Rembrandt's Eyes by Simon Schama
In Rembrandt's Eyes Simon Schama--the leading historical craftsman of our era, with a career-long commitment to Dutch history--succeeds with consummate skill in bringing the heroic painter of such masterpieces as The Night Watch and Portrait of Jan Six vividly to life again. Returning to the bustling Dutch world with which he first made his reputation in his bestselling The Embarrassment of Riches (1987), Schama recreates Rembrandt's life and times with all the verve and panache of a historical novelist, whilst never for an instant losing his scrupulous grip on recorded fact and detail. The telling surviving fragments of archival information about Rembrandt's personal and professional history are embedded skilfully in a richer and denser tapestry of the commercial whirl and political hurly-burly of the 17th-century Low Countries--a divided territory, split between the Catholic and Protestant faiths and the contested powers of the Spanish Habsburgs and the Dutch Republic--with the tentacles of the tale reaching into the most unexpected shadowy corners of European love and war, aspiration and intrigue.
Rembrandt's Eyes is, in fact, two biographies for the price of one. From the outset Schama contrasts the life of Rembrandt with that of his older, equally artistically talented, countryman Peter Paul Rubens, whose meteoric rise and sustained success as a society painter forms a revealing contrast with Rembrandt's unhappier relationship with fame and fortune. The comparison is a telling one. Where Rubens furnishes the wealthy and powerful with glorious reflections of and visual foils for their social and political aspirations and glory, Rembrandt can never resist testing the envelope of taste and stylistic acceptability. His challenge to his clients to rise to embrace the shock of his painterly experiments with technique, texture and composition, ultimately produced his downfall. The Amsterdam Town Council took down his The Oath-swearing of Claudius Civilis, rolled it up and returned his masterpiece to him, to be cut-down in an attempt to sell it to a suitable buyer.
This is a gorgeous book to own, too. Rembrandt's Eyes is printed on heavy, high-gloss paper, lavishly illustrated throughout in full colour, with double-page colour spreads of the most memorable of Rembrandt's works, which take one's breath away as one turns the page. But above all, this is narrative history at its very best, a page-turner and an adventure story, which will make the reader laugh and cry by turns, in the time-honoured tradition of masterly writing. --Lisa Jardine
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