Young Rembrandt seems to have been built upon the theory that if you describe everything around your subject, you will somehow illuminate the mysterious centre. But it doesn’t work: Rembrandt is still the dark star at the hub of the Dutch art world. The book sheds scant light on him, though a great deal on the setting in which he reached maturity. Perhaps there’s simply no accounting for genius, and the enigma that is Rembrandt — note the parallel with Shakespeare, about whom we also know very little — will persist regardless of attempts to explain it.
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. He starts with the house in which Rembrandt was born, but which was demolished in 1927. All that was salvaged was a commemorative plaque that had been put up some 20 years earlier; this though has now been re-erected in the wrong place. It is a metaphor in its way for Blom’s technique: while he can get to within inches of his man he can never be sure to have nailed him down accurately.