Museums Of Brussels
( Originally Published 1925 )
Considering its size and significance, Brussels has more than its share of museums. At the beginning of the Rue de la Régence, near the Place Royale, stands the imposing Royal Museum of old paintings and sculpture. The Museum of Modern Art is around the corner and adjoins the National Library, which is said to harbour over six hundred thousand volumes. In the gallery of old art the effect of the sculptors' hall, which is in the centre and utilises the entire height of the building, is noble. The best sculpture therein is by Rodin and Meunier; the remainder is generally academic or simply bad. Rodin's Thinker, in bronze, is a repetition of the original. After the wreathed prettiness of the conventional school — neither Greek nor Gothic - and the writhing diablerie of Rodin imitators the simplicity and directness of Constantin Meunier is refreshing. He was a man whose imagination became inflamed at the sight of suffering and injustice. He is closer to Millet than to his friend Rodin, but he lacks the sweetness and strength of Millet. Selecting the Belgian workman - the miner, the hewer of wood and drawer of water, the proletarian, in a word — for his theme, Meunier observed closely and reproduced his vision in terms of rugged beauty. The sentiment is evidently socialistic. Like Prince Kropotkin and the brothers Réclus, the Belgian sculptor revolts against the cruelty of man to man. He shows us the miner crouched in a pitiful manner finding a pocket of coal; men naked to the waist, their torsos bulging with muscles, their small heads on bull necks, are puddlers; other groups patiently haul heavy carts labour not in its heroic aspect, but as it is in reality, is the core of Meunier's art. That he is "literary" at times may not be denied, but power he has.
The early Flemish school of the fifteenth century is strongly represented in several of the galleries upstairs. And Rogier de la Pasture, otherwise known as Rogier van der Weyden, is shown in five pictures, and at his best. The Chevalier with the Arrow, a bust portrait, will be familiar to those who have visited the Rijks Museum, where a copy hangs. The robe is black, the hat, conical, is brown, the background blue-green. The silhouette is vigorously modelled, the expression one of dignity, the glance penetrating, severe. What characterisation! The Christ is a small panel surpassingly rich in colour and charged with profound pity. The body lies in the arms of the Mother, Magdalen and John on either side. The sun is setting. The subject was a favourite of Weyden; there is a triptych in Berlin and a panel at The Hague. This Brussels picture has evidently been shorn of its wings. There are replicas of the Virgin and Child (No. 6s0 in the catalogue) at Berlin, Cassel, and Frankfort, also in the recently dispersed collection of Rudolph Kann. Another striking tableau is the head of a woman who weeps. The minutest tear is not missing.
Hubert and Jan Van Eyck's Adam and Eve are the wings (volets) from the grand composition in the Cathedral of St. Bavo, Ghent. They are gigantic figures, nude, neither graceful nor attractive, but magnificently painted. These portraits (they don't look as if they had been finished in paradise) of our first parents rather favour the evolutionary theory of development. Eve is unlovely, her limbs lanky, her bust mediaeval, her flanks Flemish. In her right hand she holds the fatal apple. Adam's head is full of character; it is Christ-like; his torso ugly, his legs wooden. Yet how superior to the copies which are now attached to the original picture at Ghent. There the figures are clothed, clumsy, and meaningless.
Dierick Bouts's Justice of Emperor Otho III is a striking picture. The subject has that touch of repulsive cruelty which was a sign of the times. Hans Memling's Martyrdom of St. Sebastian is another treasure, with his portraits of a man, of Guillaume Morel and of Barbara de Vlandenberg making an immortal quartet. The head of the man is the favourite in reproduction. Morel is portrayed as in prayer, his hands clasped, his expression rapt. A landscape is seen at the back. The Virgin Surrounded by Virgins, by an unknown master of the fifteenth century (school of Bruges), is one of the most amazing pictures in the collection. It has a nuance of the Byzantine and of the hieratic, but the portraits are enchanting in their crystalline quality. Quentin Matsys' Legend of St. Anne is much admired, though for sincerity we prefer The Passion of the Master of Oultremont. Gerard David's Adoration of the Magi is no longer attributed to him. It was always in doubt: now the name has been removed, though the picture has much of his mellowness. Dr. Scheuring, the old man with the shaved upper lip, beard, and hair over his forehead, by Lucas Cranach, and Jean Gossaert's Chevalier of the Golden Fleece, are masterly portraits. Van Cleve, Van Orlay, Key - perhaps a portrait of the bloody Duke of Alva also one of himself, Coello's Maria of Austria, are among the sterling specimens in this gallery.
We need not expect to find duplicated here the Rubens of Antwerp. The most imposing example is the Adoration of the Magi, while his portraits of the Archduke Albert and his Archduchess, Isabella, are perhaps the best extant. The Calvary is a splendid canvas, full of movement and containing several members of the well-known Rubens family. Such devotion is touching. You find yourself looking for Isabella Brandt and Helena Fourment among the angels that hover in the sky above the martyred St. Lieven. The four negro heads, the Woman Taken in Adultery, a Susanna (less concerned about her predicament than any we have encountered), a curious and powerful portrait of Theophrastus Paracelsus (Browning's hero), with a dozen others make a goodly showing for the Antwerp master. Otho Vaenius (Octave Van Veen), one of the teachers of Rubens, is hung here. There are nearly a dozen Van Dycks, of prime quality all. The Crucifixion, the portrait of an unknown gentleman wearing a huge ruff and the winning portrait of a Flemish sculptor, Francesco Duquesngy, (on a stand), give you an excellent notion of his range, though better Van Dycks are in France and England.
The portrait of an old man, by Rembrandt, is beginning to fade, but that of an old woman is a superior Rembrandt. Of Frans Hals there are two fine specimens; one, a portrait of Willem van Heythusen, is a small picture, the figure sitting, the legs crossed (booted and spurred) and the figure leaning lazily back. On his head a black felt hat with a broad upturned brim. The expression of the bearded man is serious. The only Jan Vermeer is one of the best portraits by that singularly gifted painter we recall. It is called The Man with the Hat. Dr. Bredius in 1905 considered the picture by jean Victor, but it has been pronounced Vermeer by equal authorities. It was once a part of the collection of Humphry Ward. The man sits, his hand holding a glove resting negligently over the back of a chair. He faces the spectator, on his head a long, pointed black hat with a wide brim. His collar is white. A shadow covers the face above the eyes. These are rather melancholy, inexpressive; the flesh tints are anæmic, almost morbid: We are far away from the Vermeer of the Milkmaid and the Letter. There is something disquieting in this portrait, but it is a masterpiece of paint and character.
The Old Lady Dreaming, by N. Mats, and the Jan Steen. (The Operator) are good though not remarkable examples. Jacob Jordaenses flood the various galleries; Rubens run to seed as far as quality, yet exhibiting enormous muscularity, is the trait of this gross painter. The King Drinks - his kings are always drinking or blind drunk — his nudes, which look like the contents of the butcher shops in Brussels, attract throngs, for the anecdote is writ large across the wall, and you don't have to run to read. Panoramas would be a better title for these robust compositions. David Teniers's La Kermesse is the most important work he ever finished. It is in good preservation. Amsterdam has not its superior. There is an ordinary El Greco, a poor Goya, and a Ribera downstairs. The French art is not enlivening.
Philip Champaigne's self-portrait is familiar: it has been reproduced frequently. Jean Baptiste Huysmans, a landscape with animals; he is said to be an ancestor of the late Joris Karel Huysmans. The Mors (Antonio Moro) is of value. But the lodestone of the collection is the Primitives.
The pictures in the modern gallery are largely Belgian, some French, and a few Dutch and English. It is not a collection of artistic significance. In the black-and-white room may be seen a few original drawings of Rops.
The Musée Wiertz is worth visiting only as a chamber of horrors. When Wiertz is not morbid and repulsive he is of the vasty inane, a man of genius gone daft, obsessed by the mighty shades of Rubens and Michael Angelo. Wiertz was born in 1806 and died in 1865. The Belgian Government, in order to make some sort of reparation for its neglect of the painter during his troubled and unhappy lifetime, acquired his country residence and made it a repository of his art. The pictures are of a scale truly heroic. The painter pitted himself against Rubens and Michael Angelo. He said: "I, too, am a great painter!" And there is no denying his power. His tones recall the pate of Rubens without its warmth and splendour. When Wiertz was content to keep within bounds his portraits and feminine nudes are not without beauty. He was fanciful rather than poetic, and the picture of Napoleon in hell enduring the reproaches of his victims (why should they be there?) is startling. Startling, too, are the tricks played on your nerves by the peepholes. You see a woman crazed by hunger about to cook one of her murdered children; beheaded men, men crushed by superior power, the harnessed body of Patroclus, Polyphemus devouring the companions of Ulysses, and other monstrous conceptions, are all painted with reference to the ills of the poor. Anton Joseph was a socialist in sentiment. If his executive ability had been on a par with his ideas, and if those ideas had been less extravagant, the world would have had one more great painter; but his nervous system was flawed and he died a melancholic, a victim to misplaced ideals. He wished to revive the heroic age at a time of easel pictures. He, the half genius, saw himself outwitted by the sleek paint of Alfred Stevens. Born out of his due time, a dreamer of dreams, Wiertz is a sad example of the futility of looking backward in art.