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Pictures In Amsterdam

( Originally Published 1925 )



The wonderful Rijks Museum is the representative home of old Dutch art. The Louvre, the Prado, the National Gallery excel it in variety, but the great Rembrandts are in it, and The Syndics and The Night Watch are worth a wilderness of other painters' work. The Night Watch has been removed from the old room, where it used to hang, facing the large Van der Helst, Captain Roelof Bicker's Company. But it is only in temporary quarters; the gallery destined for it is being completed. We were permitted to peep into it. The Night Watch will hang in one gallery, and facing it will be The Syndics, De Stallmeesters. Better lighted than in its old quarters, The Night Watch now shows more clearly the tooth of time. It is muddy and dark in the background, and the cracks of the canvas are ill concealed by the heavy coating of varnish. If all the faults of this magnificent work are more plainly revealed its excellences are magnified. How there could have been any dispute as to the lighting is incredible. The new catalogue, the appendices of which are brought down to 1908, frankly describes the picture thus:

"The Night Watch, or the Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and of Lieutenant van Ruytenburg. The corps is represented in broad daylight, leaving the Doele of the Arquebusiers. At their head, standing in the foreground about the centre, are the Captain and his Lieutenant conversing. The former wears a dark dress, the latter a yellow costume with a white sash, causing a brilliant effect of light. Near the Captain, also standing out in full light, is a little girl, a dead white cock hanging from her waistband."

Then follow the names of the other personages in this strange scene.

A commonplace happening is transfigured by the magic of a seer into a significant moment arrested in eternity. Rembrandt is a window looking out upon eternity. It was quite like the logical minded Frenchman, Eugène Fromentin, himself an admirable painter, to pick this canvas full of flaws. The composition is, true enough, troubled and confused. The draughtsmanship leaves much to be desired; hands are carelessly painted, the grouping haphazard, without symmetry, the general rhythm full of syncopations, cross accents, and perverse pauses — empty spaces, transitions not accounted for. And yet this painting without personal charm - it is almost impersonal grips your soul. It is not alone the emotional quality of the paint. There are greater colourists than Rembrandt, who, strictly speaking, worked in monochrome, modelling with light. No, not the paint alone, not the mystery of the envelope, not the magnetic gaze of the many eyes, but all combined makes an assault upon nerves and imagination. You feel that Captain Cocq is a prosaic personage and is much too tall in proportion to the spry little dandy Lieutenant at his side. Invested with some strange attribute by the genius of the painter, this Dutchman becomes the protagonist in a soundless symphony of light and shadow. The waves that emanate from the canvas suffuse your senses but do not soothe or satisfy. The modern nervous intensity, missing absolutely in Hals and his substantial humans, is present in Rembrandt. We say "modern" as a sop to our vanity, but we are the "ancients," and there is no mode of thought, no mood that has not been experienced and expressed by our ancestors. Rembrandt is unlike any other Dutch painter Hals, Vermeer, Teniers, Van der Helst — what have these in common with the miller's son? But he is as Dutch as any of them. A genius is only attached to his age through his faults, said a wise man. Rembrandt is as universal as Beethoven, a Dutchman by descent, as Bach, a Hungarian by descent, as Michael Angelo and Shakespeare. But we must go to Leonardo da Vinci if we wish to find a brother soul to Rembrandt's.

There is a second child back of that iridescent and enigmatic girl with the dead fowl. And the dog that barks as Jan Van Koort ruffles his drum, what a spectre dog! No, the mystery of The Night Watch is insoluble, because it is the dream of a poet. Its light is morning light, yet it is the mystic light of Rembrandt, never seen on sea or land. In The Syndics, that group of six linen-drapers, Rembrandt shows with what supreme ease he can beat Hals at the game of make-believe actuality. Now, according to the accustomed order of development, The Night Watch should have followed The Syndics. But it preceded it by two decades, and the later work contains far better painting and a sharper presentment of the real. The Night Watch is Rembrandt's Ninth symphony; but composed before his Fifth, The Syndics. One figure in this latter picture has always fascinated us. It is of the man, Volkert Janz, according to Professor J. Six, who stoops over, his hand poised on a book. Rembrandt has seldom painted with more sensitiveness eyes, subtle corners of the mouth, and intimate expression. This syndic is evidently superior to his fellows, solid, sensible Dutch men of affairs.

There is a landscape, purchased in 1900, a stone bridge, lighted by rays darting through heavy storm clouds. It is the Rembrandt of the etchings. Lovely is the portrait of a young lady of rank, though the Elizabeth Bas, in another gallery, will always be the masterpiece in portraiture if for nothing else but the hands. The Jewish Bride is bulky in its enchantments, the phosphorescent gleams of the apparel the chief attraction. The Toilet is heavy Rembrandt; while the anatomical lecture is repulsive. But the disembowelled corpse is more corpse-like than the queerly foreshortened dead body in the picture on anatomy at The Hague. The warrior's head, supposed to be a portrait of his father, is an ancient copy and a capital one. Old dame Elizabeth Bas, with her coif, ruff, and folded hands, holding a handkerchief, is a picture you return to each day of your stay.

Hals at Amsterdam is interesting. There is the so-called portrait of the painter and his wife, two full-length figures; the Jolly Toper, half-length figure, large black hat, in the left hand a glass; and the insolent lute-player, a copy, said to be by Dirck Hals, the original in the possession of Baron Gustave Rothschild at Paris. And a fine copy it is.

The three Vermeers are of his later enamelled period. One is a young woman reading a letter; she is seen in profile, standing near a table, and is dressed in a white skirt and blue loose jacket. The Letter shows us in the centre of a paved room a seated lady, lute in hand. She has been interrupted in her playing by a servant bringing a letter. To the right a tapestry curtain has been looped up to give a view of the scene. The new Vermeer — purchased from the Six gallery in 1908 — is now called The Cook; it was formerly known as The Milkmaid. A stoutly built servant is standing behind a table covered with a green cloth, on which are displayed a basket of bread, a jug of Nassau earthenware, and a stone pot into which she is pouring milk from a can. The figure, painted almost full length, stands out against the white wall and is dressed in a lemon-coloured jacket, a red-brown petticoat, a dark-blue apron turned back, and a white cap on the head. The light falls on the scene through a window to the left, above the table.

This masterpiece is in one of the cabinet galleries. It displays more breadth than the Lady Reading a Letter, and its colouring is absolutely magical. The De Hoochs are of prime quality. Greater art is the windmill and moonlit scene of Hobbema, as great a favourite as his Mill, though both must give the precedence to the Alley of Middleharnais in the Royal Academy, London. But where to begin, where to end in this high carnival of over three thousand pictures! The ticketed favourites, starred Baedeker fashion, sometimes lag behind their reputation. The great Van der Helst - and a prime portraitist he is, as may be seen over and over again — is The Company of Captain Bicker, a vast canvas. When you forget Hals and Rembrandt it is not difficult to conjure up admiration for this work. The N. Mats Spinner is very characteristic. Cuyp and Van Goyen are here; the latter's view of Dordrecht is celebrated. So is the Floating Feather of Hondecoester, a finely depicted pelican. The feather is the least part of the picture. Asselijn's angry swan is an excellent companion piece. We wish that we could describe the Jan Steens, the Dols, the Mierises, and other sterling Dutch painters. There is the gallery of Dutch and Flemish primitives about which a volume might be written; their emaciated music appeals. In expressiveness the later men did not excel them. The newest acquisition, not mentioned in the catalogue supplements, is the work of an unknown seventeenth-century master, possibly Spanish, though the figures, background, and accessories are Dutch. Two old men, their heads bowed, sit at table. Across their knees are napkins. The white is from a Spanish palette. A youth attired in dark habiliments, his back turned to the spectators, is pouring out wine or water. The canvas is large, the execution flowing; perhaps it portrays the disciples at Emmaus.

The portraits of Nicholas Hasselaer and his wife Geertruyt van Erp, by Hals, in one of the cabinets, are painted with such consummate artistry that you gasp. The thin paint, every stroke of which sings out, sets you to thinking of John Sargent and how he has caught the trick of brush work at a slower tempo. But not even Sargent could have produced the collar and cuffs. A Whistler, a full-length, in another gallery, looks like an unsubstantial wraith by comparison. Two weeks' daily attendance at this excellently planned collection did no more than fix the position of the exhibits in the mind. There is a goodly gathering of such names as Israels, Mesdag, Blommers, and others at the Rijks, but the display of modern Dutch pictures at the Municipal Museum is more representative. The greatest Josef Israels we ever saw in the style is his Jew sitting in the doorway of a house, a most eloquent testimony to Israels; powers of seizing the "race" and the individual. Old David Bles is here, and Blommers, De Bock, Bosboom, Valkenburg, Alma,Tadema, Ary Scheffer — of Dutch descent — Roelofs, Mesdag, Mauve, Jak0b Maris, Jongkind, and some of the Frenchmen, Rousseau, Millet, Dupré, and others.

The Six gallery is not so- accessible as it was some years ago. No doubt its Rembrandts and Vermeers will eventually find their way into the Rijks Museum.

Who was Herri met de Bles? Nearly all the large European galleries contain specimens of his work and in the majority of cases the pictures are queried. That fatal (?) which, since curators are more erudite and conscientious, is appearing more frequently than in former years, sets one to musing over the mutability of pictorial fortunes. Also, it awakens suspicions as to the genuineness of paint. Restorations, another fatal word, is usually a euphuism for overpainting. Between varnish and retouching it is difficult to tell where the old master leaves off and the "restorer" begins. Bles, for example, as seen in the Rijks Museum, is a Usti-hating subject to the student; but are we really looking at his work? The solitary picture of his nere, Paradise, is so well preserved that it might have been painted a year ago. (It is an attribution.) Yet this painter is supposed to have been born at Bouvignes, 1480, and to have died at Liège, 1521. He was nicknamed Herri, for Hendrick, met de Bles, because he had a tuft of white in his hair (a forerunner of Whistler). The French called him Henri à la Houppe; the Italians "Civetta" — because of the tiny owl he always introduced into his work. He was a landscapist, and produced religious and popular scenes. Bles has. had many works saddled upon him by unknown imitators of Metsu, Joost van Kleef, Lucas, and Dürer — who worked at Antwerp between 1520 and 1550. Thierry Vellert was also an imitator. In the old Pinakothek, Munich, there is a Henricus Blesius, which is said to be a counterfeit, and others are in. Karlsruhe, Milan, Brussels, and at the Prado.

The circular picture in the Rijks shows us in various episodes Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden from the Creation until the Fall. Around the edge are signs of the zodiac. The colour is rich, the figures delicate. The story is clearly told and is not unlike a "continuous performance." You see Adam asleep and over him stoops the Almighty; then Eve is shown. The apple scandal and the angel with the flaming sword are portrayed with a vivid line that recalls the miniaturist. A rare painter.

Roeland Savery is an artist whose name, we confess, was not known to us until we saw his work in the Rijks. The rich pate and bouquet-like quality of his colour recall Monticelli. His compositions are composed, like Monticelli's, but much more spirited than the latter. A stag hunt, a poet crowned at the feast of animals, Elijah fed by the ravens, and the fable of the stag among the cows prove the man's versatility. He was born about 1576 and died at Utrecht, 1639. A pupil of his father, he first worked in Courtrai. The Bronzino Judith holding the head of Holophernes is a copy, the original hanging in the Pitti Palace. At Vienna there is a replica. Among the Bols (Cornelis, 1613—66) the portraits of Roelof Meulenaer and his wife, Maria Rey, attract because of their vitality and liberalism. Then we come across the oft-engraved Paternal Advice, by Gerard ter Borch (1617-81). Who doesn't remember that young lady dressed in white satin and standing with her back to you? The man in officer's uniform, admonishing her, is seated next to a woman drinking from a wine-glass. The texture of the dress and the artfully depicted glass are the delight of amateurs. As a composition it is not remarkable. The man is much too young to be the father of the blond-haired lady, and if the other one is her mother, both parents must have retained their youth. The portrait of Helena van der Schalcke is that of a quaint Dutch child standing; a serious little body carrying a basket on her right arm like a good housewife. It is a capital Ter Borch. Two beautiful Albert Cuyps are painted on the two sides of a copper panel. On one side two merchants stand at a wharf; on the other two men sit sampling wine in a cellar. The colour is singularly luminous.

Let us pass quickly the Schalckens and Gerard Dous. Dou's self-portrait is familiar, He leans out of a window and smokes a clay pipe. The candle-light pictures always attract an audience. Govert Flinck (1615-60), pupil of Rembrandt) is a painter who, if he lived today, would be a popular portraitist, Wherever you go you see his handiwork, not in the least inspired, but honest, skilful, and genial. Look at the head of the tax-collector Johannes Wittenbogaert, covered with a black cap. So excellent is it that it has been attributed to Rembrandt. Boland, we believe, engraved it as genuine Rembrandt. Gerard van Honthorst's Happy Musician is another picture of prime quality, and a subject dear to Hals. Hoogstratt's Sick Lady is an anecdote. The young woman does not seem very ill, but the doctor gravely holds up a bottle of medicine and you feel the dread moment is at hand. How to persuade the patient to swallow the dose ? She is stubborn looking. The Pieter de Hoochs are now in the same gallery with Rembrandt's Jewish Bride. These interiors, painted with a minute, hard finish, lack the charm and the colour quality of Vermeer. With sunlight Hooch is successful, but his figures do not move freely in an atmospheric envelope, as is the case with Vermeer's. The Small Country House is the favourite. In front of a house a well dressed man and woman are seated at a table.

She is squeezing lemon juice into a glass. Behind her a servant is carrying a glass of beer, and farther away a girl cleans pots and pans. The composition is the apotheosis of domestic comfort, conjugal peace, and gluttony. We like much more The Pantry, wherein a woman hands a jug to her little girl. The adjoining room, flooded with light, is real.

There is one Van der Heist we could not pass. It looks like the portrait of a corpulent woman, but is that of Gerard Bicker, bailiff of Muiden. A half-length figure turned to the left, the bailiff a well-fed pig, holds a pair of gloves in his right hand which he presses against his Gargantuan chest. His hair is long and curly. The fabrics are finely wrought. Holbein the younger is represented by the portrait of a young man. It is excellent, but doubtless a copy or an imitation. To view five Lucas van Leydens in one gallery is not an everyday event. His engravings are rare enough --that is, in good states; "ghosts" are aplenty — and his paintings rarer. Here they are chiefly portraits. Rachel Ruysch, the flower painter, has a superior in Judith Lyster, a pupil of Frans Hals. She was born at Haarlem, or Zaandam, about i600, and died 1660. She married the painter Jan Molener. Her Jolly Toper faces the Hals of the same theme, in a cabinet, and reveals its artistic ancestry.. Judith had the gift of reproducing surfaces. We need not return to the various Muses; indeed, this is only a haphazard ramble am0ng the well-known pictures. Consider the heads of Van Mierevelt; those of Henrick Hooft, burgomaster of Amsterdam, of Jacob Cats, and of his wife Aegje Hasselaer (1618-64). Her hair and lace collar are wonderfully set forth. Must we stop before Mabuse, or before the cattle piece of the Dutch school, seventeenth century? A Monticelli seems out of key here, and the subject is an unusual one for him, Christ With the Little Children. The Little Princess, by P. Moreelse, has the honour, after Rembrandt, of being the most frequently copied picture in the Rijks. The theme is the magnet. A little girl, elaborately dressed, is seated. She strokes the head of a spaniel whose jewelled collar gives the impression of a dog with four eyes. In Vermeer's Young Woman Reading a Letter is a like confused passage of painting, for the uninstructed spectator. She wears her hair over her ear, an ornament clasping the hair. At first view this is not clear, principally because this fashion of wearing the hair is unusual in the eyes of a stranger.

Jan van Scorel was born at Schoorl, near Alkmaar, 1495. He studied under Jacob Cornelis at Amsterdam and with Jean de Maubeuge at Utrecht. He died at Utrecht, 1562. When travel-ling in Germany he visited Dürer at Nuremberg; resided for a time in Italy. The Italian influence is strong, particularly in his Mary Magdalen, which formerly hung in the town-hall of Haarlem. A replica is in the residence of the head-master of Eton College, England. Mary is shown seated, richly attired. She holds in her right ` hand a box of perfume, her left hand, beautifully painted, rests on her knee. Behind is a mountainous landscape, distinctly Italian, beside her a tree. The head is north Lombardian in character and colouring, the glance of the eyes enigmatic. A curiously winning composition, not without morbidezza. Scorel has five other works in the Rijks. The Bathsheba is not a masterpiece. Solomon and the Queen of Sheba is conventional, but the Harpsichord Player was sold at Paris as late as 1823 as a Bronzino. Perhaps it is only attributed to Scored. It is unlike his brush-work. The Painting of a Vault, divided into nine sections, five of which represent the Last Judgment, is a curiosity. The portrait of Emperor Charles V. as Pharaoh is pointed out by the gallery attendant, who then retires and diplomatically coughs in the middle distance.

The Mancini (pupil of Morelli and W. R. Mesdag) is entitled Poor Thing. A little girl stands in a miserable room; mice run over the floor. The colouring is rich. There are admirable Jakob Marises; but we wish to follow in the track of the old fellows. Adrian van Ostade's Baker is so popular that it is used for advertising purposes in Holland. The baker leans out of his door, the lower half closed, and blows a horn. Palamedes evidently repainted the same picture many times. An interior with figures, seated and standing; same faces, poses, accessories. Same valet pouring out wine; variants of this figure. A Merry Party is the usual title. At The Hague in the Mauritshuis there is another such subject; also in Antwerp and Brussels. But a jolly painter. Steen and Teniers we may sidestep. Also the artificial though graceful Tischbein. There is a Winterhalter here, a mannered fashionable portrait painter (he painted the Empress Eugénie), and let us leave the Titians to the experts. When you are in Holland look at the Dutch pictures. A De Vos painted topers and fishermen with gusto, and there is Vinckboons, who doted on scenes of violence. Fancy Vollon flowers in the midst of these old Dutchmen. The Frenchman had an extraordinary feeling for still-life, though more in the decorative Venetian manner than in Chardin's serene palette, or the literalism of Ralf. Whistler's Effie Deans, presented by the Dowager Baroness R. van Lynden in 1900, is not one of that master's most successful efforts. It is a whole-length figure painted in misty semi-tones, the feeling sentimental, un-Whistlerian, and, as we before remarked, wraith-like and lacking in substance when compared to Hals.

There is actually a Wouverman in which no white horse is to be discovered. On Van der Werff and the romantic landscapist Wynants we need not dwell. The miniatures, pastels, and framed drawings are of goodly array. Of the former, Samuel Cooper (portrait of Charles II.), John Hoskins, Peter Oliver, Isaac Oliver, Laurence Crosse, and others. English, Dutch, and French may be found. The Liotard and Tischbein pastels are charming. In the supplements of the catalogue we find underscored a Descent from the Cross, an anonymous work of the Flemish school (fifteenth century, second half). The dead Christ is being lowered into the arms of his mother. It is evidently a copy from a lost original in the style of Rogier van der Weyden. There are such copies in Bruges and elsewhere. Another composition is labelled as an anonymous work of undetermined school. The Christ hangs on the cross, on His right are the Virgin Mary, the holy women and St. John; on His left jeering soldiers and scribes. On either side of the composition is the figure of a saint much larger in size than the other figures; St. Cosmus on the left, St. Damian on the right. The background is a hilly landscape. An authority ascribes the work to the Catalonian school, date about 1440. There were giants in those days. Antonello da Messina has the portrait of a young man. It is an attribution, yet not without some claim to authenticity. The jan Provosts are mostly of close study, especially The Virgin Enthroned. A certain Pieter Dubordieu, who was living in Amsterdam in 1676 (born in Touraine), painted the portraits of a man and a woman, dated 1638. Vivid portraits. We must pass over the striking head of Hanneman, the Lucas Cranach (the elder), and the thousand other attractive pictures in this gallery. The Rijks Museum could be lived with for years and still remain an inexhaustible source of joy.

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