BookTalk: Simon Schama Discusses Rembrandt’s Eyes
Not many people have the honor of being introduced by Professor Emeritus Maxine Greene. When it does happen, you can be sure it is a very special person.
Writer and professor Simon Schama had that honor when he lectured on his book, Rembrandt's Eyes, at a TC BookTalk held at the Guggenheim Museum in November. The audience that filled the Peter Lewis Theatre to capacity, a record-breaking one for the BookTalk series, also testified to his distinction.
In her introduction, Greene praised Schama's work. She admitted being envious of his article in The New Yorker and lauded his book Landscape and Memory, which she said helped her understand "how the American landscape affected human consciousness."
As a student of Jack Plumb, a professor of Modern History at Cambridge in the 1960s, Schama was taught that writing about history should be entertaining to entice those outside of the academy.
With that in mind, Rembrandt's Eyes places Rembrandt in the context of the world in which he lived. One reviewer noted that the 700-plus page book describes "every aspect of Rembrandt's life and culture" and tells more about 17th century Holland than about the artist himself.
In the book, Schama does not comment on Rembrandt's entire body of work, but focuses on connections between Rembrandt's work and that of Peter Paul Rubens, a Catholic painter from Antwerp. For instance, when a Calvinist secretary to a man of letters was looking for a native talent whose work would be reminiscent of the work of the Catholics, "He finds this in Rembrandt," Schama said.
While Rembrandt borrowed from Rubens, he had to maintain Calvinist tradition by keeping a distance from "idolatry" and making the painting into a sacred spectacle.
In one example, Schama compares Rubens' version of Christ's first appearance after the crucifixion to Rembrandt's. "Rembrandt's version is phantasmagorical," he explained. "The eyes of the person seeing Christ are incredulous. He is witnessing the real presence of Christ."
Not only does Rembrandt paint the scene, he expresses the emotion of the scene through the eyes, through the textures he uses and the techniques. If he did use Rubens' work as a guide, Schama noted, that is not the end of the story, but rather the beginning.
"Fundamentally, Rembrandt has re-made the whole language and story of the image," Schama said. "He is interested in the manipulation of paint to lend power to the story he is trying to tell."
A particular painting of Saint Bartholomew holding a knife with a sharp edge exemplifies that point. "Sir Bartholomew was filleted," Schama said. Bartholomew's skin "is rendered with a loving texturally detailed care," he continued. "Every wrinkle, every vein, crease, furrow, dimple is recorded, with an intention of forcing us to concentrate on that skin which is going to be removed from the saint-forcing us to think about the horrible end awaiting this figure."
Rather than write a book that simply depicted Rembrandt's life, Schama said he looked at that life and used the book to explain the effects of painting in terms of what patrons wanted. "[Rembrandt] didn't want to beg for patrons, he wanted to flatter them," Schama said. "Rembrandt would take what they wanted and go beyond it. Patrons thought they, themselves, were brilliant enough to have [wanted that result] all along."
Published Tuesday, Sep. 18, 2001