IF I found the birds and game of Hondecoeter and Weenix predominating at the poultry show, I discovered later in my Utrecht poulterer’s shop the interiors of Metsu and the Van Mierises.
It is a small place on the Zee Straat in The Hague. The floor and walls are of stone. At the back there is a stone flight of stairs leading to the first story; beneath it is a stone archway with downward-curving stone steps vanishing in shadow. When I saw it for the first time it was filled with an assortment of wicker baskets and cages of different sizes and four different shapes. The colors were cool willow greens, warm browns and pale yellow. The stockducks, geese, turkeys, pheasants, cocks and hens, alive and dead, but with plumage intact, hares and rabbits, lay in rows upon the counter, hung on the walls, and were suspended from the heavy beams of the ceiling. There was a finch in a tiny wooden cage at the entrance to the shop, and wicker crates of cocks, brilliant of plumage and shrill of note, cumbered the floor. Against the shadowed background of the deep, stone arch-way two wide-eyed fluffy owls in a huge cylindrical basket of wattle-work blinked slowly at their surroundings.
Again and again I found the subjects of these masters in the fish and poultry stalls of the market-places of North and South Holland. I met with them in the grocers’ tiny shops; and everywhere I saw that these living pictures of today had preserved many characteristics even to the shape and coloring of the wicker cages for the fowls of those masterpieces with which Gabriel Metsu and Willem and Frans van Mieris have enriched the walls of the National Gallery in London, the galleries of Dresden and Cassel, of the Rÿks Museum at Amster-dam and the Mauritshuis at The Hague. It is a notable fact that these canvases have rejoiced already eight generations of an uncarping mankind by their truthful charm of coloring and execution.
The transition is easy from these interiors, filled with game and poultry, to the free haunts of the whole feathered and furry tribes, to forest, stream and river, to pastures, dunes, and peaceful countryside.
Through the Gate Beautiful of Dutch landscape painting we are led by five masters: Jan van Goyen, Jacob van Ruisdael, his pupil, Meindert Hobbema greater than his master by Albert Cuyp of Dordrecht and Jan Vermeer of Delft. These are the men who form the group of great landscape painters, and to know their canvases, wherever they are to be found, is to make acquaintance with an art that, noted for its fidelity to nature, often approaches the ideal and, in some instances, enhances truth through idealization. This idealizing touch, rarely found in Dutch painting, illumines the truth of beauty.
Of these five masters three were prolific in works: Van Goyen, Ruisdael and Albert Cuyp. Their canvases may be seen in all the great galleries. The Ryks at Amsterdam is notably rich in these landscapes as well as the Royal Gallery in Dresden. Of the other two, Meindert Hobberna has given us few canvases, but they are master-pieces and rarely beautiful – first-water gems, clear in conception, flawless in color. Head and shoulders above the other four, but side by side and shoulder to shoulder with Rembrandt and Nicolaes Maes, stands Jan Vermeer of Delft. I dare affirm this, and I believe that future judgment will confirm it. He has given to the world but one great landscape, or rather a town with a river frontage. This, however, is immortal: the wonderful View of Delft in the Mauritshuis at The Hague. That corner of Room VIII where it hangs was our Mecca on the occasion of every visit, and they were many, to that gallery. On dark days the sweet brilliancy of its coloring lighted all the gloom within the walls, and on the rare sunny ones, the clarity of its blue matched the patch of sky, as seen from the window beside it, that shows above the old, steep-pitched roofs of the Binnenhof buildings that border the Vÿver. This blue is entrancing: a blue the color of the Virgin’s mantle in the great Raphael of the Dresden Gallery; the color of the Rhone at Geneva as it sweeps swift, deep, and strong beneath the bridge by Rousseau’s Island; the blue of Alpine gentians as seen beside a drift of snow on the heights of the Simplon.
0 Jan Vermeer of Delft! Whence did you get this idealizing blue note that shows in all your precious works ? From a mother’s eyes ? From the blue waters of the Schie ? From the sky above the pointed towers of St. Catherine’s Gate in your native town ? Whencesoever you obtained it, it is, and must remain, the expression of an ideal elemental color of the universe.
We found it a matter of intense interest to study the early environment of these men, to note its effect on their art. Goyen of Leyden, Ruisdael of Haarlem, Hobbema, his pupil, near by at Amsterdam all these knew and loved that with which they were familiar in their youth: the Haarlem woods, the Lake of Haarlem, the path between the bushes over the dunes to the sea. They knew the oaks and great forest trees of Haarlem, the waters and their mills, the cross-country of lovely lakes lying between Leyden and Amsterdam which James and I called afterwards, when we came to know it, The Heart of Holland. They knew, too, the ways of the sea, and the rivers and inland waters of the cities that border it. One and all knew these things, knew and loved them. Hence we find repeated again and again in their canvases with but slight variation the country peace, the forest road, the way across the dunes, the water-mills and the peasants’ dwellings half-hidden by over-topping trees, the walls and towers of Delft and Dordrecht mirrored in the quiet waters.
In confirmation of this their attitude, on the side of art, towards their environment, one has only to seek out Hobbema’s Mill and the Haarlem Wood in the Brussels Gallery, his two watermills in the Rÿks at Amsterdam and those in London. One has only to find Jacob van Ruisdael’s country idyls : his Lake of Haarlem in Brussels, the series of landscapes at the Ryks including the View of Haarlem, the Forest Scene, and Landscape with Watermill, together with that magnificent Dresden set, fourteen canvases unequalled by any collection on the continent.
In all of them there is to be found and felt the idealizing and uplifting influence of the Haarlem woods, a remnant of that vast wooded tract that once covered the coastlands, and is treasured with that other remnant, the Haagsche Bosch as the only forests worthy of the name in all the length and breadth of the Netherlands these nether-lands where a solitary tree is hedged about with something of divinity, and it was once counted a high crime to wantonly destroy one.
Let anyone examine and study these five masters wherever he may find them on his travels, be it in the Ryks at Amsterdam, in the National Gallery in London, in Brussels or Antwerp, but above all in Dresden, and he will be forced to admit that there is idealism among the old Dutch masters, and that these great landscape painters are its exponents.