Detroit Museum of Art
( Originally Published 1915 )
THE Detroit Museum of Art, with its representative collection of works of the masters from various countries of Europe, may well be the pride of the city of Detroit. These paintings were gathered while the "old master" craze in America was in its infancy, and when there was less reason for exploiting spurious works of art. Great care was taken in selecting the special pictures and in acquiring an indisputable history of them from the artist's studio until the present owner-ship; also, the paintings have been passed on by expert men whose judgment is unquestioned.
To possess a Rubens is of itself a rare good fortune, for of all the old masters in America there are the fewest of his works, but to own such a splendid example as "Abigail Meeting David with Presents" (Fig. 146) is indeed to possess a treasure. Rubens (1577-1640) was so unique as a man and an artist that words fail to give an adequate idea of him. A portrait of him, by himself, hangs above me as I write. I look into the calm, alert face and wonder. We may well ask what gave him the power to produce fifteen hundred works—the greatest number ever coming from one brain. And what gave him that marvelous power to negotiate the most difficult diplomatic missions, the power to meet on equal terms rulers and men of state of most of the ruling countries of Europe, the power, in short, of the most perfect self-control in his art, in his diplomacy and in his social life.
Fromentin says of his paintings : "He who has seen one of his pictures knows them all. His colors are simple, and only appear complicated on account of the results achieved by the painter and the part he makes them play." Then later he adds, "The means are simple, the method elementary, but employed by a hand magnificently agile, adroit, sensitive and composed."
The luxuriance in the painting of "Abigail and David" is indeed that of an orchestral chorus when every musician calmly plays his part, but the outburst of music is tremendous. We feel that these men and these women are on the very verge of acting and speaking.
Abigail is saying, as she points to the presents, "And now this blessing which thine handmaid hath brought unto my lord, let it be given unto the young men that follow my lord," and see how eagerly the young men press forward to receive the gifts. The simple Bible story as told in I Samuel 25 has the dramatic element that would lead up to just such a scene as this. Samuel was dead; David had gone down to the wilderness of Paran, south of Judah, and on his return he sent ten young men to Nabal, a man of great wealth in sheep and goats, who was at his sheep-shearing at Carmel. "But Nabal was churlish and evil in his doings." "Greet him," said David, "in my name, and tell him we have pre-served his shepherds from harm and ask him to give something to us." But Nabal sneeringly asked, "Who is David? and who is the son of Jesse?" and he refused to send aught to David. This angered David, and he determined to go and destroy Nabal and all his possessions. But Nabal had a wife, Abigail, who "was a woman of good understanding, and of a beautiful countenance. One of Nabal's young men told Abigail how her husband had "railed on him" and also told her of the goodness of David and his men when they were in the wilderness. "Then Abigail made haste, and took two hundred loaves, and two bottles of wine, and five sheep ready dressed, and laid them on asses but she told not her husband Nabal . . . and when Abigail saw David, she hasted, and lighted off the ass and fell before David on her face."
How vividly the Bible story is told and how entirely Rubens has entered into the spirit of oriental luxuriance in these Flemish costumes of the seventeenth century. The two young women doubtless represent Rubens' two wives, Isabel Brant and Helena Fourment. The latter was only a girl of sixteen when Rubens married her at fifty-five, four years after his first wife died. (For other paintings by Rubens, see Pigs. 55 and 165.)
When we turn to the "Portraits of an Italian Nobleman and his Wife" (Fig. 147) by Giovanni Bellini 1428?-1516), we realize that a wide space of time and country has intervened from Peter Paul Rubens. Bellini lived a century and a half earlier. He and his brother Gentile worked with their father Jacopo in Venice, but when the father found that his two sons could work alone he separated from them and each in turn became an independent worker. Among the first works of Giovanni Bellini were portraits from life with Vasari says gave satisfaction, but it was not until he was old that he made portraiture a specialty. It is a curious bit of history that has come down to us how Giovanni Bellini, when four-score years old, "introduced the custom into Venice that whoever had attained a certain degree of eminence should cause his likeness to be portrayed by himself (Giovanni Bellini) or some other master."
Now, as we look at these portraits we are convinced that they represent people of prominence, although we do not know their names. On the tablet suspended at the top of the canvas can be read "Joanes Paulus & Aug .. . nis," but that throws very little light on their identity. Bellini, however, has given us two decidedly interesting personalities in these portraits. The young woman, well matured, has the air of one used to the elegance that her costume implies and, while serene and even-tempered, would be quick to detect in-justice and not slow in speaking her mind. Her husband, not so steady of purpose, would not hesitate by fair means or foul to appease his noble wife if only he could gain her approval. How severe the design of the picture, -yet how satisfactory; they sit at ease, these two, and are as much of a personality to us as though living today.
Bellini no doubt was one of the greatest delineators of character of northern Italy in his day. It was the aim of art to paint character. In Venetian coloring he equaled the best. Durer, who visited Venice, wrote much about Bellini. In one place he says, "I am much attached to him. He is very old, but still the best in painting" (see Fig. 26).
Quentin Massys (1466-1531?), known in his own time as the "Blacksmith of Antwerp," was Dutch by birth but Flemish by training. His father was a blacksmith and Quentin's skill in metal-work is shown in an exquisitely designed well-curb, one of the treasures of Antwerp today. Massys' calling in life was changed, however, by a certain pretty girl who had stolen his heart and whom he wished to marry. But her father refused his consent unless the young metal-worker became a painter. Love knew no bounds and Quentin soon proved himself as able a genius with the brush as at the forge.
The painting of "The Virgin and Child" (Fig. 148) is a fine example of Quentin's temerity in making the figures almost life-size, subordinating the landscape and buildings to a mere setting. The virgin is really a young woman of considerable character. Her motherly solicitude in guarding the baby's back and her sweet interest in his caress are charming bits of realism. Her faun-colored dress and red robe are rather unusual in color, but decidedly attractive with the out-of-door setting. The white cap, with its sibyl-like folds—another of Massys' innovations—and the V neck give an almost modern touch to this painting of four centuries ago.
Of the Dutch pictures in the museum Pieter de Hooch's (1630-1681) "A Dutch Interior" is a splendid specimen. No one knew better than this little master how to make a home scene sing with joy. The light has to find its way through a window and a hallway, but it loses none of its vivifying qualities as it touches the happy mother and her treasure, so recently come to bless the home. How perfectly simple the scene is, yet how full of the home element. We never tire of the pictures of the little Dutch masters, whether they rep-resent home scenes or tavern scenes.
We must stop a moment and look at David Teniers' "Room in an Inn" (1610-1690).
Then the landscapes by Ruisdael and Hobbema must not be overlooked.
A picture in the Detroit Museum that attracted considerable attention a half century ago is "The Court of Death," by Rembrandt Peale (1787-1860). The picture was painted in rivalry of West's "Death on the Pale Horse," in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (see Fig. 94). The attention it received was due not so much to merit as to the f act that it was exhibited over the country and that colored reproductions of it were given as premiums and sold everywhere. As an allegory it is interesting. The old man in the foreground, supported by the young woman, "Hope," and approaching "Death," the figure in the center, is the artist's father. The one figure of special artistic merit is "Hope."
The American school is well represented in the museum. Naturally the works of a native artist of Detroit are of special interest. Mr. Gari Melchers (1860- ), born in Detroit, had his training in Paris but, contrary to prophecies twenty years ago, he has developed an American spirit in his art that even the French influence of his early years could not obliterate. The "Portrait of Mrs. Melchers" is one of his most strikingly characteristic works. There is a certain dash in design and color that marks the individuality of the artist. He knew his model and has dared to run the gamut in a dashing color riot; yet a certain restraint in both model and artist grips us.
"The Fencing Master" (Fig. 149) speaks for himself. Like Moroni's "Tailor" in the National Gallery, London, he has dignified his work. No other recommendation is necessary but this man to convince one that fencing is the kind of exercise to produce men. If those of our American young men who slouch along the street, with head pushed forward and feet shuffling behind, could have the inspiration of this portrait, I am sure they would square their shoulders and walk like men of affairs—and they soon would be. This fencing master never worked for men but with them.
Mr. Melchers was accorded unusual honor at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition 0915) in having a special gallery set apart exclusively for his work. Only a few other artists, leaders of various schools, had this same privilege given them. Mr. Melchers is the professor of art in the Academy of Weimar, Germany.
Our American landscapists certainly awaken a great variety of emotions in us. They seem almost to vie with each other in presenting the various moods of nature—at times she is frankly outspoken, and then shyly reticent; in the latter mood Dwight William Tryon 1849- ) seems to know her best. Like Corot, Mr. Tryon thinks it no hardship to be up before sunrise to surprise nature as she dons her morning dress. We are out-of-doors with her "Before Sunrise, June" (Fig. 150), but we feel like intruders invading a sacred shrine. The hush in the air fairly stifles our breath ; not even the birds are awake. How tenderly he has lifted the veil, that we, too, may see the trees all shimmering in their early bath and the grass still wet with the glistening dew and the flowers lifting their heads. The sky is beginning to smile; all are making ready to greet the great orb of day. We linger long before this morning anthem. Tenderly and lovingly it has lifted our souls into the very presence of the Creator and sends us forth stronger men and women because of its influence.
Mr. Tryon (1849- ), a native of Hartford, Conn., is professor of art at Smith College. From the beginning of his career—he was a pupil of Charles Daubigny of the Barbizon school—there was a lyric note in his art that has strengthened with years. Then, too, Mr. Tryon has kept abreast of the modern spirit and in his own inimitable way.
"The Miniature" (Fig. 151 is one of Robert Reid's brilliant decorative pictures, in which he has combined everything that contributes to forming the true portrait of a woman. There is the artist's usual skill in short broken pastel strokes, in a woven net-work of strong colors, leaving the canvas partly covered to enhance the vitality of the whole. But aside from all this, there is the woman, individual in every line, from the pose of her head to the flirt of her gown around the table leg. Decorative? yes, but it is especially so because Mr. Reid knew how to catch the woman at the right moment. No man, not even an artist, could have told this woman how to take that particular position. The tender modeling of the head, with its glorious hair, is a perfect delight. Mr. Reid is one of the Ten American Painters who broke away from the Academy in 1897.