Netherlands – The Miller’s Son

THERE is in the Ryks Museum at Amsterdam the portrait of a warrior seen full face. Tradition says it is the face of Harmen Gerritszoon van Ryn, a miller of Leyden and the father of a certain Rembrandt of whom in this tercentenary of his birth all the world is speaking, and to his honor. It is only a tradition, but I like to think it true; for the face is so fine, yet so strong, the eyes kind but keenly alive to the world of affairs, their outlook level upon men and things — a face worthy to be placed beside the Rembrandt in the National Gallery in London. This picture in the Ryks is an ancient copy; the original is in England.

During the winter we used to run up to Amsterdam for an hour or two in the Ryks. We never remained long enough to weary ourselves and dull impressions through satiety. This portrait, wrongly signed: Rembrandt, f. 1641, claimed my interest from the first and continued to hold it. I had been so fortunate as to see all the Rembrandts on exhibition in the famous galleries of Europe, and thought I could see nothing in Amsterdam and The Hague — apart from The Night Watch and The Lesson in Anatomy—which could equal the unrivalled series in Cassel and Dresden. But there are two, and one a copy in the Ryks, which, now that I have seen them, I find stand to me as exemplars, perhaps better, an expression, of the man Rembrandt and of his art. This portrait copy is one of the two.

The more I studied it, the more convinced I became that the miller of Leyden was the model for this portrait painted when his son was in the glorious first prime of thirty-five. I used to return to the Mauritshuis in The Hague after one of these visits to Amsterdam and look at the portrait of his mother. Little by little, as I studied it, with a photograph of the supposed miller of Leyden before me, I seemed to evolve a definite composite from the two. It was a mingling of feature, a blending of traits, both elusive, a combining of a common heritage of kindly expression about mouth and eyes. It was the face of Rembrandt himself, not the face of the old man in the English National Gallery, nor yet the joyous Rembrandt with his wife Saske on his knee in the Dresden collection; neither was it the gay youth, nor the thoughtful, middle-aged man in the gallery at Cassel. It was a composite of the many Rembrandts we find in all the famous collections of his works.

That he was a miller’s son, this we know. With this fact in mind let anyone, if he have opportunity, enter one of the huge windmills for the grinding of grain in any province of the Netherlands. Let him note the effect of the light striking into the dim, high interior from the wide doorway. Notice the shaft of sunshine which, entering by some narrow aperture high up near the second story, falls athwart the curious half-light and renders the atmosphere, charged with flour-dust, luminous. The light is intensified itself by the narrow opening, and intensifies the illumined shadow on beam and rafter. Let him mount the long ladder to the second story, and as he descends, notice the luminosity of the interior as seen from above. He will, seeing this, realize for the first time, that an impressionable small boy, a miller’s son, some three hundred years ago, with an artist-soul just ready to germinate within him, must have been much in his father’s mill, and the sensitive brain-films have unconsciously received impressions of light and its properties which were developed later in his art with such an intense power of permanence, that we of to-day can but marvel.

The truth of this was brought home to me one day as I stood within the great, dim interior of a grain mill on one of the islands of Zeeland. I saw about me, almost it seemed to me clairvoyantly for the moment, an early source of Rembrandt’s psychology of light; for it is that. Other artists deal with its physiology; Rembrandt alone with the soul of it. Therein lies his apartness.

If subjectively he appeals to us, he does so by his interpretation of something that we can only express as the animus of elemental light. There are two or three canvases by Rembrandt upon which I can never look without recalling the grandest word in all literature: Let there be light; and there was light.

One of these paintings which shows the power of light in its creation is a small canvas in the Rÿks Museum. It is called The Stone Bridge; many might pass it by. The work must appeal subjectively, or not at all. It is not the stone bridge, nor is it the landscape, nor the storm cloud, nor the threatened burst of sunshine through it that holds me; it is the illumined whole which shows that some elemental power is obeying a universal law in this transmission and transfusion of light.

The miller of Leyden, as seen in the accompanying illustration, his mill, the duplicate of which may be found now, after three hundred years, in certain parts of Holland, and Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Ryn, the miller’s son, form a trinity the factors of which elucidate one another.

James and I, exploring at our leisure various cities and towns, came upon another source of inspiration for this master-painter. As a consequence of this “find” we understood and appreciated for the first time the beauty of the misnamed Night Watch.

All over the Netherlands, if you look for them, you will find the remnants of the Shutterhofs, or shooting courts, the old Doelen, or ancient shooting galleries, which were to the militia, or train-bands of old, what our regiment armories are to our own home defenders. But you must look for them. They are not always to be found for the asking. We happened upon the remnants of one in Dordrecht; and if Rembrandt himself with Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburg of The Night Watch had appeared before us in the dark entrance, it would have been no cause for wonder.

A narrow stone passage-way between two old houses in a city block led into a court set, with magnificent trees. I had only a glimpse of this, for workmen were busy tearing down and carrying away the beams of an old Doelen. We made our way into the passage among the débris, and stood there for a moment to look at the brilliant sunlight which, flooding the court and sifting through the young spring foliage of the great trees, filled the farther end of the dark, narrow stone passage with the golden light of the famous Night Watch.

We found Rembrandt again and again, but afterwards in the glorious spring of the Netherlands, when we saw Amsterdam for the first time, that is, really saw it. We found him in old auction-rooms, dark, piled high with treasures from old houses and families. Jew and Gentile were seated on both sides of the long table, which was loaded with old silver, old inlaid woods, sparkling with cut glass and gay with cross-stitch embroideries and the riffraff of households that once were noted for their rich furnishings. A broad band of semi-light fell through the not overclean side window and struck into prominence a Scheveningen woman’s white ‘fluted cap and shining gold band and cap pins. It lighted the dark faces of three Dutch Jews. One was holding aloft a fine glass tankard and testing it with the nail of his crooked, coarse-knuckled little finger for a flaw. It paled the light of a pipe that a fisherman was blowing into smoke.

We found him in the library of The Hague — and so close to us that it brought his personality as if living before us.

We were looking over a folio of his sketches and drawings, those moods and tenses of the very man caught off his guard. These are reproductions from private and public collections, and most interesting to study. They furnish the best insight into Rembrandt’s way, not only of looking at a thing, but seeing it. Of all these the one that brought the master nearest to me is a slight sketch of a mighty tower in ruins. It stands among much fallen débris. The tower itself, what there is left of it, shows its massive and perfect proportions even in its fallen estate. Of foreground or background there is only a hint suggested by a few masterly and solid strokes. One realizes that here is no tower that has been besieged by Time, but one upon which has fallen some sudden catastrophe. In the upper right-hand corner scrawled in obliquely, but boldly, one reads : Tower of Town House Amsterdam after the fire taken from the City Scales.

Then I saw the master with fit subject for his mighty brush: the great tower of the Stadhuis in smoking ruins, the play of smouldering fires about it, the wreathing of smoke around it, the sudden flash of a spurting flame, the wondrous light upon the smoke-haze that covered the sky. And just across the Oude Zÿds Voorburgwal by the city scales (why not Weigh House ?), Rembrandt van Ryn catching the effect of ruined tower, flame, smoke and wondrous reflected light, with a few black strokes. Oh, great Master! How like your own life! One seeks in vain for a remnant of that old Stadhuis Tower — and in vain one seeks for your forgotten grave; but the Tower survives in the master’s sketch, and Rembrandt in the art that towers above all others of its kind.

So the winter passed, with now and then a day at some one of the three great galleries of the Netherlands. We went up to Haarlem to make acquaintance with Frans Hals in his own home. His are the only guild, or corporation pieces, I felt willing to look at, barring Rembrandt’s; for the vanity of the Dutch is never more in evidence than in memorializing their civic honors by having their portraits painted by the wholesale. No one doubts but that they were all good men—some of them very good-looking ones—and the best of citizens, but as James said, the line must be drawn somewhere; and when it comes to the Lady Regents of an Asylum for the Insane, the Over-seers of a Lepers’ Hospital, a Tailors’ Trust Company Limited, a Cloth Merchants’ Syndicate, or a Poorhouse Commission, as well as thousands of lesser lights, all standing, sitting, kneeling, posing for their portraits, the limit of forbearance with this peculiar weakness of the Dutch has been reached. And to think that they should have employed such men as Rembrandt van Ryn and Frans Hals to paint them at so much a head! I am sure there were plenty of others to do it for them.

It has been well said that corporations have no soul, and the saying is exemplified in the general expression of these hundreds, yes, thousands of citizens’ faces. As a matter of principle we turned our backs on all the corporation pictures, or, at least, cut their acquaintance when-ever we could without injuring the feelings of a proud curator of a museum, or stadhuis, in some of the smaller towns. I drew another line at the numberless Flights into Egypt and the Susanna-in-the-Baths. Just why every old master should try his hand on these two subjects passes my comprehension. Of course I have a theory — which anyone is privileged to have — that one subject gave the artist a good chance at landscape if that were in his line, with the aureole of a religious touch, and the other satisfied both morality and art by combining chastity with nudity. James has confirmed the reasonableness of my theory.

There is too much servility in this admiration for Art, and it is costing both individuality in opinion and truthfulness in expressing a conviction. If I don’t like Rembrandt’s Susanna in the Bath why should I pretend to admire it, or be looked at askance if I express my non-admiration, even if it be by an old master ? Masters are all human, and their works uneven. Were not this the case we should have, not the true master-pieces which are an expression of the vitality of genius at the flood, but a dead level of mediocrity. Well that genius like all else has its ebb tides, its lapses into the commonplace! We are the richer for it.

But Frans Hals and Company in the old Stadhuis of Haarlem are not to be ignored. It is a veritable reception of Haarlem dignities who receive you with all due proprieties. I would like much to introduce into this one room, given over to regent and guild pictures, The Jolly Toper and the Lute-player from the Ryks, The Haarlem Fishwife, Hille Bobbe, 11t her Fish-stand, from the Dresden Gallery, the “Pickel-Haring” so called — a laughing man, a toper, holding a pitcher in his left hand—from Cassel, and The Two Boy Musicians from the same collection. As James said, “It would make things lively in the old Stadhuis and show us Frans Hals other than the one who worked for so much a portrait.” Yet this room in the Stadhuis on The Groote Markt is a noble monument to a noble art and one of Haarlem’s artist citizens. One should go there if only to make acquaintance with Frans Hals and Company at home.

Rembrandt van Ryn lives not alone in his works but in those of “all the glorious company of the apostles.” There is Vermeer of Delft who, I like to think, can trace his power through Karel Fabritius, a pupil of Rembrandt and master for a short time of Jan Vermeer, in a line of direct succession from the, great master. But this is almost wholly imaginative on my part, and Vermeer of Delft, with some forty works not yet all discovered, eludes cataloguing except as a great Dutch master, perhaps the greatest after Rembrandt. His View of Delft and Head of a Girl in the Mauritshuis, The Man with the Hat at Brussels, and The Lesson in the National Gallery in Lon-don show the greatness of his genius, and place him at this late date where he has always belonged,”at the head of the glorious company.”

We went over to Brussels just to see a painting by Dordrecht’s most renowned son in art, Nicolaes Maes, The Dreamer. I have sat before it for a half-hour at a time marvelling at the power of human appeal in that painting. An old woman, worn with life and the toil and sorrow and pain of it, has fallen asleep in her chair. Her spectacles are slipping from the tired fingers. There is a slight flush on her wrinkled cheeks. She is dreaming — dreaming of young joys that have been, that never will be hers again. There is a touch of vivid red in the picture, and this touch will be found in nearly all of Maes’ paintings, just as the wonderful blue note is found in Vermeer’s, and the golden brown, that shadows black, in Rembrandt’s.

Maes is the one of the old Dutch masters who always appeals subjectively, who idealizes and spiritualizes his subject without departing from the truth of the real. He, too, was a pupil of Rembrandt, but never an imitator.

He is the great forerunner of Israëls and Maris. You find humanity in The Dreamer and in Asking a Blessing — an old woman at her humble table murmuring the one prayer: Give us this day our daily bread. We find in the Ryks an Old Woman Spinning, a girl at an open window: Dreaming (there is the touch of red in the shutter), and in Dresden, Two Women in a Kitchen Cleaning Pewter Plates. Here you find the predecessor of the best in the modern Dutch School.

Of the others of that company, of Jan Steen, whose grave we found in St. Peter’s at Leyden, and his merry family-life, of Dou’s candle-worship, of Van Ostade’s peasant gatherings, of Bol’s portraits, first cousins to those of Frans Hals, of Pieter de Hoogh’s charming interiors — an old-time Anton Mauve — why write a word ? They may all be seen today in living pictures throughout the length and breadth of the Netherlands, if one seek for them. If I were asked what gallery would be the best field for studying Dutch art, I should answer unhesitatingly, the Dresden. It has over seven hundred masterpieces of the Dutch School. It possesses these treasures by the wholesale: nineteen of Rembrandt’s best; fourteen of Jacob van Ruisdael’s incomparable landscapes, sixteen from the brush of Gerard Dou and from the other masters in like proportion. To collate, to compare, to learn, one should study in the Dutch School on the Elbe.

A recent writer on Dutch art has made a statement to the effect that the florescence of that seventeenth century of Dutch painting cannot be satisfactorily accounted for. Dare I attempt it after seeing the widespread examples of the best in Dutch art ? If I may, I would suggest that art, and a very wonderful art, existed in the Netherlands in the preceding century; but the terrible struggle for independence did not allow it to come to the surface to breathe. Still, it was at work, leavening, after the destruction wrought by the Iconoclasts, the whole public mind to receive what was in store for the next glorious hundred years, when peace permitted the graces of life to show themselves again. Let anyone examine the works of Scorel and Moreelse, and he will understand how the way was prepared for those more fortunate painters of Rembrandt’s generation. They are masters, and great ones, worthy to hand on the torch to no less a person than Rembrandt van Ryn. It was no sudden florescence, that seventeenth century in Dutch art; it was only the fruition from the florescence of the preceding hundred years, visible at last in the marketplace, if nevermore in the Church.

“Tell me,” said James, one day in the train as we were coming home from a trip to Amsterdam, “what six Rembrandts are your favorites.”

“The Stone Bridge,” I answered promptly, “and my Miller of Leyden, and, don’t laugh, Ganymede and the Eagle in Dresden, and that picture of himself with his wife Saske on his knee, and the portrait of the writing-master Coppenol, and that splendid young Nicolaes Bruynink in Cassel —”

“Hold on; that’s six.”

“Give me one, two more ?”


“—And the old Rembrandt in the National Gallery, and the young Rembrandt in Cassel. Now what’s your favorite ?”

“You mean one, or six ?”

” Just one solitary one.”

“Of Rembrandt’s ?”

“No; just your only one in the whole world.” James was silent a moment, and looked out of the carriage window. It was a dreary outlook: dark gray clouds rolling overhead, a really wintry sky, and the monotonous stretch of uninhabited land on either side of the Sloterdyke.

“Israëls’ Alone in the World,” he said.

I made no comment, for I knew his thought: that picture belongs to no age, no country; it is the property of the world, and its prototype may be found in palace and hovel. In a peculiar and narrower sense it belongs to Scheveningen, which deserves a word by itself.