Tag Archives: rembrandt

Novels and the Art of the Mauritshuis

Last night, I had the great honor of reading from my new novel, The Anatomy Lesson (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) inside the museum that holds the 1632 Rembrandt masterpiece that inspired it: “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.”

anatomy-lesson-rembrandt
The occasion was the opening of the renovated Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery in The Hague, a jewel-box museum with a small (with just 800 artworks) but extraordinary collection of Dutch and Flemish Golden Age paintings. Its holdings also include Vermeer’s “The Girl With The Pearl Earring” and Carel Fabritius’ “The Goldfinch,” two paintings that have been the inspiration for two highly successful novels.

Lately, a lot of people have been asking me why one museum contains so many works of art that have been explored through recent works of literature. It’s a good question, and one I’ve been mulling for a while.

First, a disclaimer: Until I first visited the Mauritshuis in 2006 to start doing research for my own novel, I didn’t know that “The Girl With The Pearl Earring” was housed in the same museum, even though I was aware of Tracy Chevalier’s novel of the same name. And I didn’t hear about Donna Tartt’s novel, The Goldfinch, until my agent was shopping my book and her publisher rejected mine on the grounds that “two such deserving novels shouldn’t be competing on the same list.” I took that as a great compliment – and it’s one of my favorite rejection letters ever.

No, back in 2006, I used to visit the Mauritshuis about once a month, traveling down to the Hague from Amsterdam, sitting with the painting for about an hour a time, looking, thinking, listening to art patrons and docents talk about the painting, scribbling notes in a small Rembrandt notebook I’d bought in the gift shop downstairs – basically just soaking in the work. It was a work I loved before I came here, of course, and I had been looking at it in reproduction for a long time. My father purchased a 9×11 inch poster in the same gift shop downstairs in 1965, just after he finished medical school, and he hung it in his study. That’s where, as I child, I looked at it quite often.

Seeing the real work in person was something else entirely. First, I was awed by the size of it – nine figures on a canvas, all life-size. In that intimate gallery setting, you really feel as if you’re in the dissection chamber, in and among the surgeons. Looking at a dead body that’s right there before you. The faces of the live men are vivid, colorful, ruddy-cheeked. The dead man is pale, but fleshy, a human being too.

anatomy-lessonSecond, I was amazed by how much I could discover by just sitting with it in that gallery, observing. It’s the kind of painting that’s almost like a great jazz recording, which you can listen to again and again and always discover something new. I found inspiration sitting there, sometimes when I was carrying around emotions and thoughts from my own life, a few times in moments when I was too tired to even look anymore.

One morning, I was particularly sad because a man I’d fallen in love with in Amsterdam was going off to travel, and was leaving me. I looked at the dead man in the painting, stripped almost bare, his body pallid and naked, and I thought: someone loved that man, too, and he left her. First, he left her through wandering – he was a thief and a vagabond – and then he left her for good. It was the start of one of the key narratives of my book.

For the last two years, the Mauritshuis has been closed for expansion and renovation, and in the meantime “my” painting has been exhibited at various museums, including the Gemeentemuseum, another gorgeous museum also in The Hague. I went to visit it there two months ago, and felt like it was a bit far away from me, although I could still walk up to it and see it up close. The gallery spaces were just much larger, and in the broader context with many more works surrounding it, it just felt less intimate.

Last night, before I read from my novel, I snuck back upstairs to the gallery to see “my” painting in the room where I’d visited with it so many times before. It felt like visiting a dear friend. It occurred to me then that perhaps the reason the Mauritshuis’ collection has inspired works of literature is that when you’re in the museum you feel a kind of personal intimacy with the paintings that’s rare in larger museums – perhaps Chevalier and Tartt felt that too.

For me, that moment of being alone in the room with “The Anatomy Lesson,” eight years later, now with the novel finished, was a kind of homecoming, the circle finally complete.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on June 30, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Asher Lev as a Model for Rembrandt

my-name-is-asher-levAfter reading the penultimate draft of my latest novel, The Anatomy Lesson (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday), a trusted reader and one of my closest friends from the Iowa Writers Workshop, author Josh Rolnick, suggested I take a moment to read Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev.

At first, I couldn’t quite imagine how a novel about a Hasidic Jew in twentieth century New York City would relate to my story, which centers around the creation of Rembrandt’s first masterpiece, “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp,” set on a single day in Amsterdam in 1632. But Josh has never steered me wrong in the past, so I followed his advice.

Potok’s 1972 novel tells the life story of a young Orthodox Jew with prodigious artistic talent growing up in a cloistered Hasidic community in Brooklyn, who finds himself torn between his family’s expectations and his artistic calling. The more he follows the path that seems to be his destiny, the more he finds himself in serious conflict with his father and alienated from his community. In the end, Lev paints an image that makes it impossible for him to ever return home again: a crucifixion.

After reading the book, I could see certain immediate parallels with my own novel. In Potok’s novel, Lev invokes Christian iconography to explore a non-Christian theme: Jewish suffering in general, and in particular the suffering of his own mother, Rivkeh, who has been at the center of the emotional tug-of-war between father and son. (Marc Chagall also painted a crucifixion scene, by the way, “White Crucifixion” (1938), which is widely regarded as a representation of the suffering of the Jewish people). In my novel, Rembrandt brings Christian iconography into a totally secular setting: the intellectual and medical arena of the anatomy theater.

Rather than a crucifixion scene, Rembrandt painted a secular group portrait of surgeons, barbers, and apprentices at a dissection as though they were disciples standing around the dead Jesus. That’s one interpretation, of course. It’s also possible to read the dead man in Rembrandt’s masterpiece as a kind of Lazarus in the tomb. Scholars over the years have suggested both. In either case, Rembrandt has employed biblical imagery in a context where it would’ve been considered highly provocative, if not scandalous.

Rembrandt doesn’t appear to have been much of a churchgoer, but he was clearly a reader of the bible, and he painted scenes out of both the Old and New Testaments. More importantly, like Asher Lev, he was a student of art history, and western painting begins, of course, with Christian imagery: crucifixion, Madonna-and-child, last suppers, ascensions, descents from the cross… A painter can’t be a master, even today, unless he or she is familiar with this imagery. For Rembrandt in the seventeenth century and for a painter worth his salt in twentieth century New York, invoking classical western art traditions in this way was more about painting than religion.

But this may not have been the main reason Josh suggested I read My Name is Asher Lev. What he was offering me, by way of Potok, was a model for a narrative arc that would help me take my novel to the next, and higher level. That is to say, a way to have the novel explore how a man comes to break through his personal and cultural barriers to create a work of art that is both of himself and beyond himself – i.e., in some way universal.

That was the fundamental shift that my novel needed to contain, and after reading Asher Lev I was able to go back to The Anatomy Lesson with fresh eyes, and a clearer perspective on the larger narrative arc that my novel needed to take. I was grateful to Josh for the suggestion, and to Chaim Potok for showing me the way.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on June 26, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy