Netherlands – Amsterdam’s Pictures

THE superlative excellence of Dutch painting in the seventeenth century has never been explained, and probably never will be. The ordinary story is that on settling down to a period of independence and comparative peace and prosperity after the cessation of the Spanish war, the Dutch people called for good art, and good art came. But that is too simple. That a poet, a statesman or a novelist should be produced in response to a national desire is not inconceivable ; for poets, statesmen and novelists find their material in the air, as we say, in the ideas of the moment. They are for the most part products of their time. But the great Dutch painters of the seventeenth century were expressing no real idea. Nor, even supposing they had done so, is it to be understood how the demand for them should yield such a supply of unsurpassed technical power : how a perfectly disciplined hand should be instantly at the public service.

That Holland in an expansive mood of satisfaction at her success should have wished to see groups of her gallant arquebusiers and portraits of her eminent burghers is not to be wondered at, and we can understand that respectable painters of such pictures should arise in some force to supply the need just as wherever in England at the present day there are cricketers and actresses, there also are photographers. That painters of ordinary merit should be forthcoming is, as I have said, no wonder : the mystery is that masters of technique whose equal has never been before or since should have arisen in such numbers ; that in the space of a few years—between say 1590 and 1635—should have been born in a country never before given to the cultivation of the arts Rembrandt and Jan Steen, Vermeer and De Hooch, Van der Helst and Gerard Dou, Fabritius and Macs, Ostade and Van Goyen, Potter and Ruisdael, Terburg and Cuyp. That is the staggering thing.

Another curious circumstance is that by 1700 it was practically all over, and Dutch art had become commonplace. The gods had gone. Not until very recently has Holland since had any but half gods.

It may of course be urged that Italy had witnessed & somewhat similar phenomenon. But the spiritual stimulus of the Renaissance among the naturally artistic southerners cannot, I think, be compared with the stimulus given by the establishment of prosperity to these cold and material northerners. The making of great Italian art was a gradual process : the Dutch masters sprang forth fully armed at the first word of command. In the preceding generation the Rembrandts had been millers; the Steens brewers ; the Dons glaziers ; and so forth. But the demand for pictures having sounded, their sons were prepared to be painters of the first magnitude. Why try to explain this amazing event ? Let there rather be miracles.

I have said that the great Dutch painters expressed no idea ; and yet this is not perfectly true. They expressed no constructive idea, in the way that a poet or statesman does but all had this in common, that they were informed by the desire to represent things—intimate and local things —as they are. The great Italians had gone to religion and mythology for their subjects : nearer at hand, in Antwerp, Rubens was pursuing, according to his lights, the same tradition. The great Dutchmen were the first painters to bend their genius exclusively to the honour of their own country, its worthies, its excesses, its domestic virtues, its trivial dailiness. Hals and Rembrandt lavished their power on Dutch arquebusiers and governors of hospitals, Dutch burgomasters and physicians; Ostade and Brouwer saw no indignity in painting Dutch sots as well as Dutch sots could be painted; De Hooch introduced marvels of sunlight into Dutch cottages; Maes painted old Dutch housewives, and Metsu young Dutch housewives, to the life ; Vermeer and Terburg immortalised Dutch ladies at their spinets ; Albert Cuyp toiled to suffuse Dutch meadows and Dutch cows with a golden glow ; Jan Steen glorified the humblest Dutch family scenes ; Gerard Dou spent whole weeks upon the fingers of a common Dutch hand. In short, art that so long had been at the service only of the Church and the proud, became suddenly, without losing any of its divinity, a fireside friend. That is what Holland did for painting.

I have just named a number of the great Dutch artists. But that list is absurdly lacking. I have said nothing of the sea scapes of Van de Velde, Bakhuisen and Dubbels ; nothing of the landscapes of the two Ruisdaels and Hobbema, of Van Goyen and Vermeer of Haarlem, of Jan Both and Aert van der Neer ; nothing of the city scenes of Van der Heyden and Berckheyde; nothing of the still-life of Kalff and Claes ; nothing of the swaggering gallants of Dirck Hals, Palamedesz and Duyster and Codde. For one of the wonders of Dutch art of the great period is its inexhaustibility. You go through a gallery such as the Ryks and find so narrow a gulf between the best and the next best. Rembrandt and Vermeer and Franz Hals are the best, beyond doubt ; but close on their heels are Heist and Bol, Klinck and Solomon Koninck and Terburg, Ochtervelde and Brekelenkam and a number of other great if lesser masters. One is continually being pulled up by a picture with a new name to it, almost the real thing, and, if isolated, most remarkable and satisfying.

It would have been a great enjoyment to me to make this chapter a companion to the Ryks Museum to have room to say a few words about all the pictures which I like best. But in that case the rest of the book would have had to go, for all my space would have been exhausted. And therefore, as I cannot say all I want to say, I propose to say very little, keeping only to the most importunate pictures. Here and there in this book, particularly in the chapters on Dordrecht, Haarlem, and Leyden’s painters, I have touched on some of them.

The particular shining glory of the Ryks Museum is Rembrandt’s ” Night Watch,” and it is well, I think, to make for that picture at once. It is possible at first to be disappointed expectation perhaps had been running too high; the figure of the lieutenant (in the yellow jerkin) may strike one as a little mean. But do not let this distress you. Settle down on one of the seats and take Rembrandt easily, “as the leaf upon the tree” ; settle down on another, and from the new point of view take him easily, ” as the grass upon the weir “. Every minute his astounding power is winning upon you. Walk away and then advance upon the picture slowly. . . This is certainly the finest technical triumph of pigment that you have seen. What a glow and greatness. How the hand of the central figure extends beyond the canvas !

After a while it becomes evident that (here in Amster-dam) Rembrandt was the only man who ought to have painted arquebusiers at all. Van der Heist, who painted all those photographic groups-but how fine you thought them—in the big room, is sinking to the level of a gifted amateur. Why did not Rembrandt paint all the pictures ? you begin to wonder. And yet the Van der Heists were so good a little while ago.

It is not of course really a night watch at all. Captain Franz Banning Cocq’s arquebusiers are leaving their Doelen in broad day ; the centralisation of sunlight from a high window led to the mistake, and nothing now will ever change the title.

How little these careless gallant arquebusiers, who paid the painter-man a hundred florins apiece to be included in the picture, can have thought of the destiny of the work ! Of Captain Franz Banning Cocq as a soldier we know nothing, but as a sitter he is hardly second to any in the world.

But it is not the ” Night Watch” that I recall with the greatest pleasure when I think of the Ryks Rembrandts. It is that wise and serene old lady in the Van de Poll room—Elizabeth Bas—who sits there for all time, unsurpassed among portraits. This picture alone is worth a visit to Holland. I recall also, not with more pleasure than the ” Night Watch,” but with little less, the superb group of syndics in the room adjoining the “Night Watch”. If ever a picture of Dutch gentlemen was painted by a Dutch gentleman it is this.

Having seen the ” Night Watch ” again, it is a good plan to study the Gallery of Honour. To pick out one’s favourite picture is here not difficult : it is No. 1501, ” The Endless Prayer,” by Nicolas Maes, of which I have said something in the chapter on Dordrecht, the painter’s birthplace. Its place is very little below that of Eliza, beth Bas, by Maes’s master. But the Gallery of Honour as a whole is not very satisfactory. The painters are rarely at their best in it. They seem to me to have been painting Academy pictures : too big and too ordinary. Always excepting the Maes, the Frans Hals group and the Fabritius, which showed what a fine painter he would have been had he lived.

It is always interesting in a fine gallery to ask oneself which single picture one would choose before all others if such a privilege were offered. The answer, if honest, is a sure revelation of temperament, for one would of a certainty select a picture satisfying one’s prevailing moods rather than a picture of any sensational character. In other words, the picture would have to be good to live with. From thousands of masterpieces to choose one only is a very delicate test.

If the Dutch Government, stimulated to gratitude for the encomiastic character of the present book, were to offer me my choice of the whole Ryks Museum I should not hesitate a moment. I should take No. 2527, ” Woman Reading a Letter,” or ” The Reader,” by Vermeer of Delft. You will see a reproduction in black and white opposite page 178 ; but how wide a gulf between the picture and the process block ! The jacket, for example, is the most lovely cool blue imaginable.

This picture, apart from its beauty, is interesting as an illustration of the innovating courage of Vermeer. Who else at that date would have placed the woman’s head against a map almost its own colour ? Many persons think that such daring began with Whistler. It is, however, Terburg who more often suggests Whistler. Vermeer had, I think, a rarer distinction than Terburg. Vermeer would never have painted such a crowded group (however masterly) as that of Terburg’s ” Peace of Munster ” in our National Gallery ; he could not have brought himself so to pack humanity. Among all the other Dutch masters I find no such fastidious aristocrat.

Any mortification, by the way, which I might suffer from the knowledge that No. 2527 can never be mine is allayed by the knowledge, equally certain, that it can never be any one else’s. Money is powerless here. To the offer of a Rothschild the Government would return as emphatic a negative as to a request from me.

After the Rembrandts—and some might with perfect reason put them before—come the Vermeers. The blue one has been at the Ryks for many years, but two of the other three are recent acquisitions, bought from the collection of the Six family. When I was last in Holland I went to the Six house at 511 Heerengracht to see them, but that has now been pulled down and most of the pictures are in a room at the Ryks—a precious room in-deed. The especial treasures there are Vermeer’s “Milk-woman” and Vermeer’s “Little Street” Perhaps I may be permitted to borrow from a book of mine on this painter the description of these two pictures. Writing of the ” Maidservant Pouring Milk,” as it is called, with an accuracy that none could dispute, I said : I never saw a woman more firmly set upon canvas ; I never saw a bodice that was so surely filled with a broad and beating bosom. Only a very great man could so paint that quiet, capable face. Some large pictures are very little, and some small pictures are large. This ` Maidservant Pouring Milk ‘ is only eighteen inches by fifteen but it is to all intents and purposes a full length : on no life-size canvas could a more real and living woman be painted. When you are at Amsterdam you cannot give this picture too much attention ; be sure to notice also the painting of the hood and the drawing of the still life, especially the jug and the bowl It was this picture, one feels, that shone before the dear Chardin, all his life, as a star.

” The other Vermeer in the Six mansion was the ` Street in Delft’—’ Het Straatge’ or ` The Little Street ‘—which artists adore. The charm of it is not to be communicated by words, or at any rate by words of mine. It is as though Peter de Hooch had known sorrow, and, emerging triumph-ant and serene, had begun to paint again. And yet that is, of course, not all ; for De Hooch, with all his radiant tenderness, had not this man’s native aristocracy of mind, nor could any suffering have given it to him.

” The sale of twenty-one of Vermeer’s pictures at Amsterdam in 1696 included the ` Street in Delft’ which the Six family owned, and also a view of houses, a smaller work, which fetched forty-eight florins, and which has disappeared. In the spring of 1921 the ` Street in Delft’ was put up for auction. It was later offered to the Louvre at an immense figure—£70,000 sterling was mentioned as the price—and then suddenly was withdrawn from France and presented to Holland by Sir Henry Deterding.”

Other pictures from the Six collection hang in the same little room and all are well worth study. It is a wonderful assemblage of little great works. Vermeer’s fourth Ryks picture is here too : ” The Letter.” This is one of his more impersonal works, elaborately arranged, and painted in parts with the minuteness of the Dou school, but larger. The hands and arms of the two women are marvellous, but as a whole it gives me none of the pleasure that the other three confer.

The room in which is Vermeer’s ” Reader ” contains also one of Maes’s two “Spinning Women ” (see page 230), two or three Peter de Hoochs and the best Jan Steen in the Ryks. It is indeed a room to linger in, and to return to, indefinitely. De Hooch’s ” Store Room” (No. 1248), of which I have already spoken, is in one of the little “Cabinet piece ” rooms, which are not too well lighted. Here also one may spend many hours, and then many hours more.

The ” Peace of Munster ” has been called Terburg’s masterpiece : but the girl in his “Paternal Advice,” No. 570 at the Ryks, seems to me a finer achievement. The grace and beauty and truth of her pose and the miraculous painting of her dress are unrivalled. Yet judged as a picture it is, I think, dull. The colouring is dingy and time has not dealt kindly with the background ; but the figure of the girl is perfect. It was this picture, in one of its replicas—the one, I suppose, that hangs in the Kaiser Friedrich Museum j . Berlin and has I think a rather finer quality than this—which Goethe describes in his Elective Affinities: a description which procured for it the probably inaccurate title “Parental Advice “.

Terburg might be called a pocket Velasquez—a description of him which will be appreciated at the Ryks Museum in the presence of his tiny and captivating “Helena van der Schalcke,” No. 578, one of the gems of the Cabinet pieces (see opposite page 290), and various other small but adequate portraits there.

A number of new rooms have recently been built, with some amusing reliefs let into the outer walls, to house modern pictures, many of which are the gift of that very generous virtuoso, Mr. Drucker and his wife, to whom our National Gallery is also indebted. Here may be studied the work of the Dutchmen who derive largely from the French influence, and that chiefly Barbizon : the Marises, Weissenbruch, De Bock, Jongkind, Mauve (fourteen in number), Bosboom, Bauer, Breitner, Mesdag, Poggenbeek, Israels, Blommers and Nieuhys. They, like the great men of the seventeenth century, also found their subjects at home, but over them they cast a veil of poetry. The Matthew Marises here are three, while brother James has twenty-one, in varying styles.

Passing on to the Stadelijks Museum, which is only a few steps away, with the skating club lake on our left, we find them again, and also some of their French heroes : Corot and Daubigny in particular. I counted there no fewer than six Matthew Marises.

On the ground floor of the Stadelijks Museum is the series of rooms named after the Suasso family, which should on no account be missed. These rooms are furnished exactly as they would have been by the best Dutch families, their furniture and hangings having been brought from old houses in the Keizersgracht and the Heerengracht. The kitchen is one of the prettiest things in Holland—with its shining brass and copper, its delicate and dainty tiles and its air of cheerful brightness. Some of the carving in the other rooms is superb ; the silver, the china, the clocks are all of the choicest. The custodian has a childlike interest in secret drawers and unexpected recesses, which he exhibits with a gusto not habitual in the Dutch cicerone. For the run of these old rooms a guelder is asked. On the other side of the entrance hall are others : an old Dutch apothecary’s shop and laboratory ; a madhouse cell; and the bedroom of a Dutch lady who has just presented her lord with an infant. We see the mother in bed, a doctor at her side, and in the foreground a nurse holding the baby. The costumes and accessories are authentic.