The publishing industry never misses an opportunity to cash in on an anniversary, which is why Rembrandt's doughy visage has been popping up in book shops all over the world this year. 2019 marks the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt's death and some considerable effort (and ink) has gone in to marking the occasion.
There are a host of new books on the Dutch master to choose from, by far the thickest of which is Rembrandt. The Complete Drawings and Etchings by Peter Schatborn and Erik Hinterding. Tipping the scales at just under seven kilograms, the hefty tome from Taschen presents the painter's complete works in print for the first time.
At the other end of the scale scale, as it were, we find Rembrandt's Polish Rider. This highly-focused work by the noted art historian and Frick museum curator, Xavier F. Salomon, weighs in on the long-running debate concerning the identity of the man travelling through that murky, mountainous landscape astride a white horse. In between, we find all manner of biographies and interrogations of the painter's work.
Rembrandt: Biography of a Rebel by Jonathan Bikker, a curator in the Rijksmuseum's Fine Arts department, is the pick of the biography bunch, with Bikker's book connecting the dots between the painter's innovations and his anti-establishment disposition. Rembrandt's Light is given careful consideration by Jennifer Scott and Helen Hillyard, and there is a new, anniversary edition of Erik Hinterding's Rembrandt the Printmaker.
There are even a few new volumes on Rembrandt's so called "self-portraits", which is curious given that the emotionally loaded descriptor would have seemed as strange to Rembrandt as the concept of psychoanalysis.
So, who was this man, who 350 years after his death still inspires such authorly enthusiasm? More to the point, how did Rembrandt become Rembrandt? It's a question that Dutch writer and journalist, Onno Blom, seeks to answer in Young Rembrandt, which, incidentally, shouldn't be confused with another book of the same name by the Oxford curator, An Van Camp.
Blom approaches his subject with a home-ground advantage and it shows right from the kick-off. In the opening chapters, the celebrated biographer and critic takes us on a tour of Leiden, the city on the Rhine where both he and Rembrandt were born.
Blom's engaging, first-person narrative loses none of its immediacy in Beverly Jackson's translation. On the contrary, it's easy to imagine yourself walking along the damp pavers of the Weddesteeg towards the Noordeinde and then on, down a narrow alley, to a "monstrous block of flats" bearing a plaque that reads:
HERE was born
On 15th July 1606
REMBRANDT VAN RIJN
From there, it's a short walk to what was once the Western ramparts of the city. And it was here, by the Wittepoort, that Rembrandt's father, a fourth-generation miller, ran his malt mill.
Rembrandt's supposedly low birth receives considerable attention in most biographies of the artist. The conventional wisdom holds that Rembrandt's ascension to the top of the rarefied art world was highly improbable owing to his parentage.
But this kind of snobbery obscures some important nuances, which Blom discusses with the kind of authority that only a local in command of his subject could muster.
Blom acknowledges that millers have come to be portrayed as swindlers with a penchant for debauchery in Dutch folklore. But the author also points out that in 17th-century Lieden millers were highly regarded members of the community.
Indeed, the mills that dotted the flood-prone landscapes of the Low Countries played a critical role in creating the conditions-agricultural, economic, social-that gave rise to the Dutch Golden Age and were thus rightly celebrated as symbols of progress at the time.
In any case, miller's son or not, the young Rembrandt certainly had opportunities. His father sent him to Lieden's Latin Grammar School, and then to Leiden University, before he apprenticed him to a local painter named Jacob van Swanenburgh.
Was this the moment that Rembrandt became Rembrandt? Many art historians have sought to downplay van Swanenburgh's influence, but the absence of stylistic debts in Rembrandt's paintings doesn't tell the whole story.
According to Blom, Rembrandt had to make "endless sketches, by daylight and candlelight, of plaster busts, feet and hands, and anatomical prints" under van Swanenburgh's tutelage.
But those early efforts were mostly made on a blank slate or tabula rasa, and have since been lost, which makes it difficult to demonstrate the tutor's influence or, it must be said, the absence of it.
However, what does seem clear is that van Swanenburgh's worldliness rubbed off Rembrandt.
We know that Rembrandt never travelled abroad, but then again he didn't have to. In Jacob van Swanenburgh, the young painter found a conduit to the Italian Renaissance, and artists like Leonardo, Raphael and Titian who would come to influence his later work.
And so if Young Rembrandt tells us anything about Rembrandt, it's that there isn't one thing that explains the genesis of one of the greatest painters to ever live, but many.
If you want to understand how Rembrandt became Rembrandt, you could do worse that read Young Rembrandt, a book that acknowledges the opportune admixture of expert tuition, ceaseless practice and an aspiring painter's casual disregard for the artistic conventions of the day.
Of course, Rembrandt's almost preternatural abilities probably helped, too.
- Young Rembrandt, by Onno Blom. Murdoch Books. $45.
- T.J. Collins is a Sydney writer, essayist and critic.