Incisive art criticism, many enlivening anecdotes, and excellent illustrations distinguish this book from other well-researched novels about Rembrandt (for example, by Van Loon, Schmitt, Mens, Mee, Jr., and Matton). Schama’s own goal in writing, as he has characterized Rembrandt’s in art, seems to be to “violate conventional expectations . . . but astonish . . . with excellence (p. 631).” Blurring the genres of art history and biography, Schama synthesizes others’ rigorous researches and technical studies; the careful student should read the works credited in the footnotes (copious but not complete) before citing this text. Schama’s young, ambitious Rembrandt measures himself against Rubens, and his old, diminished Rembrandt paints the imperfections of humanity. Hardly an original thesis, but it is presented with panache. In devoting 150 pages to Rubens, Schama underscores the fascinating relationship between Flemish and Dutch art. For a fuller treatment of Rubens, see Kristin Lohse Belkin, Rubens (Phaidon, 1998; reviewed above). The essence of Rembrandt, so earnestly sought by the author (p. 16), is not found here, nor is it yet contained within a single publication. More thoughtful studies of the integration of Rembrandt’s life and art are by J. S. Held, Rembrandt Studies (Princeton, 1991) and E. van de Wetering, Rembrandt. The Painter at Work (Amsterdam, 1997). Nonetheless, Schama gives an impressive performance in this product of “Rembrandtolatry” (p. 25).
(Reprinted with permission from Choice 99, January 2000. Copyright: American Library Association)