I’m very excited to be welcoming author, Kim Devereux to Novel Kicks. Her novel, Rembrandt’s Mirror was released on 6th August by Atlantic Books. As part of her blog tour to celebrate the release of her book, Kim talks to us about what drew her to write about Rembrandt and the challenges and research she faced. Over to you, Kim.
I remember seeing Rembrandt’s Self-portrait at the age of 63 in my early twenties. I remained standing in front of it in the National Gallery for a long time and tears came to my eyes. There is something so moving about Rembrandt’s relentless depiction of his own aging face and his steady gaze amidst the wrinkles and sagging flesh. All this he must have observed so carefully in a mirror. He has painted his own decay and yet it is somehow magnificent too, the pose full of dignity and strength.
Imagine what it must have felt like for Rembrandt to scrutinize his face for weeks or even months on end. This is how long it took to paint a large self-portrait. Throughout his lifetime he painted and drew himself at least seventy-seven times.
Who would take a selfie these days that highlights their own decrepitude and still manage to turn it into an absolute triumph? The late self-portraits do just that. I started to puzzled over the fact how, despite suffering heavy blows of fate towards the very end of his life, he still managed to paint breath-taking images full of love and beauty such as The Jewish Bride. It is this question – how he arrived at the late works – that drove me to write Rembrandt’s Mirror and what it would be like to see the world through his eyes. I feel he had an unconventional way of seeing. He was able to put pictorial conventions and prejudices to one side and see things afresh. I feel that he is able to home in on what it is that makes us human. He never objectifies anyone. You always get a sense of the person. He seems to empathize with his subject or he’s very good at painting a face in a way that makes us feel we can get a felt sense of the character on display.
You might be wondering where did all the material for the novel come from? While working in television I researched documentary proposals about Rembrandt’s life and met some of the key experts, such as Ernst van de Wetering the chair of the Rembrandt Research Project and Bas Dudok van Heel, the archivist and historian. I ploughed through the hundreds of historical documents that have been preserved in Amsterdam’s archives. Many of these are a result of Rembrandt’s various legal entanglements and his bankruptcy.
I am an art historian by training so accuracy and familiarity with the art historical literature were important to me. But I also studied the works of art themselves and came to my own conclusions about them.
I remember Ernst van de Wetering warning me not to perpetuate the many false myths about Rembrandt, for example that he was no longer famous when he died. Rembrandt for example still received a royal visit a few years before his death: Prince Cosimo, wrote that he could not have left Amsterdam without seeing Rembrandt. Ernst told me: ‘Searching for the truth is always hot, but the only way to get hold of the truth is by being cold, because you have to be objective and strict in your methods.’
Ernst told me that we are often tempted to look at Rembrandt’s life through the filter of our worldview, or worse still that we go too far in using his life to interpret his art.
However, it was impossible for me not to be moved by Rembrandt’s art. It was impossible not to tell the story in a way that explores the human questions I wanted to focus on. What does it mean to truly love? What does it mean to forgive? And is it possible to be free from fear?
Once Ernst had finished telling me all these wonderful facts he looked me in the eyes and breathed, ‘What a blessing, each time I see one of his works.’
I hope I have come close to the historical truth but also the emotional truth of why Rembrandt’s art still speak to us four hundred years after he created it.
Kim Devereux is an award-winning short-film director and a producer of documentaries. Kim holds an MA in History of Art and English Literature from the University of Edinburgh and an MA from Bath Spa in Creative Writing.
For more information on Kim and Rembrandt’s Mirror, visit http://www.kimdevereux.co.uk/Rembrandts_Mirror/Home.html
Hendrickje, a girl from a strict Calvinist family, leaves her provincial home to find work as a housemaid. She enters Rembrandt’s flourishing workshop five years after the death of the great artist’s wife, an event that continues to haunt him. It is a house full of secrets and desires, and Hendrickje soon witnesses a sexual encounter between Rembrandt and Geertje, his implacable housekeeper. She is shocked to the core by their intense carnality and yet, slowly, she is drawn to Rembrandt by the freshness with which he perceives the world and the special freedom he seems to possess.
Rembrandt is a man of dark corners, strange passions and a ruthlessness born from his need to put his art first. An involvement with him could be her ruin or her liberty.
(Atlantic Books, August 2015.)
I did not know a lot about Rembrandt. Of course I had heard of him but I didn’t know much about him so I was coming to this novel with no expectations beyond it being an intriguing plot. The book itself is beautiful. It has a lovely blue cover and I adore the gold lined pages.
This book focuses on the three women in Rembrandt’s life – his wife Saskia, his lover, Geertje and his last great love, Hendrickje (it is from her point of view that the book takes place.) The narrative was so interesting to me. This very much appealed to my love of history and I got involved with the story – not able to put the book down in fact.
Kim’s style of writing is great and it allowed lovely, vivid pictures to form in my mind. The characters are all interesting. Rembrandt is a law unto himself. Geertje loves him and is not treated nicely or fairly by him in my opinion. Hendrickje is very naive when she comes to work for the artist and she not only sees the talent he has as a painter, she also sees other sides to him that aren’t so great and yet she is drawn to him despite her better judgement. He is a very charismatic man (or that’s how he came across to me when Hendrickje first arrives.) I had empathy for all of the characters at various points when reading the novel.
I feel that the book is very well researched and there was a lot of passion for the subject matter – this comes across in the writing (it even had me looking online after I finished reading wanting to know more about the people portrayed in the novel.) I liked the interpretation of events based on the facts.
This is a beautiful novel and I loved it.