In the first chapter of Rembrandt’s Nose, Michael Taylor’s meditation on the interplay between body and soul in Rembrandt’s work, we learn that “defecating dogs are almost a cliché in Dutch art . . . used to illustrate the sense of smell in allegories of the five senses.” Rembrandt’s Nose is seeded with these startling, illuminating bits of knowledge, and they alone are worth the price of admission to the imaginary museum that Taylor curates for us. He takes us on a whirlwind tour through Rembrandt’s favorite painterly preoccupations—religious scenes, studies of the blind and grotesque, and especially himself (the artist created nearly 80 self-portraits over the course of his life)but never allows us to overlook the tiniest details, the pores in the flesh of the great master’s work.
He begins, for example, with a long discussion of the etching of The Good Samaritan that features the aforementioned dog “shitting in the foreground.” Here, the stink is meant to open our noses to the earthiness of the scene: Even as the Samaritan performs a legendary holy deed, the wounded man beside him is oozing pus and blood. Taylor uses the nose—that “fleshy and obvious organ”as a symbol for this signature blend of spirituality and mundanity, which occurs again and again in Rembrandt’s paintings.
There’s something both charming and irritating about Taylor’s obsessive, cross-eyed pursuit of nasal meaning. “What a nose!” he exclaims of a Dutch burgher’s average-looking schnozz, before launching into a paragraph-long description of the thing, comparing it to a pyramid, a monument, and an “element of military architecture.” He presents us with a similarly close reading of nearly every nose in Rembrandt’s oeuvre, although these are often indistinguishable to the layman.
At the same time, Taylor can be stingy with the biographical details that readers (including this one) crave. Although he drops some tantalizing hints about bankruptcy, art-world infighting, and a scandalous ménage à trois between Rembrandt and his dueling housekeepers, Geertje and Hendrickje, he always retreats into the blander world of noses before revealing too much. This is frustrating, but fitting: Unlike Simon Schama’s monumental Rembrandt’s Eyes, which Taylor winks at several times, this slim book is resolutely nonbiographical, unapologetically myopic, in its intense search for meaning in a lump on a face.