The Magazine

Portrait of the Artist

Simon Schama Eyes Rembrandt

Dec 27, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 15 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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Rembrandt's Eyes

by Simon Schama

Knopf, 728 pp., $ 50

Rembrandt's face is the best-known, best-loved face in art history, and it is the ghost in art's mirror -- humbling in its humility, reproaching with its gently raised eyebrows every artist who plays the fool for fame or fortune, haunting with its intimate faraway eyes every other artist's attempt at art's fundamental rite of self-portraiture. It is the nearest art has to a conscience.

Rembrandt's paintings have the beckoning aura of warm tents on cold nights. Once you are inside, they envelop you. Writers routinely use the language of light to describe intangible, invisible states of mind: "illumination," "clarity," "spark." For painters, such metaphors are harder to wield; no artist ever surpassed Rembrandt in wielding them. The golden light that fills his paintings seems like the actual stuff of spirit, the light of thought.

Rembrandt's colors are relentlessly warm; he used the warmest palette of any great painter. The metal surfaces he depicts are apt to be gold, not silver. His reds are orangey, his yellows golden, his greens earthy brown. A Rembrandt pearl has golden warmth, not pearly coolness. His hatred of blue verges on the pathological. Modern scholars point out that the famous painting that has been called The Night Watch since the late eighteenth century is actually a daylight scene; it is said to have picked up its name because of surface grime. But today it stands degrimed -- and it could still be mistaken for a night scene. Rembrandt hates blue so much (and ambiguity so little) that he omits the blue sky even when a painting seems to call for it.

Rembrandt's figures seem detached, in a remarkable way -- while looking you straight in the eye. They offer you the intimacy of a friend who knows you so well, he can acknowledge your presence without interrupting his train of thought. In a whole series of later masterpieces (for example the Portrait of Jan Six, or Saint Bartholomew, or the Frick Self-Portrait), the subject looks right at you but thinks about something else.

Rembrandt's paintings nearly always have an immediacy that reflects an unusual cognitive personality: Every artist thinks in images, but some don't merely think in pictures, they think by making pictures. Instead of pondering, they draw or they paint. Another artist might have thought obscene thoughts about his critics; Rembrandt made obscene pictures of them. He left a trail of vulgar, rude, and scatological images that has upset critics and admirers for centuries. But his unusual style of thought accounts also for his greatest achievement: the invention of a type of light that seems like a direct emanation of mind, that makes spirit visible almost in the sense that night-goggles make infrared visible. His art extends the eye's capacity to see.

Rembrandt's range was never broad, and grew narrower as he matured. Critics sometimes praise his range (of colors, moods, media, brush-strokes) -- which is like praising the range of cut diamonds. Diamonds do come in several colors; they don't all look alike. But their similarities over-whelm their differences. The celebrated "Rembrandt Look" appears on the faces of men and women, old and young, Jews and gentiles, whites and blacks, Biblical heroes, ancient Greek philosophers and modern merchants.

Rembrandt recreated one image again and again (or reinstalled one spirit in a long line of bodies) with a fanatic stubbornness unequaled until Alberto Giacometti's work in the twentieth century. Giacometti kept remaking the same image because he saw each fresh attempt as a fresh failure, another failed effort to translate into paint, clay, or plaster the idea that obsessed him. We have no reason to think that Rembrandt saw himself as a failure -- but every reason to understand his work in terms of an all-consuming compulsion.

The historian Simon Schama is an admirable man. He is a formidable and respected authority on the seventeenth century, and, more important, he is serious about scholarship and art. Today's hot topics in academic art history -- gender, race, class, Eurocentrism, multiculturalism, the oppressive tyranny of white males -- he doesn't believe are even worth dismissing. In Rembrandt's Eyes, Schama has taken the radical tack of writing about Rembrandt. It is a rare achievement, and he deserves all the honor and glory he can get.