768 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., ISBN-13: 978-0679402565
It is 1629, the 60th year of the war for the Netherland. Prince Huygens, Rembrandt's benefactor, deciphers intercepted dispatches in the Prince of Orange's headquarters at Hertogenbosch. In Calvinist controlled Leiden 25 year old Rembrandt takes to portraying himself in armor. By 1631, when Rembrandt relocates to Amsterdam, the city's competing churches have come to a grudging accommodation. Despite the fractious political climate the city is a hot bed of manufacture and trade with the Orient. The savor of spices and silks, the rhythms of urban industries – cloth fabrication, paper making, gem cutting, weapons forging, chimes through its neighborhoods. The artist thrives for a time in the vibrant economic climate. His pictures of prosperous burghers (and of course, himself) and religious scenes ingrain an exotic, cross cultural vocabulary and intrigue.
Schama's analysis of the paintings is as scholarly as his depiction of the historical forces which were shaping them, in a Europe ripped by religious war. He looks also into the unsettled ambition embedded in Rembrandt's artistry. No major artist of his time or since has painted so many self-portraits, in so many guises. No other artist absorbed more of the texture of his time and place. His influences were political, theological, social as well as aesthetic and developed into an idiosyncratic genius. Rembrandt's eye’s as the author notes, provide a lens into these turbulent times and the passions of the artist. Twenty years from conception to print, Schama's opus spans its subject with a detail as fine as the lace on one of the artist's collar pieces.
The author contrasts Jean Paul Rubens's ethereal idealism to Rembrandt's earthy colloquialism as metaphor for the political divisions of the times. Rembrandt was treading new ground in art. The compassionate consideration of human dilemmas and blemishes was a rebellion against the politicization of art in a time when painting was dogmatic and polemical. Rembrandt's tactile accouterments, lustrous colors, give an eidetic quality to metal, fabric or paper. The works had plural focal points producing a visual dynamic. The creamy pallor of irradiated faces are juxtaposed against some intricately detailed artifact – lace, gemstone, coral, armor – and those against props providing subtle sub-texts. They are bathed in an illogical light which seems to emanate rather than reflect from its characters. A narrative and cosmopolitan bustle energizes his artwork.
The Repentant Judas is one the best studies of the artist's ability to synthesize surreal contexts and intensely expressive figures into a cohesive spirituality. Schama spends 12 written pages on that magical evocation of purposeful community The Night Watch. Two Old Men Disputing shows Rembrandt's preoccupation with representing age and decay in dignified elegance. He had, though, had no talent for business or orderly finances. He was a compulsive accumulator and a mark for bad investments. That would eventually impoverish him even as his fame became well established. This was not lost in his later portraits, more abstract and rendered with a pensive, somber defiance. The stern expressions of The Sampling Officials could well be those of his creditors. Some transcendence reasserted itself in his final works, most remarkably in vital mysteries of The Jewish Bride and Simeon and the Christ Child.
Schama writes objective prose, with an impressive command of his subject. This is no esoteric meditation. It is an exhaustive study of the development of a craft and of the society that spawned it. The book is a beautifully composited coffee table book with a distinctive literary and historical flavor. Schama has produced one of the great artist biographies of all time, and a depiction of an age, as any age is most clearly represented by its art.