Rembrandt’s Mirror by Kim Devereux

Reviewed by Victoria

rembrandts mirrorThe first thing – inescapable – that you notice about this book is what a beautiful object it is. With gilt-tipped pages, and a midnight blue cover featuring one of Rembrandt’s sketches of his wife, Saskia Sleeping, it’s almost edible. There are gorgeous pictures of Amsterdam on the end papers and lovely, thick paper for the main text. I almost wondered if the book’s physical beauty would overshadow its contents, but I needn’t have worried. The story was completely engrossing and gorgeously told. I swallowed it whole in about three sittings.

The lives of the great artists hold constant appeal; who were these people to own and use such genius? How did it affect their lives – did they make any money or gain recognition in their own lifetimes? Did they need to become as ruthless and single-minded as we fear creative artists must be? Creativity is a story in itself, and the good news is that most artists seem to have had as eventful, dramatic and tragic lives as any reader could wish. Kim Devereux focuses on the later years in Rembrandt’s life when he was already a renowned artist, but financial worries and personal tragedy caused him grief and torment. Her Rembrandt is a glorious mix of brilliance and passion, turpitude and reluctance, a profligate man and a cheap one, a generous lover and a vindictive enemy. Both his charisma and his all-too-human flaws are vividly displayed on the page.

The story is told essentially through the women in his life. When the novel begins, his beloved wife, Saskia, is dying of the plague. Rembrandt paints his way through the crisis of her illness, unable to tolerate her suffering and his own fears. When she dies, he is plunged into overwhelming grief, unable to get out of bed, wash, eat or dress. He is pulled through by loyal friends – Sam, his young apprentice, and Geertje, his housekeeper, who must now also care for his child, Titus. In the process, Gerrtje takes Rembrandt into her own bed, reinvigorating him with her sexual demands but locking him into a relationship that he doesn’t really want.

Then the household takes on a new maid. Hendrickje is a naïve young girl from a strict Calvinist home, sent away by a mother who doesn’t care much for her and who decides she must earn her own living. At first Hendrickje is unimpressed by the household, which seems to her to be ungodly. Worse is to come when she spies on a passionate encounter between Rembrandt and Geertje in the middle of a sleepless night. But inevitably this event begins to awaken her own sexuality and to draw her into a deeper curiosity about the master of the house. When she is asked to fetch a prostitute from the docks for the life drawing class, Hendrickje is appalled and fascinated. Sneaking into the back of the class, she witnesses Rembrandt in teaching mode:

He pointed at the model. ‘Can you see the indentations on her lower thighs from wearing garters? Don’t miss them out, or any other detail; don’t call it ugly or beautiful. Study her with the same care as you would search for a painful but tiny splinter of glass in your finger… Rouse yourselves, for if you miss one mark, one line, one shadow, one curve – you will miss out on knowing this particular woman, right here in front of you, and what have you got then? Nothing. And worse, whoever looks at your drawing will also miss out on knowing her, but not only her – he will miss out on knowing life itself and he will feel cheated. Worst of all, he won’t part with a stuiver for your work.’

Rembrandt is aware of the growing attention of his pretty new maid, and is careful to educate her first in new ways of seeing. Geertje has already warned Hendrickje that ‘the master’s other great gift is to make people love him,’ and gradually she stops seeing him as a shockingly carnal creature, and comes to appreciate his genius and his tenderness. The unfolding love story between Rembrandt and Hendrickje is beautifully done; slow, patient, plausible, we are drawn into their gradually unfolding knowledge of one another. It’s just as well, because before Rembrandt can move on properly, he has to get rid of Geertje, and after seeing his best side with Hendrickje, we are about to see his worst.

I could scarcely believe that this is a debut novel, so assuredly does Kim Devereux tell her story. The writing is gorgeous: the stagnant canal water means ‘Amsterdam remained a beauty with bad breath.’ Rembrandts’ swiftly drawing hand, observed by Hendrickje is ‘broad with fleshy fingers and yet the lines that flew onto the page reminded me of the speed and accuracy with which swallows scooped flies out of the evening sky.’ It’s all lightly done; 17th century Amsterdam comes to life with its customs and idiosyncracies, from the prostitute models to the rich customers Rembrandt entertains, every detail is vividly drawn and perfectly in place, no excess here, no sentiment, no pretension. I was completely engrossed in the story of Rembrandt and Hendrickje and when disaster strikes them again, I could scarcely bear to watch them suffer, but had to find out what happened in the end. This is a powerfully affecting account of Rembrandt’s later years and a mesmerising story.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Kim Devereux, Rembrandt’s Mirror,  (Atlantic Books: London, 2015. 978-1782396741, 400pp., hardback.

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