Saturday, March 17, 2012

R.v.R. The Life and Times of Rembrandt Van Rijn
Author: Hendrick Willem Van Loon
Publisher: Literary Guild, NY
Copyright: 1930

R.v.R. photos

OMG, I thought I’d never finish the 570 pages!  In all the times I’ve re-read “War and Peace,” page counting just didn’t seem to come up.  I guess we can’t all be Tolstoy’s.

R.v.R. The Life and Times of Rembrandt Van Rijn might have been more aptly named  “The Times of Rembrandt With a Little About Him, Too.” Van Loon claimed on the title page that this was the REAL journal of his REAL grandfather (see photo), which I quickly realized was a ploy, but weakened my confidence in the historical accuracy throughout the book.

There is a “Forest-Gumpish-ness” Van Loon uses to insert his FICTIONAL great grandfather, into all the critical history of 17th century Amsterdam, only instead of being funny, it was not humorous or cogent.

A doctor in those times was anything from a barber, (whisker-plucker) or a leech no matter how many years of study the individual had invested, so the author tells us.  How then could Dr. Joannis (Jan) van Loon decode a top-secret English letter for the burgomasters of Amsterdam, which led to the splitting up of the planet between the English and the Dutch?  Would HE be given a lot of money by different burgomasters to look for fields in America for eight years?  Could he have housed Rembrandt, his “wife,” & two children along with his own teenage son for two years in perfect harmony?  Could you?

As Jimmy Fallon said while playing the “Baston” character, Pat “Sully” Sullivan, “EIRIEGADLESS,” let’s focus on the information that is included about Rembrandt in this 570-page page-turner.  The novel begins in 1641 when a leech is needed at Rembrandt’s house and Dr. Jan happens to be strolling by.  Saskia, Rembrandt’s wife, is ailing after giving birth to their son, Titus. By and by, we are told Rembrandt is the oldest son of a miller and while given the chance to go to school, he left to be a painter, married the daughter of a burgomaster, and was very successful until he painted “The Night Watch.”

I saw this painting in 1979, and was struck dumb by the sheer size, 11’10” x 14’ 4”.  The beauty of the contrasting and directional light, imbued with color and the motion of the people made it one of the most moving and beautiful things I have ever seen.  There’s something, too, about being in the same room with the artist’s beloved work.  The characters are life-size and almost walk off the canvas.  How ironic then that this is the painting that made Rembrandt a laughing stock and ruined his reputation. 

In a time when everyone wanted portraits and were paying for their faces ensconced in ruffles of vanity lace, Rembrandt wanted to paint emotions.  He tried to pay this group of policemen a compliment that in readying themselves to go into the dangers of the night, theirs was a serious and sometimes dangerous job that they faced together.  But they and the entire city laughed.  Several wouldn’t pay their amount because they weren’t looking directly at the viewer. After this, Rembrandt was out of favor.  When commissioned for a portrait, often the purchaser decided to pay him less or not at all.

Artists in these times were seen as amiable loafers and thought to be careless, slovenly, and deserved their poverty.  Some things never change.

Before Saskia passes, she had a will made giving all her earthly goods to Rembrandt.  Though he never receives a penny from her relatives, he does live on the “credit” of that will for many years.  After Saskia died, Rembrandt took up with the maid, who was bad, then with the next maid who was good.  He is portrayed as a man who only wanted to make or buy art. 

The 2nd maid, Hendrickje, became his “wife” in his eyes, but he couldn’t marry her as he was living on the credit of a worthless will that left all to Titus, their son, if he remarried.  The church gave them no end of trouble when she became pregnant.  Rembrandt had left the church long ago, but Hendrickje had not, so she was called before a tribunal.  They were seen as flouting God’s laws and this did little to help his business.

His personal life was fraught with money problems, as he kept no accounts.  Saskia’s relatives came after Rembrandt’s house “for the child,” but none of this was theirs only he couldn’t prove anything due to having kept no records.  He lost his beautiful home where he had a press and students from time to time, to live fictionally with the doctor for two years, but probably actually to an apartment he didn’t like.  When they could no longer afford that, they moved to a small, lesser abode.

Most of this we know already, but hey, this was written before 1930, so it could have been new to some then.  I may be being too hard on Mr. Van Loon for his digressions.  There were interesting segments.  He may have done better just having three books instead of putting it all in this one.  There’s a lot about his three multi-cultural friends and the fun they had together.  Then there are all the years in America.  He does explain some interesting history about the full fervor of capitalism in England and Amsterdam.  There’s a lot of information on all the competing religions and their ugly sides.  Nothing but fighting for power against science, which seems a little more likely coming from a historian in the 1920’s than a doctor in 17th century Amsterdam.

There are politicians who pretend to be religious to get support from the churches—nothing new there.  A wealthy burgomaster said, “Mankind has but one enemy, its own stupidity, but it loves that enemy . . .”

In America, we are introduced to an unusual religious belief for the times through a Jesuit priest, Father Ambrosius.  “Life”, he said, “is not real.  It is based upon fairy tales.  It all depends upon the story we prefer.”  Father Ambrosius’ fairy tale (he called it) consisted of three words, “Love one another.”  The fairy story in the good father’s opinion was that those words spoken on a barren hillside in Judea were even uttered at all.  He believed in the unbelievable courage it took say that in a world of greed, lust, hatred, and cruelty.  Van Loon pointed out that while America was fraught with danger and hard work, people were free of the Inquisition and religious judgment, especially his Jewish friend. 

ANYWAY, back to Rembrandt!  If the author is correct, Rembrandt’s quest of light began while mending burlap sacks in his father’s mill.  A swinging cage of excited rats crossed the floured light combined with the moment of complete black when the wooden arms passed by the tiny window, formed the basis of his search.  Every object is surrounded by light or space and a depth is created.  His goal was to understand this mystery as nature presented it.  I think he accomplished this very well, what say you?  There are 22 illustrations of Rembrandt’s works throughout the book to judge for yourself.

This book condition is “fair.”  It’s 82 years old and has been in the attic for probably 60 of those.  Wine cloth covering w/gilt lettering. No DJ, Literary Guild publication “Wings” is pasted on first interior page and tells about the author, quite a character himself.  Considered rare; brown map endpapers of Amsterdam A.D. 1660. Non-stated, owner inscribed There’s sunfading and yellowed pages, but the type was clear and strong.   Abebooks shows the value to range from $400 to $11.00.
I’d take $15 plus $6 shipping.

 I give it 25 Steps to the Attic out of the 31, because I did learn a lot and that's always worth the climb (;