One of the harder tasks a scholar of Dutch art can face is to write a relatively short, concise book about Rembrandt’s life and art. And over the last twenty years ago it has got ever more difficult in view of the increasing amount published about the artist. But there is at least one bonus arising from a strict limit of space. One can ignore the nonsense, and concentrate solely on what you yourself, strengthened by the good research of others, think about the artist. Which is precisely what Mariët Westermann sensibly does. Moreover, however many Rembrandt courses it has been her lot to teach, there is an engaging freshness in her approach to the subject. She is very well-informed about the general culture of the period and up-to-date in her scholarship about the artist. The coverage of all the very different threads that make up the artist’s life and practice is very well balanced, and there is hardly anything of importance not touched upon.
In accordance with one of the aims of the series, the author gives good coverage to the intellectual background, especially relating to his sitters and patrons. But, although rightly stressing Rembrandt’s sound knowledge of classical literature and learning, as well as such literary theories as aemulatio, she does not attempt to intellectualize him; she keeps him in the studio, rather than, as it were, making him an honorary member of the Warburg Institute. (That is an honor better left to Rubens.)
Too often in general books on Rembrandt his etchings get short-shrift and are treated as if they were no more than a Sunday exercise. Commendably Westermann, recognizing that they are central to his activity, as well as a major source of his fame, devotes a perceptive chapter to them. Among other aspects discussed, she offers a clear evaluation of Rembrandt’s technical mastery of the medium, in the same way as she has done earlier in the book for the artist’s handling of oil paint.
I keep resolving to avoid use of that vile political buzzword, accessible, but that undeniably is what this book is, in the best possible sense. As a rounded and well-informed short monograph on Rembrandt and his ambience, the book will appeal to a wide range of reader, whether student, scholar in another field or art-orientated layman. And it is not excluded that a Rembrandt specialist might learn a thing or two. I did.