Portrait of the Artist as a Paradox

Under the title Rembrandt by Himself, the National Gallery of London (sponsored by Thames and Hudson) last summer mounted an exhibition—later moved to The Hague—of painted and etched self-portraits by the Dutch master extending from his early years in Leiden to the last years of his life. There can have been few visitors who were not tempted to seek in this series the reflection of the poignant story of the miller’s son rising to fame and fortune in Amsterdam only to end his life as a ruined but undefeated grand old man who recorded the traces of aging with merciless objectivity. If the informative essays assembled in the catalog have aroused their desire to know more of the setting in which this tragedy unfolded, they must have welcomed the news that Simon Schama, the author of a widely read account of the Golden Age of Holland, The Embarrassment of Riches, had turned his attention to Rembrandt in a book which he called Rembrandt’s Eyes.

Yet once the reader had that heavy tome in his hands he may well have felt in need not only of physical but of mental strength to master the 750 pages of text and notes, without yielding to the temptation of skipping whole sections in which Rembrandt never occurs. It turns out that, despite its title, the book offers not one but two biographies of seventeenth-century artists. Not unlike the ancient author Plutarch, who wrote the Parallel Lives of Greeks and Romans, Schama gives us between two covers the life of a Dutch painter—Rembrandt (1606-1669)—and that of a Fleming—Rubens (1577-1640). Yet it is only on page 26 of the book under review that we are told the reason for this coupling. We read that:

For the crucial decade of his formation, the years which saw him change from being a merely good to an indisputably great painter, Rembrandt was utterly in thrall to Rubens.

He was, in Schama’s words: “haunted by the older master. He had become Rubens’s doppelgänger.”

I can only hope that I am not guilty of having started this hare. It is true that in reviewing a number of books on Rembrandt in these pages in 1970 I drew attention to the range of Rembrandt’s aspirations. While the majority of Dutch masters—such as Frans Hals, Ruysdael, or Vermeer—specialized in one particular genre of art, Rembrandt mastered all the genres and media of the image-making craft. I suggested that the success he enjoyed on moving to Amsterdam might well have given him hope that he could rival the status and life style of the great master across the border, an aspiration which went notoriously wrong and ended in bankruptcy. In commenting on the contrasting “ecological niches” occupied by the two artists, I certainly did not wish to imply that Rembrandt chose Rubens as his model. Nobody who has ever visited any of the major galleries would take a painting by Rembrandt …

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