Rembrandt van Rijn's early years are as famously shrouded in mystery as Shakespeare's, and his life has always been an enigma. How did a miller's son from a provincial Dutch town become the greatest artist of his age? How in short, did Rembrandt become Rembrandt? Seeking the roots of Rembrandt's genius, Onno Blom immersed himself in Leiden, the city in which Rembrandt was born in 1606 and where he spent his first twenty-five years.
Onno Blom’s biography of the young Rembrandt plays this game of artistic nature versus nurture to fascinating effect. It is a book that sets itself a conundrum: 'How did Rembrandt become Rembrandt?' ... Blom necessarily has much more to say about the painter’s nurture than his nature ... Blom’s method is persuasive: he follows the painter around Leiden’s streets and over its bridges (145 of them, he says) to recreate the world that shaped him. As a result, the book is a biography of the city too ... Rembrandt would develop into the great Everyman of art. If, as Blom so elegantly shows, Leiden set him up for great things it was in Amsterdam that he was to realise them.
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 ... 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 ... Lacking concrete details of the artist’s daily life, a biographer is tempted to fall back on the hypothetical ... Such speculations aside, “Young Rembrandt” holds a wealth of historical tidbits about daily life in early 17th-century Holland ... 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.
The book’s strength does not lie in art historical investigation. It is at its best when describing the city of Leiden and providing a wide background panorama to Rembrandt’s early life ... There are some translational oddities in the book, and some wince-making clichés: 'Rembrandt’s self-portraits are windows into his soul,' etc. The author can be irritating ... However, Young Rembrandt is well researched and it certainly widens our understanding of the local historical context. The illustrations are beautiful.