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Making It

Did Rembrandt Secretly Envys Rubens' Worldly Success?

REMBRANDT'S EYES; By Simon Schama; Alfred A. Knopf: 702 pp., $50

November 14, 1999|SVETLANA ALPERS | Svetlana Alpers is the author of "The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century" and "Rembrandt's Enterprise: The Studio and the Market." She is a visiting research professor in the department of fine arts at New York University

But would the above-mentioned Huygens have thought the "Self-Portrait" suitable for the court at The Hague if he had seen it in Rembrandt's studio--supposing that he did? In Schama's telling, client and artist were both pursuing genius, Huygens for the court, Rembrandt for himself. And the model of success at the time was Rubens, nearby but across enemy lines in Antwerp.

A change of scene now to New York, 1998. Some thoughts are entertained on the predicament of Genius in the postmodern world. And then the story begins. But, most surprising, for the next 150 pages or so, the story we are told is not of Rembrandt but of Rubens. The Rubens story, much of which concerns his parents, is not well known. But that is not why it is told. The reasoning is that in order to become singular, Rembrandt had to become someone's doppelganger. And that someone was Rubens. Therefore, let's see how Rubens became Rubens.

This is a new twist in the telling of Rembrandt's life. Because the two artists never met and because their relationship was not remarked at the time, what evidence is there, as Schama puts it, that Rembrandt wanted to be the Dutch Rubens? That he worked as if he shared a studio with him? That he wanted to get a foot in a palace door and be a gentleman intellectual and have a career making angel-choked altarpieces?

The clearest evidence of an artistic relationship is that Rembrandt borrowed the format of a "Descent from the Cross" from Rubens and etched a "Self-Portrait" in 1631 that has long been recognized as modeled on an engraved portrait of Rubens.

Rembrandt's relationship to Rubens used to be described in terms of style. In the mid-1630s, Rembrandt painted some large history paintings displaying brutal, physical action. His depiction of Samson, for example, focuses not on snipping off the hair but on the violence of putting out eyes. When stylistic terms were in fashion, this used to be referred to as Rembrandt's "baroque" period. It was seen as an aberration, a detour from the inward nature of his artistry. One might call it Rubensian. But why claim that he wanted to be Rubens?

Is it Rubens' art that Rembrandt was emulating, or was it his successful career? Schama chooses not to distinguish the two.

Given the available traditions of art in Europe, Rubens was a possible event. Even a necessary one. He brings to a culmination what is available. Rembrandt's art, on the other hand, could not have been anticipated. It breaks away. If it is Rembrandt's uniqueness that one is after--and that is surely the basis for understanding his art--then one should emphasize his difference from Rubens.


Rembrandt refused to go to Italy, never painted himself with his wife or his wife with a child, almost never collaborated with artists in his workshop, while Rubens organized a factory system based on collaboration. Rembrandt rarely copied the older art he collected and did not teach assistants to do so; he received no golden chains from courts. Rembrandt portrayed himself many times, Rubens hardly ever; Rembrandt signed almost every painting and etching, Rubens signed only five paintings in his entire career. Rembrandt drew nudes and used women in his household as models although, despite the look of his paintings, Rubens seldom drew models and surely never asked his wife to hold a naked pose for him to paint. After a failed attempt at replicative prints after his works (like Rubens), Rembrandt treated the replicative medium of etching as a way to produce individual, almost unreplicable works. Finally, though most of Rubens' drawings are connected to a future painting, Rembrandt drew without a specific project in view. The great majority of his drawings depict enactments of obscure biblical scenes.

As art historians have replaced the old questions of style and iconography with studies of careers, however, Rembrandt has been transformed from an artistic rebel into an artist bent on making it. It is his relationship to others, not his difference from them, that is now in play. Although Schama does not put it this way, his foray into Rubens is in part a response to the important book by Gary Schwartz, "Rembrandt: His Life, His Paintings" (1985). It is a book to which we are all indebted even when we disagree with it. Schwartz, a dedicatee of Schama's book, framed remarkable archival discoveries about Rembrandt and his patrons with a point of view that came close to trashing the man and his art. Rembrandt is judged to have been a failure because he failed to get on with the court at The Hague and squandered his opportunities with patrons.

Schama has transformed this indictment of Rembrandt's career into a sympathetic story of wanting and failing to be like Rubens, the most successful artist of the day at the European courts. Not to succeed in becoming a Dutch Rubens is a limited kind of failure after which, in this account, Rembrandt went on to be himself.

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