Metropolitan Museum - The Flemish Paintings
( Originally Published 1909 )
THE art of painting was practised in North Western Europe only by the illuminator and miniaturist during the 13th and 14th centuries, while Cimabue and Giotto were painting their frescoes in Italy. Not until the beginning of the 15th century do we meet with any painters of easel pictures or altarpieces in that region where weaving and commerce had produced wealth and luxury — in Flanders. But then the art leaped into prominence with a suddenness chiefly due to the fact that the two brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck invented a way to facilitate the method to fix colour on a surface, and thereby contributed to the technical perfection of painting.
Hubert van Eyck (1366?-1426) and his brother Jan (1382-1441), some twenty years his junior, after repeated experiments found that a mixture of linseed oil and nut oil combined with some resinous substances formed a quickly drying varnish, and that by mixing this medium with colours an hitherto unsurpassed effect of brilliancy was produced. Although this use of oil in painting had been known in some form or other before this time, it is certain that the process invented by the van Eycks evidently solved some difficulty that had thus far prevented the successful application of oil-colour to panel painting. Their discovery drew the immediate attention of all foreign artists to Flanders, for the van Eycks seemed to have carried this new method at once to perfection — no after-work of their school exhibits a more perfect mastery over this technical medium, or a more complete understanding of the harmony of colour, than theirs.
With the brothers van Eyck the Flemish school originated — not alone because of this mechanical invention, but because with them new characteristics came to the fore. These were a leaning toward naturalism, the close imitation of external nature, a love for the homely and the domestic, sensitiveness to colour at the expense of purity and grace of line, perfection of finish, and, in the earlier period, a profound and exalted religious fervour. Hubert van Eyck, in the Ghent altarpiece, which was left unfinished at his death and completed by his brother Jan, gave to the world an ideal example of the religious art of mediaeval times when that art had arrived at its highest perfection. His subject is treated in a reverential, dignified manner, approaching the sublime. He was a man of thoughtful nature, with depth and intensity of feeling, imbued with the mystical spirit of his time. Jan, on the other hand, was less subject to the traditions of mediaeval ecclesiasticism. With half-conscious resistance to its bondage he turned with a kind of joyous conviction and in all sincerity to the higher revelation which he found in nature itself. And although, with less ideality than his brother, he rarely rose above material things, he displayed such exquisite skill in rendering even the most minute details in a marvellous manner that his fame after his brother's death soon exceeded the renown of the elder one. It is as a painter of portraits that he has given us the greatest proofs of his genius. He was the first realist in portraiture. The greatest impress he made, however, upon those that came after was the hitherto unprecedented power, depth, transparency, and harmony of his -colouring.
The importance of the van Eycks' place, in art can never be overestimated. Their work was the vigorous first-flowering of the, later to come, fertile harvest of Flemish art. While Hubert's influence is most apparent in those whom we may call the Flemish Primitives, the men of the 15th century, the work of Jan van Eyck was never for-gotten by the men of the century following.
Little is known of these Flemish Primitives.
Petrus Cristus and Rogier van der Weyden were pupils of the van Eycks. Jacques Daret, if this be the name of the unknown who long was called Le Maitre de Flemalle, was also influenced by their work. Later we find the Antwerp blacksmith Quentyn Massys inspired by the early traditions and turn to art. His altarpieces have made him the first of the great Antwerp painters. Gerard David, born in Holland, came to Bruges in 1484, and also imbibed the inspiration of the van Eycks. Later he leaned more towards the style of Dirk Bouts of Haarlem, who had moved to Louvain, and of Hans Memlinc. Both of these were more in sympathy with the North Netherland school of Leyden.
A few Flemish primitive paintings are in the Museum, but none which with any assurance can be attributed to a known master. A " Virgin and Child " is a school-copy of Jan van Eyck's Virgin by a Fountain," in Antwerp. A " Descent from the Cross " is a copy of a painting by Rogier van der Weiden (1399-1464). Another panel with the same subject is with little assurance ascribed to Petrus Cristus (1400-1473). Another " Virgin and Child " is with more reason given to Jacques Daret, Le Maitre de Flemalle (1410 — after 1468). It is called the " Virgin of Salamanca," from the church, in the apse of which the Virgin is standing, with angels on both sides.
A " Virgin and Child," loaned by Mr. Robert W. de Forest, is of the school, if not by the own hand of Gerard David (1450?-1523). If by himself it was painted before his return to Haarlem, since Flemish traits are too conspicuous. Another school-picture came from the studio of Quentyn Massys (1466-1530), and represents the head of Jesus of Nazareth, crowned with thorns.
A beautiful little panel has been given in the catalogue the title of " The Story of the Conversion of a Saint," which is purely conjectural. " The Story of the Rich Young Man," would be more in the spirit of the Flemish School. While the Italian painters in their religious subjects selected the legends of the Church, the Flemish and Dutch painters preferred the Bible stories themselves. It is safe to say that this picture has nothing to do with the conversion of St. Francis, as has been suggested.
The left of the picture shows the interior of the choir of a church in course of erection. A service is going on and a well-dressed man is seen to enter. In the middle distance outside the Church a young man is distributing' alms to the poor, which the Master pronounced the first requirement for those who. wished to enter his service.
Its tentative attribution to Henricus Blesius we may accept as well as another name. There is still doubt as to the identity of Henricus Blesius with the better known Hendrik met de Bles (about 1480 — after 1521), so called from a long lock hanging over his forehead, who was also known as Civetta by the Italians from his habit of placing an owl in his pictures. It would be well to compare this interesting panel with the plates in the Breviario Grimani, in the Museum Library, which were made by Flemish miniaturists. On account of the Flemish costumes I would prefer to give the panel before us to one of these Flemish artists, and not to anyone belonging to the Leyden school.
Of somewhat later date is an "Ecce Homo — Mater Dolorosa," by Adrian Isenbrant (14--1557), a pupil of Gerard David. The two tendencies in these Flemish Primitives, already hinted at, are exemplified in these two pictures. The so-called Blesius follows the buoyant, colourful Jan van Eyck; Isenbrant, as Gerard David before him, fell more into the devout footsteps of the loftier minded Hubert.
This " Ecce Homo — Mater Dolorosa " represents the two figures, life-size, three-quarter length, standing in a highly ornate Gothic window with a double arch. The Ecce Homo " has the conventional presentation of the King of the Jews in his state of humiliation, with the crown of thorns, and the reed that mocked the sceptre. The Sorrowing Mother is less like an Italian Madonna, and has the more distinct Flemish type with a white Beguinage head covering. The expression of the faces is overpoweringly realistic.
What Paris is today, Italy was to the artists of the 16th century : the Mecca, the school, the tonic — and unfortunately often the diet. No artistic training was considered complete without a visit to Italy. So it was with the Flemings, and Italian mannerisms became soon more and more apparent. Still the Netherland painters never quite forsook the plain, intimate, everyday scenes of their common life.
In " Gamblers Quarreling," which is supposed to be by the first one of the Breughel family of painters, Pieter the Elder (1510-1569), we find the forerunner of Teniers and Brouwer. Of his son Pieter, the Younger, called " Hellish " Breughel, there is no example. His unsavoury title was given him for his penchant to portray grotesques of fiendish circumstances. Of the grandson, Jan the Elder (1568-1625), there are two landscapes, " The Hill " and " The Windmill." He was called " Fluweelen " or " Velvet " Breughel, either from his reputed partiality for dressing in velvet, or because of the smooth, velvety finish of his pictures, especially of the festoons and garlands of flowers which he painted around the figure subjects of Rubens and other eminent masters. In these he introduced butterflies and bright-coloured insects in a profuse, delicate, and most skillful manner. His landscapes here are the first examples we have of the new-born landscape art. Even Claude Lorrain, who is considered to be the father of landscape painting, infused too much idealism in his compositions, in which he helped out nature, so to speak, whereby his landscapes are still studio products. With the Flemish, and much more so with. the Dutch, landscape painting obtained a distinctive character. They depicted nature, no longer as a background accessory, but for its own beauty, its own spirit.
His son, Jan Breughel the Younger, (1601-1677), has a " Flemish Village " in the style of his contemporary, the younger Teniers.
Having disposed of the Breughel family we will return to the beginning of the 17th century. Then that extraordinary genius appeared, whose dazzling opulence overpowers the student and lover of art.
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), the Northern Titian, who surpassed the Venetians as they the Florentines, swept with regal triumphs across the world of art.
When the phenomenal life and work of this man is reviewed it is difficult before such furious impetuosity to preserve an even, calm and judicious temper, and to criticize with moderation. When we think of his diverse gifts, of his taste for science, of his literary culture, of his scholarship, of his political ability and diplomatic feats, and add thereto the inexplicable talents of artistic insight and artistic expression, the tremendous vigour and vitality which gave the world over fifteen hundred painted productions, it is hard to have any reservations in touching upon the life and work of this dominant figure in the art of the 17th century.
We need not enlarge upon the intimate life of " the painter who occasionally amused himself with diplomacy." His was a perfect life. Always successful, always respected, a brilliant courtier, a devoted friend ; happy in love, and, nevertheless, free from affectation and foolish pride, always genial and always considerate, the life of Rubens is as exceptional as his work. He was devout in his religious observances — each day commenced with hearing mass — yet his broad mind was pagan in its love of the beauty of abundant life. Nor must we ascribe the rioting voluptuousness suggested by some of his sensuous presentations to any inherent coarseness of character. The rather was it the spirit of his time, and the ebullition of a physical sensibility that had no deference for moral orders.
The art of Rubens was the spectacular. His language in paint was eloquent but bordering on, often transgressing to grandiloquence; and in his Louvre series of Marie de Medici's tableaux perilously near coming to bombast. But even there it is saved by so many excellences that the transgression of good taste is forgotten in the lyric intensity of his style, its sonorous and progressive rhythm; in his prismatic light and colour; in the passions, the heroic attitudes of bodies, the multifarious expressions of countenance. Add to all this an authoritative draughtsmanship, the relief of his modelling, the spirit of power — and we have but lightly touched upon the vastness and force of the talents of Rubens.
A painting which is in every way representative of the Flemish master is " The Holy Family," a canvas which for many years was at Leigh Court, England, in the Miles family, a slightly changed replica of which is to be found at Windsor Castle. It is No. 325 of the list of the works of Rubens made by Max Rooses. There is no idealism about these people. It is a group of Flemish characters, the " Virgin " being manifestly Helena Fourment in her morning robes, and " St. Francis d' Assisi," a monk in the brown habit of the Franciscan order such as walked the Antwerp streets. It is a very matter-of-fact gathering. But we never look for exalted religious feeling in Rubens' work, instead we find breadth of treatment, forms full of life and vigour, a luxuriant contrast of colour, dramatic action of the persons engaged, and yet impersonal, calm serenity — in all this we recognize Rubens in all his glory.
Another painting, " Return of the Holy Family from Egypt," has a provenance attached reaching back to the early part of the 18th century, refer-ring to a painting by Rubens with that title. The trouble with a provenance, the documentary evidence. of its history, is, however, twofold — it may refer to an original painting, the question always being open whether the painting at issue is the one referred to; or the provenance may be manufactured altogether. That the provenance does not always belong to the painting with which it is delivered may be surmised when we remember that in numberless houses in England, France and Italy original paintings have been taken from their frames and sold, and copies substituted — and the provenance stays with the copy. The last and only resort is the painting itself, with or without provenance. In the case of the " Return from Egypt " in the Museum, the painting was greatly damaged when being transferred from wood to canvas, and its restorations have further obliterated many characteristic details. It may be, therefore, the original mentioned in various catalogues, or it may be a copy of Rubens' work. ' Other examples, " Susannah and the Elders," " Cambyses' Punishment of an Unjust Judge," and " Pyramus and Thisbe" are frankly acknowledged school copies from his atelier.
Frans Snyders (1579-1657) became one of the intimate friends of Rubens, after Frans had studied with Pieter Breughel, the Younger, and with Hendrik van Balen. At first he was a still-life painter, led thereto by the dead game and fish, fruit and vegetables, which he saw in the eatinghouse, which was kept by his parents. After a visit to Italy he enlarged the scope of his art, and introduced in his pictures the human figure and living animals. He became celebrated for powerful scenes of the chase and the terrific struggles between wild animals, or between eager hounds and savage beasts. The example in the Museum shows him in his second method ; " Lions chasing Deer," are vividly presented by his vigorous brush.
David Teniers, the Elder, (1582-1649), spent some years in Rome, where he was influenced by Adam Elsheimer, the painter of finicky figures in highly finished landscapes. After his return home he chose his subjects from peasant life, in which he did not reach the height of his more talented son. " A Dutch Kitchen " is a familiar subject from his brush.
Caspard de Crayer (1584-1669), the contemporary of Rubens, who still maintained his individuality, generally painted biblical subjects, although the example here presents " Alexander and Diogenes," in their famous tub-interview. De Crayer always showed ready draughtsmanship, glowing and still truthful colour, and dramatic action.
Cornelis de Vos (1585-1651) does not present the occasional grossness of the figures of Rubens, and in his portrait work comes closer to the greater refinement of van Dyck's later work. His Portrait of a Young Lady," and the " Mother and Children," have many of the characteristics of the portrait work of his contemporaries in the North Netherlands, among which that of satisfied complacency is readily distinguished.
Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678) reminds one in much of Rubens, but reveals himself as a coarser, simpler, and less sophisticated talent. A " Sketch from Sacred History," and " The Visit of St. John to the Infant Jesus," carry fully his characteristics, notably a deep and richly glowing colour scheme. " The Philosophers," two men standing behind a large globe, as if in argument, is also attributed to him.
The pupil, who at least as a portrait painter disputed the palm with his master Rubens, was Anton van Dyck (1599-1641). It is fortunate that the Museum is in possession of a work which a was painted by van Dyck when still entirely under the sway of his master. This is an allegorical figure of " Neptune," in which the god is seen rising from the waves beneath an overhanging cliff. It must have been produced during the artist's visit to Italy, right after leaving the Rubens studio, when he fell under the spell of Titian's work. The torso of Neptune, classic in its proportions, bears still the heavy, full-blooded, rounded outline which he must have frequently copied in his apprentice years.
But the mark which stamps the artist of eminence and genius soon asserted itself. Only retaining the technical facility which no better school could have taught him, van Dyck soon obtained his individual stamp by his constant quest for elegance and distinction. And again the Museum is fortunate in possessing what may be considered the highest perfection of van Dyck's art in this respect. This is the " Portrait of James Stuart, Duke of Richmond and Lenox." It is the supreme expression of grace and elegance, refinement and breeding, charm and delicacy. It was painted in the height of his power, and of this portrait, and of some of those he painted of Charles I, and of his children, it may be truly said that they must be classed among the most finished works ever produced by art.
In his " Portrait of Baron Arnold de Roy van Zuiderwyn " we find still traces of ruggedness, less of the suspicion of effeminacy which flavours his latest works; and I would, therefore, place its production in the artist's transition period, after his first stay in England and before he left for his seven years' sojourn there, which was cut short by his early death at the age of forty-two.
The only quality lacking in the summing up of van Dyck's capacity is the one which places him one step below those who shine in the first rank in the Pantheon of Art. He lacked the creative genius, invention, dramatic instinct. We have seen it in the " Neptune," we may see it in all the works he wrought before he came to England as a portrait painter — with all their brilliancy of colour and force of drawing the most famous paintings of this period are only timid copies of what Rubens might have done. It may have been an insight into this lack of originality which led Rubens to advise him so strongly to devote himself to portraiture. And, one of the occasional lapses of critical judgment we discover in Sir Joshua Reynolds' Discourses on Art is where he regrets that van Dyck did not devote himself to history painting, thinking that he might have excelled in that department. But history painting requires inventiveness in composition, in which van Dyck was deficient, and his best work was done from the living model, to which he merely added the embellishing graces of his own courtly deportment.
A " Portrait of a Man," by Jacob van Oost (1600-1671), indicates the ready influence van Dyck's manner exerted on contemporary portraitists.
The most characteristic Flemish painter, and in his subjects nearest to the common people, was David Teniers, the Younger (1610-1690), with whom the great Flemish traditions of the 17th century close. A pupil of his father, he was more influenced by Rubens, to whom he owes his effects of colour, the transparency of his tones, the fineness of his touch. His pleasing manners, together with his talents, enabled him from the first to associate with men of note and position, and he occupied a much higher social standing than was customary with painters of the genre he most favoured. His subjects were fairs, markets, pothouse merry-makings, guardrooms, and also landscapes. The influence of his uncle " Hellish " Breughel (his first wife was the daughter of " Velvet " Breughel) led him to attempt many a scene from the realms of fancy, such as witches and incantations, with the grotesque and droll figures, of which the " Temptation of St. Anthony," in the Museum, is a worthy example. He is seen at his best in " A Marriage Festival," the most characteristic of his compositions. The dancing peasants, the feasting merry-makers at table, and the little touch of reality in the brawling men, set in a sweeping landscape that in its amplitude gives a sense of air and freedom to the crowd of people depicted — it all shows the artist's dexterity in his grouping of colours, brilliant, distinguished, harmonious, with a technical freshness and straightforwardness in means and intent. Then he is the most perfect representative of the realistic school, and his pictures have the impartiality of a mirror held up to Flemish life, full of the buoyancy of animated, healthful existence.
He was less successful when he attempted religious or historical subjects; his lack of finer sentiment, of exalted imagination, of spiritual leaning, make these ventures but mediocre productions, sometimes even bordering on the absurd.
Teniers was sent to England by the Governor of the Spanish Netherlands to buy at the dispersion of the collection of Charles I, all the Italian pictures he could get hold of. He set himself also to make copies of the originals, in which he was eminently successful, only a trained eye being able to distinguish the one from the other. Two of these copies, from landscapes by Il Bassano, are in the Museum.
An animal painter, fully the equal of Frans Snyders, was Jan Fyt (1611-1661), of whom we have three canvases with dead game, partridges, woodcock, and a hare. He exhibits a fine observation of nature in a pleasing colour scheme, executed with the utmost delicacy.
Two pupils of Teniers, David Ryckart (1612-1661) and Gillis van Tilborgh (1625-1678), painted genre subjects in their master's manner, but inferior in execution. Both are represented here.
Adam Frans van der Meulen (1632-1690) became court-painter to Louis XIV, on account of his skill in painting battle scenes. He accompanied Louis on his campaign in Flanders and sketched numerous scenes of battles, sieges and encampments. From these he made a large number of pictures, most of which are in the Louvre and at Versailles. A " Combat of Cavalry " gives an excellent idea of his faithful rendering, treated with much sense of atmosphere and of the picturesque.
The landscapes by Cornelis Huysmans (1648-1727) are rich in colour and well executed in the prevailing Italian style. A half dozen examples of the work of Jan Horemans (1714-1790) bear witness to the decay in which the Flemish school had fallen. Conventional mannerisms, mechanical picture-making — these are the characteristics of the art of the period.
The Flemish school had completely lost its character, and especially in the following century it became but a faint echo of French painting. But it is not necessary, as has been done in the Catalogue, to draw a distinction, and call the men of the 19th century the Belgian school because the country's name was changed. This nomenclature they themselves, proud of their Flemish forbears, would never have relished. Although the art centre in Belgium fluctuated between Antwerp, the capital of Flanders, and Brussels, the capital of Brabant, the art expression remained the same ; and when it rose above mediocrity, as it did in Hague, Clays, Willems, and Stevens, it was because of a return, in a measure, to Flemish traditions.
The academic schooling of the end of the 18th century is shown in works by Leonard de France (1735-1805), by Balthazar Ommeganck (1755-1826) , and by Henri van Assche (1774-1841).
Eugene Verboeckhoven (1799-1881) was the first Flemish or Belgian painter who had considerable vogue in the time that the Dusseldorf School, with its punctilious execution and finicky finesse, was the most popular. His favourite subjects were those shown in the Museum : a- " Stable Interior, with Sheep and Poultry," and landscapes with cattle.
While the Romanticist revolt against the academic spirit of David and Ingres infused new blood in the French art world, the Antwerp Academy followed the old academic traditions, adding thereto the anecdotal phase which was coming to the fore. Baron Gustaaf Wappers (1803-1874), director of the Antwerp Academy, shows this in his large canvas, " Confidences," where two girls, his daughters, breathe the sentimental spirit which so often makes this class of pictures mawkish.
His successor at the Antwerp Academy, Baron Leys (1815-1869), almost reaches the exquisite finish of a Holbein or a Gerard Dou in his genre subjects. His examples in the Vanderbilt collection are of the best work he has produced.
The history and genre painter Louis Hague (1806-1885) possessed greater virility — note his guardroom scene — but he was surpassed by that other historical painter Louis Gallait (1810-1887), whose " Death of Counts Egmont and Hoorne " is world-famous. Three paintings by Gallait are in the Vanderbilt collection.
Paul-Jean Clays (1819-1900) was justly celebrated for his marines, of which a notable example is found here. The " Celebration of the Freedom of the Port of Antwerp, 1863 " is a large canvas, full of animated shipping, colourful, and with due transparency of water.
Jean Robie (1821-1902), the eminent flower painter, has an example here in which we must admire the beauty of colour arrangement, but miss the airy flimsiness, the lightsome grace of the flowers of the field, " the children of summer." It is a matter of taste, forsooth. Many used to like the stiffly, solidly constructed florist's bouquets with stamped-paper borders of a generation ago. Such will find Robie's flower bunches more beautiful than nature, especially when they spy the pearly dewdrop fascinatingly suspended from a waxed-paper leaf. They find their tastes gratified to-day in the work of Paul de Longpre and many lady floral painters. Others prefer the more modest counterfeits of nature such as Monet or Robert Reid have given us.
Florent Willems (1823-1905) studied especially the Old Masters, after his talents had shown them-selves during his apprenticeship with a picture restorer. When but seventeen years old he attracted considerable attention, and a picture of his was hung in the Salon when the artist had barely turned twenty-one. Such precocity, however, did not end in a fruitless after-life, for the name of " the Belgian Meissonier," which has been given him, attests the rapid progress which Willems made in his art. His minuteness of detail is combined with ease of handling the colours, which are subdued and rich; the textures are given with wonderful fidelity; and his deftness in the handling of the shadows denotes the master in chiaroscuro. The values of tones in the gowns of his figures should be especially noted for their truth. Two excellent examples may be studied here : " Preparing for the Promenade," and " The Dance, ` La Pavane,' " in which portraits occur of the artist himself, Gerome and other friends.
Alfred Stevens (1828-1906), after his studies in Paris were accomplished, acquired great fame with his graceful representations of elegant modern interiors enlivened with women's and children's figures. He became a master painter of beautiful women. There are four characteristic examples in the Museum. His elder brother Edouard (1822-1892) was less famous. He generally chose sporting subjects.