I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter

A 2008 ALA Best Book; Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection

With her mother dead of the plague, and her brother moved away, Cornelia van Rijn finds herself without a friend or confidante–save her difficult father. Out of favor with Amsterdam’s elite, Rembrandt van Rijn is now teetering on the brink of madness, and Cornelia alone must care for him. But she herself is haunted by secrets and scandal, and her only happiness comes in stolen meetings with Carel, the son of a wealthy shipping magnate. And then there is Neel, her father’s last remaining pupil, whose steadfast devotion to Rembrandt both baffles and touches her.

I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter is a powerful account, based on fact, of a young woman’s coming of age and the larger-than-life father who threatens to eclipse her dreams.

“Cornelia van Rijn, daughter of the aging Rembrandt by his late common-law wife, finds herself at the artist’s beck and call when her half-brother Titus marries a wealthy young woman and moves out. The scandals of her father’s life and his increasing scorn for the conventions of 17th-century Amsterdam society, where his work has fallen out of favor, isolate Cornelia, save for the attention of two young men—Neel, Rembrandt’s only remaining student, dogged in his devotion to the master, and Carel, the dashing son of a shipping magnate. Cullen drenches her depiction of Cornelia’s coming-of-age in deft details of the plague-ridden city, with death bells sounding from the church steeple. Vivid prose pictures bring to life the light and smells of the artist’s studio and work. Cornelia is by turns sullen, frustrated, and infatuated, a fully drawn adolescent in a difficult time and place, dealing with a gruff, troubled father caught between the demands of his artistic gift and the elite aristocracy whose whims put bread on his table. Interspersed flashback chapters feature particular paintings related to moments from Cornelia’s childhood and poignant portrayals of her relationship with her mother. This absorbing, well-told story will send readers in search of reproductions of Rembrandt’s paintings.
-—Joyce Adams Burner, Hillcrest Library, Prairie Village, KS, School Library Journal

“This sensitively sketched first novel paints a compelling portrait of 14-year-old narrator Cornelia and her conflicted relationship with her father, the famous painter Rembrandt. Cullen ably conjures the anxiety and loneliness of Cornelia’s position once her beloved older brother marries and leaves her to care for her uncompromising, half-mad father, whose eccentricities (including a belief that God tells him what to paint) bar them from polite society and whose avant-garde painting style and unpredictable temperament keep patrons away and relegate them to near poverty (“The man’s nerve is only exceeded by his madness,” a frustrated Cornelia vents). The highly atmospheric Dutch setting along the canals and constant threat of contagion from plague outbreaks heighten the tension, but a romantic triangle between Cornelia, her suitor Carel (an apprentice and heir to a shipping fortune) and her father’s student Neel provides most of the drama here… Chapters centered around the paintings focus on the circumstances surrounding the creation of individual works and point toward a secret involving Cornelia’s deceased mother and why Rembrandt never married her. Readers may wish that the buildup to Cornelia’s own artistic impulses yielded more, but they will cheer for this colorful cast, especially the likable heroine and the understanding and peace she crafts with her father.”
-—Publishers Weekly

“After her mother dies and her beloved brother moves away, 14-year-old Cornelia is left alone with her father, Rembrandt van Rijn, who works in poverty after wealthy patrons denounce him. Growing up “in the shadow of Vader’s instability,” Cornelia craves convention; she reads books such as Maidenly Virtues to learn proper comportment for young women. Then she develops a warm friendship with handsome Carel, heir to a shipping fortune, and she imagines a future of wealth, decorum, and the outspoken love she rarely feels at home. Many authors have imagined the lives of famous artists from a child’s viewpoint. Cullen’s novel is noteworthy for its emotional depth and sensitive development of characters. Readers will learn about Rembrandt and his art—his radical painting style, his belief that God directed his brush. Around these facts, Cullen creates a powerful family drama, fleshing out father and daughter into whole, heartbreaking individuals whose inner lives are glimpsed with acute sensitivity. Flashback chapters, which heavily foreshadow a shocking family secret, feel somewhat disjointed, and the ties to artwork seem forced. Readers will overlook any bumps in the narrative and sink into this absorbing, romantic story of a teen who upends her worldview and, in doing so, grows into herself. An author’s note, character list, and notes about paintings mentioned in the text are appended.”
-—Booklist, Starred Review

“Historical fiction, mystery, and romance are masterfully woven, and Cornelia’s tale unfolds along the banks of Amsterdam’s famous canals, enchanting readers to remain for just another chapter, and then more. Dutch names might slow some readers, but Cullen’s rich detail so revives history as to mesmerize most. From seventeenth-century social mores to the timeless thrill of falling in love, Cullen’s novel is a reader’s delight.”
-—VOYA

“Told in the first person, the tale of Cornelia is achingly familiar: She’s a girl child in her midteens, angry, passionate, hungry both literally and figuratively and ignored by her distracted but brilliant parent, the great painter Rembrandt. He is a pathetic figure here: listening to the voice of God in his head; making images with thick impasto paint; no longer desirable to his patrons; and ignoring the needs of daily life while Cornelia struggles to meet them. She loves her brother Titus, adored of Rembrandt, but he marries and leaves her alone to care for vader. Cullen uses a few Dutch words for 17th-century atmosphere, but Cornelia’s bitterness and longing seem very contemporary. The narrative slips back and forth between past (the death of Cornelia’s mother, whom Rembrandt never married) and present, when Cornelia is to leave Amsterdam with her new husband. Cullen uses several of Rembrandt’s paintings in effective ways to tether the story…”
-—Kirkus Reviews