden, 1629 Rembrandt was giving his full attention to the matter of painting, and in particular to a small patch of plaster in a corner of his walk-up studio. At the point where the wall met the upright beam of the doorjamb, projecting into the room, plaster had begun to flake and lift, exposing a triangle of rosy brick. It was the Rhine-water damp that did it; the oily green river which exhaled its cold mists out over the canals, insinuating itself through the cracks and shutters of the gabled alley-houses. In the grander residences of well-to-do burghers -- professors and cloth merchants -- that stretched along the Houtstraat and the Rapenburg, the invading clamminess was met, resisted, and, if all else failed, obscured by rows of ceramic tiles beginning at the foot of the wall and climbing upward as means and taste dictated. If means were modest, the householder could make a serial strip -- of children's games or proverbs -- to which further items could be added as fortune allowed. If he were already fortunate, an entire picture -- of a great vase of flowers, an East Indiaman in full sail, or the portrait of William the Silent -- could be constructed from brilliantly colored pieces. But Rembrandt's studio was bare of any of these conveniences. Unhindered, the damp had eaten its way into the plaster, engendering blooms of mold, blistering the surface, opening cracks and fissures in corners where the moisture collected. Rembrandt liked this. From the beginning, he was powerfully drawn to ruin; the poetry of imperfection. He enjoyed tracing the marks left by the bite of worldly experience: the pits and pocks, the red-rimmed eyes and scabby skin which gave the human countenance a mottled richness. The piebald, the scrofulous, the stained, and the encrusted were matters for close and loving inspection; irregularities to run through his fingering gaze. Other than the Holy Scripture, he cared for no book as well as the book of decay, its truths written in the furrows scored on the brows of old men and women; in the sagging timbers of decrepit barns; in the lichenous masonry of derelict buildings; in the mangy fur of a valetudinarian lion. And he was a compulsive peeler, itching to open the casing of things and people, to winkle out the content packed within. He liked to toy with the poignant discrepancies between outsides and insides, the brittle husk and the vulnerable core. In the corner of his room, Rembrandt's eye ran over the fishtail triangle of decomposing wall, coming apart in discrete layers, each with its own pleasingly distinct texture: the risen, curling skin of the limewash; the broken crust of the chalky plaster, and the dusty brick beneath; the minute crevices gathering dark ridges of grunge. All these materials, in their different states of deterioration, he translated faithfully into paint, and did so with such intense scrutiny and devotion that the patch of crumbling fabric begins to take on a necrotic quality like damaged flesh. Above the door another veinous crack is making swift progress through the plaster. To give his gash in the wall physical immediacy and visual credibility, Rembrandt would have used the most precisely pointed of his brushes: a soft-bristled instrument made from the pelt of some silky little rodent, the kind the miniaturists favored, a brush capable of making the finest pencil line or, turned and lightly flattened against the surface of the panel, a more swelling stroke. Slick with pigment -- red lake, ocher, and lead white for the brick; lead white with faint touches of black for the grimy plaster -- the squirrel-hair brush deposited perfect traces of paint over a scant few millimeters of space on the panel, one set of earthy materials (the painter's) translating itself into another (the builder's). It seems like alchemy. But the transmutation happens not in the philosopher's alembic but in our beguiled eye. Was the description of the patch of crumbled wall achieved in a matter of minutes or a matter of hours? Was it the result of painstakingly calculated design or imaginative impulse? Rembrandt's critics, especially once he was dead, disagreed on whether the problem with him had been that he worked too impetuously or too laboriously. Either way, he is generally, and not incorrectly, remembered 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 pasty clay, the stuff of sculpture, not painting. But from the outset, and through his entire career, Rembrandt, quite as much as Vermeer, was equally the master of fine motor control; the cutter of facets of light; the tweaker of reflections, glinting minutiae like the beads of brightness swimming on the metal bar laid across the door, a mote of sunshine on the tip of the painter's nose. This was a talent that Huygens and Hondius, who both had goldsmiths and jewellers as forebears, might have been expected to appreciate. It was entirely logical for Rembrandt to believe that before he could aspire to be anything else, he first had to prove his credentials as a master craftsman. That, after all, is what his contemporaries meant by "art" -- ars -- manual dexterity in the service of illusion. Excerpted from Rembrandt's Eyes by Simon Schama All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Part 1 The Prospects of A Painter
Chapter 1 The Quiddity
i 's Hertogenbosch, 1629p. 3
ii Leiden, 1629p. 7
iii 's Hertogenbosch, 1629p. 9
iv Leiden, 1629p. 12
v New York, 1998p. 24
vi The Hague, Winter 1631-32p. 27
Part 2 The Paragon
Chapter 2 Jan and Maria
i Iniquities, March 1571p. 41
ii Atonementp. 62
Chapter 3 Pietro Paolo
i Painting in the Ruinsp. 72
ii In Giulio's Shadow?p. 88
iii Gift Horsesp. 102
iv Brotherhoodsp. 114
Chapter 4 Apelles in Antwerp
i Honeysucklep. 135
ii Tulipsp. 144
iii The Burden of Faithp. 150
iv The Gentleman Completedp. 165
v Rubens for Exportp. 184
Part 3 The Prodigy
Chapter 5 RHL
i O Leyda Gratiosap. 195
ii Primingp. 208
iii History Lessonsp. 220
Chapter 6 The Competition
i Summer Candlelight, 1627p. 242
ii The Partnership (Limited)p. 254
iii By Faith Alonep. 270
iv Dogging the Nonpareilp. 283
v Making Facesp. 295
Part 4 The Prodigal
Chapter 7 Amsterdam Anatomized
i The City in Five Sensesp. 311
ii Movers, Not Shakersp. 322
iii Autopsyp. 342
Chapter 8 Body Language
i Pairing Off and Dressing Upp. 354
ii Violationsp. 383
iii Furiesp. 401
iv The Moving Fingerp. 416
v Samson's Eyesp. 419
vi Wrestling with Rubensp. 430
Chapter 9 Crossing the Threshold
i Painting the Sun with Charcoal, May 1640p. 448
ii Crossing the Thresholdp. 458
iii Propulsionp. 480
iv Fallen Birds, June 1642p. 501
Part 5 The Prophet
Chapter 10 Exposures
i The Real Thing?p. 511
ii The Mutable Linep. 527
iii Exposurep. 542
Chapter 11 The Price of Painting
i The Pulled Glovep. 562
ii Apelles Contemplating the Bust of Homer?p. 582
iii Sacrificesp. 595
Chapter 12 The Sufficiency of Grace
i Rough Treatmentp. 616
ii Mixed Companyp. 639
iii Quietusp. 659
iv Non-finito, Summer 1667p. 669
Part 6 After Ward
Chapter 13 Rembrandt's Ghost
i Huygens's Eyesp. 689
ii Gerard's Eyesp. 691
iii Rembrandt's Eyesp. 700
Author's Notep. 703
Notesp. 705
Select Bibliographyp. 725
Acknowledgementsp. 729
Indexp. 731