Two travelers, one a poet and the other au engineer, were going together for the first time, from Haarlem to Amsterdam, when an unusual thing happened; the engineer felt himself something of a poet, and the poet experienced a desire to be in the engineer’s shoes. Such is this strange country, where the writer, to rouse his imagination, and excite enthusiasm, has only to enumerate kilometers, cubic meters of water, and years of labor ; whence a poem upon Holland would be a poor affair without an appendix full of numbers, and a complete relation from an engineer would need only verse and rhyme to make it a splendid poem.
Immediately upon leaving Haarlem, the train passes over a handsome iron bridge of six arches which spans the Spaarne; which bridge, after the passage of the train, parts in the middle as if by enchantment, and leaves the way open to vessels. Two men only moving a machine at a signal from the bridge-keeper remove in two minutes two arches, and in the same time replace them for the passage of another train. A short time after having crossed the bridge the waters of the Y became visible upon the horizon.
Here one feels more than ever a certain sentiment of anxiety which often disturbs those who travel for the first time in Holland. The road runs along a strip of land which separates the bottom of the antique lake of Haarlem from the waters of the Y, a prolongation, called thus from its form, of the gulf of Zuyder Zee, which projects into the land between Amsterdam and North Holland, as far as the downs of the North Sea. In order to, construct this railway, which was opened in 1839, before the draining of Haarlem lake, it was necessary to pile fascine upon fascine, to add pile to pile, stone to stone, sand to sand; to make, in a word, the land upon which the road was to pass, a sort of artificial isthmus across the marshes ; and it was a most difficult and costly work, which demands perpetual care and continual expenditure. This tongue of land grows more and more slender until it reaches Halfweg, which is the only station between Haarlem and Amsterdam. Here the waters of the Y, and the bottom of the drained lake are divided by colossal sluice-gates, to which the existence of the greater part of South Holland is confided. If these sluices were to open, the city of Amsterdam, hundreds of villages, the ancient lake, an extent of country comprising fifty kilo-metres would be invaded and devastated by the waters.
The draining of the lake has diminished the danger, but has not entirely removed it; and therefore, at Halfweg there is established a special agency of the so-called water administration, which keeps guard over this Dutch Thermopylae, with its eye on the enemy, and its hand on the sword.
Passing the station at Halfweg, you see on the left, beyond the gulf of the Y, a confused movement as of thousands of masts of vessels beaten by the tempest, and rising and falling with the waves of the sea; they are the arms of about a hundred windmills half hidden by the dykes, which extend along the coast of North Holland, in the neighbourhood of the town of Zandam, opposite to Amsterdam. Shortly after these, Amsterdam appears. At the first aspect of the city, even after having seen all the other parts of Holland, you cannot restrain a gesture of astonishment. It is a forest of lofty windmills in the form of towers, steeples, pyramids, light-houses, truncated cones, and aerial houses, waving their enormous arms, and whirling above the roofs and domes like a cloud of monstrous birds beating their wings over the city. In the midst of these mills rise innumerable factory-chimneys, masts of ships, fantastic steeples, tops of strange-looking edifices, pinnacles, and points, and unknown objects; far off are seen more windmills, thick and intricate, looking like a great net suspended in the air; the entire city is black, the sky dark and troubled : a grand, confused, and strange spectacle, causing your entrance into Amster-dam to be effected with the accompaniment of a vivid curiosity.
The first impression produced by the sight of some of its streets is difficult to describe. It seems an immense and disorderly cityVenice, grown large and ugly; a Dutch city, certainly, but seen through a lens which makes it seem’ three times larger, the capital of an imaginary Holland of fifty millions of inhabitants; an antique metropolis, founded by giants upon the delta of a measureless river, to serve as a port for ten thousand ships, majestic, stern, almost gloomy, and exciting a feeling of astonishment, in which one finds cause for reflection.
The city, posted upon the shore of the Y, is built upon ninety islands, almost all of rectangular form, which are joined together by about three hundred and fifty bridges. Its figure is that of a perfect semicircle with canals in the form of concentric arches extending to the one which closes the city, and crossed by other canals converging to a centre like the threads of a spiders web. A broad water-course called the Amstel (which, with the word dam, or dyke, forms the name Amsterdam) divides the city into two almost equal parts, and empties itself into the Y. Almost all the houses are built upon piles, and it is said that if Amsterdam should be turned bottom upwards, it would present the spectacle of a great forest of trees, without branches or leaves; almost all the canals ale bordered by two wide streets and two rows of linden-trees.
This regularity of form, by which the eye can range on every side, gives to the city a grandiose aspect. At every turn of a street you see in a new direction three, four, or even six drawbridges, some rising, some falling, some closed, and some in motion, presenting a confused perspective of beams and chains, as if Amsterdam were composed of so many enemies’ quarters, all fortified against each other.
Canals, as broad as rivers, form here and there spacious basins, around which you can go, by a succession of bridges joined one to the other. From every crossing can be seen distant perspectives of other bridges, canals, shipping, edifices, all veiled in a light mist which makes them look more distant.
The houses, almost all very high, in comparison to those of other Dutch cities, black, with doors and windows bordered with white, with pointed façades decorated with bas-reliefs representing urns, flowers, and animals, are almost all defended in front by columns, balustrades, posts and chains, or iron bars, and divided from each other by low walls and partitions ; and within this species of advanced fortress, which encumbers a large part of the street, there are tables, benches with vases of flowers, chairs, buckets, wheelbarrows, baskets, and carcasses of old furniture; so that to look down a street, from one end of it to the other, it appears as if the inhabitants had carried out their household goods preparatory to a general remove. Many houses have a floor below the street, which is approached by a short flight of steps; and in the area between the street and the wall there are more pots of flowers, merchandise exposed for sale, people at worka world warming under the feet of the passenger.
The principal streets present a spectacle unique in the world. The canals are covered with ships and barges ; and in the streets that flank them are seen on one side heaps of casks, cases, bales and sacks ; on the other a row of splendid shops. Here, a crowd of people, well-dressed ladies, maid-servants, pedlars, and shopmen; there, the rough and vagabond race of sailors and boat-men with their wives and children. To the right is heard the vivacious chatter of the citizens; to the left the long, shrill cry of the sea-going people. On one side the nostrils are saluted by the perfume of the flowers which adorn the windows, and the odour of cook-shops ; on the other by the smell of tar and the fumes of the humble kitchen of the sailing vessels. Here a drawbridge rises to give passage to a ship ; there, the people swarm upon one which has but just fallen into its place again; further on, a raft ferries over a group of persons from the other side of the canal ; from the bottom of the street a steam-boat is just setting off; at the opposite extremity a long file of laden barges are just coming in; here opens a sluice-gate; there glides a trekschuit; not far off whirls a windmill; and down there they are planting piles for a new house. The rattle of chains from the bridges mingles with the roll of carts ; the whistle of steamers breaks into the chimes from the steeples; the cordage of the ships tangles itself among the branches of the trees ; carriages pass side by side with boats ; shops are reflected in the water, sails are reflected in shop windows; sea-life and land-life are intermingled, cross, and pass each other continually, and the result is new, and gay beyond description.
If you leave the principal streets and strike into the older quarters of the town, the scene changes completely. The narrowest streets of Toledo, the darkest lanes of Genoa, the craziest houses in Rotterdam are nothing in comparison with the narrowness, the darkness, and the craziness of architecture that confront you here. The streets, seem like cracks opened by an earthquake. The houses, tall and black, half hidden by the rags that are hung from every window, bend and lean in a frightful way. Some appear on the point of falling forward into the street others almost touch each other with their roofs, leaving only a slim strip of sky visible; they look like scenes in a theatre in the act of being changed. Have they been built in this way on purpose, in order to let the water run off, or has the ground sunk beneath them? Both suppositions are probably correct. And even in those labyrinths, swarming with depressed and pallid creatures to whom a ray of sunlight comes as a benediction from heaven, there are pots of flowers, and little mirrors and curtains in the windows, revealing a poverty not unaccompanied by a love of home and family.
The most picturesque part of the city is that comprised in the curve of the Amstel around the square of the new market. There are to be seen dark streets crossed by deserted canals; solitary squares, surrounded by walls dripping with water; mouldy old tumble-down houses, bathed by stagnant filthy water; vast warehouses with all their doors and windows closed; boats and barges abandoned in canals without issue, which look. as if they were waiting for sorcerers or conspirators; heaps of building material, basins covered with weeds and muddy scum, walls, water, bridges, all black and dismal, and alarming the chance passenger with dread of some lurking danger or misadventure.
Who loves contrast has only to betake himself to that part of the city where lies the square called the Dam, where all the principal streets converge, and where he will find the Royal Palace, the Exchange, the New Church, and the monument called the Metal Cross, raised in commemoration of the war of 1830. There is a continual moving crowd of people on foot and in carriages, reminding one of Trafalgar Square in London, the Porta del Sol of Madrid, and the Place de la Madeleine in Paris. Standing there for an hour, you can enjoy the most varied spectacle that is to be found in Holland. There pass the rosy faces of the patrician merchants, bronzed visages from the colonies, foreigners of all shades of blonde, guides, organ-grinders, announcers of death with long black veils, maid-servants in their white caps, the many-colored waistcoats of the fishermen of the Zuyder Zee, the great ear-rings of the women of North Holland, the silver diadem of Friesland, the gilded helmet of Groningen, the yellow shirt of the workman in the torbière, the petticoat, half black, half red, of the orphan from the asylum, the odd costume of the inhabitant of the islands, outrageous chignons, and impossible hats ; broad shoulders, broad hips, great bellies, and the whole procession surrounded by the smoke of cigars and pipes, and accompanied by the sounds ,of German, Dutch, English, French, Flemish, and Danish words, until the spectator almost believes himself in the valley of Jehoshaphat or at the foot of the Tower of Babel.
From the piazza of the Dam you, in a few minutes, arrive at the port, which also offers a fine and strange spectacle. At first you cannot comprehend it. On every side you see dykes, bridges, locks, palisades, and basins, presenting the aspect of an immense fortress, so constructed as to baffle the curiosity of anyone who might seek to discover its form ; and this, indeed, can only be done by help of a map, and after several hours’ walk. From the centre of the city, at a distance of a thousand metres from each other, two great dykes on arches start in opposite directions, and embrace and defend from ties sea the two extremities of Amsterdam which extend beyond the semicircle of her houses like the two horns of a half-moon. These two dykes, which have each a lock furnished with gigantic gates, close in two basins or harbors capable of containing a thousand ships of large tonnage, and several islets upon which are storehouses, arsenals, and workshops, where thousands of workmen are employed. From the two great dykes advance several smaller dykes, made of robust piles, and serving as landing-places for the steamboats. On all these dykes there are houses, sheds, barracks, among which swarms a throng of sailors, passengers, porters, women, boys, carriages, and carts, brought there by the arrivals and departures which go on from dawn until night. From the two extremities of these dykes the eye embraces the interior of the harbour ; two forests of ships with flags of every color lying in the two basins; vessels arriving from the North Sea and entering the Zuyder Zee with folded canvas; boats and barks crossing and recrossing each other from all sides of the gulf; the green coast of North Holland; the hundred windmills of Zandam ; the long file of the first houses of Amsterdam, with their thousand-peaked black roofs cut against the sky; the innumerable columns of sooty smoke rising from the city against the grey horizon; and, when the clouds are in motion, and constant, rapid, marvellous variation of color and aspect, which makes Holland some-times the gayest, sometimes the gloomiest, country in the world.
Returning into the city and observing more particularly the buildings, the first to attract attention are the steeples. In Amsterdam there are temples for all religions Jewish synagogues, churches for Reformed Calvinists, churches for Lutherans where the Augsburg Confession is strictly observed, and churches for Lutherans where the same is more broadly interpreted, churches for Remonstrants, for Mennonites, for Walloons, for English Episcopalians, for English Presbyterians, for Catholics, for Greek schismatics; and every one of these temples lifts to heaven a steeple that seems made to distance all the others in originality and oddity. What Victor Hugo says of the Flemish architectswho build steeples by putting an inverted salad-bowl upon a judges’ cap, a sugar-bowl upon the salad-bowl, a bottle upon the sugar-bowl, and an ostensorio (or golden stand from which the Host is shown) upon the top of thatmight be said of almost all the Amsterdam steeples.
Among the historical edifices, which are not numerous, there is the Royal Palace, the first of the palaces of Holland, built in 1648-55, upon thirteen thousand six hundred and fifty-nine pilesgrandiose, heavy, and blackof which the finest ornament is a ball-room said to be the largest in Europe; and the greatest defect that of having no great entrance-door, from which it is generally called the house without a door.
The Exchange, on the contrary, which stands facing the palace, and has a porch sustained by seventeen columns, is known as the door without a house ; a joke which every Dutchman makes a point of repeating to strangers, with the slightest possible smile curling his lip. Whoever arrives in Amsterdam in the first week of the Kermesse, which is the Dutch carnival, may behold a curious spectacle within this building. For seven days, at the hours when no business is done, the Exchange is open to all the boys and girls of the city, who rush into it with a deafening noise of drums and whistles and cries; a license which, if the tradition be true, was conceded by the municipality in honor of some boys, who, in the time of the war for independence, playing near the ancient Exchange, discovered some Spaniards who were preparing to blow up the building by means of a boat. laden with powder, and ran to warn the citizens, thus bringing to nought the enemy’s plan. Besides the Royal Palace and the Exchange, there is the Palace of Industry, made of glass and iron, and surmounted by a light dome, which gives it, at a distance when the sun strikes upon it, the look of a mosque; and as an historical monument, there are the ancient towers which stand on the shores of the harbour.
Among these towers there is one called the ” Tower of the Corner of Lamentation,” or ” Tower of Tears,” because there in ancient times Dutch sailors embarking for long voyages took leave of their families who came to see them off. Over the gate is a rusty bas-relief, bearing the date of 1569, and representing the port, with a ship about to sail, and a weeping woman. It was put up in memory of a sailor’s wife who died of grief at the departure of her husband.
It has been observed that almost all strangers who go to see that tower, after having given a glance at the bas-relief, and at the guide-book which explains it, turn towards the sea and look thoughtfully out, as if in search of the departing vessel. What are they thinking of? Perhaps what I myself was thinking of. They follow that vessel into the Arctic seas, to the whale fishery, and in search of a new road to the Indies, and the tremendous epic of the Dutch navy in the midst of the horrors of the Pole presents itself to their imagination : seas encumbered with ice, cold which makes the flesh fall in fragments from the face and hands, white bears attacking the sailors and breaking their weapons in their teeth, walruses rushing to overturn the boats, icebergs beaten by wind and sea, and vast plains of moving ice which imprison and grind the fleet to powder; desert islands strewn with corpses of dead sailors, carcasses of ships, and leathern girdles gnawed in their agony by men dying of hunger; then the whales that come about the ships, the formidable contortions of the wounded monster in the blood-stained water, the boats overturned with a blow of his tail, the sailors struggling in the sea; shipwrecked men wandering half naked amid darkness and cold, graves dug in the ice and covered in with ice to keep their contents f rem wild beasts, and the sleep that brings death. And still white and misty solitudes, where no sound is heard save the rattle of the oars in the rowlocks echoing from the caves, and the lamentable cry of seals; and other deserts where no trace of life exists, with mountains of incommensurate ice, immense unknown spaces, snows that have endured for centuries, eternal winter, the solemn sadness of the polar night, the infinite silence in which the soul is appalled ; and the poor dying sailors, kneeling on the deck, stretch their joined hands towards the horizon all on fire with the aurora-borealis, and pray God to vouchsafe them once more to see their country and their friends. Men of science, merchants, poets, all bend before that humble vanguard who have traced with their bones upon the immaculate snows of the Pole the first path for living men.
Turning to the right from this tower, and walking along the edge of the harbour, you reach the Plantaadije, a vast space composed of two islands joined together by many bridges, in which are a park, a botanic garden, a zoological garden, and a public promenade, forming a large green oasis in the midst of the livid waters and the blockhouses. Here are given concerts of music, nocturnal festivals, and here comes the flower of the beauty of Amsterdam ; a flower which, fortunately for travellers of sensitive fibre, gives out a sweet odor, which does not affect the head. And in any case, there is a refuge from danger in the zoological garden, the property of a company of fifteen thousand subscribers; the finest zoological garden in Holland, and one of the richest in Europe ; in which it is easy to forget the pale faces and blue eyes of the lovely Calvinists, among the gigantic salamanders of Japan, the serpents of Java, and the Bradypi didactyli of Surinam.
From the Plantaadije, crossing sundry bridges and skirting numerous canals, one reaches the great square of the Boter Markt, where there is a gigantic statue of Rembrandt, and also the office of the Italian Consulate. From this square you go to the Jewish quarter, one of the wonders of Amsterdam.
I asked my way there of our Consul, who answered, “Go straight on until you find yourself in a quarter infinitely dirtier than any which you have heretofore considered the dirtiest in the world; that is the ghettoyou cannot mistake it.” I went on, it may be imagined with what expectations; I passed a synagogue, stopped a moment in a piazza, took a narrow street, and in a few moments recognised the ghetto. My expectations were surpassed.
It was a labyrinth of narrow lanes, dark and filthy, flanked by ruined houses that look as if a kick would bring them down. From cords stretched from window to window, from nails planted in the doors, and from the window-sills, hung and waved in the wind, upon the damp walls, ragged shirts, patched gowns, and darned breeches. Before all the doors and upon the broken steps, old second-hand goods. were exposed for sale. Refuse of furniture, fragments of weapons, devotional objects, rags of uniform, remains of instruments, old iron, fringes, rags; everything that is nameless in any human tongue, every-thing that is spoiled by moth, or rust, or fire, or ruin, or dissipation, or sickness, or misery, or death; everything that is despised by servants, rejected by pawnbrokers, thrown aside by beggars or overlooked by beasts; every-thing that encumbers, soils, stinks, and contaminates it is all there, in piles and heaps, destined for a mysterious trade and incredible transformations. In the midst of this cemetery of things, this Babylon of filth, swarms a people so ragged, dirty, and wretched, that beside them the gipsies of the Albaicin of Granada arc sweet and clean and perfumed. As in all countries, they have borrowed from the people among whom they live the color of the skin and the face; but they have preserved the hooked noses, the sharp chins, the curling hair, and all the features of the Semitic race. There are no words to de-scribe these people. Locks which have never seen a comb, eyes which make you shudder, leanness like that of corpses, pitiful ugliness, old men who retain scarcely a semblance of humanity, wrapped in garments which no longer betray by ‘color or form to what sex they belong, from which protrude long skeleton claws, like those of some noxious insect. And everything is done in the middle of the street. Women are frying fish on little stoves; girls are rocking babies; men are looking over their stores of old duds; half-naked boys are rolling on the stones, which are covered with rotten vegetables and entrails of fish ; decrepit old women, seated on the ground, scratch their filthy bodies, uncovering as they do so, limbs from which the eye turns away in horror. Walking on the points of my toes, stopping my nose, and turning away my eyes from things which they could not endure,’I reached at last a clean and open place on the edge of a broad canal, where I breathed with delight the air impregnated with salt and tar, and felt as if I had entered a terrestrial paradise.
In Amsterdam, as in all the other Dutch cities, there are many private societies, some of which have the importance of great national institutions ; foremost among them is the Society of Public Utility, founded in 1784, which is almost a second government for Holland. Its scope is popular education, for which it provides by the publication of elementary books, public readings, libraries for working people, schools for primary instruction, professional schools, singing schools, asylums, savings banks, prizes for good conduct, and rewards for acts of courage and unselfishness. The society, directed by a council composed of ten directors and a secretary-general, is composed of more than fifteen thousand members, divided into three hundred groups, which form as many independent societies, scattered among the towns and villages. Every member pays about ten francs a year. With the sum (modest in relation to the vastness of the institution) which this tax produces, the society exercises, as Alphonso Esquiroz says, a sort of anonymous magistracy over public manners ; binds together with impartial beneficence all religious sects; distributes with liberal hand about the country instruction, aid, and comfort; and as it was born independent, so it works and proceeds faithful to the principle of the Dutch people, that the tree of beneficence must grow without graft or puncture. Other societies, like that of Arti et Amicitice, Felix Meritis, and Doctrina et Amicitiae, have in view the growth of arts and sciences, the promotion of public works, readings, and meetings, and are at the same time delightful places of meeting, furnished with fine libraries, and almost all the great European journals.
Upon the charitable institutions of Amsterdam a book might be written. The words of Louis XIV. when he was preparing to invade Holland, to Charles II. of England, are noteworthy :” Have no fear for Amsterdam ; I have the firm hope that Providence will save her, if it were only in consideration of her charity towards the poor.” All human misfortunes find an asylum and work there. Admirable above all is the Asylum for Orphans of Amsterdam Citizens, which had the honor of sheltering that immortal Van Speyk, who, in 1831, upon the waters of the Scheldt, saved the honor of the Dutch flag by the sacrifice of his own life. These orphans wear a very curious costume, half black and half red, so th, seen in profile, on one side they seemed dressed for a carnival, and on the other for a funeral; and this odd device was chosen so that they might be recognised by the tavern-keepers, who are forbidden to allow them to enter, and by the officials of the railways, who may not permit them to travel without express permission from the directors; which results, it may be remarked in passing, could have been obtained with a less ridiculous costume. These bicolored orphans are seen everywhere, clean, fresh,and courteous, and refreshing to the heart. In all public festivals they occupy the first place ; their song is heard on all occasions of solemn ceremony; the first stone of national monuments is placed by their hands ; and the people love and honor them.
To have done with the institutions, we should take note of the particular industries of Amsterdam, such as the refining of borax and camphor and the manufacture of enamel ; but these are things for the travelling encyclopedists of the future. Diamond-polishing, however, merits special mention, being the chief of the industries of Amsterdam, and a secret between the Jews of Antwerp and Amsterdam, by whom it is entirely exercised. This trade amounts to one hundred millions of francs yearly, and supports more than ten thousand persons. One of the finest workrooms is that in the Quanenburger Straat, where the workmen themselves explain in French the three operations of cutting, and first and final polishing, done under the eyes of the visitor, with admirable dexterity and courtesy. It is astonishing to see those humble little stones, resembling fragments of dirty gum-arabic fit to be thrown out of window in company with cigar ends, in a few seconds transformed, glowing and animated with a flashing and festive life, as if they understood the des-tiny that had drawn them from the bowels of the earth to make them serve the pomps of the world. In how many strange events will this little stone, now held in the workman’s iron glove, be actor, or witness, or cause? It may glow upon the forehead of a queen, who will some night leave it in its casket while she escapes from the crowd besieging the gates of her palace. Fallen into the hands of a Communist, it may gleam upon the table of a court of justice, side by side with a blood-stained dagger.
It may pass through many scenes of nuptial feasts and banquets and dances, and flying through the door of the pawnbroker’s shop, or out of the window of a carriage assailed by robbers, go from hand to hand, and from country to country, until it sparkles on the hand of some princess in her box at the opera at St. Petersburg. From thence it may go to add a point of light to the sabre-hilt of a pasha in Asia Minor, and then to tempt the virtue of a youthful milliner in the Saint Antoine quarter of Paris ; and at lastwho knows ?to ornament the watch of a descendant of him who first presented it to worldly honors, since among these workmen there are some who put by a little capital for their children. Among others there was, a few years ago, in the Quanenburger Straat, the old Israelite who cut the famous gem called the Kohi-noor, which, besides the grand medal of honor at the Paris Exposition, brought him a reward of ten thousand florins, and a present from the Queen of England.
At Amsterdam there is the finest picture gallery in Holland.
The stranger who enters it prepared to admire the two greatest works of Dutch painters, has no need to inquire where they are. He has scarcely crossed the threshold, when he sees a small room filled with silent, motionless people, and entering, finds himself in the most sacred penetralia of the temple. On the right is Rembrandt’s ” Night Patrol “; on the left, Van der Heist’s ” Banquet of the Civic Guard.”
After having seen these two pictures over and over again, I often amused myself by watching the people who came there for the first time. Almost all, upon their entrance, stopped, looked in astonishment first at one and then at the other, and then, smiling, turned to the right. Rembrandt was the victor.
The “Night Patrol,” or, as it is sometimes called, “The Arquebusiers,” and also “The Company of Banning Cock,” the largest of Rembrandt’s canvases, is more than a picture; it is a spectacle, and an amazing one. All the French critics, to express the effect which it produces, make use of the same phrase, ” C’est écrasant !” (” It is over-powering l “) A great crowd of human figures, a great light, a great darknessat the first glance this is what strikes you, and for a moment you know not where to fix your eyes in order to comprehend that grand and splendid confusion.
There are officers, halberdiers, boys running, arquebusiers loading and firing, youths beating drums, people bowing, talking, calling out, gesticulatingall dressed in different costumes, with round hats, pointed hats, plumes, casques, morions, iron gorgets, linen collars, doublets embroidered with gold, great boots, stockings of all colors, arms of every form ; and all this tumultuous and glittering throng start out from the dark background of the picture and advance towards the spectator. The two first personages are Franz Banning Cock, lord of Furmerland and Ilpendam, captain of the company, and his lieutenant Willem van Ruijtenberg, lord of Vlaardingen, the two marching side by side. The only figures that are in full light are this lieutenant, dressed in a doublet of buffalo – hide, with gold ornaments, scarf gorget, and white plume, with high boots; and a girl who come behind, with blonde hair ornamented with pearls, and a yellow satin dress; all the other figures are in deep shadow, excepting the heads, which are illuminated. By what light? Here is the enigma. Is it the light of the sun ? or of the moon? or of the torches? There are gleams of gold and silver, moonlight-colored reflections, fiery lights ; personages which, like the girl with blonde tresses, seem to shine by a light of their own; faces that seem lighted by the fire of a conflagration; dazzling scintillations, shadows, twilight, and deep darkness, all are there, harmonised and contrasted with marvellous boldness and insuperable art. Are there discordances of light? gratuitous shadows? accessories too much brought out to the detriment of the figures ? vague and grotesque figures? unjustifiable oddities and defects? All this has been said about the picture. There have been arguments of blind enthusiasm and of spiteful censure. It has been raised to the skies as a wonder of the world, and pronounced unworthy of Rembrandt, discussed, interpreted, explained in a thousand ways and senses. But, in spite of censure, defects, conflicting judgments, it has been there for two centuries triumphant and glorious ; and the more you look at it, the more it is alive and glowing; and even seen only at a glance, it remains for ever in the memory, with all its mystery and splendor, like a stupendous vision.
The picture by Van der Heist (a painter of whom nothing is known beyond the fact that he was born in Amsterdam at the beginning of the seventeenth century and passed the greater part of his life there) represents a banquet given by the Civic Guard of Amsterdam, to commemorate the peace of Munster, on the 18th of June 1618. The picture contains twenty-five figures of life-size, all faithful portraits of noted personages, whose names have been preserved. There are officers, sergeants, banner-bearers, and guards, grouped about a table, holding each others’ hands, speaking, and drinking toasts; some eating, some carving, some peeling oranges, and some pouring out wine. Rembrandt’s picture is a fantastic apparition; Van der Heist’s, a mirror reflecting a real scene. There is neither unity, nor contrast, nor mystery; every-thing is represented with the same care and the same relief. Heads and hands, figures near or distant, steel armour and lace fringes, plumed hats and silken standards, silver horns and gilded goblets, vases, spoons and knives, plates and dishes, food, wines, weapons, ornaments, all stand out, splendidly real and fascinating the eye. The heads, considered one by one, are portraits wonderfully rendered, from which a physician might securely judge of the owner’s temperament and prescribe for the health of all. With regard to the hands, it has been argued, and with reason, that if taken from the figures and mixed together, they could be recognised and replaced without danger of mistake, so fine, distinct, and individual are they. The variety and splendor of color, the openness and freshness of the countenances, the splendid costumes, the thousand glittering objects, all together give to this great picture an air of joyous festivity, which causes the vulgarity of the subject to be forgotten, and excites in the beholders a sentiment of friendly sympathy and admiration, which reveals itself in a pleased smile upon the faces of the most ill-disposed visitors.
There is also in this gallery Rembrandt’s great picture called ” The Syndics of the Cloth Merchants,” painted nineteen years after the ” Night Patrol,” with less of youthful fire and eccentricity of fancy, but with all the vigor of mature genius, and not less wonderful than the other for effects of chiaroscuro, expression of the figures, strength of color, and exuberance of life, preferred by some critics to the ” Patrol.” There is another picture by Van der Helst, ” The Syndics of the Confraternity of St. Sebastian at Amsterdam,” in which all the great qualities of the master are still resplendent, though somewhat less than in the “Banquet.”
Steen has eight pictures, among them his own portrait, which represents him as young and handsome, with long hair, and a quiet meditative air, which seems to say : No, stranger, I was not a dissipated man, nor a drunkard, nor a bad husband ; I was calumniated ; respect my memory. The subjects of the other pictures are, a maid-servant cleaning a pot, a peasant family returning home in a boat, a baker making bread, a family scene, a village wedding, a children’s festival, a mountebank in the square; all with the usual drunken figures) the usual laughter, the usual grotesque’ personages, admirably colored and lighted up. In the picture of the ” Mountebank,” above all, his mania for the grotesque reaches its climax. The heads are deformed, the faces grimace, the noses are beaks, the backs are humps, the hands are claws, the attitudes are contortions, the smiles grinsfigures, in a word, whose like can only be found in an anatomical museum, or in the grotesque animalisms of Grandville. It is impossible not to laugh, but it is with the feeling of those who looked at ” Gymplaine,” saying in their hearts, ” What a pity he is a monster.”
There was, however, an artist who brought this kind of painting even lower than Steen : Adrian Brouter, one of the most famous of his school in Holland. He was a disciple of Francis Hals, and got drunk with him regularly once a day, until, persecuted by his creditors, he fled to Antwerp, where he was arrested as a spy and thrown into prison. Rubens procured his release and received him into his own house; but Rubens led a respectable life, and Brouwer, who detested restraint, left him. He went to Paris, where he rushed into all sorts of excesses until, reduced to a mere shadow, he came back to Antwerp and died miserably in the hospital in his thirty-second year. As he cared only for the tavern and its frequenters, so he painted only coarse and disgusting scenes of drunken men and women, the merit of which lies in their vivid and harmonious color and marked originality. The gallery at Amsterdam has two of his pictures, one representing “Peasants Fighting,” and the other “A Village Orgy.” The last is completely Brouwer. It represents a room in a tavern, where a company of tipsy men and women are drinking and smoking. One woman is stretched on the floor dead drunk, with her baby crying beside her.
Gerard Douw has here his famous picture of the “Night School,” or, the picture of the four candles, worthy of a place beside his “Dropsical Woman” in the Louvre, and among the most exquisite of the gems of Dutch art. It is a small picture, which represents in the foreground a schoolmaster with two boy scholars and a girl seated around a table; another girl is intent upon a small scholar who is writing on a slate ; and in the background there are other pupils at their studies. But the originality of the picture consists in this, that the figures are the accessories,and the principal part, the protagoniststhe subject of the picture, in a wordare the four candles : one burning in a lantern left on the floor; one which lights the group of the master and his scholars; a third held by the girl and illuminating the slate ; and a fourth upon a table behind, among the boys who are studying. It is easy to imagine what a variety of lights and shadows, tremulous rays, and shafts of light an artist like Douw knew how to draw from his four flames; what infinite difficulties were created by them, what infinite care was necessary to conquer them, and with what wonderful power he has accomplished it. The picture, painted, as a critic has said, “with the eye-lash off a new-born baby,” and covered with glass, like a relic, was sold in 1766 for eight thousand francs, and in 1808 for thirty-five thousand ; and certainly a cipher added to the last sum would not be sufficient to buy it now.
There would never be an end of description if I were to attempt to mention only the principal pictures in this gallery. The sublime and melancholy Ruysdael has a winter scene and a forest, full of his own soul, as it is customary to say of his landscapes. Zerburg has his celebrated “Paternal Counsel”; Wouvermanns, ten adminable pictures of game, battles, and horses ; Potter, Karel du Jardin, Van Blade, Cuyp, Metzu, Van der Verde, Everdingen, are represented by some of the best of their works, of which it would be labor lost to attempt to give written descriptions. And this is not the only gallery of paintings in Amsterdam. There is another, which was bequeathed to the city by one Van der Hoop, formerly a deputy to the States Parliament, and which contains about two hundred pictures by the first Dutch and Flemish artists; and there are besides several very rich private collections.
Napoleon the Great was bored in Amsterdam, but I firmly believe that it was his own fault. I was very well amused. All those canals, bridges, basins, and islands, form so various and picturesque a prospect that one is never tired of gazing at them. There are a hundred ways of passing time agreeably. You go to see the arrival of milk-boats from Utrecht ; you follow the barges that are trans-porting various kinds of cargo to their destinations, with white-capped maid-servants standing on the prow ; you pass half an hour on the tower of the Royal Palace, from whence can be seen at one glance the gulf of the Y, the ancient lake of Haarlem, the towers of Utrecht, the red roofs of Zandam, and all that fantastic forest of masts of vessels, steeples, and mills; you look on at the dredging of the canals, at the mending of bridges and locks, at the thousand necessities of this singular city, obliged to spend four hundred thousand florins a year in the governing of its waters; and when everything else fails, there is always the spectacle of the servants of both sexes, who with pumps and pipes are for ever washing the streets before the houses, the first-floor windows, and the clothes of the passers-by. In the evening, there is the street called Kalver Straat, flanked by two rows of splendid shops, and cafés half lighted up and half plunged in darkness, where until late at night there swarms a dense and slow-moving crowd of people, full of beer and money, mingled with certain facsimiles of cocottes parading in eccentric toilettes, three or four together, silent and smile-less, and looking as if they were meditating some aggression. From the lighted and crowded streets you, in a few moments, reach the borders of dark canals, among motionless vessels, and the profoundest silence. Crossing a bridge, you come to a quarter where the lights from subterranean cellars twinkle and the music of sailors’ balls is heard; and so every moment the scene changesno offence to Napoleon I.
Such is this famous city, whose history is not less strange than its form and aspect. The poor fisherman’s village whose name in the eleventh century was still unknown, in the sixteenth had become the grain emporium for the whole of southern Europe ; it depopulated the flourishing cities of the Zuyder Zee, gathered into its hands the commerce of Venice, Seville, Lisbon, Antwerp, and Bruges, attracted merchants from all countries, received the victims of religious persecutions, rose again from beneath terrible inundations, defended itself against the Anabaptists, defeated the Earl of Leicester’s plots, gave laws to William II., repulsed the invasion of Louis XIV., and finally, like all things here below, began to decline, and shone once more with ephemeral glory as the third city of the French empire, an honorary distinction very similar to those crosses which are given to discontented placemen to compensate them for ruinous changes. It is still a rich commercial city; but slow, circumspect, wedded to traditions, and more fond of playing on the Exchange than of undertaking bold enterprises, and a grumbling but inactive rival of the more youthful and hopeful cities of Hamburg and Rotterdam. Nevertheless, she still lays claim to her ancient dignity of conqueror of the seas, is still the fairest gem of the United Provinces; and the stranger leaving her, carries away with him an impression of grandeur and power which no other European city cancels.