By Simon Schama

Knopf. 750 pp. $50

Reviewed by Richard E. Spear

Reflecting on Rembrandt's career, Andries Pels, a 17th-century dramatist, concluded that his fellow Dutchman was "the first heretic in painting." "What a shame for the sake of art," Pels lamented, "that so able a hand made no better use of his inborn gifts."

Simon Schama, a cultural historian at Columbia University and author of books including Landscape and Memory and Citizens, makes wonderful use of his own able hand and inborn gifts to bring to life Rembrandt's career as well as that of his contemporary Peter Paul Rubens. Rembrandt's Eyes, whose title refers to the important role that eyes, sight and blindness play in the master's imagery, is three books in one: detailed biographies of the two titans of Northern baroque art, a rich chronicle of 17th-century Netherlandish history, and an astute critique of Rembrandt's and Rubens's art. In my view, this overly long but handsomely produced book is unconvincing in its basic premise: that Rembrandt not only had a "passionate interest in Rubens" but was "haunted by the older master."

Rembrandt undoubtedly hoped to emulate Rubens's success (envy is one sub-theme of the book), and it is true that, for a brief period, he imitated aspects of Rubens's art in a few works. For example, he adopted the Fleming's designs in his "Descent from the Cross" (1631) and an etched "Self-Portrait" of the same year, just as later he emulated poses by Raphael and Titian in a painted "Self-Portrait." But it does not follow that Rembrandt "borrowed the identities" of the artists he studied, as Schama suggests. It's more likely that he was engaging in heuristic imitation, intentionally revealing his models as a way of demonstrating his own work's sensitivity to and distance from them.

Schama's gift in this study, which for biographical information cannot replace Gary Schwartz's Rembrandt: His Life, His Paintings (1985) or compete with the illuminating technical analyses in Ernst van de Wetering's Rembrandt: The Painter at Work (1997), is his ability to verbalize his rich historical imagination. The book begins, for instance, with an animated account of the siege of Hertogenbosch in 1629, when "the army would awake before dawn to a July downpour that continued for days, dissolving strategy into a broth of streaming water and treacly mud. In the rear of the soldiers, a train of hangers-on remained encamped in the sopping mire . . . wives and whores, seamstresses and laundrywomen; babes at the tit and snot-nosed urchins picking pockets or throwing back tankards of beer; vermin-catchers; piss-gazing quacks . . . hurdy-gurdy men; half-wild dogs rooting for bones; and bedraggled lousy vagabonds who simply stood about, hollow-eyed and watchful, like gulls at the stern of a herring boat, drawn to the leavings."

Schama describes vividly other events surrounding the artists' lives: the iconoclasm that ravaged Antwerp in 1566; the ill-advised liaison between Jan Rubens (the painter's father) and the wife of William of Orange-Nassau; Rubens's difficult trip to Spain in 1603 and later diplomatic missions; the bitter, violent controversies that divided Dutch Calvinism; and the biographies of many of Rembrandt's sitters.

Masterfully in control of Northern European history, Schama is less at home in the South. He mistakenly refers to an ancient muse of painting, whose absence among the nine goddesses is indicative of painting's low rank among the arts and sciences in antique thought and for a millennium thereafter. It is similarly misleading to equate "Catholic teaching" with a perfected body and simplistic to claim that in Italy "images . . . in baroque churches were supposed to do their work mystically, bringing the worshipper into a state of trance-like exaltation."

Schama looked long and hard at Rubens's and Rembrandt's art and skillfully verbalizes what he saw. His portrayal of Rembrandt's "Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem" is a masterpiece of ekphrasis, the literary genre of rhetorical description of images. And with no less refinement (a peculiar word in this context), he characterizes Rembrandt's "Ganymede," that shockingly realistic likeness of an ugly boy pissing from fright as he is abducted by the eagle-Jupiter: It "smells of little boy; from his impressive scrotum, chubby thighs, and stomach amply layered with puppy fat, to his squashed nose, puffy cheeks, and curly topknot."

At times the prose takes over, verging on cuteness and misrepresenting works. Schama trivializes Rubens's terrifying "Prometheus" when he speaks of its ferocious eagle as "lunching" on Prometheus's liver, which he calls "bird food." Nor does his description of Claudius Civilis's followers in Rembrandt's haunting image of brooding conspirators ring true when he calls them "swarthy orientals, belching dotards, a druidical priest," contending "you can hear them yell and guffaw, smell their foul breath and unclean bodies." Prints and drawings play an integral role in his analyses, too, though their techniques of the burin, etching needle and reed pen are less well understood.

Another theme of Rembrandt's Eyes is the painter's genius. Schama argues that he was "as much philosopher as poet," a "scholar," a "virtuoso of universal knowledge, every bit as anxious as Rubens to demonstrate that he was no crude artisan, but a pictor doctus, an intellectual painter," even though in 1656 he owned just 15 books. While disclaiming Rembrandtolatry, the book inescapably partakes of the cult, which, like most extremist beliefs, leaves little room for dissension.

Hence the opinion of Andries Pels quoted above is belittled more than historicized, as are paintings by Ferdinand Bol and Govert Flinck, Rembrandt's late, more successful competitors, and the work of Rembrandt's main teacher, Pieter Lastman, whose vocabularies of affective gestures, which certainly were meaningful to their audiences, are called "comical." A consequence of this bias is that Rembrandt's paintings of the Passion, which are among his most "Italianate" images, are considered failures, indicative of Rembrandt's "career as a pseudo-Rubensian maker of angel-choked altarpieces."

Even when it is entirely enthusiastic, style criticism of this sort is ahistorical and threatens to shut down the reader's response. Is Rembrandt's "Portrait of Jan Six" really "without any question the greatest of all his portraits . . . the greatest portrait of the seventeenth century"?

"We're overly accustomed to thinking of the lives of painters as an odyssey of self-discovery," Schama warns, but "for all the excesses of Romantic imaging, we should not be entirely wrong in charting this course for Rembrandt." Thus he is not wary of becoming an analyst, credibly linking biography to imagery, notably in the later works when the artist's life had fallen apart. In light of Rembrandt's dire financial needs, "no wonder" he worked "fast and furious throughout 1654." Was Rembrandt, he speculates, "indulging in a case of tragic projection" in some of his "most originally conceived and hauntingly powerful paintings," designed "while the creditors were knocking at the door"? The most disputed proposition concerning autobiography-into-art, Rembrandt's lifelong, obsessive self-imaging, is accepted by Schama, and explained as the expression of the painter's "experimental dissolution of his self into countless other personae." The great series of self-portraits thus reveals Rembrandt identifying with the "personification" of us all, casting himself as Everyman.

Despite its wonderful evocations of history and art, this book does not measure up to The Embarrassment of Riches, Schama's earlier, brilliant interpretation of 17th-century Dutch culture.

Richard E. Spear, Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Maryland, is the author of books on Caravaggio, Domenichino and Guido Reni.