The Dutch school of painting has one quality which renders it particularly attractive to us Italians; it is of all others the most different from our own, the very antithesis, or the opposite pole of art. The Dutch and Italian schools are the two most original, or, as has been said, the only two to which the title rigorously belongs; the others being only daughters, or younger sisters, more or less resembling them. Thus, even in painting Holland offers that which is most sought after in travel and in books of travel; the new.
Dutch painting was born with the liberty and independence of Holland. As long as the north-ern and southern provinces of the Low Countries remained under the Spanish rule and in the Catholic faith, Dutch painters painted like Belgian painters; they studied in Belgium, Germany, and Italy; Heemskerk imitated Michael Angelo; Bloemart followed Correggio, and “It Moro” copied Titian, not to indicate others; and they were one and all pedantic imitators, who added to the exaggerations of the Italian style a certain German coarseness, the result of which was a bastard style of painting, still inferior to the first, childish, stiff in design, crude in color, and completely wanting in chiaroscuro, but not, at least, a servile imitation, and becoming, as it were, a faint prelude to the true Dutch art that was to be.
After depicting the house, they turned their attention to the country. The stern climate al-lowed but a brief time for the admiration of nature, but for this very reason Dutch artists ad-mired her all the more; they saluted the spring with a livelier joy, and permitted that fugitive smile of heaven to stamp itself more deeply on their fancy. The country was not beautiful, but it was twice dear because it had been torn from the sea and from the foreign oppressor. The Dutch artist painted it lovingly; he represented it simply, ingenuously, with a sense of intimacy which at that time was not to be found in Italian or Belgian landscape.
The flat, monotonous country had, to the Dutch painter’s eyes, a marvelous variety. He caught all the mutations of the sky, and knew the value of the water, with its reflections, its grace and freshness, and its power of illuminating everything. Having no mountains, he took the dikes for background; and: with no forests, he imparted to a simple group of trees all the mystery of a forest; and be animated the whole with beautiful animals and white sails.
The subjects of their pictures are poor enough a windmill, a canal, a gray sky; but how they make one think! A few Dutch painters, not content with nature in their own country, came to Italy in search of hills, luminous skies, and famous ruins; and another band of select artists is the result. Both, Swanevelt, Pynaeker, Breenberg, Van Liter, Asselyn. But the palm remains with the landscapists of Holland, with Wynants the painter of morning, with Van der Neer the painter of night, with Rusydael the painter of melancholy, with Hobbema the illustrator of windmills, cabins, and kitchen gar-dens, and with others who have restricted them-selves to the expression of the enchantment of nature as she is in Holland.
Simultaneously with landscape art was born another kind of painting, especially peculiar to Hollandanimal painting. Animals are the wealth of the country; and that magnificent race of cattle which has no rival in Europe for fecundity and beauty. The Hollanders, who owe so much to them, treat them, one may say, as part of the population; they wash them, comb them, dress them, and love them dearly. They are to be seen everywhere; they are reflected in all the canals, and dot with points of black and white the immense fields that stretch on every side; giving an air of peace and comfort to every place, and exciting in the spectator’s heart a sentiment of patriarchal serenity.
The Dutch artists studied these animals in all their varieties, in all their habits, and divined, as one may say, their inner life and sentiments, animating the tranquil beauty of the landscape with their forms. Rubens, Luyders, Paul de Vos, and other Belgian painters, had drawn animals with admirable mastery, but all these are surpassed by the Dutch artists, Van der Velde, Berghum, Karel der Jardin, and by the prince of animal painters, Paul Potter, whose famous “Bull,” in the gallery of The Hague, deserves to be placed in the Vatican be-side the “Transfiguration” by Rafael.
In yet another field are the Dutch painters great-the sea. The sea, their enemy, their power, and their glory, forever threatening their country, and entering in a hundred ways into their lives and fortunes ; that turbulent North Sea, full of sinister colors, with a light of infinite melancholy beating forever upon a desolate coast, must subjugate the imagination of the artist. He, indeed, passes long hours on the shore, contemplating its tremendous beauty, ventures upon its waves to study the effects of tempests, buys a vessel and sails with his wife and family, observing and making notes, follows the fleet into battle, and takes part in the fight, and in this way are made marine painters like William Van der Velde the elder, and William the younger, like Backhuysen, Dubbels, and Stork.
Another kind of painting was to arise in Holland, as the expression of the character of the people and of republican manners. A people that without greatness had done so many great things, as Michelet says, must have its heroic painters, if we call them so, destined to illustrate men and events. But this school of paintingprecisely because the people were without greatness, or, to express it better, without form of greatness, modest, inclined to consider all equal before the country, because all had done their duty, abhorring adulation, and the glorification in one only of the virtues and the triumph of manythis school has- to illustrate not a few men who have excelled, and a few extraordinary facts, but all classes of citizenship gathered `among the most ordinary and pacific of burgher life.
From this come the great pictures which represent five, ten, thirty persons together, arquebusiers, mayors, officers, professors, magistrates, administrators, seated or standing around a table, feasting and conversing, of life size, most faithful likenesses, grave, open faces, expressing that secure serenity of conscience by which may be divined rather than seen the nobleness of a life consecrated to one’s country, the character of that strong, laborious epoch, the masculine virtues of that excellent generation; all this set off by the fine costume of the time, so admirably combining grace and dignity; those gorgets, those doublets, those black mantles, those silken scarves and ribbons, those arms and banners. In this field stand preeminent Van der Heist, Hals, Covaert, Flink, and Bol. .
Finally, there are still two important excellences to be recorded of this school of paintingits variety, and its importance as the expression, the mirror, so to speak, of the country. It we except Rembrandt with his group of followers and imitators, almost all the other artists differ very much from one another; no other school presents so great a number of original masters. The realism of the Dutch painters is born of their common love of nature; but each one has shown in his work a kind of love peculiarly his own; each one has rendered a different impression which he has received from nature and all, starting from the same point, which was the worship of material truth, have arrived at separate and distinct goals.