Matsys And The Italianisers
EARLY in the sixteenth century the headquarters of Flemish painting shifted from Bruges, where they had been established for over a hundred years, to Antwerp, which was rapidly superseding the old Flemish city as the seaport and commercial centre of the Nether-lands. The same bells that pealed to celebrate the marriage of Charles the Bold's daughter and heiress Mary, the last of the Burgundians, to Maximilian of Austria, tolled the death-knell of Flemish prosperity. During the long struggle waged by the independent cities against Maximilian's incessant exactions, Bruges, unsettled and seething, offered little attraction to foreign merchants, who now began gradually to betake them-selves to the less turbulent markets of Antwerp. More-over, a new disaster was threatening the city in the gradual drying up of the river connecting her with the sea. The once flourishing seaport, the Venice of the North, found herself left high and dry, an inland town, cut off from all direct communication with the sea. True, a canal might have been dug, as the painter Lancelot Blondeel suggested ; but the wars had depleted the coffers and troubles and persecution broken the spirit of Bruges. So the beautiful old city sank .into quiet decay, and swans took possession of the waterways once crowded with merchant vessels. But the ill wind that wrecked Bruges and the cities of Flanders, blew a brilliant though brief prosperity to Antwerp, and soon not only merchants of every language thronged her streets and fairs, and vessels blocked her harbours, but artists, no longer sure of work in Flanders, followed in their train, and established themselves where patronage was certain. If Bruges might boast of her van Eycks, of her Memlincs and Gerard Davids, Antwerp was soon to set against them a Quentin Matsys and a Patinir, not to speak of her later glories, her Rubens, her Van Dyck and her Teniers.
Quentin Matsys or Metsys, the founder of the school of Antwerp, was not indeed a native of the city, but migrated thither from Louvain, and in 1491, three years before Memlinc's death, joined the Guild of S. Luke as a fully qualified painter. His years of apprenticeship were probably spent in his birthplace, the old university city of Louvain, where already Roger van der Weyden had worked, and where his follower, Dirk Bouts, had established himself and his family. It is possible that as a boy Matsys may have worked under Bouts, and certainly he must often have seen that master's pictures in the Church of S. Pierre—the winged altar-piece of the " Last Supper " and the " Martyrdom of S. Erasmus." But whatever he may have learned from Bouts, he certainly left him far behind, for in conception and technique Matsys is no naïve primitive. He has crossed the borderland, and his art is essentially of the sixteenth century in its sense of unity and subordination of detail to general effect. His two great altar-pieces in the Antwerp and Brussels Museums, the " Entombment" and the "Family of the Virgin," show also that the religious fervour of the earlier period was by no means spent. Roger van der Weyden himself could scarcely have invested the " Entombment," one of his favourite subjects indeed, with greater pathos and feeling; but in Matsys's version there is, together with a new breadth of treatment, a dignity and restraint, which announce the opening of a fresh epoch in art.
Quentin Matsys is represented in the National Gallery by two half-length figures of Christ and the Virgin (295), very delicately painted against a dull gold back-ground. Christ, grave and dignified, raises His right hand in benediction. In the left He holds a crystal orb bearing a golden cross. The Virgin's hands are folded in prayer, her head slightly inclined. She has the gentle, almost timid expression, which gives to the Madonnas of Matsys a peculiar charm. How beautiful and refined are the exquisitely-worked border of gold and pearls on the hem of her sky-blue mantle and the fillet of pearls binding her soft auburn hair! If the subject and the gold background of these panels recall an earlier period, the technique is eminently characteristic of Quentin Matsys, in its soft, clear colouring, simple, yet subtle modelling, and absence of hard outline. His Christ is the traditional Flemish type, severe, rigid, and grave—the Christ of Memlinc and of Bouts in his " Last Supper." The Virgin is more distinctly characteristic of Matsys, and was the type followed by his pupils, both Flemish and German. Matsys repeated this same subject in two panels now in the Antwerp Museum, but in these only the heads and shoulders are shown, and the positions are reversed.
There is another picture in our Gallery which so strongly betrays Matsys's manner that, though unsigned, it must surely rank among his works. This is the " Crucifixion " (715) ascribed in the catalogue to Joachim Patinir. Several repetitions exist of this picture, though each version shows some differences. One is in the Liechtenstein Gallery in Vienna, another in Munich. It has been suggested that these compositions are the result of collaboration between Patinir and Matsys, the first painting the landscapes and the latter the figures. This is quite possible, and also in accordance with the custom of the time. We have some evidence of the collaboration of these two painters in another instance, the " Temptation of S. Anthony " in the Prado, of which an old document in the Escurial records that the figures are from the hand of Master Quentin and the landscape by Master Joachim. Certainly in this "Crucifixion" the landscape answers in many respects to Patinir's favourite type, while the figures have little resemblance to those in his " Visitation " and " Flight into Egypt " which hang at the other end of the room. In this picture landscape and figures are brought into a more intimate relation than in the earlier days, when Roger van der Weyden and Memlinc designed their delicious little peeps of clear green meadow and wooded slope to serve as background for their figures. For in this we have figures in a landscape, not merely a landscape background behind the figures, and there is all the difference.
It is a dull, cloudy day, with threatenings of rain, and the distance, though clear, is grey and cold. In the foreground a little group has gathered about the tall cross on which the Saviour hangs. The last act of the sacred drama is about to be enacted, for in the distance Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea are seen approaching, in company with a man carrying a ladder, and the tomb is already prepared behind the cross. The soldiers and sightseers have all departed, the last band of horsemen is disappearing behind the hill, and now only the Holy Women and S. John are left to watch until the end. The Virgin, standing on the left, upright and calm, looks almost reproachfully at Mary Magdalen, who, in vehement abandonment to her sorrow, has flung herself at the foot of the cross, and clasping it with both hands, gazes piercingly upwards at Christ. Behind her, scarcely less restrained, kneels the other Mary, bending forward with tightly-clasped hands, while Salome averts her face with a gesture of, horror-stricken grief. S. John, too, looks beseechingly up at his crucified Master, and only the Virgin maintains the awful quiet of a grief too deep for expression and the calm of a faith still unshaken. The figure of Christ, now rigid in death, is perhaps the least satisfactory. The cool greys, greens and browns of the landscape help to throw up the colours of the draperies—S. John's dull red robe, the Magdalen's white dress, and the warm brown cloak, half falling from her shoulders through the impetuosity of her movement. A bright touch of colour is given by the light cherry-red of the kneeling figure on the right. Altogether this is a beautiful picture, both in colour and sentiment.
We have no example in the National Gallery of Matsys's tender renderings of the Madonna and Child, of which, perhaps, the most beautiful is the one in Berlin, where the mother is kissing her babe, who, kneeling on her lap, throws His little arm about her neck. Nor can we show one of his splendid portraits, which must be sought in the galleries of Munich and Frankfort, and in the Liechtenstein Palace in Vienna.
The portrait of a "Man in Prayer" here (1081) has, however, some affinity with his style. It is evidently the side panel of an altar-piece, and may have been executed by one of the many Antwerp painters who looked up to Matsys as their artistic leader. This face, with its large, well-cut nose, small eyes, and firm mouth and chin, reveals a certain decision of character. The landscape behind, which is after the manner of Patinir, goes climbing up almost to the top of the panel, where a narrow space of sky is disclosed on either side of a rocky hill. Some cottages, a dovecote, and a few figures, enliven the middle distance.
Besides religious painting and portraiture, there is still another branch of art in which Quentin Matsys sought distinction, for indeed he may almost be looked upon as the first of the genre-painters. His pictures of money-changers, bankers, and merchants in their counting-house, formed quite a new departure, and were so successful as to provoke a number of imitators; Here, then, were the beginnings of that genre-painting which, by its direct appeal to the bourgeoisie, became, as it were, the art of the unlettered classes in the Netherlands, and was to find full expression in the works of Brueghel and Teniers in the southern provinces, and of Brouwer, Adrian van Ostade and Jan Steen in Holland.
The most famous of Quentin Matsys's " Bankers" is in the Louvre. It represents a man and his wife seated at a table ; he is counting and weighing money from a pile which lies before him, while she watches him, and at the same time turns over the pages of a richly-illuminated missal. The faces are thoughtful and refined, and the hands most exquisitely drawn, rather small and slender, as befits a well-to-do banker and his delicately-nurtured wife. Matsys has introduced on the table Jan van Eyck's device of the round mirror, which here reflects a man sitting beside a window, through which we see a house and some trees. The picture is painted with the most precise and unerring touch. In general tone it inclines to a clear brown. All the accessories are minutely portrayed—the missal, with its black - letter writing and full - page miniature of the Madonna and Child, its gilded edges and clasp, the coins and scales, the bag of pearls, the beautiful crystal jar, the miscellaneous articles on the shelves behind, the rings, and the details of the costumes, from the buckle at the man's waist-belt to the pin which fastens his wife's starched linen coif. And the absorbed, unconscious expression of the actors forbids our concluding that they were deliberately posing to the artist.
A good many of these "Money-changer" pieces, though ascribed to Quentin Matsys himself, are by his son Jan, a far inferior painter, or by that curious and grotesque artist, Marinus van Romerswael, by whom we have a characteristic panel (944). Judging from the "Usurers" here depicted, it is easy to understand the deep-rooted medieval prejudice against their class. Where, indeed, could we meet with two more repulsive figures than those of this tough, leathery couple, raking in their heap of ill-gotten gains with greedy, claw-like hands ? The guttering tallow candle on the shelf behind them, a favourite motif with this painter, seems of a piece with the sordid atmosphere which somehow pervades the picture. And these fantastic head-dresses, vividly suggesting cocks' combs, contribute to the wizard-like expression of the figures. But for all the unattractive nature of the types, the painter has done his work well and vigorously. The absorbed expression of the old man writing in his ledger is very cleverly rendered. He seems to be following the course of his pen with his mouth, as many people are wont to do when writing. His companion is evidently engaged in some abstruse mental calculation, requiring for its solution great puckering of the brows and distortion of the facial muscles. The colouring, though hard, is very luminous, and the details are carefully rendered, though with none of the exquisite finish and refinement of Matsys or Jan van Eyck. But the artist has not the magic touch which converts dross to gold, and creates from a simple subject of every-day life an idyl of warm, glowing colour to delight the eyes. We may admire his dexterity and appraise his conscientious care, but nevertheless, we gladly pass on to something in which the meaner aspects of life are left in the background, and not paraded before us.
Of Patinir, the artist who has been mentioned as painting landscape backgrounds for Quentin Matsys and perhaps also for Gerard David, little is known, and the whole question of their connection remains cloudy. According to van Mander he was something of a ne'er-do-well, spending half his time in the drinking taverns, though, as in the case of our own George Morland, his peaceful rural scenes belie this sinister imputation. He was born in the valley of the upper Meuse, the cradle of so many Flemish artists, at Dinant, and though he left the hilly country of the Ardennes to settle in Antwerp, he never forgot the impressions of his youth. It was this scenery which inspired his landscapes, with their wide stretches of watered plain and distant mountain peaks. He was living in Antwerp when Albert Dürer, in the course of his journey in the Netherlands, made a short stay in that city. During this visit Patinir celebrated his second marriage, and the great German artist, bidden to the feast, sketched the bride and bridegroom and their guests. One of Dürer's portrait drawings of Patinir is now at Weimar, and shows us a thoughtful young man in a large hat. The most friendly relations seem to have existed between the two painters. Dürer relates how he borrowed from Patinir some colours and an assistant to grind them, in return for which courtesy he handed the Antwerp artist down to posterity in the pages of his Diary as " Joachim, the good landscape painter "—no mean praise from one who was himself a pioneer in landscape art. And indeed Patinir was one of the first artists who painted landscape for its own sake, and not merely or chiefly as a mise-en-scène for figures. The Flemish painters, as we have seen from the days of the miniaturists onwards, always excelled in landscape, but even in the " Adoration of the Lamb," or in Gerard David's "Baptism of Christ" in the Academy at Bruges, the beautiful landscape is second to the figures in importance, and Memlinc's lovely little glimpses of winding river and green meadow are frankly decorative. But in a picture here in the National Gallery (1298), now ascribed to Patinir, we have a landscape scene in which the human interest is limited to the inconspicuous figure of an artist sketching under a tree and some distant labourers quarrying the rock. The painter has set out to depict a river scene, actually without considering it necessary to justify himself by the introduction of S. Christopher (as in 716 below) or the baptism of Christ. The landscape is here an end in itself, quite apart' from any human interest that it may enclose. This is indeed a step gained towards a new and independent branch of painting, and though the highest skill and perception are missing, the intention is right.
To Patinir certainly belongs the honour of having attempted what in his day was a novelty. His landscapes are not always pleasing. He spoils them too often by hard, cold tones, heavy blue distances, and impossible rocks and mountains. In this " River Scene," however, whether or not from his hand, the colour is pleasant and harmonious, the touch lighter and much drier than usual in his works. The broad blue river, flowing smoothly between its high banks, is so still that the white cliffs and the brownish shrubs lie mirrored on its unbroken surface. There is scarcely sufficient stream to carry to their destination the boats and one of those long log-rafts with their serpentine coils, that may be seen to-day on many of the great German rivers. But, as usual, Patinir has been unable to restrain his love for fantastic rocks of impossible geological formation, and for blue, craggy mountains in the far distance. The homely meadow and woodland scenes, that might appeal to his fellow-artists, were by no means to his taste. He wanted something more romantic, a wider outlook, nature wild and untrodden rather than familiar, cultivated and subdued. Hence he devoted himself principally to painting wide vistas of distant mountains or broad expanses of water losing themselves in some far blue country. In his pictures the transition between the brown foreground and the blue distance is sometimes too hard and abrupt, but this may be partly the result of changes in the colours, some of the yellows having a tendency to disappear, thus converting what was originally soft green into hard blue. This picture, with its hazy sky in which fleecy white clouds are floating, gives the sensation of a still, lazy day, when nature seems for a moment to have forgotten to breathe. How pleasant would be a dip in that cool, shady reach below the cliff! This is the only pure landscape of Patinir's time that the Gallery possesses.
The same exaggerated rocks and mountains, the same slender, feathery tree, appear in the " S. Christopher carrying the Infant Christ" (716), but here we have a sacred subject to excuse the landscape. The legend of S. Christopher offered as good a pretext for painting a landscape as did that of S. Sebastian for a representation of the nude figure, in days when artists still looked to the Church as their best patron. But in this instance the painter has evidently cared more for the staging than for the drama it is to enclose. Indeed, looking at the picture as a whole, we must frankly admit that it would gain immeasurably by the suppression of the central figure. It is a calm day, but some ripples caress the surface of the shallow inland sea across which the colossal Christ-bearer wades with his holy burden. The strong tones of his crimson mantle stand out in harsh contrast against the delicate blue background. We realise the imposing size of the saint by comparing him with the bearded hermit on the bank, who has doubtless just climbed down from his chapel on the cliff above. The Christ child, a figure wholly without charm or dignity, looks like some little dwarf perched in a position not devoid of peril. In connection with this picture of S. Christopher, it is interesting to read of Dürer's presenting Patinir with a drawing of the giant saint in several attitudes. Perhaps our artist found these models useful in designing his own pictures, and we may even catch here a faint reflection of the great German master, whose name is as yet unknown in our catalogue.
"S. John on the Island of Patmos" (717) is again a subject picture in which the landscape predominates, but the workmanship is distinctly inferior. Here the background is of a heavy blue, and the rocks are even more fantastic than in the last. The inevitable tree grows on the rock-like island, near the edge of which sits S. John, pen in hand, listening for inspiration, and quite regardless of the weird, fiery-eyed demons who seek to distract his attention. The figure of the saint is far from satisfactory ; it is stiff and shapeless, and the draperies are hard and clumsy. In the sky appears a vision of the Virgin and Child surrounded by an oval glory.
The little picture of "S. Agnes adoring the Infant Christ" (945), considerably darkened by time, still shows a decided preference for wide landscape, even on so small a scale. The cottage and little lakelet beside it are delicately painted with almost Memlinc-like precision, but the treatment of the grass in the foreground is commonplace and perfunctory. The chalky flesh painting, too, leaves much to be desired, and again the Child, who holds a rosary of coral beads, is ugly and unchildlike.
Of more ambitious proportions are the "Visitation" (1082) and its pendant, the "Flight into Egypt" (1084), where the figures are at least as important as the landscape in which they move. For his own part, Patinir probably preferred to paint landscape pure and simple, but like most artists he was forced to comply with the public demand, and as yet the cry was all for the traditional Biblical subjects. No doubt many a patron, after ordering a "Repose" or a " S. Jerome," would have been far from satisfied had the artist presented him with a landscape in which these favourite and well - worn subjects figured as mere accessories. The time was not yet ripe for the landscape painter, and another century must elapse before he should come fully into his own. We hardly realise how modern a phase is the enthusiasm for natural scenery, which has given birth, even within the last hundred years, to a totally new conception of landscape art. These subject pictures are rather heavy, and the figures seem much encumbered by the very ample draperies which fall in fretted folds about their feet ; while the flesh painting is hot and unpleasant. In the "Visitation," the two women have met at a little distance from an imposing building, approached through a ruined archway. S. Elizabeth, in a long, light crimson robe, has just met Mary and fallen on her knees before her. Across the broken country behind them, the eye is led to a distant town lying on a river, a reminiscence, perhaps, of the painter's own country of the Meuse. In the middle distance two tiny figures of what appear to be white-robed monks are seen running at the top of their speed along a road. The same valley is used in the "Flight into Egypt," but here are lofty mountains, and the town on the river bank is more scattered. The Virgin, seated on a meek-faced donkey, suckles her Child, while S. Joseph plods in front, leading the animal by a cord. He is well laden with a bundle, which he carries on a stick, and a knife and gourd hang at his side. At the Virgin's approach the idolatrous image of some pagan divinity hurls itself in shattered fragments from its column. In the background soldiers are seen butchering the infants of Bethlehem, much to the disturbance of a peaceful labourer cutting impossible corn with a scythe in a neighbouring field.
The little panel of the "Virgin and Child and S. Elizabeth" (1089) close by, seated beside some trees, is by an unknown painter of this period. It is a feeble, though not unpleasant production of little importance, and contains agreeable passages in the Iandscape back-ground.
Closely connected with Patinir is the painter Henri Bles, about whom still less is known. He, too, hailed from the Meuse country, having been born at Bouvignes, a town facing Dinant on the opposite bank of the river; but where he studied, or when he left his home, is a mystery. His nickname Bles, a Flemish term for a shock or bunch of white hair on his forehead, indicates that he must have spent some time in Flanders. We know, too, that his travels carried him to Italy, where the friendly Italians dubbed him " Civetta," or the Master of the Little Owl, from his habit of introducing this bird into his pictures as a form of signature. And indeed he appears to have been much appreciated in Italy, and kept so fully employed that he had little time to ape Italian painting, as did many of his con-temporaries. Bles was so various a painter, that at-tempts have often been made to distribute the works ascribed to him among several artists—spectral Bleses created for the purpose. But be he individual or generic term, he had a great range of subject, and turned from landscape to figure and religious scenes with unvarying alacrity. His only signed picture is an " Adoration of the Magi " in Munich, a subject he repeated several times. The pictures ascribed to him in the National Gallery are by no means brilliant specimens, even of his mediocre talent. The " Crucifixion" (718), with its restless, cold and disagreeable colouring, especially in the metallic green landscape, and its unattractive types, is indeed more probably by an imitator. Here is the favourite motif of Mary Magdalen clasping the cross, which in this case is very high, dominating the picture. Three angels hover around it with chalices, in which to catch the blood flowing from the sacred wounds. The centurion, who has just pierced the Saviour's side, stands on the right, talking gravely to a Roman soldier leaning on his shield.
The other picture allotted to Bles is the " Magdalen " (710), again rather hard, but with a certain not unpleasing quaintness. Like the " Magdalen " on the other side of the room (654), which some, as we have seen, ascribe to Jacques Daret, this is merely a fictitious character, assumed for the occasion by some lady of beauty or condition. The braided hair, the elaborate costume and golden chains, carry out the rôle of the courtesan, but the ointment jar, from which she removes the lid with something of a flourish, and the illuminated missal, denote the penitent. The space around the head, framed in by the arched window, is cleverly varied with a peep of rock and sea.
It was in the early years of the sixteenth century that Flemish art, which had already lost its early fervour and robustness, fell under a new influence. For now northern painters, attracted by the rumour of Italian achievement, began to look to the south for inspiration. The names of Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were doubtless freely bandied about in Flemish studios, and to earn the title of the Flemish Raphael or the Michelangelo of the North came to be the ambition of many a worthy painter who, had he stayed at home and imbibed the excellent art traditions of his own country, might have proved himself a worthy fore-runner of Rubens. Roger van der Weyden indeed, as we have seen, had been initiated into the mysteries of Italian painting without swerving a hair's-breadth from his own purely northern style. But, after all, in his day Italian art was yet in its infancy, and the fundamental differences which separated the mature schools of Florence and Rome from those of the Netherlands, were scarcely so pronounced. Michelangelo himself, in one of his famous Dialogues with the Portuguese miniature painter, Francisco d'Ollanda, summed up the characteristics peculiar to northern painting from the extreme point of view of an Italian of the High Renaissance, nourished in idealism and the traditions of classical art. " They paint in Flanders," he said, " only to deceive the external eye, things that gladden you and of which you cannot speak ill, and saints and prophets. Their painting is of stuffs, bricks and mortar, the grass of the fields, the shadows of trees, and bridges and rivers, which they call landscapes, and little figures here and there ; and all this, although it may appear good to some eyes, is in truth done without reasonableness or art, without symmetry or proportion, without care in selecting or rejecting, and finally without any substance or verve ; and, in spite of all this, painting in some other parts is worse than it is in Flanders. Neither do I speak so badly of Flemish painting because it is all bad, but because it tries to do so many things at once, each of which alone would suffice for a great work, so that it does not do anything really well."
However narrow and one-sided such criticism may appear to us, it was but an expression of the fundamental antagonism between the art that aims at ideal grandeur through classical simplicity and the more homely Gothic art with its insistence on truth, however rugged, and its love of elaboration. It was a fatal contrariness that moved these men of the north, with their tendency towards a sober, almost prosaic realism, and their instinct for colour, to seek to express them-selves in the terms of a southern and Latin art, soaked in classical traditions. This they might admire but could never assimilate. For the most part they re-turned to their own country stammering, as it were, in a foreign tongue, their native language half forgotten. For, as Michelangelo justly proceeds, " No nation or people can perfectly satisfy or imitate the Italian manner of painting, which is the old Greek manner, without his being immediately recognised as a foreigner, whatever efforts he may make, and however hard he may work to do so." The story of the Flemish Italianisers does but exemplify this truth. Italy be-came indeed the grave of too many a promising talent.
One of the first artists over whom she thus cast her fatal spell was Jean Gossaert, generally known as Mabuse from the name of his birthplace, Mauberge in Hainault. Mabuse is well represented on his best side in the National Gallery by some fine portraits. We know nothing of his early history until, in 1503, he matriculated in the guild at Antwerp, and here, of course, he came into personal contact with Quentin Matsys, and no doubt also with Gerard David. Their influence predominates in his works of this period, notably in the celebrated " Adoration of the Magi " be-longing to the Earl of Carlisle, the most important early picture by Mabuse in England. But as chance befell, after a few years spent in this stronghold of Netherlandish art, he set off in the train of Philip the Bastard of Burgundy to Italy, and when he returned to his own country it was with an equipment of ill - assorted Milanese traditions and methods which he endeavoured to graft upon the native stock. And yet, for all his Italianising, Mabuse remained a Fleming in spirit, faithful in his types and in the style of his draperies to the teaching of his youth, and only betraying by a display of pretentious architecture in his backgrounds, and a cold grey blight which seems to wither the warm Flemish colouring, the foreign ideas he had so ill assimilated. The picture of "S. Luke painting the Virgin " in the gallery at Prague illustrates the curiously eclectic nature of his art. The figures are characteristically Flemish, and the draperies hang in those voluminous angular folds common to Flemish and German art from van Eyck to Dürer. But behind these the eye is repelled by a marvellous erection of architecture, classical in style and detail, yet so cold and hard in colouring that it seems as though cut out of cardboard. We miss the charming landscape settings. of the older masters, and all this pompous but empty elaboration is but chill compensation for their straight-forward, earnest simplicity. In his treatment of the nude, too, a branch of art quite foreign to the northern spirit, Mabuse seems no less ill at ease. His almost life-sized figures of Adam and Eve at Hampton Court, though wonderfully precise and conscientious in execution, fail in all the majesty and grace of their Florentine prototypes or of Dürer's poetic rendering in the Prado, and just miss the sincerity and grandeur which redeem the uncouth realism of the Adam and Eve in the Ghent altar-piece. In portraiture, however, Mabuse wears worthily the mantle of his predecessors. However far astray imitation of the Italians might carry these northern painters in their altar-pieces and more pretentious works, in their portraits they generally remained true to their early training and the sound tradition of their school. Probably the worthy Flemish burghers who employed them had no mind to figure to posterity in other than their own characters, and all embellishments were relegated to historical and religious subjects. Thus, during this transition period, Flemish painting, sold to slavery in other directions, bore itself proudly in portraiture, and the names of Mabuse, Pourbus and Sir Antonio More enliven a somewhat dreary tale.
The fine portrait in the National Gallery of a " Man with a Rosary" (656) ranks among Mabuse's best works, such as his Carondelet " in the Louvre. The colour, brown in tone, is deep and luminous, the light and shade cool and forcible. The young man's rather strained expression suggests a lively consciousness of the immortalising process to which he has subjected himself. Perhaps the rosary of red beads in his right hand and the fact that he is standing in a church may be held as testimony to his devoutness. This back-ground of classical architecture, with its severely simple marble panels and entablature, accords well with the dignified treatment of the subject. Mabuse has indulged in no architectural flourishes, no Italian fantasies on a Flemish theme, but contents himself with a sober presentment of a plain, sensible burgher, a gentleman withal, by his delicate hands and refined mien. The hands, indeed, are painted with a subtle attention to form that would not disgrace a Holbein. Another " Portrait," considerably smaller, of a man holding his gloves (946), belonged once to the collection brought together by Charles I., and lamentably dispersed after his death. This portrait too shows a strong feeling for chiaroscuro, and this time the painter has set his model against a simple black background, which is the more telling in contrast to the elaborate dress of brown cloth and velvet with rich sable trimming. The hands again are finely painted, and full of character. It is not altogether an agreeable face. Something of cold suspicion seems to lurk in the large eyes, marring their beauty. These too have been painted with the greatest skill.
The forcible portrait of a "Man and his Wife" (1689), now ascribed to Mabuse, is a somewhat recent addition to the National Gallery. It passed formerly as a work of Quentin Matsys, but the colour is too deep, the modelling too strong for Matsys, even in his later period. If Mabuse painted this after his visit to Italy, the fact remains unbetrayed by any touch of mannerism or affected suavity. This grim old man and his sour-faced wife are as rugged and characterful as any Pala or Rollin of Jan van Eyck. And though the execution has advanced still further in the direction of breadth and subordination, Jan himself could not have painted the man's fur collar with more of delicacy and minuteness, or have touched the texture of his olive skin and sinewy throat with a finer pencil. It is indeed a striking couple. His well-nigh complete tale of years seems to have robbed the old man of none of that pugnacious tenacity of purpose which more properly belongs to fiery youth. His wife, too, approaches old age apparently unmindful of its sweetness. Both faces are worn and weary, and bear witness to a life of toil and perhaps disappointment. The warm tone of the picture and the strong dark-green background are not altogether in the manner of Mabuse, and make it difficult to accept this picture as from his hand. It is certainly softer and more genial in colouring than the two portraits just mentioned, which reveal a clever draughtsman and accomplished painter but a cold colourist. The old tradition of Mabuse's visit to England, founded on a false interpretation of his picture at Hampton Court of three children, has now been abandoned. These are not, as was supposed, the children of Henry VII., but the elder, sons and daughter of Christian II. of Denmark, father, too, of that Christina whose portrait by Holbein hangs in the National Gallery (Room IV.). There is therefore no justification for enrolling Mabuse among the foreign artists, Holbein, More and Van Dyck, who worked in England at the courts of the Tudor and Stuart sovereigns.
By Mabuse's accomplished but uninteresting pupil, Lambert Lombard, we find a " Dead Christ" or " Pietà " (266). Lambert, too, was smitten with the craze for travelling, and after spending some years in Italy, returned to his native Liège, where he tried to implant in the numerous pupils who gathered about him an exotic Italian style. He was a great antiquarian, an architect of some renown, and in general a man of learning and erudition, but as a painter dry as dust. Foreign plagiarism is strongly marked in this "Pietà," of which the composition, like the artist's surname, is borrowed directly from Lombardy. In the North Italian Room (IX.) in the National Gallery we find a strikingly similar picture by some unknown Lombard painter (219), where the dead Christ is supported by two angels. This composition indeed became traditional in northern Italy. We may recall Giovanni Bellini's pathetic versions in Milan, Rimini and Berlin, and, as we shall see, German painters borrowed it also. Unlike Mabuse, whose men and women always betray the Flemish type, Lombard has caught in his faces some-thing of Italian suavity and grace, but has reduced them to a sickly sweetness. The Virgin's expression is almost stupid, and S. John's amiable, weak features lack every masculine quality. The colouring is far from agreeable with its hot background of reddish sky, and altogether it is more than a pity that Lombard, who was undoubtedly gifted, should have sought to emulate the Italians on their own territory.
Another Italianiser, Bernard van Orley, to whom a little " Reading Magdalen " (655) is very doubtfully ascribed, actually studied under Raphael himself, and was entrusted with the superintendence of the celebrated tapestries woven at Brussels from Raphael's cartoons. Orley, who belonged to a large family in Brussels, was himself a designer of tapestry, and in the Great Hall at Hampton Court hang eight pieces from his loom, representing the History of Abraham. Faded and tarnished though they be, they take rank with the first tapestries in Europe.
As a religious painter, van Orley achieved the mediocrity so laboriously striven after by the Flemish Italianisers, and his affected attitudes, fluttering draperies and elaborate backgrounds are well calculated to chill the spectator. Only in his portraits does he retain the charm of simplicity and directness. The little " Magdalen" here is an insignificant work with faint reminiscences of Gerard David. The bright red lips and small chin are quite in his style, and the pose recalls the Master of the Half Figures who, as we have seen, was related in some way to David's school. The flesh tones here are unnaturally pink. There is a re-petition of this little picture in the Dublin Gallery.
It was during Dürer's tour in the Netherlands in 1521 that he visited Brussels, and painted the delightful portrait of van Orley which is now in the Dresden Gallery. It shows us a young man of considerable personal attractions, in a large black hat, holding in his hand a letter addressed to himself. Perhaps this courtesy was a graceful acknowledgment of the splendid entertainment provided by his host, which, as Dürer naïvely remarks, could not have cost less than ten florins. Van Orley had by this time returned from his wanderings and settled in Brussels, where to this day his most important pictures are to be seen, fore-most among them the large Michelangelesque triptych representing the " Trials of Job," painted for his patroness, Margaret of Austria.
Though by the sixteenth century the artistic pre-eminence of Bruges had declined with the loss of her trade, the good old traditions of the school were by no means extinguished, and side by side with the better known artists of Antwerp, there flourished in the old city Lancelot Blondeel, the designer of the fine chimney-piece in the Council Hall, and the families of Pourbus and Claeis, all painters of more or less distinction. The National Gallery has nothing to show of this later Bruges art, but in Hertford House we find a curious and singularly attractive picture by Pieter Pourbus, called an " Allegorical Love Feast" (III., 531). Here, gathered about a circular marble table set in the midst of an open landscape, we come upon a party of gaily-dressed ladies and their swains, feasting and discoursing of love. It seems that the Graces are vying with the Domestic Virtues for the affections of the Cavaliers Adonis, Daphnis and Sapiens. The painter, in order to avoid any mistake as to his meaning, has naïvely inscribed the names of the dramatis personae on the hem of their garments. The clear, warm tones of this spirited idyl anticipate the vigorous, transparent colouring of old Peter Brueghel, and indeed it is in such pictures that the transition from the primitives to Rubens most aptly reveals itself. The works of Pieter Pourbus must still be sought in the churches of Bruges, and several of his severe, shrewdly-characterised portraits hang in the Vienna Gallery. Hertford House exhibits also a sober male portrait by the son, Frans Pourbus (XVI., 26), a fair example of the reticent, somewhat frigid style of the sixteenth century.
Undoubtedly, however, the best portrait painter of this transition period was Anthonis Mor, or as he is generally called in England, Sir Antonio More. More was a pupil of the Dutch Jan Scorel, who in his turn had sat at the feet of Mabuse. But he spent his Wanderjahre in Italy, where he cultivated an affected and disagreeable style of religious painting. Fortunately, however, he devoted himself chiefly to portraiture, and while his historical essays meet with the neglect they richly deserve, his best portraits might join company not unworthily with those of Holbein and Titian. The " Portrait of a Man " (1231) in the National Gallery is an example of his robust treatment and firm, decisive modelling. The sidelong glance and reddish flesh tints are quite characteristic of More. It is obvious in his portraits that he succeeded in giving a shrewd, if not always sympathetic estimate of his sitter. His work is never without a certain painter-like quality, and a quiet dignity and force. Another male " Portrait " (1094) in the same room, ascribed to More—if indeed by him—is in that tighter manner which he afterwards succeeded in casting off. But finer than either of these is his " Portrait of Sir Thomas Gresham " in the National Portrait Gallery, an excellent example of his grave, dignified art. More's services to his royal patrons, the Emperor Charles V. and Philip II. of Spain, introduced him to various foreign courts, and to such an illustrious employer as our Queen Mary of England. It was indeed his delicate mission to present this forbidding lady in the most glowing colours his truthful, unflattering brush could command to the cold inspection of her prospective Spanish bridegroom. During More's sojourn in England, where not so long before his day Holbein had set a standard of portraiture which no native successor had approached, he was in great re-quest as a portrait painter.
It is in Madrid that More is still seen at his best, for here he lived for a spell, enjoying the fickle favour of Philip II. until, as it seems, some presumption on his part, or, as others would have it, the unwelcome attentions of the dreaded Inquisition, hastened his return to the Netherlands. In spite of a renewed invitation to Spain he remained in his native country until his death, which took place just about the time that Rubens was born.
A third picture in the National Gallery, which used to be fathered upon More, has now been recognised as the work of a Netherlandish artist who made his home in Germany, at Nuremberg. Lucidel or Neufchatel, the name by which he was known in his pupil days at Antwerp, is the author of the " Portrait of a Young German Lady " (184) which, not altogether fitly, hangs with the German pictures in Room XV. Neufchatel seems to have painted only portraits, and of these but a handful can be counted, Munich possessing four. But he gave in to the Italian fashion so far as to sign himself Novo-Castello, a harmless if childish folly. The young girl portrayed here is dressed in the elaborate German costume of the day, with dull crimson dress of watered silk, velvet bodice and stomacher, fur cuffs, and rich embroidery across the breast. She wears, too, all her stateliest jewellery, massive golden chain, heavy rings, and fillet of gold about her head. But her quiet, re-tiring expression scarcely accords with this bravery, and she seems oppressed and rather stolid. The pose, with the hands folded across the front, exactly corresponds with that of Neufchatel's portrait of a woman in Munich, very similar to this in treatment. Our picture has been cruelly smothered with a thick, dark varnish which has completely dulled the gold and spoiled the flesh painting. It is much cracked and blistered, especially over the heavy background.
Another Flemish painter who, like Neufchatel, expatriated himself and settled in a foreign country, was Pedro Campana, a native of Brussels. After wanderings in Italy he came to anchor in Spain, and set up at Seville as a painter of altar-pieces. Though most of his works adorn the cathedral and churches of that city, one small picture, " Mary Magdalen led by Martha to hear the Preaching of Christ " (1241), has found its way to the National Gallery. It appears to have been painted in Venice, and indeed Venetian influence is clearly to be recognised in the types and bending attitudes of the women, which recall Tintoretto and Veronese. Two crouching figures on the left are strongly reminiscent also of Raphael. But the types on the whole are uninteresting and uninspired, and Christ, the principal figure, is absolutely insignificant. There is nothing, indeed, of Venetian harmony in the rather spotty colouring of this picture, where a bright cherry-red wars with a crude blue.
A small "Portrait of a Man " (1042) in Room IV. represents yet another Flemish painter who, like More and Campana, sought pastures new in Spain. Its author, Catherina van Hemessen, is one of the few women who have achieved distinction in art. Daughter of an unimportant Antwerp artist, and married to an organist, she was fortunate in finding favour with Mary, the Spanish governess of the Netherlands, who took her and her husband to Spain. This grave little portrait is signed in full and dated 1552. It was, therefore, painted before the artist's departure from Antwerp. We find a softness and delicacy in the treatment which go far to mitigate the stiff pose and the harsh lines of the doublet. This black doublet, with its elaborate, jewelled buttons, is slashed over a white satin shirt.
The costume, indeed, is very interesting, and the exquisite little red ruffs at collar and wrists are charmingly painted.
Of Peter Brueghel, the head of a large family of painters, and the greatest and most original genius of this century in Flanders, unfortunately we possess no example. " Peasant " Brueghel, as he came to be called from the subjects he depicted, would be one of the most popular of later Flemish painters were his works less rare. But nowhere outside of Vienna is it possible to form a just conception of this spirited, humorous artist, the inventor of that class of genre-painting which devoted itself to scenes of peasant life. His "Village Fair " and " Peasant's Wedding " in Vienna glow with warm colour and ring with merriment. We can well imagine the painter himself joining, as he is reported to have done, in the mirth and somewhat coarse fun, which he feels no scruple in recalling. His landscapes, again, are singularly beautiful, with an almost modern feeling for nature. The Brussels Museum has recently acquired a splendid " Taxing of the People at Bethlehem" set in a chilly, winter landscape. This was exhibited at Bruges in 1902, together with the amusing " Pays de Cocagne," a kind of greedy boy's dream of a paradise where cooked dainties grow on the trees and even the walls and roofs of the houses are garnished with red and yellow cheeses. Peter Brueghel the younger, known as " Hell " Brueghel, for he delighted in grotesque representations of the nether regions, was far inferior to his father as an artist. His younger brother, Jan or " Velvet " Brueghel, however, achieved no inconsiderable fame as a painter of small, delicate landscapes, and in several instances, notably in his masterpiece, " The Garden of Eden " at the Hague, collaborated with Rubens himself.
We may, perhaps, detect his hand in the little picture of " Pan and Syrinx" (659) in the German room (XV.), in which the figures are by Rottenhammer, a German Italianiser, with whom Jan Brueghel is known to have collaborated during the years he spent in Italy. This landscape, with its soft blue sky, its peep of pearly distance, and its exquisitely delicate foreground of flowers and rushes, is finely rendered in his characteristic manner. The yellow irises and water-lilies are touched in with a miniature-like fineness. Notice too the frog, startled by the sudden invasion of his quiet, swimming, with legs stretched out behind him, across the pond.
( Originally Published 1904 )
German and Flemish Masters:
The German And Flemish Masters In The National Gallery
The Van Eycks
The School Of Roger Van Der Weyden
Gerard David And His Followers
The German Painters Of The Fifteenth Century
Matsys And The Italianisers
The German Painters Of The Renaissance
Van Dyck And The Painters Of Antwerp