In ‘Young Rembrandt’, the portrait of the budding artist is an engaging sketch

Reagan Upshaw

THE WASHINGTON POST – When we picture Rembrandt, most of us imagine the middle-aged man from the self-portraits done in Amsterdam. These show a man who has seen prosperity and bankruptcy, love and loss, and who views the world with hard-earned compassion. In Young Rembrandt, Onno Blom seeks to fill the gaps in the story of the artist growing up in the Dutch city of Leiden, Blom’s hometown. This book began as a series of weekly newspaper columns in which the author attempted to trace the path of that young man.

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?

Lacking concrete details of the artist’s daily life, a biographer is tempted to fall back on the hypothetical.

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 tantalising glimpse of the artist’s first steps.