German, Flemish, And Spanish Painting, And The Dutch School
( Originally Published 1917 )
"There is not a thought or a feeling, not an act of beauty or nobility, whereof man is capable, but can find complete expression in the simplest, most ordinary life" . . .
The painting of the so called Modern Schools,the Romantic Realistic Schools, we may style them; dates from the seventeenth century masters, Rem brandt and Velasquez. They were the great Romantic realists, who taught us that it is sympathy and treatment, rather than subject, which makes great art. Rembrandt's inspiration during his most fruitful and successful years was the beautiful Saskia, his sweetheart and wife, whose portrait accompanies this chapter.
But before speaking in detail of the work of these comparatively later masters, it is well to consider the connecting links between the Renaissance Schools of 'Italy and this beginning of modern schools by Rembrandt and Velasquez, and this we find in the German and Flemish painting.
The early German School is led by three names, Hans Holbein the Elder, Albrecht Dürer, and Holbein the Younger. Their subjects are mainly religious, as they precede the Reformation, when Ger-many was still Roman Catholic and the Church painting the most important ex-pression of art. The German painting is characterized, however, by an element not found in the Italian schools, where beauty, harmony, and simple religious sincerity prevail. In the German School of this period there is to be felt—as throughout German literature—the element of Mysticism, reminiscent of the pagan Teutonic deities. This gives often a peculiar and weird or mystical touch to the pictures, especially those of Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528).
In Durer's most famous subject, an engraving called " The Knight, Death and the Devil (1513), the mystic quality is well displayed. The stalking figure of Death ever dogs the Knight's footsteps, as unmindful of it he pursues his adventures. Just why Dürer named the picture thus we do not know, but perhaps he wished to typify the journey of " Every-man " the Spiritual beset by the claims of the material. Another work, of the same year, entitled " Melancholy," is al-most equally well known.
The German temperament is perhaps most joyous in thoughts of sadness, as betrayed by the pensive song of the " Lorelei," which it is said Germans al-ways sing when happiest. A more cheerful picture is " St. Jerome in his Study," belonging to the following year (1514). Though Dürer is better known as an en-graver than a painter, very famous paintings by him are to be seen in Munich, in Florence, and other galleries.
German pictures are best, perhaps, when least Italian. Another characteristic to be noted is the introduction, in groups with the Madonna, of portraits of individuals. A well-known example is the celebrated Meyer Madonna by Holbein, in which the donor and his family kneel at the feet of the Virgin. This trait is also found, often very beautifully expressed, in the early Flemish School. In pictures by Memling we see the artist and members of the noble family by whose order the work was executed posed as different characters, saints and spectators. In some of the later Italian work it may also be observed, for example, in Guido Reni's well-known " St. Michael and the Dragon," a treasure of the Church of the Capuchins, in Rome, in which the face of the Dragon is said to represent an unpopular antipope of the time.
Legend has it that Michelangelo, when painting the " Last Judgment," paid off an old score with a disliked Cardinal, by representing him in the great picture as in hell. The irate Cardinal protested to the Pope. " I am sorry," said the Pontiff, with some humor. " If he had only put you in purgatory, I could have got you out; but as you are in hell, there is nothing I can do about it."
It is in music rather than painting that the German temperament seeks expression. The Germans are untiring collectors, however, and in their galleries, especially those of Berlin, Dresden, and Munich, they have gathered together many great works of the old masters.
An interesting transition is observe in going from Italian to Flemish painting. The relations of these two countries were made closer by commerce during the Renaissance, when Venice and Bruges were the really great cities of Europe.
To one who knows the illustrious history of Belgium, her art must have an added interest and value, and her pictures and architecture must seem well worth study. One who knows only the Italian Renaissance painting misses much.
Belgium remained a Catholic country, and it is there that we find a continuation of the wonderful old religious painting. The Flemish School dates from the early fifteenth century, when the brothers Hubrecht (1370?-1426) and Jan Van Eyck (1385?-1440) founded the famous school of Bruges. Oil painting is said to have been invented by one of the Van Eycks.
It is like stepping back into a history book to visit the old red roofed city of Bruges, which is today still entirely medieval. Ghent, Antwerp, and Brussels, too, represent each a different type of ancient city, every one with its art treasures. In Ghent, it is the Van Eyck painting, " The Adoration of the Lamb," in the old Cathedral of St. Bavon. This picture was painted before 1426, the year of Hubrecht Van Eyck's death, and as his brother Jan lived until 1440, it may be the work of both. Though it has suffered some mutilation and ineffective retouching, yet it is a striking study, representing Christ presiding over the sacrifice of the Lamb, and the ancient Flemish city pictures Jerusalem. Wings at the side fold over the picture, concealing it from view except at the hour when it is shown to visitors. Figures of Adam and Eve are painted on the wings. In Napoleon's conquests, the picture was taken away to Paris, but it was returned to Ghent later on. At another time the side-wings were taken to Germany, and are now replaced by inferior copies. What fate may next be in store for this quaint old work?
In the same Cathedral is also a less famous picture by another great Flemish master; Rubens. It is the " Conversion of Saint Bavon," the patron of the Cathedral.
With the Van Eyck brothers must be remembered Memling (1430?-1494), whose great works are to be seen in Bruges, where many other pictures of the Van Eycks are preserved. The subject of Memling's famous painting is St. Ursula. She was, you remember, a beautiful young lady, a princess of Britain, in the early Middle Ages, betrothed to a prince of the time. Before marrying, the Lady Ursula insisted that she must make a pilgrimage to Rome; her pagan suitor must also become Christian. Accordingly, the party made their journey to the Eternal City, and it was while re-turning by boat through Europe along the River Rhine, after crossing the Alps, that Ursula and her eleven thousand virgins who accompanied her were sur-prised at Cologne by the Huns, and basely murdered. The relics of St. Ur-sula are treasured now in her Church in Cologne, and also a part in Bruges where they repose in a Reliquary decorated by Memling's series of interesting pictures. To appreciate fully these quaint scenes, one should visit St. Ursula's Church in Cologne, and should also see the noted room of Carpaccio paintings of St. Ur-sula in Venice.
Following the Van Eycks and Memling by nearly a hundred years are the great Flemish painters, Rubens and his supposed pupil Van Dyck. Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was born on June 28, the eve of SS. Peter and Paul's day, hence " Peter Paul."
Rubens' painting is especially reminiscent of the Italian Schools, particularly that of Venice, and it is probable that his love of brilliant coloring was emphasized by a visit to Italy. His life was a very busy one, and he painted many, many pictures, or at least a very large number is attributed to his school. In some cases his students, it is said, painted the pictures and Rubens re-touched them. He was sent on commissions by the King of France, and was very much a man of affairs. His home was in Antwerp, and in the great Cathedral there is his most famous picture, " The Descent from the Cross," perhaps the best known of this painful but so often painted subject.
Rubens' coloring is peculiarly brilliant, and the flesh tones are sometimes so realistic as almost to offend the highest taste. But we cannot say that of the charming portrait of his adored wife, " Helene Fourment " (opposite), whom Rubens so loved to paint. Rubens spent some time at the Court of Spain, but he seems not to have been deeply affected by Spanish painting, but rather, perhaps, to have influenced the great Velasquez, who was one of his friends.
Of Rubens Fromentin says: " The means are simple, the method elementary, but employed by a hand magnificently agile, adroit, sensitive and composed."
In Van Dyck's painting, less depth of character is shown than in Rubens' work, and this is typical of the man. Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) was some-what spoiled by wealth and fame, though he painted very beautiful pictures. He lived several years at the English Court, was knighted, married in England, and left an important series of Stuart pictures. His triple portrait of Charles I. is a noted one at Windsor. Another al-most priceless Stuart picture by Van Dyck is the " James Stuart, Duke of Lennox," now in the Metropolitan Gallery of New York. Van Dyck spent some time in Italy, also, especially at Genoa, where he found many patrons.
Many more Flemish painters might be named, but probably the most famous after those already mentioned is Jordaens (1593-1678), another pupil of Rubens.
He appears to have been a man of spirit, for he became Protestant. For this rea-son it was decreed that his body should not rest in the soil of Catholic Belgium. Consequently, Jordaens' ashes lie buried in a little Dutch town just across the border line from Antwerp to Rotterdam.
The Spanish School of the same time was led by Velasquez (1599-166o). The portraits of the Spanish Court form a notable series by this great artist. Of Velasquez Raphael Mengs says: " It seems as if his hand had no share in the execution of his painting, but that everything about them was created by a simple act of volition."
Another celebrated Spanish painter, chiefly of religious subjects, was his student Murillo (1617-1682). His most famous picture is, perhaps, the " Virgin of the Conception," now in the Louvre. Both Velasquez and Murillo were born in Seville.
THE DUTCH SCHOOL
Holland possessed, in the seventeenth century, a group of original and distinguished painters, who have been characterized by Fromentin as " the last of the great schools, perhaps the most original, certainly the most local."
While Belgium remained a Catholic country, Holland, as we know, broke away from Spain during the wars of the Inquisition. This stopped the demand for religious paintings and thus gave an impetus to a new school of art, that of portrait painting.
Haarlem became the chief center of the school of painting, with Frans Hals as its leader. This we may designate the Romantic-Realistic School,—Romantic in its impressionism and realistic in its adherence to natural form and feature. Its portraits, though beautifully painted, are often unidealized in character.
Frans Hals (1584?-1666) was a happy-go-lucky artist, seldom out of debt, but always cheerful and apparently beloved by his townsmen. In their appreciation of his art they thought little the worse of him for any laxity of character. He painted many pictures, some of the finest of which are still to be seen in the City Hall of his native town, Haarlem. Others are in The Hague Gallery or, like " The Jester," in the great Rijks Museum at Amsterdam, and " The Laughing Cavalier " in London. A fine example, " Hille Bobbe," representing a coarse looking woman with a parrot on her shoulder, is now in the Metropolitan, New York. A duplicate of the last-named is owned in Germany. Hals loved especially to catch in his portraits a fleeting expression of mirth, as shown in " The Jester " and many others. His color effects depend on beautiful flesh tints, and in subduing, often, the rest of the picture. His portraits are marvelously lifelike.
Other famous painters of the Dutch School are van Ruisdael (1625?-1682) and Hobbema (1638-1709), noted for landscapes; Gerard Dou (1613-1675), Jan Steen (1626?-1679), Pieter de Hooch (1632-1681), and Jan Vermeer of Delft (1632-1675), noted for peasant scenes; Wouverman, Paulus Potter (1625-1654) Adriaan van de Velde, and Aelbert Cuyp (162o-1691) , for animal painting. " The Kitchen Maid " (p. 21o), by Vermeer, is one of Holland's greatest treasures in the Rijks Museum, valued, next, perhaps, to the priceless " Night Watch." Every-one knows Potter's famous picture, " The Young Bull."
The greatest of Dutch artists, and possibly of all portrait painters, was Rembrandt. Born at Leyden, where his father owned a mill on one of the branches of the Old Rhine, he took the name of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). He was a student at the University, it is said, but painting drew his attention from other study. Too little is known with certainty of his life, except that he was often in poverty, and the last years were particularly hard ones, after he lost Saskia. He passed away without knowing at all that his great masterpiece, the so-called "Night Watch," would one day be appreciated and, become the chief treasure of the famous Rijks Museum. Though its real name is said to be " The Sortie of the Company of Captain Francis Banning Cocq," it is seldom called anything but the " Night Watch."
Rembrandt was equally great as a landscape painter, and his light effects have never been surpassed. " The Mill," his most noted landscape, is now in the Widener collection, Philadelphia. Chiaroscuro was really introduced by Rembrandt. As someone says, Rembrandt seems to have mixed his colors with sun-light.
Yet in his later years poor Rembrandt almost starved. Though the story of the " Night Watch " is somewhat in doubt, tradition says it was ordered as a portrait group, which the patrons refused to accept, when it was finished, because too much of a story was suggested by it, rather than sober portraiture. The picture went a-begging, and just what it was intended to represent even was for-gotten. Some say that it is the city guard going out about 4 o'clock in the after-noon, and that the little girl in the center was introduced to give light to the scene, as she could have no real place in the guard.
" The Syndics," or cloth-merchants, was painted as a guild picture, a portrait group of the city fathers, which perhaps pleased the purchasers better than the Romantic Night Watch." It is considered a very great picture, and is in the Rijks Museum, Amsterdam.
" Rembrandt's art," says Caffin " is the antithesis of Greek art. The Greek is founded upon a hypothesis, upon the assumption of a possible perfection; Rembrandt's upon an acceptance of imperfection." It is, perhaps, this quality which enhances what another critic calls the " illuminated dusk " or " golden shadows " of Rembrandt. The same writer says of him, " Rembrandt is the most solitary figure in art, for, apparently, no sense of superiority or pride of artistry sustained him; yet this isolated figure brings to human emotions the just and all-embracing sympathy of a little child."