Dutch Painters, Wallace Collections
( Originally Published 1908 )
We will now walk round and see some of the pictures by the Dutch painters. We have passed from the Virgin and Child, from St. John, and St. Catharine, from the mighty princes that ruled over the destinies of Spain to quite other subjects. It seems like going from one world to another, from a palace to an alehouse, from a church to a kitchen. Ruskin has somewhere said that ' nothing can be done well in art except by vision.' But what the vision is to be he does not say. We now come to painters whose vision is not of the martyrdom of saints, or the pomp of kings, it is of men enjoying themselves in a pot-house, of women busy in their kitchens, of the life of every day as they saw it around them. They painted after the time of the Reformation, when the Virgin and the Child were no longer placed over the altars, and religious pictures were banished from the churches. They lived under a sturdy little Republic, so the greatness of kings appealed to them not at all. They cared for their own life and their own surroundings, as, to a certain extent, we all do, for a fire in the next streets thrills us more than an earthquake in Japan.
The Dutch were what is called ` genre ' painters, they took subjects and treated them in a small way-homely scenes and everyday occurrences. A large canvas is not used in genre painting.
I think the best plan will be to speak of these painters in the order of their dates, for thus we pass on from master to pupil and from pupil to pupil's pupil. We see then an unbroken chain, a pedigree of artists. We realise too, how in those days painters knew each other, learnt from each other, were jealous of each other—the same story going on through the ages. There was very little travelling in those days, still artists went about more than other men, they visited Italy if they possibly could ; they tried to meet the great men of their time.
In Hertford House there are over forty painters of the Dutch school of the seventeenth century. I shall only be able to direct your attention to the principal ones and a few of their pictures.
We come first to ` The Laughing Cavalier ' (84) by Frans Hals (1580-1666), a man of cheerful good-humoured disposition, who enjoyed life as his cavalier seems to do :
` Laugh and the world laughs with you, Cry and you cry alone ;
For this sad old earth must borrow its mirth, It has sorrows enough of its own.'
So the Laughing Cavalier goes down to posterity with an amused smile on his face. He had found life a good thing, I doubt not. I want you to notice his richly-embroidered clothes. And whilst you are wondering what sort of a man he was let us think for a moment of the quality of the picture—Hals painted vigorously, with great sweeps of the brush, yet at the same time there was finish in all that he did. In this masterly use of his brush he was second only to Velazquez.
We pass from this gallant man to a picture of the country in which Hals and all these painters lived —the flat Dutch country, the pasture lands, and the canals of Holland. Aernout van der Neer (1603—1677) was born in Amsterdam, and in and around that town he would wander, painting scenes in his native land. He specially loved the moonlight and the waning light at the close of day. This gives to his pictures a feeling of rest and calm, of the day's toil being over. You will see here ` A Canal Scene by Moonlight' (161), a peaceful scene of repose on which the faint beams of the moon look down.
Here is another typical scene, ` A Dutch Farm by Sunset' (132), by Camphuysen. The Dutch were notable farmers. I am sure the man and woman on the right have made a success of their homestead. They are talking with satisfaction over the day's work now that the sun is setting and all is quiet.
Rembrandt, to whom we come now, is an artist whose name and fame are known to all the world. He was born at Leyden in 1606, his father was a miller. Many hundred times in his childhood he must have climbed up to that little upper room in the mill, which is only lighted by one small window, and sat there in the half darkness, dreaming and watching the effects of the light and shadow, and trying to paint them. He was the son of the mill, and when you look at his pictures you must remember his early impressions. He was the master of chiaroscuro, that is to say, he noticed not so much the colour of what he painted as the contrasts of light and shade in it. He was very successful in his earlier days, and when only twenty-two was made a master painter, and had for his patrons the Prince of Orange and other important people. But though he was so prosperous and must have made a great deal of money, he spent it freely, gathering together a collection of pictures, for which he would pay large sums. This was his hobby. As time went on he grew poorer and poorer, and at last his collection had to be sold. It must have been heart-breaking for him to see the treasures which he had gathered together so carefully, put up to auction. He died in a wretched lodging in Amster-dam when he was sixty-three. Of his appearance we know more than we do of that of many of his craft, for he often painted his own portrait. We have here two representations of him (52 and 55). In No. 52 he is about twenty-eight years old—he has lost all air of youthfulness. It is not a beautiful face, it is not exactly the face we imagine as that of a painter, but there is strength and power in it: He takes himself again for a sitter when he is a few years older. He is this time in a plumed hat which shades his eyes.*
Ruskin did not admire his work, and wrote of him, ` I cannot feel it is an entirely glorious speciality to be distinguished as Rembrandt was from other great painters, chiefly by the liveliness of his darkness and the dulness of his light It is the aim of the best painters to paint the noblest things they can see by sunlight. It was the aim of Rembrandt to paint the foulest he could see by rushlight.' But so sweeping a criticism must not be accepted too hastily, for a truer appreciation is given in a few words in the biography in the catalogue of the Wallace Collection, where the author says, ` If Velazquez is incomparably the greatest painter of his age, Rembrandt is the mightiest genius, the artist who has penetrated deepest into the secrets of humanity, who has, with the greatest insight and greatest sympathy portrayed the men and women of his time and his race.'
We have a very fine portrait of his son `Titus' (29) ; look at the wonderful eyes, the boy might be a poet. It is the most beautiful head that Rembrandt painted, it has so much imagination, so much life. Now let us turn to one of Rembrandt's masterpieces, `The Unmerciful Servant' or, as it is called here, ` The Centurion Cornelius' (86). You will notice the darkness of the picture and the light concentrated on the faces of the group. You see the stern expression of the master whose compassionate heart was moved to wrath, and the unmerciful servant standing there for the judgment, ` Oh thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt because thou desirest me, shouldst thou not also have had compassion on thy fellow servant even as I had pity on thee.' Rembrandt's is a great conception, and the figures, lit up as they are in the gloom of the, surroundings, are full of strength and character. This picture has a history. It was painted as a commission for some people in Amsterdam, and was one of the family treasures, passing down from father to son. But in 1795 the town was in great danger. Holland was at war with France, and on the 18th of January the French were admitted without resistance into the city. The very night before, the Duke of Buckingham, who had bought the painting, managed to get it safely away.
There are two other pictures which you are sure to look at with interest, one of ` The Burgomaster Jan Pellicorne and his Son' (82), and the other of ` Suzanna van Collen, wife of Jan Pellicorne, and her Daughter' (92). One cannot help thinking that the little son gets the best of it, for to him the father is giving a bag of gold, but the small daughter's gift from her mother is only a piece of silver. I hope little Miss Pellicorne, in her delightful Dutch frock, is allowed to go out and spend her present. I expect she will buy a wooden-jointed doll, and dress it like her mother, big ruffle and all : and perhaps the boy has to put his sack full of gold into the bank till he is a man.
We must now pass on to Adrian van Ostade, who was a pupil of Frans Hals, and strongly influenced by Rembrandt. You must not confuse him with Isack van Ostade who was his brother, his pupil, and his echo. You see in Adrian's pictures a real love of nature, his colouring is clear and harmonious. Look at Buying Fish' (202), it will amuse you : notice how carefully it is painted. Fish was probably one of the principal things the Dutch had to eat in Holland in those days as they lived so near the sea.
Another picture of his, ' Boors Carousing ' (756) shows us the Dutch in less innocent occupations. It was a favourite subject, and the artists would make us believe, from the frequency with which they painted such scenes, that the men of Holland spent all their time in the alehouse. We see them here enjoying their pipes and beer, telling each other good stories. We would like to have seen them at work on the dykes. I wonder Dutch artists were not inspired to paint those anxious times when the dyke, proving an insufficient safeguard, the land was flooded, the people driven from their homes, the crops ruined. These boors seem to spend so much time in the tavern that they will not be of much use outside it.
Isack van Ostade, as I have told you, painted very much in the same manner as his brother. He died when he was twenty-eight, and by that time he was beginning to cultivate a style of his own. He has a fine picture here ` A Winter Scene (73), a truly bitter winter that must have been when the canals were frozen over, and instead of boats, horses and wheel-less carts were used, when the people went about in sleighs, and the skaters enjoyed the fresh sparkling air. The drawing of the details in this picture should be carefully noticed, and the clear light of the frosty day.
From Ostade we pass on to Terborch who was born in 1617, and who was another of the artists who studied Frans Hals and Rembrandt, and looked to them for inspiration. His colour is very beautiful : and he ranks first among the ` small masters ' of his time. In subject he turned away from tavern scenes to paint the gentlewomen of his day in their homes. He seems to have been particularly fond of the drama that surrounds the giving and receiving of letters. We have one such picture here, `A Lady reading a Letter' (236). Note especially the freshness of his painting, his careful drawing, and the delicate tone of his picture ; and the quaint costume of the lady in her fawn-coloured velvet coat with white fur. While you are doing so you will be imagining for yourselves what is in that letter which she is reading so eagerly.
I am sure you will like this supper scene by Jan Steen (iii). The good housewife stands there making an omelette ; look at the broken egg-shells on the floor ; she is too busy now to clear them up. The father is holding a baby, curiously wrapped up so that it cannot kick or move, and in all this hubbub a woman is lying ill in bed. She is being fed, and her bed has just been warmed by that quaint old warming-pan which lies on the floor. Dutch kitchens are generally so tidy, but this one is an exception. The baby has been christened, and there is great excitement and preparation for the feast. Another picture by Jan Steen is of a child having a music lesson (154). It will remind some of us of a not very pleasant experience. The girl is sitting there looking rather worried, painfully picking out the notes on an old harpsichord. Her master, too eagerly listening to remember to take off his hat, bends over her, and points to her hands as if to tell her to hold them differently. Steen is said to have been a pupil of Ostade, and to have been painter and inn-keeper at the same time. He must have loved the life of the tavern for he painted it with humour and with evident enjoyment. He was not above sharing in the convivialities of his customers, and enjoying life in his own way. He was a fine artist, composing his pictures with skill, and leaving on us the impression of a man who was happy in his work and found the world a good place to live in.
'Willam Van de Velde's paintings tell us of those that go down to the sea in ships, and occupy their business in great waters. He was born at Amsterdam in 1633, and died at Greenwich in 1707. His father, who was also a well-known painter, taught him the art. Van de Velde, the younger, is considered the best Dutch marine painter. He studied the sea in all its moods. When he was a young man he loved to paint the sea fights in which the Dutch triumphed over the English. No doubt he could not resist, in his patriotic zeal, painting the victorious Van Tromp sailing the seas with a broom at the mast head to sweep away the English. But while he was busy in this way his father had gone to England and obtained an appointment there. He sent for his son to join him. They had a commission to paint the victories of the English over the Dutch, and together they set to work quite happily to gratify English patriotism at the expense of their own. Van de Velde's seas may seem to us to be grey and colourless. Ruskin says ` it is not easily understood considering how many there are that love the sea, and look at it, that Van de Velde and such others should be tolerated. Foam appears to me to curdle and cream on the wave sides, and not to sit astride them like a peruke.' Ruskin goes on to explain that the Dutch had never seen the sea, but only a shallow mixture of salt water and sand. However this may be, in Van de Velde's pictures we do not seem to smell the sea breeze or hear the splash of the waves. In ` Shipping in Calm ' (137), you see a Dutch man-of-war saluting. It is interesting to notice the old ships of those days, their sails filled with the wind. In ` The Embarkation of the Prince of Orange' (194) you see the historic scene enacted. The future William III is on horse-back on the shore setting out with his fleet of six hundred transports and escorted by fifty men of war, to rule with his wife Mary over the destinies of England. No doubt this was painted when Van de Velde was in England.
Cuyp, who has the enviable reputation of being the first Dutch painter to see the sunshine, has always as an artist been appreciated in England. He loved river scenes in the warm glow of the mid-day sun, in the cooler light of afternoon. He had small success in his lifetime. His pictures were so little valued at sales, that a dealer would offer to throw in a ` little Cuyp ' as a sort of make-weight when selling another picture. Ruskin complains of the want of life in his scenes, and tells us that nothing occurs in them except some indifferent person asking the way of someone else, who, by their expression, seems not likely to know. But there is a feeling of peace over the flat Dutch landscapes in the warm glow of the afternoon sun. Through Cuyp's country the river Dort is ever-more flowing to the sea ; the cattle evermore graze contentedly in the neighbourhood of Dordrecht, the scene of so many of his pictures, where he was born and where he died.
The two landscape artists, Hobbema and Ruisdael, were contemporaries of Cuyp. Hobbema some ten years younger than Ruisdael was his pupil. Both men won little appreciation in their lifetime. Ruisdael did not find sufficient variety in his own country and he sometimes chose the wild and mountainous land of Norway for his scenes, though it is said he never went there. ` Landscape with Waterfall ' (66), is evidently a Norwegian scene. The rocky scenery and the foaming water are in great contrast to the placid fields of Cuyp.
His pupil Hobbema liked to paint the water mills of Holland (99), as you will see. In sketching trees Hobbema used to give every branch and bough, almost every leaf, but he seemed to forget that if we see a tree from a distance we do not see it in this way. Still we can tell what tree he was painting ; he does not give us mere masses of greens and browns. He seems to have been specially fond of oak foliage. Ruisdael had more poetic feeling than Hobbema, but he was not so successful in his rendering of the atmosphere of a scene.
I must just say a word about Nicolas Maes who has here two pictures of a ` Boy with a Hawk' (20 and 96). He was one of the celebrated pupils of Rembrandt, and learnt from him the great secret of light and shade. There is humour in his picture of ` The Listening House-wife' (224), a servant stands outside the door overhearing the conversation of a man and woman inside the room.
We now come to Pieter de Hooch, who was born at Utrecht in 1630, and who came under the influence of Rembrandt. Rembrandt once said, when a friend was looking too closely at one of his canvases, that it was ` to be looked at, not smelt.' But in de Hooch's pictures you cannot look too closely into them, for the delicate painting of all the details is so well worth noticing. But then, having done this, stand a little away from them and get the full effect. One is an interior with a woman peeling apples (23) ; her little daughter stands by her side holding an apple in one hand, and in the other the peel which her mother has just taken off: notice the high Dutch mantelpiece and the kettle over the fire. De Hooch's supreme quality was his power of painting the sunshine, the clear light that was not afraid to find its way into the clean bright houses. In his other picture (27) you see the boy bringing the apples. It is wonderful to look into this scene, for you can pass along those flagged passages right out into the garden beyond.