A Tale of Two Painters: Schama Crowds the Canvas

Rembrandt’s Eyes , by Simon Schama. Alfred A. Knopf, 750 pages, $50.

In 1987, Simon Schama’s English publisher proposed that he write an account of the French Revolution to coincide with the 1989 bicentennial. Mr. Schama, London-born, Cambridge-educated, had for 20 years been a Dutch historian, interpreting the golden age of the Netherlands through the adjoining windows of painting and history. He had just finished his second book on Dutch culture, The Embarrassment of Riches , and was intrigued by the idea of returning to an earlier interest in French history; yet he demurred.

His publisher challenged him: “Supposing you had an aunt who knew nothing about the French Revolution … and wanted a history as a great story. What would you give her?”

It was time for the professor to follow his own advice. Ever since he arrived at Harvard University in 1978, Mr. Schama had been urging his fellow historians to write history as a story. In 1989, he produced Citizens , a dazzlingly descriptive, densely layered narrative that introduced his “aunt,” the Book-of-the-Month Club and hundreds of thousands of readers to the story of how the violence and bloodshed of 1789 actually deprived France and its citizens of the very freedoms that the revolution was supposed to ensure.

Telling history instead of arguing it has turned Mr. Schama’s academically minded critics against him. The best-selling author has taken his licks for stooping to “low journalistic devices” in order to keep the reader turning pages. But presenting history as art rather than science has given Mr. Schama, who is now a professor of history and art history at Columbia University, an international audience and a cause. “History without imagination,” he insists, “is just so much data processing of the dead.”

In his new biography of the Dutch master, Rembrandt van Rijn, Mr. Schama starts off his story in the middle of the action: For more than a decade, when he was in his 20′s and 30′s, Rembrandt, an ingenious but not yet fully formed painter, measured himself against Peter Paul Rubens, the older, world-renowned “prince of painters and the painter of princes.” Rivalry, of course, is not news in biographies of artists. Much of the history of art, down to Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns in our own time, has been written by interdependent pairs like Michelangelo and Raphael, Bernini and Borromini. For Rembrandt, the doubling was compulsive. His development as an artist was marked by multiple rivalries with fellow Dutch painters. But by Rubens he was haunted. He went so far as to superimpose his own face on the Flemish master’s self-portrait in order to see what it would be like to be Rubens. “To become singular,” Mr. Schama explains, “Rembrandt had first to become someone’s double.”

This is a good premise for a story, as Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson long ago discovered. If The Prince and the Pauper is the classic story of one identity in two bodies, then Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sums up the horror of two identities in one body. In Mr. Schama’s Conradian tale of Rembrandt as Rubens’ “secret sharer,” the artist must find his own identity by merging with a double and then fighting to show how different he really is in life and art. The consequences of doubling create the story’s suspense. Which of the “twins” will survive? Who will come out on top?

Mr. Schama’s other specialty is to bring the historical moment into sharp, immediate focus. He sets scenes on a grand scale. His opening views of Leiden, Rembrandt’s hometown, and of Amsterdam, where the young prodigy moved to seek his fortune in 1631, are the prose equivalent of David Lean’s wide-screen establishing shots. Approaching Leiden from a distance, those tiny spots far across the low-lying boggy fields gradually resolve into windmills, which grow in size and sound and threat as Mr. Schama draws in closer and closer. Given just enough history to establish the military and political and economic significance of these crude octagonal structures, we are then brought into the social ostracism that set the millers in those windmills apart. Finally, we track into the windmill run by one Roelof Gerritszoon, the son of a miller and the great-grandfather of Rembrandt.

Mr. Schama’s prose is never less than energetic. He joyrides through portraits and history paintings, nudes and landscapes, tossing off analysis that links art to social history, politics, law, science and engineering. An unrepentant showoff, he is besotted with his own vocabulary. No one has had this much fun with “valetudinarian,” “winkle,” “tapsters,” “lichenous” and “scrofulous” since William F. Buckley Jr. stopped writing about transoceanic sailing for William Shawn’s New Yorker . At the same time, the book is overdecorated. Though the stink of rats and bad cheese can bring us sharply into a 17th-century Dutch scene, Mr. Schama too often distracts himself by becoming the collector and cataloguer of the baroque.

But superabundant powers of description are indispensable to the study of an artist who warned visitors to his studio: “The smell of the colors will bother you.” With those colors Rembrandt compiled a startlingly candid inventory of humanness–and let harsh light fall on his own flaws as well. Alone among 17th-century painters of the human figure, Rembrandt showed men and women not as idealized Renaissance forms or muscled, regulation-size Classical figures, but as real people in whom shades of feeling and bodily decay could be seen and felt. Fleshy artifice was Rubens’ trademark; the natural, inward-gazing energy of Rembrandt’s portraits and self-portraits was something new in the 17th century. Even Rembrandt’s history painting was stubbornly personal, his biblical scenes human more than sacred. Mr. Schama sums it up neatly: Rembrandt was “less interested in finding the god in the man than the man in the god.”

In a biography keyed to a consuming rivalry, selection is everything; by being all-inclusive with either protagonist, the author ends up failing both. Exclusion and focus are especially necessary in a tale where so many paintings must be presented in the text. Every event, every painting that does not contribute to the solution of the merged pair will seem inorganic to the story. But no sooner has Mr. Schama started us off with Rembrandt’s obsession with Rubens, pausing effectively to pit one man’s painterly treatment of a subject against the other’s, or to decode an etching whose line of thought parallels the story line, than he abandons his plot to a series of shapeless digressions. The reader has pushed through 30 dense pages of Mr. Schama’s initial 150-page excursion into the life of Rubens when the thought occurs that we are getting most of Rubens’ father’s life before even a glimpse of Rembrandt’s childhood.

Instead of crosscutting between stories so that parallel developments transilluminate both lives, we find ourselves tunneling into two separate chronicles. The development of Rubens’ early life in Antwerp and early vocation in Rome and Mantua sags under the weight and welter of Mr. Schama’s exhaustive inquiries. We perk up at the farcical mishaps that befall the 25-year-old Rubens as he hurries around the continent, doing the bidding of bullying princes, currying favor at the Vatican–a portrait of the artist as a young suck-up. The sustained narrative of Rubens’ disastrous embassy to Spain, with its rain-soaked gifts, ruined canvasses, damaged vases and worn-out bay horses, is among the best of this 750-page book’s often cumbersome set pieces.

The Rembrandt story should pace this narrative. Not only was his art superior in humanity to his rival’s, his life was the messier and more interesting. His beloved wife, Saskia, died of tuberculosis in 1642. He went bankrupt in 1656. Six years later, he was still so hard up he had to sell his wife’s grave. In 1668, he lost his only son, Titus, to plague. Where Rubens remained always cool, nonchalant, self-contained, Rembrandt was urgent, self-examining, perpetually uncompleted.

Four hundred and some-odd pages and 187 illustrations into this lavishly pictorial story, the reader is astonished to learn that our antagonists will never meet. Even in 1635, when Rembrandt is the most important painter in Amsterdam and Rubens arrives to help negotiate peace between Flanders and the Netherlands, the two pass like proverbial ships in the night. But that’s history, like it or not.

Mr. Schama stretches truth not at all when he asks us to believe that the book’s core relationship took place on canvas and in Rembrandt’s mind, but that it was nonetheless as

real “as if the two artists were sharing studio space.” The narcissistic need, in Gore Vidal’s words, to “be myself twice,” does not require the physical presence of a double. It’s enough to know that he or she is out there, mirroring. For readers, however, the absence of a face-to-face, eye-to-eye encounter between Rubens and Rembrandt brings a note of anticlimax to this overlong “doubled” narrative. Mr. Schama tries to console his audience by asserting that Rubens’ death in 1640 was the crucial event that finally freed Rembrandt to be himself, but this I don’t entirely believe.

Stingy Rubens granted the world only four self-portraits, as compared with the blood, sweat and Guinness Book numbers that accrue to Rembrandt’s lifelong contests with head and heart. Rubens, always self-controlled, the very model of perfection, never managed to step outside the circle of his own greatness. He was always the “one and only Rubens.” Rembrandt, early on, found the way to become everyman. When painting a beggar, the Dutch artist was not satisfied to stand aside and observe objectively; he stepped into the picture and became the beggar. By merging with his subjects, and through them, with us, Rembrandt constructed an art that was universal and lasting. Moreover, by taking art away from the princes and the popes (the same patrons who bedeviled Rubens) and giving it back to the artist, Rembrandt invented the modern art market–all before Rubens’ death.

Of the two, Rubens is the one we all start out wanting to be. Rembrandt is who we are. We complete his circle and he ours. By sharing a narrative whose painterly gaze dissolves a life’s work back into the lives from which it sprang, Mr. Schama gives back to scholars, students and his grateful public a sentient, feeling Rembrandt.