IT is hardly too much to say that our present and what Norman Douglas calls our ‘cannibalistic’ craving for personalities has been most nourished by an Englishman, Lytton Strachey, a Frenchman, André Maurois, and a German, Emil Ludwig. This fall we have a new book by the latter, which is sure to be read, and simultaneously a ‘fictionized’ biography by that picturesque Dutchman, Hendrik Van Loon. By a coincidence Van Loon devotes the whole of his volume and Ludwig the greater third of his to a study of Rembrandt. This similarity in theme throws into contrast their methods of presentation.
Emil Ludwig has developed an excellent method for compiling biographies of great men, although so far he has not had the temerity to apply it to a great woman. Yet this method would seem admirably fitted for that end, since it is largely a selection of details, often in themselves insignificant, which reveal character or illuminate a situation. Thus in his new book, Three Titans: Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Beethoven (Putnam, $3.50), we are told that when Michelangelo was away from his house in Rome ‘the cats missed him very much, though they did not want for food’; or we are reminded that he said, ‘Every painter ought to do sculpture along with painting, every sculptor painting along with sculpture’; or, summing up his life in Rome, ‘ If I did serve the Popes, it was because I had to’; or the profound precept which might stand as his artistic credo, ‘Take infinite pains, and make something that looks effortless.’
Ludwig is also a stickler for dates. He prefaces his book with an outline which records the significant years of his three Titans; it is evidently condensed from a much fuller sketch which served as the basis of his work.
Of the three Titans, Michelangelo receives the fullest and most satisfying treatment; so good is this biography that one wishes it had filled the whole book, expanded and enriched, somewhat as Merezhkovski has given us the life of Leonardo, but without the inventions of the Russian novelist. Not that Ludwig falls short in imaginative creation; he is a true interpreter, as in the first pages, where he paints the life of Lorenzo the Magnificent, statesman, Platonist, and lover of art, showing convincingly the influence of those early years on the whole life of the great sculptor. But it was hardly necessary to stress the possible moods of jealousy among the immortals by a subtle depreciation of Raphael and Leonardo, in order to make Michelangelo stand out supreme.
One finds the same tendency to cast a shadow on Rubens, in the study of Rembrandt, but one finds also the same fine imaginative interpretation; especially sensitive is the picture of Rembrandt’s first work in his father’s mill, where the whirling wings outside the window made a magical succession of light and shade, which fascinated the young painter and dominated all his later work. But one is inclined to think that Ludwig is too sentimental in his record of the many miseries which Rembrandt brought upon himself and those he loved, through sheer inability to keep accounts. One is inclined to believe that, on the whole, the Dutch master was supremely happy in his work; that, even in his last period of dependence, he was ‘as having nothing, yet possessing all things,’ in virtue of his ceaseless power of creation.
Sentimentalism is also somewhat marked in the story of Beethoven, which is nevertheless sensitively recorded. But, while one does gain the feeling of Michelangelo’s immense life work, and in nearly equal degree of Rembrandt’s, this is less true of the great musician; perhaps because Ludwig has adopted the jargon of some art critics, who, in describing music, mix up the names of the instruments, the sounds they produce, and the emot ions to be conveyed by these sounds, as who should say, ‘Bassoons, blare, bravado!’ instead of describing the successive emotions, aspirations, and moods of color which the musician is laboring to express. But after all, the one true description of music is the music itself.
In the ‘School of Athens’ in the Vatican, Raphael has painted Pythagoras, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and ‘other illustrious personages of antiquity,’and has inserted his own picture among them. If one may call this immense picture a ‘portrait of Raphael,’then one is justified in describing Hendrik Van Loon’s new book, R.v.R.(Liveright, $5.00), as a biography of Rembrandt. For Rembrandt does appear among the many figures in this voluminous work.
We begin with a real or imaginary ancestor who, evidently mindful of the prayer book of King Edward VI, makes one of a group, Jew, Turk, Infidel, Heretic; endowed with a fine flow of words, they tell the story of their lives, after the manner of Gil Blas. The Infidel, who is the ancestral Van Loon, is, after a good many chapters, called in to the Rembrandt household to give medical aid to the dying Saskia, and so the central figure at last enters the somewhat diffuse narrative.
Perhaps holding that a casual and rather careless diary of the seventeenth century is best represented by an equally casual style in the twentieth, the ancestral Van Loon constantly uses phrases that would be quite at home in the columns of one of our dailies with a complaisant editor. But when we come to sum up, the figure of Rembrandt stands forth substantially the same as in the avowedly historical work of Ludwig, and both books do full justice to the fine devotion of Saskia and her successor, Hendrikje, the two women who dedicated their lives to the happiness of the titanic, untidy, rather shiftless man of genius. Some of the speeches which are put into Rembrandt’s mouth are excellent; they give a true interpretation of his ideals and methods, though one doubts that this rather taciturn painter ever poured forth so copious a flow of words.