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Rembrandt's Eyes Hardcover – November 16, 1999


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Hardcover, November 16, 1999
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 768 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (November 16, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067940256X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679402565
  • Product Dimensions: 10.5 x 8.2 x 2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #155,008 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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 recognizable presence in galleries across Europe and North America. Nonetheless, the artist himself remains an enigma. Rembrandt was a notoriously difficult man and an inveterate risk taker in life and art: his 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 treasured collection of paintings and natural rarities were sold off and dispersed, leaving the historian with a tantalizingly 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. Returning to the bustling Dutch world with which he first made his reputation in the bestselling Embarrassment of Riches (1987), Schama re-creates Rembrandt's life and times with all the verve and panache of a historical novelist--while 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 skillfully embedded in a rich, dense 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 Hapsburgs 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 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 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 and lavishly illustrated throughout in full color. The double-page color spreads of the most memorable of Rembrandt's works will take readers' breath away. But above all, this is narrative history at its very best, a page-turner and an adventure story that will make the reader laugh and cry by turns in the time-honored tradition of masterly writing. --Lisa Jardine

From Library Journal

Schama's baroque writing style may be controversial, but here he delivers something undeniably stunning. As much a study of the times as a biography, this richly rendered book builds detail upon detail--just like a painting. Schama escapes the dreariness of much art historical writing and with forceful, vigorous prose makes us really look at the paintings. (LJ 10/15/99)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
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This is a book to read with relish.
a writer
The Rembrandt of Schama's book is a complex man, with hubris, greed and an enormous talent for portraiture.
Al Kihano
Artistic criticism, literature and scholarship blends in an excellent survey.
Midwest Book Review

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

160 of 165 people found the following review helpful By Bruce Loveitt on December 5, 1999
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a brilliant, beautiful piece of work by Mr. Schama. As mentioned elsewhere, it is really a dual biography of Rubens and Rembrandt. But it is much more than that. It is also an in depth portrait of 17th century Holland, politically and socially. The book holds your interest because it constantly shifts gears from talking about Rubens/Rembrandt to telling you what was going on in Antwerp and Amsterdam at the time and then you get to see the wonderful pictures and to read Mr. Schama's sparkling commentaries. I have read almost all of Mr. Schama's books and have always admired his writing style. This is not a dry, academic treatise. All of the characters come to life as they do in the best novels. Unless you are an expert on Rembrandt I also think you will be surprised at some of the paintings, drawings and etchings that are reproduced in this book. I am an art lover but have mainly read up on the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. I didn't know much about Rembrandt other than remembering that he did a lot of self-portraits and that he was very big on chiaroscuro. I thought in terms of there being a sameness to the style in his works but after reading this book you will see how much his art changed throughout his life. There are a few landscapes that have a Romantic- almost Caspar David Friedrich- look to them. Especially in the later work with the rough handling of the paint you can see an influence on Cezanne and Van Gogh. My only complaint about the book, and it is a very minor complaint, is that maybe 3 or 4 of the reproductions are too small to see some of the details that the author is describing. But this is a wonderful book. I am only sorry that now that I have finished it I will have to wait 5 years or so to see what Mr. Schama comes up with next!
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93 of 97 people found the following review helpful By Al Kihano on January 14, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Rembrandt left behind more self-portraits than any artist before or since. With his new book Rembrandt's Eyes, historian Simon Schama has added a new portrait of the artist, this one in meticulously and exhaustively researched, rhapsodically written prose.
Schama's heavy tome makes every attempt to be a definitive work on the painter, and it succeeds. First and foremost it is a narrative of the life and work of Rembrandt van Rijn, although calling it a "biography" somehow sounds reductive. It is equal parts analysis of Rembrandt's painting, documentation of his life, and history of seventeenth century Holland, so sections of the book can be read with profit by anyone studying the artist, his art, or the social history of the times.
The Rembrandt of Schama's book is a complex man, with hubris, greed and an enormous talent for portraiture. Early on he takes the monumentally cocky step of signing only his first name -- no "van Rijn" -- as if he knew his paintings would be studied for centuries to come. His understanding of humans and their personae was without parallel, Schama writes. "No painter would ever understand the theatricality of social life as well as Rembrandt. He saw the actors in men and the men in actors."
As his title suggests, Schama finds special messages in the eyes of Rembrandt's subjects. He notes that in art education painters were taught to put special care into their depiction of the whites of eyes, yet in many of Rembrandt's works -- Schama points to "The Artist in his Studio" (1629) -- the eyes are dull, dark pits. "When Rembrandt made eyes," Schama says, "he did so purposefully," and so in Rembrandt's Eyes he continually returns to the haunting eyes the painter painted.
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72 of 76 people found the following review helpful By Kalpish Ratna on December 18, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Nobody writes more evocatively or enthusiastically about 17th-century Holland as Simon Schama. His 1987 masterpiece of interpretive social history, The Embarrassment of Riches, brought that age throbbingly to life. Throughout this hefty tome Schama is, as the title suggests, desperately keen to see through Rembrandt's eyes. He achieves, with a verbal abundance and an appreciative delight of textures, the world Rembrandt's paintings so lucidly evoke. The chapter entitled Amsterdam Anatomised which describes the port-city, in probably the most eventful era in the entire history of art, the Dutch Golden Age, is itself worth the price of admission.Rembrandt himself steps on centre-stage only on page 202. Schama devotes the first 200 pages to Peter Paul Reubens the Flemish painter ( this could easily have been an entire book on its own! ) as Schama contends, convincingly, that it is impossible to understand Rembrandt unless we understand his desire to emulate Reubens. Why does Rembrandt matter? To Schama and to us? Because, as Schama affirms, Rembrandt is the greatest painter of the human experience ever to have lived - "Which is why he will always speak across the centuries to those for whom art might be something other than the quest for ideal forms; to the unnumbered legions of damaged humanity who recognise, instinctively and with gratitude, Rembrandt's vision of our fallen race, with all its flaws and infirmities squarely on view, as a proper subject for picturing, and, more important, as worthy of love, of saving grace." Eschewing the arid dogmas of academia that infect and stultify art biographies, Schama celebrates all his emotions and beliefs about Rembrandt in this overlong and memorable book. It should be essential reading for anyone who has ever set eyes upon a work by Rembrandt. Take a bow, Simon Schama.
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