Louvre - Salles XIX. To XXXVI. - Flemish School
( Originally Published 1915 )
THE small rooms on either side of the Galerie Rubens contain the larger number of the Dutch and Flemish pictures owned by the Louvre. Among them are many that formed part of the Collection Lacaze. Though the two schools are hung together, it will be easier, perhaps, to discuss them separately.
To continue, therefore, with the works of the painters of Flanders, in Room XX. is the one so-called Van Eyck owned by the museum. Whether the Chancellor Rollin Kneeling before the Virgin actually is a Van Eyck, has been doubted. One reason for this question is that it lacks the deep purple reds that were usual to that painter. It is at any rate of his school and has many of his characteristics.
The Virgin is seen sitting at the right in a balcony or gallery opening at the back and sides through arches supported by delicate pillars. She is clad in a long full red robe of many folds with borders of gold embroidery in which are traced words from the Scriptures, and on her knee is the nude baby Christ, whose wooden, old-looking body is the poorest piece of work in the picture. He holds a crystal globe surmounted by a cross in his left hand, while with the other he is blessing the kneeling chancellor. Poised above the Virgin's shoulder, with a jewel-studded golden crown in her hands is a blue-robed angel whose varicoloured wings rise above her in graceful curves. The donor, Chancellor Rollin, kneels opposite this group before a prie-dieu on which is an open Bible. Beyond, through the open arches, a wide-reaching landscape of plains, river, bridge, houses and trees is seen.
The microscopical elaboration of detail in this vista is duplicated by the careful rendering of the tiled floor of the gallery, by the worked-out cornice and capitals, by the brocade robe of the chancellor — with every golden flower marked with exactness against the brown ground — by Mary's yellow tresses where the individual hairs can almost be counted. Everywhere is shown this consideration for infinitesimal detail. It is one of the marks of the real greatness of the painter that in spite of it, the picture keeps a wholeness, a unity. This is partly done by a fine use of colour, and also by Van Eyck's instinctive conception of the laws of perspective. It is the gradations of colour and tone in the landscape that save it from being a conglomeration of myriads of spots. To this exquisite colour-sense, Van Eyck joined a deep religious sentiment and a strong feeling for characterization. The chancellor is as remarkable a portrait as Pinturicchio's Alexander VI. in the Vatican. The attitudes are not dissimilar, and the flatly joined prayer-folded hands are almost identical in placing and in delicacy of construction. This donor's face, however, with its so evident wig, shows a very different character from that of the Roman pontiff. The smooth, enamel-like surface of its modelling is as fresh and clear as if painted yesterday. There is a solidity and massiveness of figure under the rich robe that proves the excellent draughtsman Van Eyck could be, — this in spite of the wooden baby, as out of proportion in size as it is in parts. Mary has the long face with the extremely high forehead of the early Flemings, and, except for a sweet earnestness and her golden hair is quite without beauty.
Jan van Eyck, the first of the Flemish painters to achieve a world-wide reputation has been credited with being the inventor of painting in oil. Though this is not strictly true he did at least perfect certain methods of working with this medium. It is due to his discovery that tempera painting became more and more infrequent. And it is undoubtedly true that the Italian painters owed their knowledge of the new process to him. Comparing Van Eyck's work with that of Gentile da Fabriano, who was a contemporary, the Fleming's is seen to have much more reality, more truth of construction and infinite more love of detail. And yet the detail in Van Eyck's work distracts the eye from the main point much less than does that of Fabriano's.
In the same room are two pictures by Roger van der Weyden, up to 1846 known as Roger of Bruges. He resembles both Hubert and Jan van Eyck, and has been supposed to be a pupil of the younger brother, but this is probably untrue. Doctor Waagen says of him that his " too exclusive aim at truth led Roger van der Weyden occasionally to represent the tasteless and the disagreeable. Thus, his nude is meagre, his fingers too long, his feet, especially in his earlier works, ill-formed." In colouring he is better. Though he does not rise to the richness and intensity of Van Eyck, he has a great deal of brilliancy and strength. His flesh-tones were at first mellow and golden, later they became colder. His influence, and thus through him, the influence of the Van Eycks, spread all over Germany, and the strictly realistic type that prevailed there may be traced directly to his teachings. None of his best-known works are at the Louvre.
The Virgin and Child is a small picture with gold background. It represents the Virgin on a sort of ledge-like seat in a niche squarely framed with simple gold moulding. She is offering her breast to the child whom she holds on her left knee. He is not exactly seated on this knee, however, and the actual construction of his little naked body is hardly more successful. Neither is his face a type of childish beauty. Nevertheless there are at earnestness and sincerity of purpose very apparent in the careful rendering. Mary's face is much more lovely. The broad forehead, eyes wide apart, delicate nose and tender mouth are typically Flemish, yet they seem to prefigure the Fra Lippo type of Italy. The body is much poorer in construction than the head. The shoulders are far too narrow, the hand too long and illy joined, there is in fact, no perceptible body under the long red robe. It is not strange that the baby does not sit on her knees, for there are really no knees to hold him !
The Descent from the Cross is a more important, but in some respects an even more archaic work than the other. In front of the cross Mary sits holding on her knees the figure of her son, who is nude save for a bit of drapery about his loins. Beside her kneels St. John, drawing a piece of drapery under the head of his dead master. Mary Magdalene kneels at the left, farther back. Beyond lie Jerusalem, a hill, a lake and distant mountains. Mary is distinctly the best figure of the group. Though she has no shoulders under her blue robes, nor very little shape of any kind, Van der Weyden succeeded in getting a face that is remarkably expressive and well drawn. There is a real tenderness, a restrained sorrow about her drooped lids and trembling mouth that remains in the mind long after the more evident grief of the Magdalene or that of John has been forgotten. Mary Magdalene, by false perspective, though supposed to be farther back in the plane of the picture than is the Virgin, is brought into the immediate foreground. Her brilliant red dress and yellow sleeves, green cloak and white draped cap, make her all the more prominent. John has an air of deep solicitude and sympathy touchingly hinted at in the way his eyes linger on the Virgin. The dead Christ is of course a marvel of ill-drawing, and as in the German and early Italian Pietàs, his emaciation, and all the terrible insignia of his suffering are insisted upon with a total disregard of truth of construction or perspective.
Van der Weyden is supposed to be the teacher of Hans Memling, or Memlinc, as it was probably spelled in his day. He is the great glory of the school of Bruges and it is there he must be seen really to be known. His highest triumphs are in religious paintings, though some of his portraits do not lack strength or individuality. He had a grace, an expressiveness, and a sweetness of rendering women's faces never equalled in the early Flemish school. His landscapes too, were not only minute, truthful and real, but they were treated as the setting for his figures and scenes in a way none of his contemporaries achieved. " His Virgins," says one critic, " are not simply the real and mundane portraits of the ladies of his time — they embody purity of expression, celestial simplicity, peace and an ineffable charm." If not among his finest works the pictures by Memlinc in the Louvre are sufficiently good to give a fair idea of this painter's style. All, with the exception of one, are in Salle XX.
The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine was painted about 1475. It is a diptych and though for long the leaves were apart, it has now been reunited. On the dexter leaf the Virgin is shown seated in a meadow with the child Jesus on her lap surrounded by six saints, three on each side, and in the sky far above are three angels playing on flutes. Behind the Virgin is a bank with a trellis of roses, and on each side is a symmetrical sort of arbour of trees, opening in the centre to display a distant landscape of widening stream and low banks and, against the horizon, a high peaked mountain. The Virgin is clad in blue and sits with eyes downcast holding the child in her hands. He has turned toward the left and is reaching down to place a ring on the finger of St. Catherine, who is seated at the feet of the Virgin in the left of the immediate foreground, arrayed in a rich golden brocade gown with red velvet waist. Her left hand rests on an open book on her knees and from under her full draperies appear the wheel and the sword. Opposite her kneels St. Barbara, in red, holding a book. At the Virgin's left, behind St. Barbara, are St. Margaret with the head of the dragon at her knees and St. Lucy bearing a dish containing two eyes. Facing these are St. Agnes with her lamb and St. Cecilia with her little organ. These four saints are dressed in the brilliant clear colours usual to the early religious painters, and they still retain their original freshness of tone. The three angels in the sky are delicately drawn and really seem to float in the ether. All of the saints are differentiated by subtle changes of expression that give to each a decided and charming individuality. With no attempt at shadow, their faces and forms are yet carefully modelled, and in spite of certain hesitances and inaccuracies present an appearance of reality. The Virgin and child are no less successful. Better anatomically than in either Van der Weyden's or Van Eyck's pictures is the little nude Jesus, and there is a sweet maternity and yet a cloistral virginity about the girl-mother that neither of the other men so well expressed. The composition is somewhat formal but is naturally, composed.
On the other leaf is the Portrait of the Donor of the Picture, John du Celier, who was one of the guild of Merchant Grocers, at that time a very rich guild in Bruges. He is in a robe lined with fur and kneels on the ground, his hands met in prayer. His patron saint, John the Baptist, is behind him, one hand on the merchant's shoulder, the other pointing to the Son. The foreground is a field where wild flowers and plants are growing in profusion. A winding stream in front of a band of trees separates this scene from the ones in the back-ground. These are incidents from the lives of St. George and St. John and have become greatly obliterated from the ravages of time.
The two shutters, St. John the Baptist, and Mary Magdalene, had once a centre portion whose very subject is forgotten. They were in Prince Lucien Bonaparte's collection and afterward were owned by William H. of Holland. The two here are the fronts of the complete shutters, sawn apart no one knows when. The Louvre bought them in 1851 for eleven thousand seven hundred and twenty-eight francs. The backs of the shutters represented Saints Stephen and Christopher. Of the ones in the Louvre, the St. John is on the dexter panel. Clad in a camel's skin, he stands in a meadow that slopes back and upwards to a river with high banks on which is a palace where Herodias's daughter is dancing and where in the courtyard St. John is beheaded. At the foot of the hill is John baptizing Jesus, and again he is shown pointing out the master to the disciples. This placing in the background of different scenes occurring at different times was characteristic of Memlinc as of the early Italians.
On the opposite panel, Mary Magdalene stands also in a landscape. She is dressed in a brocaded gown of red and gold with a mantle of violet. In her right hand she carries a pot of ointment. Behind in the distance, she is seen wiping her Lord's feet in Simon's house, again she is watching the raising of Lazarus, and once more she appears under some trees kneeling at the feet of the risen Saviour. Still farther back on the side of a mountain is the entrance to a cave, and above it two angels carry the saint to heaven. In each of these panels the foreground is full of flowering shrubs and plants. Both are wonderfully finished and the character of both heads is vividly depicted. St. John has a strength, a ruggedness, and a strained expression that tells of his strenuous life, and in Mary Magdalene both softness and intelligence appear in her really beautiful countenance.
Whereas Memlinc may be called the last of the pure Gothic painters, to adopt M. Alexandre's title for the earliest Flemish painters, Quentin Matsys, says M. Alexandre again, is the first of the great moderns. " He was the rising, as Rubens was the setting sun of Antwerp." Already in his works can be seen the influence of the Italians, though it is not known if he ever visited Italy. This Italian influence is not always present, however, for at times he is as truly Gothic as Memlinc himself. Generally, the two influences are fused in a whole where neither can be separated from the other. He stands as it were midway between Van Eyck and Rubens. In his compositions are signs of the floridity, richness and magnificence that make those of the later master such glowing splendours of art. Where Matsys acquired the training that made him the artist he became, is not definitely known. It is at least certain that he did not in six months turn from a blacksmith to an accomplished painter, all for love of an artist's daughter whose father had sworn that she should marry only a man of his own profession.
The two pictures by Matsys in Salle XX. are of very unequal merit. In the portrait-genre piece The Banker and His Wife, he is not far from his best. Sitting side by side behind a counter, are the banker and his wife, he counting and weighing his coins, she turning over the leaves of an illuminated book, but pausing for a moment's look at her husband's employment. Behind them are two shelves, holding a glass bottle, an orange, a pair of scales, books and papers. Before them, besides the gold pieces, are an open, silk purse filled with pearls, a line of rings run on a roll of paper, and a small round mirror in which is reflected a window, the head and shoulders of a man reading by it, and through the window trees and a tower. All these accessories are done with the painstaking, accurate brush of the Low Countries. But how admirably they keep their place ! It is only by close scrutiny that they can be noticed or enumerated. The whole attention is riveted exactly where it was intended it should be, — directly upon the man and woman them-selves. The man has a big full-rolled cap with a cape hanging from it, and a blue coat with fur about the neck and cuffs. His whole mind is absorbed in counting and weighing his treasure, and the skilful, slender fingers seem made for the careful task. His face is strongly marked and lined, his eyes deep set, his nose long and high in bone, his mouth fully curved but firm. It is not the miser who is here portrayed, but the successful, cautious business man, and it is evident that it is as capital a likeness as it is a capitally drawn visage. His wife, who sits close by on his left, is a quiet, placid, lady-like soul, viewing the pieces of money with not too great an interest. She is much more attracted by missals than by shining doubloons. Her dress is red and the cover of the counter is green, the colours of the picture therefore bright, pictorial. But it is his characterization of the two people and the freedom of his drawing and excellence of modelling that make this what it is, a really splendid group.
The Blessing Christ, is far less satisfactory. There is nothing about it that marks it as anything but a very mediocre work.
In Room XXI. both Peter Breughel, the elder, and Velvet Breughel his son have examples of their works. Velvet Breughel as well has several in Room XXXV. Peter Breughel was very unlike his son both in his manner of working and in the subjects he chose to portray. Though he studied in Italy, he was never Italianized, and as a Flemish painter he stands quite apart as truly as Jan Steen does among the Dutch. Not so great a humourist, he was a true observer, a wise thinker, a brilliant raconteur, a keen satirist. If at times in his transcriptions of peasant life he was both rude and even vulgar, he redeems those faults by a spirit, a life, vigour of thought and an intense reality.
The Reunion of the Mendicants has been called by Mantz " a veritable chef-d'oeuvre." It shows a party of five cripples in a garden marching painfully along on their crutches. They are dressed in ridiculous costumes ornamented with foxtails and with hats in the form of mitres. At the back is a wall of bricks. These cripples are vividly portrayed, not a disagreeable spared, and yet the picture is amusing rather than repulsive.
The Parable of the Blind is one of his more serious and stronger works. For it is not alone with mirth that this painter dwells. Alexandre's description of it is so striking that it is worth giving entire. After stating that it is a repetition in oil of one in tempera at the Naples museum, he goes on : " The amplitude of the design, and of the movement of that line of blind men, who, holding each by the other, seem about to fall into the ditch yawning at the feet of the first one of the queue, the extraordinary conception of those heads with the non-seeing eyes, so real and so dreadful ; the beauty of the harmonious colouring with its greens, grays, browns and reds ; the magnificent landscape, so powerful, so immense, so full of unexpected detail ; this it is that makes one realize how great he was as man and painter."
In Salle XXXV. Snyders has a picture far removed from the tremendous battles and conflicts he so often painted. Even in this, however, which is named Dogs in a Larder, the two snarling dogs and the glaring cat in the background give an intensity and a passion that proclaim it truly a Snyders. Standing on his hind legs with his forepaws on a small square table, the dog at the left is devouring one of the pieces of meat that forms part of the pile of legs of mutton, asparagus and artichokes. In the centre, half under the table, another dog has his forefeet on a bone, which he guards with an angry show of teeth from the third canine. This last is at the right, legs far apart, head down, as near to the coveted morsel as he dare venture. His raised upper lip, the gleam in his furtive eye, the whole snarling, sneaking brute is expressed with a snap and vigour till one expects actually to hear the vicious barks. Through an open door at the left, a cat is seen curled up on the table. Her own evident fright, detestation and spite fairly send sparks from the starting eyes.
Older by a quarter of a century than Snyders was Adriaen Brauwer, who can be claimed by both Dutch and Flemish schools. He studied under Hals at Haarlem, but afterward worked mostly in Antwerp. He has been reviled as being a worse toper than his worst pictures indicated. There is comparatively little known about him even yet, but enough to indicate that this tale is a gross exaggeration. Certainly he was a great friend of Rubens and Rembrandt, both of whom owned paintings by him and esteemed them highly. Rubens, it has been pointed out, was too correct in his own life to have been intimate with the carouser Brauwer has been considered. Waagen says of his pictures that " they display a singular power of keeping, a delicate and harmonious colouring, which inclines to the cool shade, an admirable individuality, and a sfumato of surface in which he is unexcelled." The Louvre had nothing worth calling his till the Collection Lacaze came to it. There are several panels in that that show him somewhere near his best. Probably the most generally known is the one called The Smoker in Salle XXXIV. This originally formed part of a series of five pictures, called The Five Senses.
It is merely the head and bust of a man, including, however, his right and part of his left hand. Grasping a bottle of liquor in both hands along with his clay pipe which is still smoking, this rough-looking individual is portrayed with wide-open eyes and stretched, cavern-like mouth out of which are issuing clouds of smoke. His bushy, tousled hair hangs over his face and on to his shoulders, his collar is careless, the general air is that of a roisterer. And that is undoubtedly just what Brauwer intended him to appear. It is quite impossible to look at the silly, distorted face without laughing, even if the observer is a teetotaler or belongs to an anti-smokers' league. And like everything Brauwer touched, there are individuality, expression, intense life, and a masterly brush shown over every inch of the picture.
Brauwer is much less well known than Teniers and left far fewer works behind him. But competent critics acknowledge him a greater master in the same field. The Operation, in the same room as The Smoker is an-other most characteristic, realistic work, in which he shows that broad, full hand that learned its lesson well under the instruction of Frans Hals.
The Duo in the next room, by Teniers, is a delightful bit, simple as it is amusing, full of reality and life as it is of observation. At the left an old man seated on a wooden chair is vigorously playing a violin, while by his side, filling the right of the picture sits his wife, holding a sheet of music in her hands and singing bravely the while she watches her lord and master. The man wears a red velvet jacket and gray trousers, a blue hat with a long, slender plume, and the gaiety of his clothes is emphasized by his own lively expression and the energy with which he marks time with his left foot which is resting, toes up, on the stool before him. His wife has a blue dress and a white cap. Perhaps the first impression at seeing this bit of genre, is an amused surprise that this hard-working old couple have either leisure or taste for the fine arts !
Among others by Van der Meulen in Room XXXVII., is The View of Dinant. Though it is called the siege and taking of Dinant, there is so little sign of hostility on the part of the amiable-looking cavalcade advancing toward it, or of active preparations of defence by the walled town that it is difficult to associate battle or bombardment with the scene. The colouring is warm and harmonious if darkened. At the left in the foreground is a company of mounted officers, the central one of whom is supposed to be the Marquis de Rochefort. They are at the end of a long line of troops, the first of which, winding down the hills and across the plain, have almost reached the town on the Meuse. Above the village is the castle, high on a precipitous cliff, and below the river runs diagonally across the picture. The rocky region, with its sparse vegetation, the opposite shore with its admirable distance, the scattered habitations, all are rendered with a realistic if conventional touch.