Art In Antwerp
( Originally Published 1925 )
After passing Dordrecht on the way down to Antwerp the canals and windmills begin to disappear. The country is as flat as Holland, but has lost its characteristic charm. It has become less symmetrical; there is disorder in the sky-line, more trees, the architecture is different. Dutch precision has vanished. The railway carriages are not clean, punctuality is avoided, the people seem less prosperous, few speak English, and as you near Antwerp the villas and roads tell you that you are in the dominion of the King of Belgium. But Antwerp is so distinctly Flemish that you forget that bustling modern Brussels is only thirty-six minutes-away by the express — a fast train for once in this land of snail expresses. No doubt the best manner of approaching Antwerp is by the Scheldt on one of the big steamers that dock so comfortably along the river. However, a trip to the vast promenoir that overlooks the river gives an excellent idea of this thriving port. The city ---very much modernised during the past ten years may easily be seen in a few days, setting aside the museums and churches. The quay promenade brings you to the old Steen Castle, and the Town Hall with its salle des marriages, its mural paintings by the industrious Baron Leys — frigid in style and execution — will repay you for the trouble. The vestibules and galleries are noteworthy. We enjoyed the façades of the ancient guild houses on the market-place and watching the light play upon the old-time scarred front of the cathedral that stands in the Place Verte. Then there are the Zoological Garden, the Plantin Museum, the Theâtre Flamand, the various monuments, and the spectacle of the busy, lively city for those who do not go to Antwerp for its art. You may even go to Hoboken, a little town in the suburbs not at all like the well-known Sunday resort in jersey.
The Royal Museum is displayed in a large square. It is a handsome structure and the arrangement of the various galleries is simple. The Rubenses, thirty-odd in all, are the piece de resistance, and the Flemish and Dutch Primitives of rare beauty. Bruges is better for Memling, Brussels for Van der Weyden, Ghent for the Van Eycks, yet Antwerp can boast a goodly number of them all. She exceeds Brussels in her Rubenses for the larger altar pieces are here, just as at Amsterdam the Rembrandts, while not numerous, take precedence because of The Syndics and The Night Watch. The tumultuous, overwhelming Peter Paul is in his glory at Antwerp. You think of some cataclysm when facing these turbulent, thrilling canvases. If Raphael woos, Rubens stuns. In the company of Michel Angelo and Balzac or Richard Wagner he would be their equal for torrential energy and vibrating humanity. Not so profound as Buonarroti, not so versatile as Balzac, he is their peer in sheer savagery of execution. Setting aside the miles of pictures signed by him though painted by his pupils, he must have covered multitudes of canvas. Like men of his sort of genius, he ends by making your head buzz and your eyes burn; and then, the sameness of his style, the repetition of his wives and children's portraits, the apotheosis of the Rubens family! He portrayed Helena Fourment and Isabella Brandt in all stages of disarray and gowns. He put them together on the same canvas. He did not hesitate to show them to the world in all their opulent nudity. Their white skins, large eyes with wide gaze, their lovely children appear in religious and mythologic pictures at every turn you make in this museum. You become too familiar with them. You learn to know that one wife was slenderer than the other; you also realise that other days had other ways. Titian painted the portrait of a noble dame quite naked and placed her husband, soberly attired, near by. No one criticised the taste of this performance. Manet, who was no Titian, did the same trick and was voted wicked. He actually dared to show us Nana dressing in the presence of a gentleman who sat in the same room with his hat on.
The heavy-flanked Percheron horses are of the same order as the Rubens women. The Flemings are mighty feeders, mighty breeders, good-tempered, pleasure-loving folk. They don't work as hard as the Dutch, and they indulge in more feasting and holidays. The North seems austere and Protestant when compared with this Roman Catholic land. Its sons of genius, such as Rubens and Van Dyck, painted pictures that do not reveal the deeper faith of the Primitives. No Christ or Mary of either Van Dyck or Rubens sounds the poignant note of the Netherlandish unknown mystic masters.
But what a banquet of beauty Rubens spreads for the eye ! With him painting reached its apogee, and in him were the seeds of its decadence. He shattered the Florentine line; he, a tremendous space-composer when he so wished, wielded his brush at times like a scene-painter on a debauch. The most shocking, the loveliest things happen on his canvases. Set the beautiful Education of the Virgin, in this gallery, beside such a work as Venus and Vulcan at Brussels, and you will see the scale in which he sported. Or the Virgin and Parrot, with a child Christ who might have posed as a youthful Adonis, and the Venus Frigida — both in Antwerp. A pagan was Rubens, for all his religion. We prefer the Christ Crucified between Two Thieves or the Christ on the Cross, the single figure, to the more famous Descent at the Cathedral. But what can be said that is new about Rubens or Van Dyck? In the latter may be noted the beginnings of deliquescence. He is a softened Rubens, a Rubens aristocratic. The portraits here are prime, those of the Bishop of Antwerp, Jean Malderus, and of the young girl with the two dogs. His various Christs are more piteous to behold than those of his master, Rubens. The feminine note is present, and without any of the realism which so shocks in the conceptions of the Primitives. Nevertheless we turn to his poitraits or to the little boy standing at a table. There is the true key of Van Dyck. He met Rubens as a portraitist and took no odds of him.
Lucas Cranach's Adam and Eve is a variation of the picture in the Brussels gallery. A Gossaert portrait catches the eye, the head and bust of a man; then you find yourself staring in wonderment at the Peter Breughels and Jerome Bosches with their malodorous fantastic versions of temptations of innumerable St. Anthonys. The air is thick with monsters, fish-headed and splay of foot. St. Anthony must have had the stomach of an ostrich and the nerves of a politician to endure such sights and sounds and witches. Such females! But Peter and his two sons are both painters of interest. There are better Teniers in Brussels, though Le Chanteur is admirable. Ostade's Smoker is a masterpiece. Only four Rembrandts, the portrait of a woman, according to Vosmaer and W. Barger that of his wife Saskia; a fisherman's boy, the Burgomaster, and the Old Jew. Dr. Bode thinks that the last two are by Nikolas Maes. The portrait of Eleazer Swalmius — the so-called Burgomaster Six — is finely painted as to head and beard. The Antwerp Museum paid two hundred thousand francs for the work. We must not forget mention of a David Teniers, a loan of Dr. Bredius, a still-life, a white dead goose superb in tone.
Of the two Frans Halses, the portrait of a Dutch gentleman is the better; the other was formerly known as the Strandlooper van Haarlem and`shows the vigorous brush-work of the master. It is the head of a saucy fisher-boy, the colour scheme unusual for Hals. The Quentin Matsys pictures are strong; among others the portrait of Peter Gillis with his shrewd, strongly marked physiognomy. This is a Matsys town. Every one looks at his old iron well beside the Cathedral and recalls the legend of the blacksmith, as every boy remembers here Hendrik Conscience and the Lion of Flanders. Van Reymerswael's The Tax Gatherers, some-times called The Bankers or The Misers, hangs in the museum; that realistic picture with the so highly individualised heads, a favourite of the engravers, holds its own. Both the Boutses, Albrecht and Dirck, are shown in their Holy Families, and both are painters of ineffable grace and devotion.
Four Memlings of seductive beauty light the walls. One is a portrait of Nicolö Spinelli. Christ and His Angels, the angels playing in praise of the Eternal and other angels playing various instruments. The two Van Eycks, Huibrecht (Hubert) and Jan, are well represented. The St. Barbara, by Jan, is repeated in the Bruges Museum The Donateur or Donor is a repetition of the original at Bruges. The Adoration of the Lamb is a copy of the original at Ghent. There is tender beauty in Jan's St. Barbara, and infinite motherly love expressed in his Holy Virgin. Hugo van der Goes's portrait of Thomas Portunari is a marvel of characterisation. Terburg has a mandolin player and Hobbema a mill scene. The Van Orleys are interesting, and also the Van Veens. Gerard David, a painter of exquisite touch and feeling, shows a Repose in Egypt. Lucas Cranach's L'Amour is one of his Virgins transposed to the mythological key. We have barely indicated the richness of this collection, in which, of course, Rubens plays first fiddle — rather the full orchestra. And with what sonority and luminosity!
At the Cathedral his three masterpieces draw their accustomed audiences with the usual guide lecturing in three languages, pointing out the whiteness of the cloth in the Descent and the anatomy in the Ascent. This latter work is always slighted by sightseers because Baedeker, or some one else, had pronounced its composition "inferior" to the Descent, but there are many more difficult problems involved in the Ascent. Its pat-tern is not so pleasing as the Descent, the subject is less appealing, and more sternly treated. There are more virile accents in the Ascent, though it would be idle to deny that in paint quality there is a falling off. Both pictures show the tooth of time and the ravages of the restorers. At St. Jacques, with its wonderfully carved pulpit, the St, George of Rubens hangs in a chapel. It has darkened much during the last twenty years. Also there is another Rubens family group with wives and other relatives. They thought well of themselves, the Rubens family, and little wonder.
The modern pictures at the museum are of varying interest-Braekeleer, Stobbaerts, Verlat, Scheffer, Cabanel, David (J. L.), Wertz, Wauters, Wappers, some elegant Alfred Stevenses, De Bock the landscapist, Clays, Van Beers, Meunier, Breton, Bouguereau, and a lot of nondescript lumber. In the spacious approach there is one of Constantin Meunier's famous figures. You rejoice that he followed Rodin's advice and gave up the brush for the chisel. As a painter he was not more than mediocre.
The four Van der Weydens in the gallery of Primitives are not all of equal merit. The Annunciation is the most striking. The early master of Memling is distinguished by a sweetness in composition and softness in colouring. Mention must be made of the De Vos pictures by the Cornelis, Martin, and Simon. A portrait of Abraham Grapheus by the first-named is one of the most striking in the museum, and the self-portrait of the latter, smiling, is brilliant. Rombouts is a sort of Adrian Brouwer; his Cavaliers Playing at Cards recalls Caravaggio. Daniel Mytens's portrait of a lady is Rubenesque.
And all that choir of elevated souls unknown to us by name, merely called after the city they inhabited, such as the Master of Bray, or by some odd device or monogram - what cannot be written of this small army which praised the Lord, His mother and the saints in form and colour, on missals, illuminated manuscripts, or on panels! The Antwerp Museum has its share of Anonymous, that master of whom it has been said that he was probably the master of the masters.
Antwerp is a city of many charms, with its St. Jacques, St. Andres (and its carved pulpit), St. Paul and the Cathedral, and its preservation of the Flemish spirit and Flemish customs; but for us its museum was all in all.