I was offered a review copy of ‘Rembrandt’s Mirror’ by Kim Devereux, and was so fascinated I asked Kim for an interview about her debut novel and the experience of writing about such a well-loved artist.
Deborah: We get an intimate portrait of Rembrandt in this book, rebuilding himself after the death of his wife. Which facets of Rembrandt’s personality came as a surprise to you whilst writing, and do you think the women who came later in his life changed him?
Kim: I was surprised by something Rembrandt did. Simon Schama describes it as ‘a deed of great moral ugliness.’ It was omitted from many 19th century accounts of his life, as was his relationship with Geertje Dircx. Neither fitted in with Rembrandt’s status in Holland as a national hero. This ‘deed of great moral ugliness’, also comes as a surprise to Hendrickje. When someone you love does something truly reprehensible, it poses an interesting dilemma. Do you stop loving them? Do you try to change them? Do you wait for them to say sorry and only then restore your affections?
It made Rembrandt a more interesting character and I feel also a more convincing character because human beings are complex and often behave in contradictory ways. It is up to the reader to draw their own conclusions.
Did any of the women change Rembrandt? Well, yes and no. He was quite uncompromising which is a great strength in such a visionary artist. I get the feeling he was able to depart from convention and not worry about it, or the consequences in the slightest. I must admit I find this quite attractive in an artist and in a man. It’s freedom from the fear of being disapproved of. So if this was the case perhaps he could not be influenced by anyone, not even his partners in life? I wondered about this. In particular when it came to a scene where there is a disagreement between Rembrandt and Hendrickje. I found his state of mind so difficult to work out that I asked my boyfriend at the time to improvise the scene with me that I was working on.
My boyfriend grudgingly agreed to play Hendrickje and I slipped into Rembrandt’s shoes. Hendrickje was quite angry and I found myself responding and speaking to her in the conviction that I had done the right thing but what surprised me was that all of it was accompanied by a great warmth and softness. It was just the way Rembrandt felt towards Hendrickje, a fact of life. I think not everything can be explained and there are those times in life where I just find myself liking someone for no particular reason. Maybe I am a romantic but I think that’s love. And I believe that love changes people. So it changed Rembrandt and Hendrickje.
You work in films as well as being a novelist. Did you see the novel in your mind’s eye as a film? Or was it a more painterly experience for you as the writer?
I actually first wrote Rembrandt’s story as a screenplay so I had already visualized it in my mind. In terms of what goes on in my mind when I write: I set up a scene in my head. For example, two characters in a room with a fireplace that is belching smoke. I usually inhabit one of the characters as I imagine the scene but I also see it visually and I watch it unfold. I might write as I do this, simply recording what I experience.
You convey the tactile experience of painting brilliantly. Which of the paintings did you find yourself the most taken by, and can you give us a detail from one of the works which you found particularly interesting?
I was taken by all of the paintings and drawings that function as chapter headings in the novel. I have always loved The Jewish Bride, which has now been renamed as Isaac and Rebecca. I have seen it on three different occasions and each time the experience was quite different. Rembrandt achieves this by using shadows, painting parts of a face in an ambiguous way (similar to the Mona Lisa’s smile) and this means we can project our own interpretation onto the painting. The Jewish Bride in particular draws me into a dialogue each time I look at it. I can happily contemplate it for half an hour and watch it change; first the woman’s smile seems a little sad, almost wistful, then again it seems an expression of her happiness at the deep communion with the man next to her. What moves me every single time though is the way his hand rests on her breast. So still, as if he could listen to her very state of being with his palm. I also love the paintwork of the golden sleeve. The paint is applied with a palette knife, almost sculpted into a three dimensional landscape. I experience a sense of freedom when I look at work like this, because it so boldly departs from anything that has gone before.
In the novel a sense of the numinous seems important both from a religious and an aesthetic point of view. How does Hendrickje’s Calvinism affect her view of Rembrandt and herself?
On the negative side women’s attitudes towards sex and relationships were shaped by religious doctrine. Calvinism in particular viewed sex as sinful, especially outside of marriage. So it would have been extremely shocking for Hendrickje to discover what Rembrandt was up to. And also because sexual feelings were something to be feared than for her discovery that she has them causes inner conflict and turmoil.
On the positive Rembrandt’s art, especially late in his career, has a sense of the numinous. This is true of paintings such as The Return of the Prodigal Son. And his very last work too Simeon and the Christ Child in the Temple, despite being heavily damaged, has that numinous quality. I love that word by the way ‘numinous’. The thesaurus describes it as airy, divine, ethereal, incorporeal, sacred and otherworldly. The way the blind Simeon holds the saviour, as a baby, in his hands. The way the paintwork seems to dissolve around him (an impression that is enhanced by the damage) suggesting that he has already one foot in the next world or perhaps he is inhabiting this world in a way that is alive with beauty.
These are just my personal musings, sparked by Rembrandt’s art and it’s what is so fascinating; that a piece of painted canvas becomes an experience, a space that allows one to get in touch with something within oneself.
Will you stick with historical fiction? And if so, which period are you researching now?
I’m toying with setting my next novel in the present day but it too will explore fundamental questions of what it means to live and to love.