Rembrandt remains an enigma

24 January 2020

10:00 PM

24 January 2020

10:00 PM

Young Rembrandt Onno Blom

Pushkin Press, pp.277, £20

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–69) is not only the presiding genius of the Dutch golden age of painting, but one of the greatest painters of all time. His work — as painter, draughtsman and etcher — continues to fascinate and move us like none other. He has been the subject of innumerable books, from novels to weighty volumes of art-historical analysis and argument, and even some films (remember Charles Laughton as the heavily moustachioedartist?). Now we are offered a book which deals specifically with his early years, attempting to explain how the young man became an Old Master.

It is heavily illustrated, with 100 colour photographs placed throughout the text, in a neat, reader-friendly format. Unfortunately, at least three full-page digital images have been enlarged beyond their capacity, resulting in an ugly break-up of legibility. Pushkin Press, however, is not known for its quality art publications, and Young Rembrandt is really a historical memoir of the city of Leiden, written by a Dutch author seeking to explain the artist through the context of his native city.

In his prologue, Onno Blom writes that, given the almost total absence of documentation about the young Rembrandt, he has had to construct his biography from what he saw about him every day.‘I built my sentences from the stones of my city,’ he writes, and follows this statement with a map of Leiden in 1633. Thus we are given readily available details about life in 17th-century Holland concerning burial rites, plague victims, the obligations of the civic militias, city renovation and the influx of immigrant workers to bolster the cloth trade. But Blom has to accept that Rembrandt may never have made a drawing of the city, though we know he drew the country around Amsterdam when he moved there. The chief problem facing any biographer will always be this insurmountable lack of information. The most factual of approaches is reduced to guesswork.

Rembrandt came from a family of malt millers who plied their trade in and around Leiden. His talents were soon recognised by his father, who sent him to the Latin school (‘a prestigious institution and relatively expensive,’ writes Blom), rather than apprenticing him to a trade. Blom asserts that at school Rembrandt would have learned the three-stage classical process of translation, imitation and emulation which was to form the basis of his approach as a painter.

Then, on 20 May 1620, the adolescent was enrolled as an arts student at the University of Leiden. New research indicates that he studied there for at least two years, which may help to account for his swift development as a history painter and his understanding of the Bible. Perhaps the Latin school and the university were indeed of use to Rembrandt in his career, but the lack of evidence proving the assertion one way or the other is undeniable.

Blom’s strategy of digression is by now the warp and weft of his text: he gives us a potted history of Leiden University, its library, its botanical garden, its collection of curiosities, its anatomy theatre and its most famous alumni. We also get a disquisition on the religious climate of the period. No sooner is there a morsel of Rembrandt-related fact, such as Jacob Isaacsz van Swanenburg being his first teacher, than Blom proceeds on a lengthy interlude concerning van Swanenburg’s family history, and nearly three pages elapse before the painter is mentioned again.

Young Rembrandt seems to have been built upon the theory that if you describe everything around your subject, you will somehow illuminate the mysterious centre. But it doesn’t work: Rembrandt is still the dark star at the hub of the Dutch art world. The book sheds scant light on him, though a great deal on the setting in which he reached maturity. Perhaps there’s simply no accounting for genius, and the enigma that is Rembrandt — note the parallel with Shakespeare, about whom we also know very little — will persist regardless of attempts to explain it.

Rembrandt allegedly said: ‘All my pictures are self-portraits,’ and this is the best response: to go back to his art, and forget his life. An exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, also entitled Young Rembrandt  (27 February–7 June) promises to be well worth a visit.

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