A multigenerational but somewhat cursory history of a fictional Rembrandt painting.
Though it relies a bit heavily on chance, Kwon’s plot is a good one—fit for a film: The novel begins in mid-17th-century Amsterdam, where Joseph Hurwitz, the teenage son of a poor Jewish maid, begins an artistic apprenticeship with his mother’s employer, the famed Rembrandt van Rijn. Blessed with prodigal talent, Joseph becomes Rembrandt’s protégé, inciting the jealousy of Rembrandt’s paying pupils, who, fueled by their anti-Semitism, eventually explode in violence. Joseph’s only legacy is a masterful portrait of a wealthy Jewish mother and daughter (upon which he and Rembrandt collaborated), signed with his name, “Hurwitz.” The book’s second section leaps centuries forward to World War II and the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg—the division of the Nazi government dedicated to seizing valuable art from Jews and destroying work with “objectionable” subjects or authors. A crooked art dealer reluctantly becomes a collaborator but helps a Jewish family escape to Switzerland when the Nazis set their sights on the family’s art collection—which includes the “Hurwitz” painting. Left with his pick of the Jewish paintings, and suspecting it’s a misattributed Rembrandt, the dealer also sends the portrait to Switzerland for safekeeping. But when he dies suddenly, so does the secret of its authorship; the painting makes its way across the ocean to New York and ultimately to a wall in a Brooklyn College building. In 1990 (in the book’s most incredulous twist of fate), it’s recognized by a woman whose family escaped Nazi persecution in Amsterdam when she was a child—a direct descendant of the painting’s subjects. Unfortunately, though the momentum of its action is engaging, the prose is clumsy. In the first two sections, Kwon includes many historical details, but these passages often feel encyclopedic, not integrated into the story itself; lines like, Rembrandt “rejected traditional methods that tended to undermine his dedication to realism” feel like something out of an art history book. Likewise, characters remain flat since they don’t stay in one setting long enough to develop fully.
A good frame, but not a masterpiece.