Netherlands – A Humble Source Of Dutch Art

This may seem like an attempt to ridicule the sublime, but that is not my intention. James and I decided from the first to see the Netherlands, its life, its art — an expression of its life — its cities, towns, and waterways in our own way. We had long known our Motley, and Henry Havard, De Amicis, Hans Brinker, The Burgomaster’s Wife, La Tulipe Noire, and a half-dozen books of travel were continually on hand for reference or enjoyment. But the ways of others were not our ways. I realize that our manner of Dutch living and Dutch voyaging may not appeal to others, but it suited James and me. Ours was the synthetic, as opposed to the analytic method of other travellers and writers.

During our winter in The Hague we studied the centres of Dutch art in the Netherlands: the Ryks Museum in Amsterdam, the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, the Mauritshuis and Mesdag at The Hague. We knew of old the wonderful series in the Dresden Gallery, the incomparable, if small, collection in Cassel, the rich showing in the English National Gallery, in Antwerp and Brussels. These, also, are centres, and the art of the Netherlands is to be understood only when one has seen the works these centres possess, and verified their power of truth by residence and travel in the land itself.

As I said, we sought one of the humblest if most prolific sources: “The Twentieth Great International Exhibition of Poultry,” under patronage of no less a personage than the Queen Mother.

“I know a fine bird when I see it,” said James, looking up from his Dutch paper one morning in February, “and I’ve always wanted to test the truth of these Dutch-men’s art, for some of their painted birds shake my faith in the limits of a Dutch artist’s imagination. They seem impossible as to size and coloring. Let’s go to the show.”

“I, too, know a fine bird when I see it; but my point of view is the gastronomic one. There is certainly more than one `out’ in all the poultry that has come on our table. It is tasteless and colorless, and I’d like to see for myself. Some one told me not long ago that the poultry is fed on fish; that would account for its poor color and flavor — as if chickens needed phosphates!”

“A man told me the other day” (it’s a peculiarity of James always to top my little stories with his big ones), “that every year fifty thousand hogs are fatted on the waste from the distilleries at Schiedam!”

“Oh, James! Is that why you vetoed pork chops the other day when I proposed them for a change ?”

“Yes; it’s bad enough for the men to make beasts of themselves with gin, but when it comes to feeding the beasts themselves on the refuse, the government ought to interfere, or mankind draw the line.”

“That only goes to show that our country isn’t the only one that has its meat scandals.”

“That’s right, Persis, let the eagle scream till we’ve seen something at the show that will eclipse his glory and drown his voice.”

“I don’t care, James, if you do make fun of me. I’m patriotic to that extent that I can hug an American turkey gobbler if I am so fortunate as to find one at the show.”

And I did! That is, I mean I saw him. I failed to embrace him because James interfered. I discovered him among several thousands of birds, not by his gobble but his label. When I saw it something began to lump higher arid higher in my throat just as it does when I hear The Star Spangled Banner, or see its glory in a foreign land. James tried to laugh me out of it. “It’s not an American bird, Persis, or he would have gobbled recognition. You’ve wasted your sentiments.”

“He came over in an American egg, anyway, and if your patriotism were as deep-rooted as mine you would understand my feelings for this blessed bird.” Whereupon my husband took me firmly by the arm and led me gently away to see black swans, and huge, insufferably supercilious Pomeranian geese and ganders. We inspected the several thousands of the feathered domestic tribe with ever-increasing interest. As James said: “It must be seen to be believed.” The extreme brilliance of the colors was noticeable in the majority. They rivalled the Haarlem tulips which we saw later in the spring. The plumage was thick and exquisitely fine in texture. The size really abnormal.

There is a painting in the Mauritshuis by Jan Steen in which a cock standing by a little girl, who is seated on a step, seems preposterously large. I know now that it represents the actual. If, previously, Dutch art in poultry portraiture — it is nothing less than that — had explained something of Dutch life to us, now we were ready to acknowledge frankly that nature had enlightened art. We enjoyed the show, the finest, James said, of its kind in the world. We enjoyed more the light that it threw upon the innumerable canvases of feathered game, alive and dead, of waterfowl, geese, ducks, herons, of peacocks, partridges, pheasants and swans, of magpie, dove and finch with which Hondecoeter, Weenix, Steen, Mieris and Metsu have enriched the world.

Seek out these masters wherever they may be found, in the Rÿks at Amsterdam, at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, in the Antwerp Gallery, in Cassel, Dresden, London, and you will realize how they stand head and shoulders above the other schools in delicacy and richness of coloring, in the rendition of the downy depths of plumage or fur, in accuracy of proportion, and, above all, in perfect fidelity to the feathered life of the Netherlands.

An humble source, decried by many; but Art, like life, is apt to take frequent if not deep draughts at just such common wellsprings.

“Have you solved the problem of the table hen, now that you have seen the show ?” James asked that evening at dinner, as he carved the breast of a particularly unapproachable fowl.

“Yes, I have; and to my satisfaction. I am convinced that every Dutch hen, rooster, and chicken outside the pale of that show is anemic. It’s a Dutch fad, this breeding magnificent birds for prizes, and has been for hundreds of years. As a result of this process the national and natural poultry life in the Netherlands has been drained of its best blood. The many have been impoverished for the few to that extent, that when you want a good bird for your table you have to buy a Brussels capon and pay seven gulden for it.”

“Thank you,” said James, meekly, but a little wickedly; “I’m glad to have the toughness and unpalatableness of this special bird so scientifically explained. It aids digestion.”

“You are lucky to get that,” I retorted. “Mejuffrouw Silz told me, the evening she dined with us, that the professional class has such hard work to keep up the appearances due their standing and make both ends meet, that when a friend is invited to dine a wooden chicken is placed on the table as a kind of pièce de resistance —and they eat bread and cheese! What do you think of that!”

“I think a man who can set before a friend a wooden chicken for dinner has a decided advantage over us in the matter of pièce de résistance; this is the toughest fowl I ever tackled!”

He was a little cross, nor could I blame him. To come home from a poultry feast of the eye to a fowl famine on one’s own table is not conducive to amiability, especially in a man. I had a wifely appreciation of the fact, and refrained from further speech and more stories. Some-how women’s dinner-table stories always do fall flat.