Heller compares the Netherlands of the seventeenth century to the Athens of the Golden Age, Rembrandt to Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. The true subjects of PICTURE THIS are less art and philosophy than war and commerce as Heller rambles throughout history to comment on the absurdity of all human endeavors.
The novelist describes Aristotle’s thoughts about the painting while Rembrandt creates it and during the years following as it passes from owner to owner. Aristotle is amazed that someone so banal as Rembrandt could paint such a wonder. He is more shocked by how the painting’s value increases as the years pass. Heller devotes considerable attention to the economic troubles of his protagonists, noting that neither could have afforded a Rembrandt. He finds it obscene that only the rich can acquire great art, and his Aristotle attacks what he considers the mindless pursuit of money.
Heller’s method is to juxtapose seemingly unconnected facts, showing how Alexander the Great, Henry Hudson, slavery, and the international herring trade may be related. He compares Lyndon Baines Johnson to Pericles, the Peloponnesian Wars to the conflict in Vietnam. He is outraged that nations are “always ungovernable and always untrustworthy and unfriendly, not least of all to their own citizens.”
Heller found the humanity and humor beneath such despair in his four previous novels, especially CATCH-22. PICTURE THIS, however, is rather cold and distant. Always interesting, it is perhaps too didactic.