Flemish Painters, Wallace Collections
( Originally Published 1908 )
We come now to the Flemish painters, of whom the greatest is Rubens. He was born in 1577. By the time he was twenty-two he was a master painter of the Antwerp Guild ; a couple of years later he went to Italy, and was for some years in the service of the Duke of Mantua. He was a man of wide attainments, he knew many languages, and held some important diplomatic appointments. At one time he was sent as ambassador to Charles I —who loved artists—and he knighted Rubens. Charles was one of the few kings who really cared for art. Rubens did not take his official work very seriously, and used to say that ` the painter Rubens amused himself with being ambassador.'
The Flemish people had much the same difficulties as the Dutch. They had as hard a fight as little Holland against the ever-encroaching sea. We must think of the daily toil of the men of Flanders. They were industrious farmers, hard - working labourers. After their day's work in the open air there was nothing they liked better than a gossip in the alehouse with a pipe and a glass. Under the blue skies of Italy this sort of existence would have no charm, but the men trudging home in the cold and the wet longed for shelter and warmth, and if they did not linger in the tavern would hurry back to the welcome of one of those quaint kitchens where their wives were preparing a good supper.
So we must try to understand why Rubens took subjects which sometimes do not appeal to us. We must think for a few minutes why he was so masterly a painter. Many artists, as I have pointed out to you, had one quality in a supreme degree, draughtsmanship perhaps or the rendering of light and shade, or the beautiful richness and delicacy of their colouring. In this last attribute Rubens was supreme, but he possessed the other qualities as well: he had imagination, he was a student of nature.
As I was walking through Hertford House one day I heard a boy of about fourteen suddenly stop his companion and say, ` Oh, father, look at that rainbow in the sky.' He stood before Rubens's great landscape (63) and he was fascinated by the picture of the rain-washed sky and the brilliant bow in the clouds. It is a master-piece, you see the trees, and the fields, and the cattle peacefully grazing, the joy in the faces of the reapers, as once more the sun comes out and sheds its light over the beautiful country side.
We have in the same room a picture of ` The Crucified Saviour ' (71). He hangs there, His arms held high above His head nailed to the cross- - piece : the face has a look of agony, but the figure lacks the spirituality, and the head misses the divinity which the deeply religious Italian painters have given us.
Another and happier rendering of the Christ —a baby in His mother's arms (81)-is a beautiful picture. The little St. John with his mother Elisabeth is there adoring. It was painted, Dr. Waagen tells us in his book on the Dutch painters to which I have often referred, for the private chapel of the Archduke Albert. Dr. Waagen tells us also that the heads are of a finer conception than was usually the case in the pictures of this master.
We pass on from Rubens to his pupil Van Dyck, who was born in 1599. He is one of the artists whose names are household names in England, for he painted so often the ill-starred Charles I and the gay and gallant cavaliers in all their bravery. It was a picturesque time for dress. Van Dyck has given his name to the beautiful lace collars, which so many of his sitters wore, just as Gladstone did to a special kind of bag, and Wellington to a pair of boots. Van Dyck began to paint when he was ten years old. At fifteen he was studying with Rubens, who, when he had himself taught him much, advised him to go to Italy. Van Dyck went and there saw for the first time the pictures of Titian. This was one of the great influences of his life. He found that Titian was even greater than his master in the rich warm glow of his colouring. He remained abroad five years and then went back to Antwerp, and set to work painting the kings and princes of his day. He came over to England and had a royal welcome. There was work to be had in plenty, and homage and reward, in fact, he was so happy that he decided to settle here. Charles I made him court painter. There are several portraits by him here. Let us look at those of Philippe le Roy (94) and his wife (79). Philippe le Roy is standing on the garden steps leading up to his house, a beautiful hound is looking up at him with wistful eyes, a sympathy with the master in the dog's face which Van Dyck loved to show. Notice how beautifully he models the hands of his sitters—innocent of the roughening of work ; what a contrast they are to some of Rembrandt's horny-handed men and women. Philippe le Roy's wife was but sixteen when this portrait was painted. She too has a dog with her, but it is a soul-less little animal, and partakes of the nature of its mistress I should say. In her magnificent velvet dress, ropes of pearls round her slender wrists, she does not seem to have much character. There are two qualities you will notice in Van Dyck's portraits, melancholy and dignity. He saw his sitters in all their parade and grandeur, it was thus they wished to come down to their descendants. It is thus that now in many an ancient hall and castle, they gaze down sadly from their frames, wondering, if pictures can be said to wonder, why the people of today have discarded the graceful and courtly dress, the delicate lace collars and cuffs, for stiff shirts and black coats and bowler hats. There was no period of dress in which men looked better than at the time of Van Dyck-the painter of princes. He had a fortunate life, a grand house and living in luxury. He was having spared the sorrow of seeing his royal patron lay his head on the block, for he died in 1641.
There are two portraits here after Van Dyck of King Charles (112) and Queen Henrietta Maria (118). I have no space to describe them, but you you should look at them, as they help to realise the times in which he lived.
I think I had better tell you here a few words about Coques, (1618-1684) who was known as the little Van Dyck.' He painted on a small scale. He was very much influenced by this master, and had a great deal of skill. He, too, is fond of bringing dogs into his pictures. There are three family groups by him, but I cannot do more than direct your attention to them (92, 162, 223).
From the painter of princes to the painter of publicans and their customers seems a long road to travel, from Van Dyck to Teniers—David Teniers the Younger—to give him his full title. He was eleven years Van Dyck's junior; they both came from the same town, Antwerp. Teniers had a cheerful temperament. He lived a happy life, we seem to know it from his pictures. He was a friend of all the great people of his day, court painter to the Archduke William, and rich and successful. First of all we will look at a couple of pictures in which pipes and ale play no part.
Here is 'A Prince entering a Flemish City ' (191). He is gorgeously dressed, a wreath of red flowers round his neck, his prancing white horse seems conscious of its noble rider. The keys of the city are being brought forward on a gold tray, The prince was at one time supposed to be Charles II.
'The Deliverance of St. Peter' (210), is a curious picture and wants some explanation. Inside a room soldiers are gambling. They are the principal figures, but you see outside, on the steps which lead to the entrance, an aged man being succoured by an angel. You remember the story of Herod sending Peter to prison, and how when he was sleeping chained between two soldiers, an angel came and told him to arise up quickly, and the chains fell off. He has just escaped, as we see here, and the soldiers all unconscious are going on with their game.
There is so much detail in Teniers' pictures, and they are so carefully painted that they are worth studying. In the little masterpiece ` Boors Carousing' (227), we see men enjoying their pipes and the latest bit of news in a tavern, and in ` Soldiers Gambling (231), they are absorbed in the game, thinking of nothing else.
In point of date I ought to have mentioned before now Philippe de Champaigne, but as he does not belong to the Dutch and Flemish painters, except in point of birth, I have left him to the end of the chapter. He was born at Brussels in 1602, and went to live in Paris when he was nineteen, and really all the influences that moulded his art were French. You should notice especially his colouring, for that is one of his great qualities—it is warm and tender. Here is a large picture of the ` Marriage of the Virgin and St. Joseph' (119), at one time an altar piece at the Palais Royal in Paris ; a rabbi is standing between to join their hands, a faint halo is round the Virgin's head. She is a girlish but rather insipid figure in her beautiful blue robe.