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Rembrandt's Eyes (Allen Lane History) [Paperback]

Simon Schama
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)

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Book Description

1 Nov 2001 Allen Lane History
For Rembrandt, as for Shakespeare, all the world was indeed a stage, and he knew in exhaustive detail the tactics of its performance: the strutting and mincing, the wardrobe and face-paint, the full repertoire and gesture and gimace, the flutter of hands and the roll of the eyes, the belly-laugh and the half-stifled sob. He knew what it looked like to seduce, to intimidate, to wheedle and to console; to strike a pose or preach a sermon, to shake a fist or uncover a breast; and how to sin and how to atone. No artist had ever been so fascinated by the fashioning of personae, beginning with his own. No painter ever looked with such unsparing intelligence or such bottomless compassion at our entrances and our exits and the whole rowdy show in between. More than three centuries after his death, Rembrandt remains the most deeply loved of the great masters of painting, his face so familiar to us from the self-portraits painted at every stage in his life, yet still so mysterious. Like Shakespeare, the facts of his life are hard to come by: the Leiden miller's son who briefly found fame in Amsterdam, whose genius was fitully recognized by his contemporaries, who fell into bankruptcy and died in poverty. So there is probably no painter around whose life more legends have grown up, nor to whom more unlikely pictures have been attributed (a process now undergoing rigorous reversal). "Rembrandt's Eyes", about which Simon Schama has been thinking for over 20 years, shows that the true biography of Rembrandt is to be discovered in his pictures. Through a succession of brilliant descriptions and interpretations of Rembrandt's paintings threaded into this narrative, he allows us to see Rembrandt's life clearly, and to think about it freshly. But this book moves far beyond the bounds of conventional biography or art history. With imaginative sympathy, and based on his profound knowledge of Holland and the Dutch in the 17th century, Schama conjures the world in which Rembrandt moved - its sounds, smells and tastes as well as its politics - and the influences on him of the wars of the Protestant United Provinces against Spain, of the extreme Calvinism of his native Leiden, of the demands of patrons and the ambitions of contemporaries. He shows us the central importance of Rembrandt's beloved wife Saskia and, after her death (Rembrandt was later forced to sell her grave, so complete was his ruin), of his mistress Hendrickje Stoffels. Above all, he demonstrates the profound effect on Rembrandt of the leading master of the immediately preceding generation, the great Catholic, Antwerp painter Peter Paul Rubens, "the prince of painters and the painter of princes" with whom Rembrandt was obsessed for the first part of his life, and against whose biography Schama sets Rembrandt's in illuminating counterpoint.

Product details

  • Paperback: 768 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; Re-issue edition (1 Nov 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140288414
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140288414
  • Product Dimensions: 25 x 19.6 x 5.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 420,380 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Amazon Review

The great 17th-century Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn left us so many arresting self-portraits, painted at every stage in his eventful life, that his distinctive face and bearing are a familiar part of the 20th-century cultural landscape, a recognisable presence in galleries across Europe and North America. Nonetheless, the artist himself remains tantalisingly an enigma. A notoriously difficult man and an inveterate risk-taker in life and art, Rembrandt's aspirations to a grandiose Amsterdam lifestyle in the heyday of his popularity as a painter of portraits and large-scale historical works bankrupted him and he died in relative poverty. His personal effects and his treasured collection of paintings and natural rarities were sold off and dispersed, leaving the historian with a tantalisingly scant body of fragmentary records around which to build a convincing biography.

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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


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)

A capacious, generous book full of new ideas and information about not only Rembrandt but also his life, his times and his contemporaries. With Schama you look at a picture and see it as you hadn't before (Doris Lessing Daily Telegraph Books of the Year)

With Rembrandt's Eyes, he has, as the cliché goes, found his subject - a perfect match for his talent and sympathies...moving and revealing...a Rembrandt very much for our time...[and] an extremely coherent, satisfying work (Alain de Botton Independent on Sunday)

[A] supreme contribution to art history (Anita Brookner Spectator Books of the Year)

A bravura performance...Schama is an outstanding historian...In this new book he brings to his perception of Rembrandt not only a profound knowledge of the seventeenth century, but also a greedy fascination with the material expression of culture in every nook and cranny of life...Schama deepens and enriches our familiarity with Rembrandt, and makes us understand more fully why he has often been called the greatest painter of all time (Frances Spalding Literary Review)

The Rembrandt riddle has now been tackled by that superbly gifted historian, Simon Schama...Schama speaks as an expert, but he wears his learning lightly; and few convey that learning more felicitously or fluently...this book holds the attention and fires the imagination...a portrait of the artist in the Baroque manner (Roy Porter Independent)

Sumptuous...Impassioned and learned, expansive and discursive, Rembrandt's Eyes not only leaves us with a fierce appreciation of the artist's work but also immerses us inexorably in his world (Michiko Kakutani The New York Times) --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
36 of 37 people found the following review helpful
Schama has been able to put into words what it is about a number of individual paintings that makes me respond to them with strong emotions. His analysis is at once insightful in terms of techniques used but also in terms of the effect gestures and body postures have. I have read other books on Rembrandt but Schama digs that little bit deeper into the chronicled events of Rembrandt's life the loves and tragedies he experienced. He illuminates the humanity of Rembrandt which we see in his self-portraits and attempts to answer questions I have had for a long time. Such has what prompted him to paint different self-portraits at different times of his life and the his relationship to the women in his life and in his paintings. A great book.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rembrandt's humanity 9 May 2003
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I loved this book and couldn’t put it down. Don’t be put off by its physical weight! It’s actually the intertwined stories of two great painters – Rembrandt and Rubens. The idea that Rembrandt was motivated by envy of Rubens is an interesting one. Rubens lived in a palazzo in Antwerp with handsome sculptures and an elegant garden. Rembrandt lived in a more modest home with his interesting collection of artifacts including a stuffed armadillo. They are so different from each other and you love them both by the end of the book.
As you’d expect from an art historian, there is vast insight into each painting (accompanied by excellent reproductions). If you then travel to see these paintings in the flesh (as you must!), his words come back to you and add immeasurably to your appreciation of the breathtaking and arresting portraits. Now you know why you love these paintings so much. But you get so much more than art criticism – you get to live and smell Amsterdam as Rembrandt would have done. One chapter recreates Amsterdam through the senses – sight, sound, touch etc – a work of pure imagination and one that could only have come from a writer for whom Amsterdam in the seventeenth century is a real as New York in 2003. But best of all is the humanity which pervades the book – Schama’s, Rembrandt’s and Rubens’s. Rare men all.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
This is one of the most interesting and well written biographies that I have ever read. The author actually covers two biographies running side by side, that of Rembrandt and that of Rubens. This give the book that little bit extra by keeping the reader interested as the plot changes from one to the other.
However the book also discusses the art of these two great artists in detail and in that respect it is more than just a biography.
The standard of illustration is good with plenty of good quality colour prints. Many of them are full page size.
I would recommend this to anyone with even a passing interest in Rembrandt or European art.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best a History and Art book can get 21 Feb 2005
By A Customer
This book was an absolute surprise to me, as I had little references from both Rembrand as a painter and Simon Schama as an author. Not also the life of the painter is amazing, the writhing superb, but the quality of the book as an object and of the prints (more than many) leave you fascinated.
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