This dazzling, unconventional biography shows us why, more than three centuries after his death, Rembrandt continues to exert such a hold on our imagination. Deeply familiar to us through his enigmatic self-portraits, few facts are known about the Leiden miller's son who tasted brief fame before facing financial ruin (he was even forced to sell his beloved wife Saskia's grave). The true biography of Rembrandt, as Simon Schama demonstrates, is to be discovered in his pictures. Interweaving of seventeenth-century Holland, Schama allows us to see Rembrandt in a completely fresh and original way.
Its skill at reconstructing the artist and his age suggests that we no longer need look only towards novelists and poets for "creative" writing. The music of history and biography can be equally powerful Peter Ackroyd The Times
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
Über den Autor
SIMON SCHAMA has taught history at Cambridge, Oxford, and Harvard universities, was art critic for the "New Yorker," and is currently a professor of history and art history at Columbia University. He is a prizewinning author whose books include "The Embarrassment of Riches, Citizens, Landscape and Memory," "The Story of the Jews," and "The Power of Art," which has been made into an Emmy-winning television series.
Reissue of the unconventional illustrated biography of Rembrandt from the famous historian, to coincide with a major Rembrandt exhibition at the National Gallery in London. 'A profound and captivating study' Peter Ackroyd, "The Times"