Blom is an indefatigable researcher, and he has made every effort to inspect any scrap of paper that documents Rembrandt’s existence between his birth in 1606 and his final departure for Amsterdam in 1631. Unfortunately for his biographer, Rembrandt was the ninth child of a miller, and there was no reason that any note should have been taken of his childhood. By the time Rembrandt was 14, his father was prosperous enough to send him to the University of Leiden, where he studied briefly. When it became apparent that the teenager’s true interest and talents were in art, however, his father allowed him to leave school and undertake a three-year apprenticeship with Jacob van Swanenburg, a well-known local painter, followed by six months in Amsterdam with Pieter Lastman. By the age of 19, Rembrandt had returned to Leiden to open his own studio, and he would be accepting pupils within two years.
The problem with writing a full-length book about a figure whose early life is sketchy is that the author is obliged to pad. “Young Rembrandt” has a chapter on a siege of Leiden by Spanish forces in 1574, more than 30 years before the artist’s birth. Rembrandt’s parents and grandparents were undoubtedly affected by the siege’s hardships, but how much did those days influence his art? Another chapter details the political battle between orthodox Calvinists and breakaway Remonstrants in Leiden during the artist’s childhood. Rembrandt’s father was Remonstrant (his mother was Catholic), but there is no evidence that theological hairsplitting played any part in his worldview.
Lacking concrete details of the artist’s daily life, a biographer is tempted to fall back on the hypothetical. Young Rembrandt, according to Blom, “must have seen” this or “would have been familiar” with that. Writing of 18-year-old Rembrandt’s first trip to Amsterdam, Blom imagines Rembrandt’s first glimpse of the Netherlands’ largest city. “As the boat sailed across the IJ towards the harbor, its boom stretched out wide, the west wind propelling it forward, the silhouette of the city would have appeared to fill the entire horizon.” Perhaps. Or perhaps it was a foggy day, and the first view Rembrandt had of Amsterdam came when the docks loomed out of the mist.
Such speculations aside, “Young Rembrandt” holds a wealth of historical tidbits about daily life in early 17th-century Holland, when painters kept their homemade paint in knotted pig bladders and coffins were stacked four to a tomb under the flagstones of the church floor. (After 10 years, it was permissible to flatten the coffins to make room for more burials.)
The worldwide notice given this past month to the re-attribution to Rembrandt of a small painting at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum is a testament to the fascination the Dutch artist still holds for us. If “Young Rembrandt” does not wholly succeed in its quest to reanimate the young man setting out on the path that would bring him fame, Blom’s book does offer a tantalizing glimpse of the artist’s first steps.
Reagan Upshaw is an art dealer and critic in Beacon, N.Y.
By Onno Blom; translated by Beverley Jackson
W.W. Norton. 280 pp. $30