Hals Of Haarlem
( Originally Published 1925 )
In writing of Holland more is said of its wind-mills than its flowers. It is a land of flowers. Consider the roll-call of its painters who their life long produced naught but fruit and flower pieces. Both the De Hems, the cunning Huysums, whose work still lives in the mezzotints of Earlom — like David de Heem, he was fond of introducing insects, flies, bees, spiders, crawling over his velvety peaches and roses - Seghers, Van Aelst and his talented pupil Rachel Ruysch, Cuyp, Breughel (Abraham), Mignon, Van Beyeren, Van den Broeck, Margaretha Rosenboom, Maria Vos, Weenix, A. Van der Velde, Kalf, and many others who excelled in this pleasing genre. Their canvases are faded, the colours oxidised, but on the highways and by-ways the miracle is daily renewed. — flowers bloom at every corner, fill the window-boxes of residences, crowd the hotel balconies, and are bunched in the hands of the peddlers. A cart goes by, a gorgeous symphony of hues. Roses, chrysanthemums, dahlias, daisies, tufts of un-familiar species, leaves that are as transparent lace, blushing wild roses, and what not. Ivy is used for practical purposes. On the steam-yacht Carsjens at Leyden a wind screen is composed of ivy; you feel enclosed in a floating garden. Along the Vivjer berg, fronting the house of Baron Steengracht, is a huge boat-shaped enclosure of stone. It is full of ivy growing low. Dutch landscape gardeners are fertile in invention. They break the flat lines of the landscape with all sorts of ingenious surprises; bosky barriers, hedges abloom, elm-trees pared away to imitate the processional poplars of Belgium and France, sudden little leafy lanes what quips and quirks we have come across a few miles away from the town! To see Haarlem and its environs in June when the bulb farms are alight with tulips must be a delightful spectacle. In the fall of the year you are perforce content to read the names of the various farms as the train passes. The many-coloured vegetable carts remind you that Snyders and Van Steen painted here.
The Groote Kerke, St. Bavo, at Haarlem, is a noble pile with a tall tower. One of its attractions is the organ (built in 1735-38) by Christian Muller; it was until a few years ago the largest in the world. Its three manuals, time-stained, sixty stops and five thousand pipes (thirty-two, feet the longest) when manipulated by a skilful organist produce adequate musical results. We had the pleasure of hearing the town organist play Bach for an hour. He began with a few Bach chorales, thin came A Mighty Fortress is Our God; followed by the A minor prelude and fugue, and the Wedge fugue. The general diapasonic quality is noble, the wood stops soft, the mixtures without brassy squealing, and the full organ sends a thrill down your spine, so mellow is its thunder. Modern or gans do not thus sound. Is the secret of the organ tone lost like the varnishing of Cremona fiddles and the blue of the old Delft china? There are no fancy "barnyard stops," as John Runciman has named the combinations often to be found in latter-day instruments. You understood after hearing the Haarlem organ why Bach wrote his organ preludes and fugues. Modern music, with its orchestral registration, its swiftness and staccato, would be a sacrilege on this keyboard.
The bronze statue of Coster did not unduly excite us. The Dutch claim him as the inventor of printing, but the Germans hang on to Gutenberg. At Leyden there is a steam train to Katwykaan-See; at Haarlem you may ride out to Zandvoort, and six miles farther is the North Sea Canal. But as the Katwyk and Zandvoort schools flourish mightily in the United States we did not feel curious enough to make the effort at either town. Regrettable as was the burning of the old church at Katwyk, perhaps its disappearance will keep it out of numerous pictures painted in that picturesque region. Of course it will be, or has been, rebuilt. We walked in the forest of Haarlem and did not once think of I25th Street the old town is slightly unlike its modern namesake. What a charm there is in this venerable forest. The Dutch of Amsterdam, less than half an hour away, come down here on Sunday afternoons for the tranquillity and the shade. You must know that the sun-rays can be very disturbing in July. The canals intersecting the town are pretty. They may be sinks of iniquity, but they don't look so. Naturally, they exhale mephitic odours, though the people won't acknowledge it. It is the case in Venice, which on hot August afternoons is not at all romantic in a nasal Sense. But you forget it all in Haarlem as you watch a hay barge float by, steered by a blond youngster of ten and poled by his brothers. From the chimney comes a light smoke. Soup is cooking. You remember the old sunlit towpath of your boyhood; a tightening at your heart warns you of homesickness, or hay fever. Oh, to be on the Erie Canal, you exclaim, as you sneeze.
But the Town Hall Museum is hard by. It is the glory of Haarlem as the Rijks Museum is the glory of Amsterdam and Holland. A pull at the bell and the door is opened, a small fee is paid, and you are free to the room where are hung ten large paintings by the inimitable Frans Hals. Here are the world-renowned Regent pictures set forth in chronological order. Drop the catalogue and use your own eyes. The first impression is profound; not that Hals was profound in the sense of Rembrandt's profundity, but because of the almost terrifying vitality of these portraits. Prosaic men and women, great trenchermen, devourers of huge pasties, mowers down of wine-bottles and beer-tankards, they live with such vitality on the canvases of Hals that you instinctively lower your voice. The paint-imprisoned ghosts of these jolly officers, sharpshooters, regents, and shrewd-looking old women regents are not so disquieting as Rembrandt's misty evocations. They touch hands with you across the centuries, and finally you wonder why they don't step out the frame and greet you. Withal, no trace of literalism, of obvious contours or tricky effects. Honest, solid paint, but handled by the greatest master of the brush that ever lived save Velasquez. How thin and unsubstantial modern painting is if compared to this magician, how even his greatest followers, Manet and Sargent, seem incomplete. Manet, with his abridgments, his suppressions, his elliptical handling, never had the smiling confidence of Hals in facing a problem. The Frenchman is more subtle, also more evasive; and there is no hint in him of the trite statement of a fact that we encounter in Bartholomew Van der Helst himself a great painter. Hals had not the poetic vision of Rembrandt, but he possessed a more dexterous hand, a keener eye. Judged according to the rubric of sheer paint, sheer brush-work, not Rubens, not Van Dyck, was such a virtuoso. Despite his almost incredible swiftness of execution, Hals got closer to the surfaces of what is called "actual" life than any of the masters with the exception of the supreme Spaniard.
At Haarlem you may follow his development; his first big picture painted in 1616; his last in 1664. He died at eighty-four. But at eighty odd he painted two important canvases, the portraits of the regents and of the lady regents. More sumry as regards the execution, with a manifest tendency toward simplifications, these two pictures are very noble. The group of ladies, each a portrait of character, pleases some more than the male group. They are not so firmly modelled, and into them all has crept a certain weariness as of old age; but what justness of expression, what adjustment of puzzling relations! One lady follows you over the gallery with her stern gaze. It recalls to us the last judgment look which a maiden aunt was wont to bestow upon us years ago. The men regents will live into eternity if the canvas endures. The shiny varnish is not pleasing, yet it cannot destroy the illusion of atmosphere that circulates about the vigorously modelled figures at the table. What a colourist! What nuances he produces on a restrained key-board! The tones modulate, their juxtaposition causes no harsh discords. The velvet black, silvery grays, whites that are mellow without pastiness, and the reds and yellows do not flare out like scarlet trumpets; an aristrocratic palette. Really you begin to realise that what you formerly considered grandfather tales are the truth. The great painters have been and are not with us to-day. It is not a consoling pill W. swallow for apostles of "modernity." Hals is more modern than Sargent.
These corporation and regent pieces are chronologically arranged. No. 88 is considered the masterpiece. It shows the officers of the Arquebusiers of St. Andrew, fourteen life-sized figures. Again each man is a portrait. This was painted in 1633. The Regents of the Elizabeth Hospital (1641) has been likened to Rembrandt's style; nevertheless, it is very Halsian. Why, that chamber is alone worth the journey across the Atlantic. Hals shows us not the magic of life but the normal life of daylight in which move with dignity men and women undismayed by the mysteries that hem them about. He has a daylight soul, a sane if not poetic soul, and few painters before him so celebrated the bravery of appearances, the beauty of the real.