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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 19701 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 for one of Rubens, since their pictorial idioms are so utterly different.

What convinced our author of Rembrandt’s obsession is an etched self-portrait on which Rembrandt evidently spent much thought and labor—for we know no fewer than eleven states through which it went. Both the attire and the pose echo a self-portrait by Rubens which must have been known in Holland from reproductions. But whatever importance we may attach to this dependence it seems to me a manifest exaggeration to speak of Rembrandt as “pseudo-Rubensian.”

In his standard work Rembrandt as an Etcher^2, Christopher White discusses and illustrates the many states of this etching. The artist clearly aimed at presenting himself in the most dignified way, and it is not impossible (though not mentioned by White) that the portrait of Rubens guided him in this effort. Indeed, in the same book the author juxtaposes a print after Rubens’s Descent from the Cross and Rembrandt’s etching of the same subject (see illustration on page 10), but he also documents a number of other works, Italian and Northern, which evidently inspired Rembrandt.

Schama quotes the famous account which Constantijn Huygens gave in his Latin autobiography, written between the years 1629 and 1631, in which he praised the achievements of Lievens and Rembrandt but regretted their refusal to go to Italy to study the works of Raphael and Michelangelo. Strangely enough the author omits to mention that the artists had argued that such an arduous journey was unnecessary, for artists could now see the finest Italian works in Holland.3

Thus, though prints after Rubens are certainly among Rembrandt’s sources, can this justify the author’s devoting some third of his book to an account of Rubens’s career, an account which includes thirty pages on the adultery of Rubens’s father and its consequences? As one might expect, Schama tells this story superbly well, but what has it all to do with Rembrandt’s eyes? To put it bluntly, this is the one question the reader is not supposed to ask.

The author obviously enjoys surprising the reader, and he certainly succeeds with his opening:

After thirty salvos the cannon were obliged to cool off. So perhaps it was then that Constantijn Huygens thought he heard nightingales fluting over the artillery….

This questionable ornithological observation4 introduces three pages of vivid description of the siege, in 1629, of s’Hertogenbosch, a small cathedral town held by the forces of Catholic Spain, whom the Dutch Protestants tried to dislodge. Rembrandt himself—then in his early twenties—was never involved in these cruel wars, but the military episode serves Schama to introduce the artist through a self-portrait of that year which reveals a metallic glint beneath the collar, a piece of armor called a gorget which, in Schama’s words, “gave him the bearing of a soldier without the obligations.”

It is in line with this forging of unexpected links that the work under review has less affinity to an art-historical monograph than to historical fiction. Whether or not this discovery will disappoint us depends, of course, on our expectations. It is well to remember that no less an authority than Aristotle declares in his Poetics that fiction is superior to factual narration:

[History]…relates actual events, the other the kinds of things that might occur. Consequently, poetry is more philosophical and more elevated than history, since poetry relates more of the universal, while history relates particulars.5

An early episode from the life of Rubens, described by Schama, offers a good illustration of Schama’s methods. In 1603, when the young painter was in the service of the Duke of Mantua, he was sent to Spain by his master to accompany a consignment of gifts including a number of paintings. His letter of May 24, 1603, from Valladolid, where the crates containing the paintings were opened, tells us what had happened:

…The pictures which were packed with all possible care by my own hand, in the presence of my Lord the Duke; then inspected at Alicante, at the demand of the customs officials, and found unharmed, were discovered today, in the house of Signor Hannibal Iberti, to be so damaged and spoiled that I almost despair of being able to restore them. For the injury is not an accidental surface mold or stain, which can be removed; but the canvas itself is entirely rotted and destroyed (even though it was protected by a tin casing and a double oil-cloth and packed in a wooden chest). The deterioration is probably due to the continuous rains which lasted for twenty-five days—an incredible thing in Spain. The colors have faded and, through long exposure to extreme dampness, have swollen and flaked off, so that in many places the only remedy is to scrape them off with a knife and lay them on anew.6

Schama does not quote this text, but writes instead:

It is possible to picture the scene. A bright spring morning, at long last, the sunlight shining through young chestnut leaves. Peter Paul with his best broad-brimmed hat protecting his head (which was already showing a little pate through his receding hair) from the sun of León; a stick pointing at the crates to be opened; walking around the horses as they shook their manes and turned this way and that, within the fenced enclosure; the coach a little way off, brightened and buffed, daintily elegant, fit for a Habsburg; a pleasant glow of vindication rising within him, an expectation of congratulations wrenched from the unwilling lips of Annibale Iberti. And then the paintings taken into an inner chamber, the boxes stood on their ends.

When exactly did he become aware of a dry mouth, the sudden loss of breathing room within his doublet? When precisely could he see the full extent of the disaster? When the wooden boxes were opened and the nails flew into the dirt; when a wave of blighted air, redolent of rain-sodden straw and mildew, rose to his face? Did he tremble, imperceptibly except to himself, as he lifted the rotten canvases from their tin casing? Did he roundly curse “malicious fate” like a tragedian, and did he do so in Flemish or Italian (reserving expressions of Latin lament for his letter to the Duke)? The paintings looked like plague victims, their surfaces swollen, blistered and greasy. Elsewhere, the effect was more like leprosy: gobbets of paint hanging in loose flakes or collecting in crumbled slivers at the bottom of the box. When Rubens lightly fingered the surface, it peeled away as easily as a reptile sloughing its skin.

This is the technique of the historical novel as it has been practiced for centuries. Take what is possibly the first example of the genre fictionalizing the life of an artist, The Life and Times of Salvador Rosa by Lady Morgan, published in Paris in 1824:

In entering the greatest city of the world at the Ave Maria, the hour of Italian recreation,—in passing from the silent desolate suburbs of San Giovanni to the Corso (then a place of crowded and populous resort), where the princes of the Conclave presented themselves in all the pomp and splendour of Oriental satraps,—the feelings of the young and solitary stranger must have suffered a revulsion, in the consciousness of his own misery. Never, perhaps, in the deserts of the Abruzzi, in the solitudes of Otranto, or in the ruins of Paestum, did Salvador experience sensations of such utter loneliness, as in the midst of this gaudy and multitudinous assemblage; for in the history of melancholy sensations there are few comparable to that sense of isolation, to that desolateness of soul, which accompanies the first entrance of the friendless on a world where all, save they, have ties, pursuits, and homes.

Like Schama, the author here accepts the framework of facts—Rosa did go to Rome, and entering the city he would have to pass through the suburbs—but the facts did not suffice her; she had to indulge in this imaginary musing. One can find any number of examples in which the lives of artists are fictionalized—Gobineau’s The Renaissance (1877); Merezhkovsky’s Leonardo da Vinci (1901); Van Loon’s The Life and Times of Rembrandt (1947); and Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961)—and though Aby Warburg banished this genre to what he called the “poison chest” of his library, a large number of readers may well have found that these books opened their eyes to the oeuvre of the artists concerned.

  1. 1

    Reprinted in Reflections on the History of Art, edited by Richard Woodfield (Phaidon/Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 143.

  2. 3

    Seymour Slive, Rembrandt and His Critics, 1630-1730 (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1953), p. 17.

  3. 4

    In wartime England I often heard the nightingales in the Vale of Evesham being stimulated to sing by the din of German bombers overhead.

  4. 5

    Loeb second edition (Harvard University Press, 1995).

  5. 6

    The Letters of Peter Paul Rubens, translated and edited by Ruth Saunders Magurn (Harvard University Press, 1955), pp. 32-33.

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