R. V. R. Critical Context - Essay

Hendrik Willem Van Loon

Critical Context

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 Although readers need to understand that R. v. R. is a narrative based on an arguable interpretation of historical documents, the biography serves as an excellent introduction both to Rembrandt and to seventeenth century Dutch life.