Venice Academy - Room Vi - Sala Del Callot
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
WITH the exception of the canvases by foreign painters, which are in the Loggia Palladiana, Rooms 6 and 8 hold practically all the works by non-Italian painters in the Academy. As has been already said more than once, these are with few exceptions extremely poor examples of the art of the men whose works they purport to be. There are so few that are worth considering at all that they may be briefly mentioned here in the order of the date of their production, irrespective of which room they are in.
Undoubtedly one of the most important of all these foreign pictures is the portrait which is now generally ascribed to Roger Van der Weyden, but which, till very recently, was given to Hugo Van der Goes. It is in Room 8, and is a panel painted on both sides. The outer and principal surface is the half-length portrait of a man turned three-quarters to the left, his hands joined prayerwise, his heavy-lidded eyes gazing into the distance straight before him. It is a youthful, beardless face, his black hair banged across his forehead, but at some height above his strongly marked dark eyebrows, his nose long and of delicate outline, his lips full, and chin and neck both long. Long, too, are the slender fingers, with some of the joints puffed out of regularity, though the back of the hand is soft and smooth, with a tendency to flesh and dimples. He is clad in an outer cloak of brown, buttoned tight about his throat, the sleeves and neck edged with gray fur. The background is green, and on it at the left is traced the word Raison, and opposite, Lensaigne.
The minute, miniaturelike execution and the flatness of the tones do not at all derogate from the wonderful modelling of the face and hands. Where later art has used strongly contrasted shadows to attain the effect of roundness, Van der Weyden and all the early Northerners achieved much the same result by a delicate manipulation of tones which melt one into another with scarcely any variation in depth or intensity. Not less remarkable is the personality here expressed. The face is not typical, but extremely individual, portraying a personality with a frankness that is extraordinarily subtle. Equally carefully characterized are the hands, hands that could never have belonged to any one but this long-featured, dreamy-eyed youth with the high, square forehead and straight brows to counterbalance the overfull lips and slightly too thick chin. It is a portrait, in other words, of a living man, so vividly executed that it comes to us like a revelation.
Roger Van der Weyden was born probably in 1400 at Tournay. He settled early in Brussels, however, and it is that town which became the seat of the school of art claiming him as founder. It is uncertain whether he received direct lessons from the Van Eycks, or whether he, like all the painters of his day and region, merely fell under their influence. In 1449 he went to Italy, and it is this journey which has been credited with being the original cause of the introduction into the art of Flanders of certain Italian tendencies.
Van der Weyden's art is more animated, more brusque, more exaggerated than Van Eyck's. He elongates his forms often to excess, he has much less poise, and far less serenity than the older man. At his best, nevertheless, he has a real power of pathos and suggestiveness that shows him worthy of being the teacher of Memlinc, which is after all his greatest claim on the gratitude of posterity.
In Room 8 is another excellent portrait, which is ascribed somewhat questioningly to Antonis Mor. It is a half-length figure of an elderly woman facing three-quarters to the right, dressed in black, wearing a white cap and cuffs and frill around her neck. Her right hand is resting on a table covered with a gray cloth. About her waist is a gold chain, and rings are on her fingers. It is a portrait that is full of life and character, painted with the Dutch attention to detail. She has small, sharp eyes, nostrils decidedly curved and cut under, closely closed lips, and strongly marked corners of the mouth. The flesh-tones are luminous and of excellent colour, the shadows warm and unforced. The hands are beautifully drawn and modelled. Certain technical attributes of the picture have suggested Tintoretto's brush to some critics, but Tintoret seldom or never showed such finish of parts.
Mor was born in Utrecht in 1512 or thereabouts, and was a pupil of Jan Van Scorel, who had been in Italy and who had attempted to inoculate his pupils with a mixture of Raphael and Michelangelo, highly seasoned with the idiosyncrasies personal to himself as well as to the Northland. Anton Mor, however, was too great a spirit to be annihilated by any such training. He remained as M. Alexandre notes, always a pure Hollander, the Italian influence only adding a charm to the Dutch characteristics. His portraits are remarkable transcriptions of nature, with no detail omitted, yet with nothing so emphasized as to detract from the main point, the real character portrayed. Of all the painters of the early Dutch school he had the strongest feeling for beauty and grace.
Neither the Hermit by Matthew Bril nor the View of Tivoli by his brother Paul, both in Room 6, gives much idea of the talent of these two Italianized Flemings. They do show to some extent, however, the general characteristics of the two men who were employed by Gregory XIII., by Sixtus V., and by Clement VIII. in decorating chambers and halls in the Vatican and Sistine Chapel. Matthew died in 1584, when thirty-six years old, but Paul lived longer and achieved great distinction. It is said that his influence can be traced in some of Claude Lorrain's canvases. Bril's colouring was marked by a strongly insistent note of green that had a tendency in foliage and grass to become too blue. He displays a firm, free handling, distributes his light and shade with a practised eye, and has a certain poetry in composition that, while at times it borders on the grandiose, is generally as pleasing as it seems natural.
There are seven pictures in Room 6 which are ascribed perhaps rather doubtfully to Cornelis de Wael. Of them all the Soldiers Resting is more nearly characteristic of this artist who is best known as a painter of historical battles and animals. Wael, though Antwerp born, acquired much of his education in Italy, and it was there that he won the reputation which in his day, the first half of the seventeenth century, was considerable. His horses are drawn with much spirit and truth, and he expressed with no little dramatic fire the rush and onslaught of contending armies.
Adriaen Van Ostade, who was one of the great-est " little masters " of Holland, has one poor example of his style in Room 6. It is an Interior of an Inn, and shows two men in the foreground sitting at a table, one holding a glass in one hand, a pitcher in the other. The second is not interested in food, but is devoting his attention to playing his violin. Near them stands a third calmly observing while he smokes his pipe. In the distance near a door three other peasants sit drinking about a table.
Van Ostade had a facility of execution not far behind that of Hals, of whom he was a pupil. He had beside a marvellous gift for composition, a colour sense as glowing, deep, and rich as Rembrandt's, and at times surpassing that master in the luminous colour-notes in his shadows. He had a pencil that drew with astonishing perfection and reality, and above and beyond all, a vitality and actuality of perception and execution. These last two qualities, actuality and vitality, are what make his scenes of Dutch peasant life so full of power that the spectator feels as if he were taken straight into the lives of these humble citizens.
His brother Isack at first imitated Adriaen almost exclusively, and his picture here of the Man Drinking, in the same room, is an example of his early style. Later he developed his own individuality, and now he is best known as the painter of winter outdoor scenes of Holland. A none too good specimen of this class of his work is also in the same room.
Adam Elsheimer, one of the few Germans to reach even second-rate rank as a painter after the death of Dürer and Holbein, has one tiny canvas in Room 8, which may or may not be actually by him. It is St. Peter Denying Christ, and shows at least some characteristics, in its careful workmanship and brightness of tone, especially, of the man whose works both Rembrandt and the elder Teniers studied. Elsheimer was born in Frank-fort in 1574, but almost all his life was spent in Italy, so that from one point of view he can hardly be called an exponent of German art. He was never, however, a copyist of Italian painters. In fact, he followed no one either in style or subject. His works are almost all very small, and are finished with such extreme care and minute pains-taking that it is no wonder he left so few behind him. He is chiefly known as the painter of landscapes, which are but the settings for historical or religious scenes. As the whole composition frequently measures less than a foot square, his figures are of necessity extremely small. They are capitally drawn, however, and equally admirable is his rendering of trees, fields, running water, grass, and sky. He was extremely fond of startling contrasts of light and shade, and precedes Rembrandt in his treatment of chiaroscuro.
A Woman Fainting, in Room 8, is now ascribed to Jan Ochterveldt, though it was formerly supposed to be a Terborch. Near a table with a red cover a woman lies on the floor in a white satin robe, her breast uncovered, her head on cushions, her eyes closed, the abandonment of her figure showing she is quite unconscious. Two other women are about her in anxious attendance, and farther back at the right a doctor is showing a bottle to a servant. At the left two other servants are admitting a visitor.
Jan Ochterveldt, born, it is supposed, at Rotterdam somewhere near 1635, is called an imitator and pupil of Metzu, but his work often recalls more forcibly both Pieter de Hooch and Gerard Terborch. He followed Terborch's method of chiaroscuro more or less skilfully, and his colour, though grayer than either of the others, partakes now of one and then of another of the three.
The Study of a Writer, in Room 8, was once thought to be by Rembrandt. It is now called by Thomas Wyck, who is better known as an etcher than as a painter. He was born in Haarlem, in 1616, but is supposed to have worked a great deal in Italy, the subjects of his pictures seeming to be proof of this. He painted seaports and ruins on the seashore, but it is as the painter of alchemists in their studies that he is seen at his best. His handling of light in those compositions has been likened to Rembrandt's in similar subjects, and other pictures by him besides this here have been ascribed to the more famous man.
This one represents the interior of a small study, full of books and papers. At a table, in nearly full face, is the scholar, writing in a huge book before him. He is clad in a great coat with red cuffs. A window, which lights the scene, breaks one of the walls, and at the left is a large map of the world.
Of the four pictures in Room 6 which have been attributed to Van Dyck, not one is unquestionably his. The portrait of a small girl holding an apple, and dressed in a dark blue silk frock, with a white cap and apron, has been frankly called a copy of a portion of one of the portraits which Van Dyck executed for the Stuart family, the original being, according to the catalogue, in the Royal Gallery at Turin.
The two small heads of sleeping children are charming in colour and line, and show much of that fresh, free touch so peculiarly Van Dyck's own. But they are probably, or very likely, by some imitator rather than by Van Dyck himself.
The Christ on the Cross is more certainly his, though M. Jules Guiffrey does not catalogue it in his list of Van Dyck's achievements. To all except the most discriminating and accomplished critic, however, this little canvas seems almost as worthy of the painter as the one in Antwerp, and fully up to the level of the less disputed Crucifixion in the Borghese. Van Dyck repeated many of his compositions over and over again. First, undoubtedly, because actual repetition of this or that scene already painted was demanded by his patrons. Second, because Van Dyck's creative powers were not those of a great painter. Originality in composition was not his to any extreme degree. He frequently copied the well-known compositions of Rubens almost without the addition or change of a single point. The fact, however, that he could produce so many of these simple, unattended Crucifixions, and yet keep in each, as it were, the original point of view, so that each seems to have sprung from his brain with all the power and fervour and direct appeal of a first impression, is a proof of the histrionic ability of Van Dyck.
The canvas here is very small, measuring a little over two feet square. Against a lurid sky, with the horizon line near the base of the cross, which is reared high, reaching nearly the top, of the can-vas, is the Crucified One. His arms are out-stretched, pinned by iron staples to the cross-bar, his feet nailed together on the upright beam. He is nude save for the loin-cloth. There is nothing above or below him to indicate his connection with the world of man except the fluttering placard nailed above his head, bearing the mocking jibe of his executioners. His head has sunken back on to his shoulder, his mouth is open, his eyes turned upwards in a very agony of pleading despair. No-where, however, in that nobly lined face is there any puerility or weakness.
Van Dyck has focused the light sharply on the body from the chest down on to the thighs. The face and arms and lower parts of the legs are in a half-tone that deepens on the left side of the figure into a widening line of shadow. With the angry, murky sky for background, this centralizing of the light gives a dramatic quality that is one of the most noticeable of Van Dyck's characteristics. The body of Christ is that of a young, perfectly developed, rarely beautiful man. About him is no sign of asceticism or emaciation. He is shown in the full glory of life, nailed to the cross of death. The poignant power of this figure has rarely been equalled, still more seldom excelled. Perhaps only Rembrandt touched a higher, more divine expression.
Technically, those little Crucifixions of Van Dyck are equal to his best works. The flesh is painted with the full, soft, sure brush, with that plastic touch that belonged to Van Dyck both by right of his training under Rubens and by his assimilation of the methods of the Italians. The colour is clear, silvery, almost opalescent, in its exquisite gradations, the modelling simple, smooth, inevitable, the drawing accurate but not slavish, with that spring of line and life of curve that were perhaps Van Dyck's alone, neither inherited nor acquired.
Anton Van Dyck was born in Antwerp in 1599 and died in London in 1641. Below Rubens as historical painter and far below him in creative genius, he outranks him as a portrait-painter. In that line, indeed, he has been called the leader of the world. While that is perhaps hardly the critical opinion that can stand, he was unquestionably one of the greatest painters of aristocracy that ever lived. To all his sitters he gave a courtly air that changed his simple squires and burghers into prince and noble. He was the favourite painter of Charles I. of England, and his very greatest portraits are of that king and his children. The court that Cromwell overthrew exists more vividly on the canvases of the Fleming than in any page of his-tory. There is about all his best works a brilliance and a personal charm, a something that takes one captive whether one will or no. And if it is as a portrait-painter that he ranks highest, some of his religious scenes have a piety, a personal, vibrating note of appeal that place them, emotionally, at least, on a higher level than those of Rubens.
The one picture in the Academy which has been ascribed to Metzu is more than likely by some inferior workman. It is in Room 8, and is called A Woman Sleeping. The subject of the scene is sitting in a chamber in full face, dressed in a red skirt, blue apron, and violet waist, a white shawl over her shoulders, and a white bonnet on her head. Her eyes are closed, her left elbow rests on the table beside her, and her hands are crossed. The open book on her knees evidently could not hold her attention, nor, judging from the commonplace, stolid lines of her face, does one wonder! There is little or none of the delicate atmospheric envelope that is so characteristic of Metzu, and both the composition and the colouring are far below his standard.
Gabriel Metzu was born in Leyden probably about 1630, and was a pupil of Gerard Dou. His works partake more of the style of Terborch, however, and it is thought that the influence of Steen, who was an intimate friend, can be felt in some of them. As a rule, Metzu, like Terborch, chose oftenest for representation scenes from so-called " polite society." Occasionally, too, he painted a Market Day or a Country Fair with all the brilliance and truth and with none of the vulgarity of a Steen. Generally, however, he is seen at his best in parlour or boudoir interiors, where the rich furniture, soft satin gowns, and dainty or aristocratic accessories all add to the effect of ease and luxury that none of the " little masters " could better portray than he. Critics are not apt to place him on so high a plane as Terborch, yet it is in-contestable that his domain was larger, and that he was fully equal to him as draughtsman and colourist, nor did he fall behind him in his use of chiaroscuro.
In Room 8 two canvases by one other of these Northern men display his talents a little more adequately. The first of these, Grace before Meals, though not one of his noted works, does give some idea of the style and ability of Jan Steen in his more restrained and quieter mood. It shows the interior of a country family's dining-room, its walls hung with domestic utensils, baskets, kettles, hats, a banjo, a picture or two. At the left is a double window, one-half with its latticed panes closed, the other open to sky and trees, a bit of grape-vine falling in from its framing. In the left centre is the table spread with the rough, homely peasant meal. The father sits on one side, his chair pushed far back, his elbow on his knees, holding his tall, felt hat before his face. Opposite him is his wife, dressed in a red skirt, blue waist, and white kerchief, holding a white-capped nursing baby in her arms, while a second little tot stands beside her. Between the father and mother, facing the spectator, stands the heir of the family, cap in his awkward hands held against his blouse, saying the blessing before the meal. It is a very serious, pro-found effort, to judge from his worried, intent expression. The management of light here is characteristic of Steen. It falls exactly and inevitably upon the precise places that need emphasis. It strikes only the top of the bowed head of the father, but plays fully over the mother's face and breast and the baby in her arms. The boy's shoulder and cheek and forehead are brought out sharply, also, with a half-shadow over his thick lips and stubby nose. And finally, at the right, the family dog, licking up the spilled porridge, is in the direct rays that come in from the open window, thus admirably completing and balancing the composition.
There is, from one point of view, nothing beautiful about this picture. The peasant types have no charm of line or contour, the ugly furniture and coarse fare are what no well-recognized " canons of art " would ever admit in a picture. Yet charm there is in plenty, and poetry, too, of a truer, more real, and penetrating rhythm than in all the productions of the so-called classic school. The handling of the light, the homely pathos of the situation, the intensity of the actuality of presentation, — these after all are what are more essential to real art than all the prescribed rules of beauty.
The second picture is called the Astrologer's Family. It is an interior again, with a woman, dressed in a yellow skirt, gray waist, and white veil, turning to the left listening to the astrologer reading from a volume which he holds in his left hand. He is clad in a brown greatcoat, green head-dress, and black bonnet. At the right are four children and at the left two men, one poking the fire, the other writing. In the foreground at the right is a dog drinking from a porringer. This is of less interest and of less artistic value than the other.
Jan Steen was born in Leyden near 1626 and died in 1679. He was a pupil of Adriaen Van Ostade, and it is probably from him that he obtained his remarkable understanding of chiaroscuro, the secrets of composition, and the power of making colours glow and gleam. with a brilliancy quite independent of their highness of key. His subjects, too, were chosen largely from the same source as Van Ostade's, — the daily life of the people of Holland. But here resemblance largely ceases. It is never Ostade's point of view that Steen presents. Never Ostade's nor any one's but his own. He has been likened to the English Hogarth, but after all he was entirely different. If he moralized when he showed his countrymen drinking and carousing in low pot-houses, his pictures do not show it. He was as impersonal an observer, one feels, as was ever Shakespeare, and he could be as absolute and unbiassed a chronicler when showing the wholesome, daily home life of reputable earnest citizens as in depicting a drunken brawl or vulgar country dance. It was life, life as he saw it and as it actually existed that he was most interested in, and that he insistently portrayed. If in many of his scenes there is felt to be a satirical glee that critics have compared to the cynicism of Molière, it is there, if one may so express it, rather by the very nature of the case than because it represents Steen's own particular attitude. Joined to an extraordinary keenness of observation, he had a remarkable power for telling a story, and this power his mastery of the laws of composition continually augmented. No Dutch-man has ever equalled him in his distribution of mass, in his balance of parts, in his understanding and proper presentation of climax.
So much of Steen's work deals with the lowest life in Holland that he has been credited with being himself a roysterer, a vagabond, and a drunkard. Modern exploration in old documents and musty records has pretty well demonstrated that he has been most unjustly maligned. The very volume of his works, which Smith catalogues as over five hundred, it would seem, ought alone to disprove the charge. For most of these pictures are little below his own high average, and a drunken arm and unsteady eye could surely never have produced them.
There is one portrait in Room 8 which the new catalogue ascribes to Hans Memlinc, but which Lafenestre and others still call an Antonello da Messina. It seems to be a mixture of the manner of Roger Van der Weyden and Menlinc. It represents a youth depicted only to his chest, facing three-quarters to the left, his right hand resting on the edge of the frame at the left lower corner. The lack of construction in this hand and wrist is in strong contrast to the careful accuracy in the treat-ment of the face, neck, and shoulders. The young man has on a close-fitting, high-buttoned coat, showing a bit of white at the throat. A round cap is on the back of his head, displaying to its utmost the full waving hair banged across his forehead and coming to the base of his neck and almost covering his ear. His nose is long, straight, and rather thick, his under lip full, his eyes slightly lowered, with heavy upper lids, under straight, widely separated eyebrows. Back of him is a landscape background. The expression is pensive, and the whole effect is that the picture must have been a wonderful portrait. If by any chance it is by Antonello it is far and away better than the other two panels credited to him in the Academy.