Van Loon’s portrait of Rembrandt merges two romantic conceptions of the artist: The first is a view of the artist as an unappreciated genius undervalued by a fickle public, and the second is a conception of the artist as one who cannot cope with the practical concerns of daily life. Thus, Van Loon accounts for Rembrandt’s difficulties in his later years by a combination of Rembrandt’s integrity as a painter unwilling or unable to conform to the shallow tastes of the public and of his inability to manage his financial and personal affairs. This interpretation makes Rembrandt both hero and victim and gives the reader of any age a reason to care about him.
Although knowledgeable readers may presume Rembrandt’s greatness, Van Loon utilizes several narrative techniques to gain his audience’s appreciation for the artist’s work. The most important method may be the use of the sensitive and intelligent narrator, Joannis, to testify to the worth of Rembrandt’s paintings. In addition, Van Loon creates dialogue in which Rembrandt describes his own vision of particular works. Finally, reproductions of selected paintings and etchings allow readers to form their own opinions. These strategies convince readers both of Rembrandt’s greatness and of the injustice of the reception given his later works.
For example, Van Loon sees Rembrandt’s acclaimed The Nightwatch (1642), a painting of a company of military volunteers, as a turning point in the artist’s career. In the biography, Rembrandt is shown displaying the work to an amazed and...
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Van Loon’s work is clearly fictionalized biography, but it is among the earliest works on Rembrandt accessible to younger readers. Although the length and leisurely pace of the original 1930 edition may be slow for some younger readers, the 1939 edition, revised and condensed by the author, remains one of the more compelling biographies of an artist. By focusing on the tribulations of Rembrandt’s later years, Van Loon creates a story with conflict, tension, and excitement and makes the reader care about Rembrandt’s fate.
Nevertheless, fictionalized biography frequently presents historical speculation as if it were fact. Certainly, a number of Van Loon’s interpretations are questioned by recent art historians. Van Loon’s thesis—that Rembrandt’s problems in his later years stemmed from a lack of public appreciation—has become a subject of debate. For example, there is good evidence that The Nightwatch was not the failure that Van Loon presents but was greatly admired at the time. Van Loon also depicts Dircx, a servant and nurse in the Rembrandt household, as a hysterical and dangerous woman who made life miserable for the great painter; some historians believe her to have been Rembrandt’s mistress and the model for several important works. Although readers need to understand that R. v. R. is a narrative based on an arguable interpretation of historical documents, the biography serves as an excellent introduction both to Rembrandt and to seventeenth century Dutch life.