R. V. R. Analysis
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 admiring Joannis and speaking emotionally of his attempt to depict the nobility of these common citizens. Only when the reader is persuaded of the painting’s brilliance does Van Loon relate the unfavorable reaction of the company members who had commissioned the work and who desired nothing more than a typical rendering of men seated around a table. Public dissatisfaction with this work, according to Van Loon, “doomed” Rembrandt and made it nearly impossible for him to obtain commissions for future projects. For the reader, Rembrandt is a victim of public ignorance.
Rembrandt is also depicted as a victim of his own flaws, but these flaws come from his nearly total dedication to art. The painter is described spending exorbitant amounts of money on his collection of art, but he tells Joannis that he buys works in order to learn from them. Pictured as almost childlike in his management of finances, Rembrandt speaks of the time that such inconsequential items as bills and payments take from his work. He is displayed neglecting Saskia during the beginning of her final illness, but he was so hard at work that he did not recognize the seriousness of that illness. Even his brusqueness and rudeness are seen as a consequence of his concentration on a higher calling.
It is not only in the field of art that Van Loon shows persons of vision as victimized by a narrow-minded public. Religious bigotry and intolerance are documented in Amsterdam’s treatment of Jews, Catholics, and any who dissented from approved dogma. Science and religion collide in the subplot of Joannis’ attempt to establish a hospital where he can experiment with pain-killing drugs. When he anesthetized several women, including Hendrickje Stoeffels, in childbirth, he was castigated for defying the will of God, who decreed that women must suffer in the delivery of children. Eventually, Joannis’ hospital was burned to the ground.
Although R. v. R. may too easily divide characters into heroes and villains, oppressors and victims, its detailed narrative of everyday life in seventeenth century Amsterdam and its revealing description of the conditions and motives behind Rembrandt’s works make it fascinating and informative reading. The book’s reproductions, as well as its narrative, remind readers that Rembrandt’s art is an enduring legacy regardless of the particulars of his life.