The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter: A Portrait of Descartes

Steven Nadler. Princeton Univ., $27.95 (264p) ISBN 978-0-691-15730-6
In the Louvre hangs a portrait of a dark-haired, middle-aged man wearing a black coat. The label identifies the figure as the 17th-century philosopher René Descartes. It’s a “copy of a Hals” (referring to the Dutch portraitist Frans Hals). Is it really Descartes? Could it be a portrait by Hals and not a copy? Did someone commission this portrait? In a convoluted tale that is part detective story, part art history, and part history of philosophy, Nadler (Spinoza) tries to answer these questions. Along the way, he provides a brief introduction to Descartes’s life and thought; in the early part of the 17th century, Descartes traveled to the Netherlands in order to “raise [his] mind above the level of book learning.” While he remained only a few years, he returned permanently in 1629 in search of peace and quiet, and published Discourse on Method there in 1637. This work—containing Decartes’s declaration, “I think, therefore I am”—brought him into contact with artists and religious thinkers, including Augustijn Bloemaert and Johan Albert Ban. When Queen Christina of Sweden invited Descartes to be her tutor in 1647, he began preparations to depart from the Netherlands, and Bloemaert sought to have Descartes’s portrait painted as a memento. Better suited as a journal article, Nadler’s lackluster tale has limited appeal. (May)
Reviewed on: 02/11/2013
Release date: 04/01/2013
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