Frans Hals And Rembrandt
( Originally Published 1907 )
THERE is an old Dutch custom, holding even to this day, of fastening to the window a mirror, set at an angle which reflects to the occupant of the room the figures of the passers-by. Had Hals and Rembrandt set up such mirrors in their studio windows, at Haarlem and Amsterdam, in the middle of the seventeenth century, fixing the reflections by some magic process, the result would have been something like the series of portraits they produced. For it was in the life of the people that make up the daily throng of the street, that they were most at home. They were men of the people, and it was for the people that they wrought — the sturdy middle class who furnish brain and brawn (and money, too !) to the nation. Among their sitters to be sure were men of learning, letters and science, like Hoornebeek, professor in the University of Leyden (Hals) ; Doctor Tulp and Doctor Tholinx of Amsterdam (Rembrandt) and Herman Krul, the poet (Rembrandt). There were ministers, too, like Rembrandt's Anslo, and Hals' Johannes Acronius, and minor artists like Berchem (Rembrandt) and Van der Vinne (Hals). There was even an occasional admiral, this with Hals, or a burgomaster, with Rembrandt, but this is as high as the scale reaches. No noblemen are identified among them, and it is needless to add, no princes or crowned heads. For the most part they were merchants or burghers and their wives, like Rembrandt's Shipbuilder, and Hals' Nicolas Beresteyn, the majority indeed being of too little consequence for their names to have been preserved. A foreigner is a rarity, a single notable exception being Descartes, whom Hals painted during the French philosopher's sojourn in Amsterdam. Altogether the united product of the two men presents a striking contrast to that of their Flemish contemporaries, Rubens and Van Dyck — this commonplace company of middle class Dutch with that brilliant panorama of the court life of every country in Europe. The course of their lives was correspondingly diverse, and beside the constant journeyings of the two great Flemings, the tranquil provincial routine of the two Dutchmen affords almost no material for the biographer. Nor do the contemporaries of Rembrandt and Hals appear to have had much insight into their characters. While Rubens and Van Dyck are clearly defined personalities, the two great Dutchmen are rather vague and shadowy figures. Something of their character we may gather from their portraits.
Our best known portrait of Hals is the Amsterdam picture of himself and his second wife in a landscape group, after the manner of Rubens and Isabella Brandt' The Dutch painter is a handsome man with large well cut features, and he has the " open countenance " which we like to associate with the Dutch character. He has evidently just cracked a joke, and throws himself back for a hearty laugh, while his wife joins good-naturedly in his merriment. A jolly good fellow this with a simple kindly nature, whom we should not suspect of being very pro-found. There is little or nothing in the face to indicate the artistic nature which is so apparent in the refined and imaginative likenesses of Rubens and Van Dyck. Hals is indeed reputed to have been a man of convivial habits, and a frequenter of taverns. Worse still, he was once brought into court for wife-beating. Yet after the death of this unfortunate first wife, Lysbeth Reyniers was not afraid to make the venture as his second, and in this picture appears to find her husband a very agreeable companion. They lived together nearly fifty years, and had a large family.
The portraits of Rembrandt extend over a period of forty years. No other face has been so many times represented in art, not even that of Charles I or Philip IV. There are fifty painted portraits, or one sixth of his entire portrait output, and twenty-seven etchings besides. The majority were made merely for practice, and not from any motives of vanity. The painter took no pains to show himself to advantage, and often made himself quite grotesque, forcing a laugh or a grimace for the study of facial expression. The portraits came most thickly during the early years of his professional life, when there was most need of technical training. For instance there are ten etchings in the year 1630, and seven in 1631, and a dozen or so painted portraits for the years 1634-1635. Nearly all these early studies are in costume, and deal with the reflection of light on velvet stuffs and metals. The painter was especially interested in the shadows cast on the face by the brim of a head covering. So we see him wearing every conceivable form of headdress — the soft velvet cap, the wide-brimmed hat, these often with plume or feather, the tall fur cap, the turban, and the helmet. Among all these fantastically dressed figures we search in vain for Rembrandt as his neighbours saw him, Rembrandt as he walked the streets of Amsterdam. These studio trappings are strangely at variance with the sober black clothes with stiff ruffs or broad flat collars, and the Puritan hat, which were in vogue at that time. How Rembrandt would look in the regulation Dutch attire, such as was worn by the surgeons of the Anatomy Lesson and the Syndics, is left to our imagination. The artist's face is cast in a large plebeian mould with irregular features and rather small eyes. He was not overcareful to reproduce the features accurately, so that we do not always recognize him in his various disguises. He also varied constantly the treatment of hair and beard so that we are still in the dark as to whether Rembrandt's own hair was long or short, scanty or abundant, bushy, curly or straight. We feel reasonably sure that he was a kindly and candid person and possessed of a somewhat independent spirit, with a proper opinion of his own merits. Yet who could find in his face the indications of a visionary? The keen observing eye of the artist is, however, now and then apparent, as in one of the Louvre portraits (with head uncovered) . He is almost always very serious, except when forcing a laugh for strictly professional purposes. Apparently he was quite the opposite of the light hearted Hals. The most satisfactory portraits are from his youth and his old age. At Fenway Court, Boston, is a most delightful portrait of the young artist on the threshold of his career. There is an irresistible charm in the frank, ingenuous face looking out so hopefully upon life. The face is delicately shaded by a picturesque plumed hat, the work showing even in this early period the magic touch which was to characterize the master. Many years later we see him again, stripped of studio finery, wrapping his mantle about him, as he turns his weary old face to ours, and shows us in his careworn expression something of the conflicts of a life of profound experience.
The fame of Rembrandt's wife Saskia is second only to that of Helena Fourment in the annals of artists' biography. He was married in 1632 at the beginning of his career in Amsterdam, and for ten happy years this amiable girl was the light of his home. There are many pictures to show the artist's delight in his bride. She was no such beauty as Rubens's Helena, with a round blunt nose and small eyes; but she had the charm of youth and a pleasant, cheerful smile. It was in-deed chiefly as a model that Rembrandt painted her, using her face, as he used his own, for the perfecting of his skill, rather than for the proper purposes of portraiture. The most attractive picture is the betrothal portrait of the Cassel gallery, where the flower in her hand is the symbol of her happy love. The artist has loaded her with jewels, strings of pearls about her arms and neck, and in her hair. A rich velvet dress is worn over an embroidered guimpe, and a fur mantle falls over one shoulder. A broad brimmed hat with long feather completes the fanciful costume. In such fashion the painter continued to array her, paying much more attention to picturesque and decorative effects than to the expressiveness of the face. In fact it is difficult in some cases to distinguish the portraits of Saskia from those of Rembrandt's sister. In the Dresden gallery is the well known group in which Saskia is seen sitting on her husband's knee, while he raises his glass for a toast. The composition is not very felicitous, and Saskia looks more like a doll than a live woman, but the work is a pleasant record of a happy mood in a life clouded with troubles. The spirit of the picture is really more like Hals than Rembrandt. Now and again Rembrandt caught the picturesque swagger which is the special charm of Hals, and vice versa, Hals achieved the serious dignity which was Rembrandt's forte. There are not a few cases where the two painters meet on common ground, as in their corporation pictures of the Regents and the Syndics. Nowhere perhaps do they come more closely together than in two portraits of old women in the Amsterdam gallery : the lady of the Van der Meer family, by Hals, and Elizabeth Bas, by Rembrandt. Worthy compeers are these two, posed so similarly in arm-chairs, rendered with like fidelity of de-tail, with like power of individual characterization, treated with equal dignity and refinement.
A field in which Hals was unapproached was in studies of genre life. Loitering about the market and taverns, he loved to watch the happy-go-lucky lives of the common people. Hille Bobbe, the fish-wife of Haarlem, was a favourite model, a toothless old hag, reputed to be a witch. Her fish-stand was a gathering place for idlers who delighted in bandying jokes with her. Hals liked nothing better than to loosen her sharp tongue with a tankard of ale, and, when the climax of the tale was reached, sketch the grotesque old face so contorted with merriment that one can fairly hear the old beldame's shrill cackle of laughter. The itinerant musician was an-other hobby of Hals. One recalls the flute player of Schwerin, grinning at us in a pause between notes, the lute player of Amsterdam making eyes at some imaginary siren in mocking imitation of a cavalier; the two touching little fellows with a mandolin, in the Cassel gallery, and the pretty boy singer of Berlin.
Another street study is the charming Bohemienne, of the Louvre, with her sly side-long glance, from beneath her half closed eyes. The Jolly Man, at Amsterdam, and the Young Man with Slouch Hat, at Cassel, with the maudlin toper in the same gallery, are familiar examples of the hilarious mood which Hals knew so well how to represent. Such heads have many counterparts in the large military groups. Spontaneous hilarity like this was quite foreign to the nature of Rembrandt, though he might sometimes try to simulate it. Instead of the jovial tavern loungers of Hals, he took by preference some Jewish beggar and transformed him into a wistful philosopher, a melancholy exile, or a meditative apostle, whose yearning eyes reveal the pathos of a lonely soul.
Hals was a wizard in catching an expression as elusive as thought. The portrait of the Wallace collection, so inaptly called the " Laughing Cavalier," is a fascinating study in the dawning of a smile. The Smoker of the Metropolitan Museum is catching our eye to share the little joke which has set his companion to laughing. The unknown gentle-man of Frankfort has just the suspicion of a kindly twinkle in his eyes, and the pompous admiral of St. Petersburg is about to utter a pleasant repartee. The irresistible Ilpenstein baby is unmatched in child portraiture. The round little face is fairly rippling with laughter. A long range is thus illustrated in the work of Hals, from the coarse jest and shrill laughter of the .old witch Hille Bobbe, and the noisy hilarity of the tavern brawler or soldier, to the bubbling merriment of an innocent baby.
The born humourist has always much to suffer from those who refuse to take him seriously. Hals excelled so strikingly in the de-lineation of jovial types that many are unaware of the number and merit of his more dignified portraits. Some of these are especially strong in decorative quality. The full-length portrait of Willem van Huythuysen in the Lichenstein gallery at Vienna is quite wonderful in this respect. The brocade dress is rendered with great effect. As in Baby I1 penstein's dress Hals took his opportunities to exercise consummate craftsmanship in rich stuffs and delicate laces. The companion portraits of Jacob Olycan and his wife at The Hague mark the high water mark of dignity and expressiveness combined with decorative beauty.
Men and women of all ages make up the full complement of the long portrait list of Rembrandt. Children are rather rare and are not among the successes. They are usually too grave for their years. Youth did not appeal strongly to the painter. Even his beloved wife did not inspire his highest effort. Superficial prettiness did not interest him so much as character significance. In this he shared the spirit of the early painters of Northern Europe, though differing from them so widely in his methods. For character and expressiveness of countenance there must needs be experience and age. So the favourite subjects of Rembrandt were strong men of middle age, and old people of both sexes.
An extraordinary performance for a young man of twenty-five is the Shipbuilder and his Wife (1633) painted with such insight into the sterling worth of the homely old couple. The man turns about from his table to receive the letter his wife brings him. Simple as the act is, both faces show that years of tender devotion have knit the two together in perfect understanding. It is also in these early years that Rembrandt painted the several portraits of his father and mother which have given us a better understanding of his parentage than of his own individuality. What resoluteness of character is indicated in the mother's large mouth, with the thin lips tightly compressed. A proud self-contained nature is here, with grave eyes, small and keen rather than poetic. She is a dignified and handsome woman whom we must all greatly respect.
The portrait at Windsor, and the etching of the seated figure show us all this. The studio pieces in the character of St. Anna, and the like, are not satisfying as portrait studies. Extreme old age softens somewhat the natural austerity of the mother's character, and when we see her bent with years, leaning on her cane (Vienna), though dressed in velvet and satin finery, as if to conceal her feebleness, the withered face smiles with child like pleasure.
Rembrandt's father is not of so stern a fibre. A plain, hard working miller, but with the large eyes of a visionary. There is no little pathos in the face, as of one in whom fact and fancy were often in conflict. The portrait with the skull cap, at Cassel, is one of several examples, and the portrait of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is another.
One after another the old people of Rembrandt's portraits rise before the imagination, the women mostly in quaint starched head-dresses, with big ear pieces, the men in skull caps. In each face we discern a distinctive personality. From the complacency of Elizabeth Bas, energetic and authoritative, but not unkindly, we turn to the gentle, almost deprecating smile of an old lady in St. Petersburg, and from her again to the animated young old lady of Captain Holford's collection (1645), turning her face so alertly to the right that she seems about to speak. A very unusual old lady is that of Mr. Havemeyer's New York collection (1640), eighty-seven years old, according to the inscription. The face is exquisitely refined and the mouth of exceeding sweetness. The deep eye sockets, and the depression of the temples are beautifully rendered. The old lady of the National Gallery is eighty-three, and she, too, has held her own well through the years. Her face, looking directly out of the canvas, is a perfect net-work of wrinkles. She looks down reflectively, with an amiable smile. A favourite model of Rembrandt was an old family dependent whose portraits have often erroneously been called " Rembrandt's Mother."
She was of peasant origin, with large' hands knotted with hard work, but in her prime she must have been a handsome woman. She was a patient old soul, who had passed through many sorrows, but had borne them with a sweetness which has made the mouth beautiful, and the eyes very tender and expressive. Between this Mother of Sorrows and the Witch of Haarlem, what a gulf of experience.
Among Rembrandt's portraits of elderly men that of Jan Six easily leads. (Six Collection, Amsterdam.) It was the crowning proof of a long friendship between the two men which seems to have originated in their common passion for collecting works of art. The Six family had a country-seat at Elsbroek, near Amsterdam, and thither in 1641 Rembrandt had been summoned to paint the mother's portrait. From thenceforth he had frequent intercourse with the son Jan. Young Six was a lover of literature, as well as of art, and something of a poet beside. In an etched portrait by Rembrandt we see him in the days of his literary activity. He leans against a window-ledge in his library, poring over a folio volume. The dreamy countenance, the graceful figure, the absorbed attitude, and the stately room, make this one of the most fascinating of Rembrandt's portrait etchings. It was at about this time that the young poet published his tragedy of Medea which Rembrandt illustrated with a magnificent etching. Literary work led the way to various public honours until at last Six became Burgomaster of Amsterdam. How the passing years had dealt with him we may see in the great portrait. We recognize at once the delicate high bred features of the etching; but the rapt face of the young poet is now graven with the deeper experiences of life. It is a most gentle and noble countenance of a French type, the Sixes having been Huguenots, who took refuge in Holland in the sixteenth century. The burgomaster stands drawing on his gloves, wearing a hat and a rich cloak, as if going abroad. The gracious inclination of the fine head, and the entire ease of the figure express perfect distinction. Among the etched portraits of old men more homely types come to mind: Jan Lutma, the goldsmith, settled comfortably in his arm chair with the complacent ease of hard-won success; Sylvius, the preacher, weighing some theological dogmas; Clement de Jonghe, the publisher, with the astute air of the connoisseur; the venerable "old Haaring," official of the bankruptcy court, benevolent and serene.
Our study of these characteristic portrait examples of Hals and Rembrandt gives us the basis of a comparison between the two painters. Rembrandt was of course a much bigger man, as Rubens was bigger than Van Dyck. An engraver as well as a painter, and an all around artist, as well as a maker of portraits, he looms far above Hals who was exclusively a portrait painter. In Rembrandt's sixty-three years of industry he produced much more work than the more indolent Hals in his long life of eighty odd years. But in the matter of portrait painting the two rank together as the highest exponents of their school. Living in a period which was notable for many excellent portrait painters, contemporaries of Mierevelt, of Moreelse, of Ravesteyn, of Metsu, and of Gerard Dou, they stand head and shoulders above all the great company. They had several characteristics in common which belong more or less to their period. Their closest similarity was perhaps in the sense of intimacy which both imparted to their subjects, each in his own way. There is with them none of that averted gaze and distant air which Van Dyck gave his sitters. Their portrait folk look us directly in the face, and give us their confidence. They are all thoroughly alive.
In their points of divergence they supplemented each other in realizing a full expression of the spirit of the seventeenth-century Dutch art. Their style of craftsmanship is quite dissimilar. We recognize Hals- by the bold brush-work which often makes a picture quite unintelligible at close range. Rembrandt we distinguish by his wonderful contrasts of light and shade. Often the definition of a face or figure is quite lost in the. shadow. In palette, too, the two men differ characteristically. Hals began with a wide range of colours and ended practically in monochromy, with the severest limits of black and white. Rembrandt from colder colour grew warmer with the years, and at length his canvases took on those golden or tawny browns, like nothing so much as the varying tints of amber. Hals painted his figures by daylight, the illumination evenly distributed, Rembrandt saw things in a " light which never was on land or sea." Without over-looking the many exceptions which in each case prove the rule, the general tendency of the two men lay in opposite directions. Hals represented the material side of life, Rembrandt the ideal. Hals stuck to facts, Rembrandt was a poet. Hals saw the fun of life, Rembrandt, its pathos. Hals caught the play of the passing emotion, the smile, the jest, the transient mood, Rembrandt penetrated the deeps of character and represented the abiding values of the human soul.