New York City, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Altman Collection
( Originally Published 1915 )
NO collection of paintings bequeathed to any museum in America has ever attracted such widespread interest among the people as has the Altman collection since its bequest to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And rightly so, for no collection of paintings by an individual ever represented such an array of masterpieces. Strange as it may seem, Mr. Altman made this marvelous selection of the works of the great masters during the last eight years of his life; and each picture represents his own personal preference. This personal preference, however, never intruded itself when the judgment of experts was against a purchase, but no expert ever persuaded him to buy when the picture did not suit his own personal taste. This last statement reveals the secret of the uniformity of these paintings as representative works of the period.
There are in America today a larger number of the paintings of Rembrandt than in any one country of Europe and of this number thirteen were bought by Mr. Altman. As we enter the Altman rooms "The Old Woman Cutting Her Nails" (Fig. 64) is the first picture to attract us. This painting, done after popularity had waned with Rembrandt, is the rarest gem of them all. No one can help but feel the deep sympathy for old age that filled the artist. That seamed and wrinkled face is typical of the care-worn, sorrow-wrecked woman of all time.
Rembrandt, under the pinch of poverty and the sting of neglect, broadened and deepened in his art and in his understanding of human life until his brush strokes were like search-lights revealing the depths of the soul. This picture is simply of a poor old woman intent on cutting her nails, with a pair of sheep shears it seems, yet we are overcome with the power of it—no details, dull in color, homely in subject, but bathed with a light that was never on land or sea. Rembrandt's light ! What cared he for poverty or neglect with such a comforter at hand? Little did the purblind people of Amsterdam understand their own stupidity; the man they were neglecting had refused to lower his standards of art by catering to their whims for portraits of them-selves; they thought they were punishing him. Were they, we ask, when we have this superb portrait of an unknown old woman in the place of their likenesses?
Now turn and look at the "Portrait of Rembrandt" (Fig. 65), painted by himself. He made this portrait in 1660, two years later. The artist is now fifty-four. Can you not feel how the "little cares and anxieties of daily life" torment him? He knows within himself the superiority of the gifts that are his, but he realizes how powerless he is to cope with people in high places. The lift of the eyebrows that wrinkle his forehead is that of whimsical impatience, yet the spark in his eyes denies defeat. The mouth is drawn and the mark of undeserved neglect is evident in the premature wrinkles, but a certain merry pride lurks in the tilted cap and raised head. A pang of pity shoots through us, only to be replaced by one of keen satisfaction that he, the neglected, is remembered and they, the aristocrats, are forgotten. Rembrandt painted more than fifty self-portraits. At first they seem simple experiments in light and shade, or the study of fantastic costumes, or the expression of the happiness of his life with his beloved Saskia, but as life's burdens grew heavy they became deep studies in psychology and represent the evolution of his own character.
Turn now to the "Portrait of Titus," the "Golden Lad" as Rembrandt called this precious son. The boy is fourteen, the last child of the four children of Saskia—she died, it is supposed, at his birth. The wide-set eyes and full upper lids mark his artistic inheritance, but the far-away haunting expression seems a pre-monition of his death in early manhood. The brave effort that this delicate dreaming boy made to stem the tide of his father's misfortunes was worthy the son of the great master. When only sixteen he and Hendrickje Stoffels, a peasant girl of North Holland, opened a shop for the sale of Rembrandt's precious collection, but with small success. Rembrandt painted many portraits of Titus, dressing him in fancy costumes as he was fond of doing, also using him as a model in various religious pictures—the young Christ, Daniel, Tobias and others.
The "Man with a Magnifying Glass" is believed to be a portrait of Titus the year he died, 1668. He was in his twenty-eighth year, yet this man looks at least fifty. It may be that ill health and anxiety over his father's affairs have prematurely aged the son. The expression about the eyes is the same, though deep sadness has crept into them.
But the pathos of Rembrandt's life is found in the pathos of Pilate. The master painted "Pilate Washing His Hands" (Fig. 66) as the end was near. Pilate has given up the struggle. The demands of the populace are too much ; the odds are against him. He is a grim old man showing the marks of his leadership in the past but too far spent to pit his strength against numbers. Could anything show more plainly the master's yielding to an aged and feeble body—not of artistic vigor—under the constant stress of heart sorrow and neglect? It is not despair but a dull pain of indifference. Pilate washes his hands as a sign of innocence, but the Christ has gone out of his life. Rembrandt, unlike all other artists, does not bring the Christ into the scene. The boy holding the basin is one of the dearest bits of genre painting of all Dutch art. His merry twinkling eye and winning smile remove him from the tragic scene and make him simply a boy in the home, called on to perform a service for an aged guest.
"The Toilet of Bathsheba" is one of the most, if not the most, exquisite of Rembrandt's subject pictures. It was the last picture bought by Mr. Altman and has an uninterrupted history since early in the seventeenth century. It was painted in 1643.
Franz Hals (1623-1669) was the real founder of the Dutch school. He sprang full blown into public notice, but, like Rembrandt, his life went out in obscurity. "Hille Bobbe" (Fig. 51) was one of his alehouse friends and in "The- Merry Company" (Fig. 67) are a few more. Not very refined companions we must admit, and yet Hals has made them delightful. All the works by Hals selected by Mr. Altman represent the artist at his gayest. The artist doubtless dashed off the heads in "The Merry Company" at a sitting, probably with his own beer mug before him, and then finished the elaborate details later when the excitement of the moment was past. Hals' membership in two Haarlem societies—"The Branch of the Vine" and "Love First of All," is sufficient proof that the jolly people whose portraits he painted were well known to him.
Of the splendid examples of the "Little Dutchmen" Vermeer's "Young Girl Asleep" (Fig. 68) is perhaps the rarest. Vermeer left but thirty-eight pictures—he died at fortythree—and of those eight are in America and three in the Metropolitan Museum (see Fig. 25). In 1696 twenty-one of these pictures were sold at auction in Amsterdam. One of this number, catalogued as "A Drunken Maid Servant Asleep Behind a Table," was the Alt-man picture. We again have the direct view into the room without being duly admitted, so common with Vermeer, but as the occupant is asleep, we are allowed to look through a door into the room beyond where is a table and a picture hanging on the wall above it. We have the diffused light embracing every object, which is one of the artist's chief characteristics. The Turkish rug, blue dishes and girl's costume are carefully noted in every de-tail, but with a breadth of handling far re-moved from any pettiness. How delightful these little masterpieces would be as daily companions.
When Mr. Altman bought Velasquez' "Philip IV" from the descendants of the original owners, who bought it f rom the artist in 1624, he received with the picture a document signed "Diego Velasquez." In this document the artist states a certain sum of money and says, "I have received on account of the three portraits of the king and of Count Olivares and of Senor Garceperez, in witness whereof my signature given at Madrid on the 4th of December, 1624." This seems to relegate the Boston portrait of Philip IV (see Fig. 1) to the place of a replica or a copy.
"Christ and the Pilgrims of Emmaus" (Fig. 69) appears to be an undisputed Velasquez of his early days, when he was not more than nineteen or twenty years old. As a representation of the early powers of the great Spanish master it is indeed a wonderful work. He has almost no grasp of the spiritual significance that comes through deep experiences in life; the disciples simply represent uncomprehending surprise at the sudden revelation too big for their minds. But the vigor of modeling, the stability of the things represented, the perfect outlines and accurate placing of the figures and wonderful skill in workmanship make a great masterpiece of painting.
Dear little "Federigo Gonzaga" (Fig. 70), who looks out at us so frankly and simply, is really a remarkable boy, and this portrait of him by Francia 0448-15U) is specially precious to us because Federigo's mother said of it four hundred years ago, "It is impossible to see a better portrait or a closer resemblance."
Federigo was the son of Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, and the famous Isabella d'Este. The Marquis at one time was a general in the Venetian army, but he changed his allegiance and in 1509, when a commander of the Milanese forces, was taken prisoner by the Venetians. Through the influence of the pope he was released, but in return his little son Federigo, then ten years old, was demanded as a hostage to be sent to the papal court. His mother wished a portrait of her boy, so on his way to Rome he stopped at Bologna where his father was at that time. Lorenzo Costa was asked to paint the portrait, but as he could not, Francia was given the commission July 29, 1510. On August l0th the finished picture was delivered. Isabella writes further of the picture : "I am astonished to find out that in so short a time the artist has been able to execute so perfect a work. One sees that he wishes to show the perfection of which he is capable." It seems incredible, but later Isabella gave the picture of her boy to Zanimella, a gentleman of Ferrara who had done her some service. From this time the painting disappeared until 1872, when it appeared in the Christie auction rooms, London, in the collection of Prince Jerome Bonaparte. It was identified by Herbert Cook as the lost portrait of Federigo Gonzaga.
The "Portrait of Filippo Archinto, Arch-bishop of Milan" (Fig. 71) is the first painting of Titian's (1477?-1576), the great Venetian master, to be added to the treasures of the Metropolitan Museum. In this portrait we have not only a work of a famous artist but also a picture of a prominent man in Italy. Archinto, born in Milan in 1500, was first trained for the law, then he went into the church and became one of the workers in the cause of the Jesuits. He was governor of Rome for a time and was sent as a legate to Venice from 1554 to 1556, when Titian probably painted this portrait. An amusing story is told of Archinto while he was governor, showing his Solomon-like wisdom. A question arose as to which of two men, a German and a Spaniard, was the f father of a certain child. The governor sent for some wine and food and told the child to eat. This he did, but refused to drink anything but water. Archinto told the German that the boy was no child of his, for had he German blood in his veins he would never drink water when he could get wine.
Some of the greatest and most far-reaching climaxes in the history of the world happened during the life of Titian, the centenarian artist. The printing press and America lead the discoveries. Charles V and William the Silent changed the status of nations and Luther made possible the personal equation in religion. Under such an awakening the artists of Italy and Germany naturally expanded into giant masters. The courtly Titian soon attracted the attention of the world emperor and noble-man, and titled gentlemen were pushed aside, for, said Charles, "There are many princes, but there is only one Titian."
At the time Albrecht Durer painted the "Madonna and Child" (Fig. 72), in 1519, he was devoting most of his time to engraving. He had written to a friend ten years before, "I wish from now on to confine myself to my engravings ; had I so decided years ago I might now be the richer by a thousand Florins (about $500.00)." But Durer, like Michael Angelo, could turn to his painting with the undiminished ardor of his early years and produce not only this masterpiece—the most famous of nearly a dozen similar compositions—but the "Four Apostles" for his native city, Nuremburg.
The unique costume of Saint Anne gives an interesting bit of German sisterhood biography and the wholesome young virgin mother and plump baby boy speak volumes on the knowledge of home hygiene of the sixteenth century in Germany. The pyramidal arrangement is like that of Raphael's madonna pictures, and the soft lovely color brings to mind what Durer wrote while in Venice, "I have also silenced the painters, who said that I was a good engraver but did not know how to manage colors." A German type of mother and baby the madonna and Child certainly are and most lovable too. The simple spirit of devotion in the bowed head marks the artist's genuine sincerity, that is found in all his religious pictures.
"The Crucifixion" (Fig. 73) is one of Fra Angelico's (1387-1455) few sad scenes in the biblical story. It was rarely that this angel brother ever painted a sad incident; life to him was full of holy joy. Even the crucified One shows no agony in his body or his face. The group of surrounding figures express glad expectancy rather than despondent grief. There is here the same element of spiritual purity, of unhuman holiness, and the same type of sweet faces divinely tender that characterize the "Madonna and Child" (see Fig. 18) in the Boston Museum. Fra Angelico knew almost nothing of perspective. His use of color re-minds one of a child, though the flowing robes in some of his angels are soft and harmonious in tone ; this came more from a happy accident and simply emphasizes his unaffected simplicity in expressing his preferences.
The Altman collection is particularly rich in examples of the work of Hans Memlinc (1430-1494), the Flemish artist. In the "Betrothal of Saint Catherine" (Fig. 74) is brought out more of Memlinc's genius than in his portraits, splendid as they are. This picture, painted be-fore his famous Saint Ursula shrine, is one of three versions of the same subject. One of them was painted for the Hospital of Saint John at Bruges and has that quality of church dignity that raises it above the humble worshipers. Not so with this almost genre picture of a religious subject. Here is a lovely garden scene where the Madonna is really a human mother and the Christ Child shows some of the traits of true babyhood. He could really laugh and coo if only the saints understood how to make him. Saint Barbara sits at the right reading. In the background is her tower with its three windows, the emblem of her life and martyrdom. Her father, a rich Eastern nobleman of the fourth century, loved her so dearly that he shut her in a tower to keep her safe. She became famous as a student of the stars, but she heard of the gospel of Christ and sent to Rome secretly for someone to teach her. One day after she became a Christian some workmen sent by her father came to put two windows in her bathroom. She ordered them to put in three, and when her f father asked why she had three windows she replied, "Know, my father, that through three windows doth the soul receive light—the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost; and the three are one. Her angry father then knew that she had become a Christian and finally succeeded in putting her to death. Saint Catherine on the left is another saint of the fourth century. She was the daughter of Costes, a half-brother of Constantine the Great, and her mother was the queen of Egypt. She early became a Christian and was espoused to the Savior in a dream; and in the morning found the ring still on her finger. Many stories are told of the persecutions she endured because she refused her royal lovers. The Marriage of Saint Catherine was a favorite subject with the Renaissance artists. She is always represented clothed in rich garments and often wearing a crown. The picture of the young man kneeling back of Saint Catherine in this picture is doubtless a portrait of the one for whom the picture was painted (the donor), but his name is not known. The two angel-musicians, especially the one smiling down at the baby, are charming; in fact, the whole composition, possibly excepting the madonna and the two saints, shows a spirit of realism far beyond Memlinc's earlier works.