Art in the Netherlands/Chapter III

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Art in the Netherlands by Hippolyte Taine, translated by J. Durand
Chapter III.



III


Such, in this country, is the human plant; we have now to examine its art, which is the flower. Among all the branches of the Germanic trunk, this plant alone has produced a complete flower the art which developes so happily and so naturally in the Netherlands proves abortive with the other Germanic nations for the reason that this glorious privilege emanates from the national character as we have just set it forth.

To comprehend and love painting requires an eye sensitive to forms and to colors, and, without education or apprenticeship, one which takes pleasure in the juxtaposition of tones and is delicate in the matter of optical sensations; the man who would be a painter must be capable of losing himself in viewing the rich consonance of red and green, in watching the diminution of light as it is transformed into darkness, and in detecting the subtle hues of silks and satins, which according to their breaks, recesses and depths of fold, assume opaline tints, vague luminous gleams and imperceptible shades of blue. The eye is epicurean like the palate, and painting is an exquisite feast served up to it. For this reason it is that Germany and England have had no great pictorial art. In Germany the too great domination of abstract ideas has left no room for the sensuousness of the eye. Its early school, that of Cologne, instead of representing bodies, represented mystic, pious and tender souls. In vain did the great German artist of the sixteenth century, Albert Dürer, familiarize himself with the Italian masters; he retains his graceless forms, his angular folds, his ugly nudities, his dull color, his barbarous, gloomy and saddened faces; the wild imagination, the deep religious sentiment and the vague philosophic divinations which shine through his works, show an intellect to which form is inadequate. Examine the infant Christ in the Louvre, by Wohlgemuth, his master, and an Eve, by Lucas Cranach, a contemporary; you will realize that the men who executed such groups and such bodies were born for theology and not for painting. Again at the present day they esteem and enjoy the inward rather than the outward; Cornelius and the Munich masters regard the idea as principal, and execution as secondary; the master conceives and the pupil paints; the aim of their wholly philosophic and symbolic work is to excite the spectator to reflect on some great moral or social verity. In like manner Overbeek aims at edification and preaches sentimental asceticism; and even Knauss, again, who is such an able psychologist that his pictures form idyls and comedies. As to the English, up to the eighteenth century, they do but little more than import pictures and artists from abroad. Temperament in this country is too militant, the will too stern, the mind too utilitarian, man too case-hardened, too absorbed and too overtasked to linger over and revel in the beautiful and delicate gradations of contours and colors. Their national painter, Hogarth, simply produced moral caricatures. Others, like Wilkie, use their pencil to render sentiments and characteristic traits visible; even in landscape they depict the spiritual element, corporeal objects serving them simply as an index or suggestion; it is even apparent in their two great landscapists, Constable and Turner, and in their two great portrait painters, Gainsborough and Reynolds. Their coloring of to-day, finally, is shockingly crude, and their drawing literal minutiæ. The Flemings and Hollanders alone have prized forms and colors for their own sake. This sentiment still persists. Proof of this is to be found in the picturesqueness of their towns and in the agreeable aspect of their homes; last year at the Universal Exposition (1867) you could see for yourselves that genuine art painting exempt from philosophic motive and literary deviation, capable of manipulating form without servility and color without barbarisms scarcely exists anywhere but with them and with ourselves.

Thanks to this national endowment, in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when circumstances became favorable, they were able to maintain in the face of Italy a great school of painting. But as they were Germans their school followed the German track. What distinguishes their race from classic races is, as you have seen, a prefrence for substance over form, of actual verity to beautiful externals, of the real, complex, irregular and natural object to the well-ordered, pruned, refined and transformed object. This instinct, of which you remark the ascendancy in their religion and literature, has likewise controlled their art and notably their painting. "The prime significance of the Flemish school," says M. Wäagen, "proceeds from its having, through its freedom from foreign influences, revealed to us the contrast of sentiments of the Greek and the German races, the two columnar capitals of ancient and modern civilization. Whilst the Greeks sought to idealize not merely conceptions taken from the ideal world, but even portraits, by simplifying the forms and accentuating the most important features, the early Flemings on the contrary translated into portraiture the ideal personifications of the Virgin, the apostles, the prophets and the martyrs, ever striving to represent in an exact manner the petty details of nature. Whilst the Greeks expressed the details of landscape, rivers, fountains and trees under abstract forms, the Flemings strove to render them precisely as they saw them. In relation to the ideal and the tendency of the Greeks to personify everything, the Flemings created a realistic school, a school of landscape. In this respect the Germans first and the English afterwards have pursued the same course."[1] Run over a collection of engravings containing the works of German origin from Albert Dürer, Martin Schongauer, the Van Eycks, Holbein and Lucas of Leyden, down to Rubens, Rembrandt, Paul Potter, Jan Steen and Hogarth; if your imagination is filled with noble Italian or with elegant French forms, your eyes will be offended; you will experience some difficulty in taking the proper standpoint; you will often fancy that the artist purposely studied the ugly. The truth is he is not repelled by the trivialities and deformities of life. He does not naturally enter into the symmetrical composition, the tranquil and easy action, the beautiful proportions, the healthiness and ability of the naked figure. When the Flemings in the sixteenth century resorted to the Italian school, they only succeeded in spoiling their original style. During seventy years of patient imitation they brought forth nothing but hybrid abortions. This long period of failure, placed between two long periods of superiority, shows the limits and the power of their original aptitudes. They were incapable of simplifying nature; they aimed to reproduce her entire. They did not concentrate her in the nude body; they assigned equal importance to all her appearances landscapes, edifices, animals, costumes and accessories.[2] They are not qualified to comprehend and prize the ideal body; they are constituted to paint and enforce the actual body.

Allowing this, we easily discern in what particulars they differ from other masters of the same race. I have described to you their national genius, so sensible and so well-balanced, exempt from lofty aspiration, limited to the present and disposed to enjoyment. Such artists will not create the melancholy beings in painful abstraction, weighed down with the burden of life and obstinately resigned, of Albert Dürer. They will not devote themselves like the mystic painters of Cologne, or the moralist painters of England, to the representation of spiritual traits and characters; little will they concern themselves with the disproportion between mind and matter. In a fertile and luxurious country, amidst jovial customs, in the presence of placid, honest and blooming faces they are to obtain the models suited to their genius. They almost always paint man in a well-to-do condition and content with his lot. When they exalt him it is without raising him above his terrestrial condition. The Flemish school of the seventeenth century does no more than expand his appetite, his lusts, his energy and his gayety. Generally they leave him as he is. The Dutch school confines itself to reproducing the repose of the bourgeois interior, the comforts of shop and farm, out-door sports and tavern enjoyments, all the petty satisfactions of an orderly and tranquil existence. Nothing could be better adapted to painting; too much thought and emotion is detrimental to it. Subjects of this order conceived in such a spirit, furnish works of a rare harmony; the Greeks alone, and a few great Italian artists have set us the example; the painters of the Netherlands on a lower stage do as they did, they represent man to us complete of his type, adapted to things around him and therefore happy without effort.

One point remains to be considered. One of the leading merits of this art is the excellence and delicacy of its coloring. This is owing to the education of the eye, which in Flanders and in Holland is peculiar. The country is a saturated delta like that of the Po, while Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Hague and Utrecht, through their rivers, canals, sea and atmosphere resemble Venice. Here, as at Venice, nature has made man colorist. Observe the different aspect of things according as you are in a dry country like Provençe and the neighborhood of Florence, or on a wet plain like the Netherlands. In the dry country the line predominates, and at once attracts attention; the mountains cut sharp against the sky, with their stories of architecture of a grand and noble style, all objects projecting upward in the limpid air in varied prominence. Here the low horizon is without interest, and the contours of objects are softened, blended and blurred out by the imperceptible vapor with which the atmosphere is always filled; that which predominates is the spot. A cow pasturing, a roof in the centre of a field, a man leaning on a parapet appear as one tone among other tones. The object emerges; it does not start suddenly out of its surroundings as if punched out; you are struck by its modelling, that is to say by the different degrees of advancing luminousness and the diverse gradations of melting color which transforms its general tint into a relief and give to the eye a sensation of thickness.[3] You would have to pass many days in this country in order to appreciate this subordination of the line to the spot. A bluish or gray vapor is constantly rising from the canals, the rivers, the sea, and from the saturated soil: a universal haze forms a soft gauze over objects, even in the finest weather. Flying scuds, like thin, half-torn white drapery, float over the meadows night and morning. I have repeatedly stood on the quays of the Scheldt contemplating the broad, pallid and slightly rippled water, on which float the dark hulks. The river shines, and on its flat surface the hazy light reflects here and there unsteady scintillations. Clouds ascend constantly around the horizon, their pale, leaden hue and their motionless files suggesting an army of spectres, the spectres of the humid soil, like so many phantoms, always revived and bringing back the eternal showers. Towards the setting sun they become ruddy, while their corpulent masses, trellissed all over with gold, remind one of the damascene copes, the brocaded simarres and the embroidered silks with which Jordaens and Rubens envelope their bleeding martyrs ,and their sorrowful madonnas. Quite low down on the sky the sun seems an enormous blaze subsiding into smoke. On reaching Amsterdam or Ostend the impression again deepens; both sea and sky have no form; the fog and interposed showers leave nothing to remember but colors. The water changes in hue every half hour now of a pale wine tinge, now of a chalky whiteness, now yellow like softened mortar, now black like liquid soot, and sometimes of a sombre purple striped with dashes of green. After a few days' experience you find that, in such a nature only gradations, contrasts and harmonies, in short, the value of tones is of any importance.

These tones, moreover, are full and rich. A dry country is of a dull aspect; southern France and the whole of the mountainous portion of Italy leave on the eye no sensation but that of a gray and yellow checker-board. Besides this, all the tones of the soil and of buildings are lost in the preponderating splendor of the sky and the all-pervading luminousness of the atmosphere. In truth, a southern city, and a Provençe or Tuscan landscape are simply drawings; with white paper, charcoal, and the feeble tints of colored crayons you can express the whole thing. On the contrary, in a country of humidity like the Netherlands, the earth is green, a quantity of lively spots diversifying the uniformity of the wide prairie sometimes it is the dark or brown color of the wet mould, again the deep red of tiles and bricks, again the white or rosy coating of the façades, again the ruddy spots of reclining cattle, again the flickering sheen of canals and streams. And these spots are not subdued by the too powerful light of the sky. Contrary to the dry country it is not the sky but the earth which has a preponderating influence. In Holland especially, for several months, "there is no transparency of atmosphere; a kind of opaque vail hovering between sky and ground intercepts all radiance. In winter darkness seems to come from above."[4] The rich colors, accordingly, with which all terrestrial objects are clothed, remain unrivalled. To their strength must be added their gradation and their mobility. In Italy a tone remains fixed; the steady light of the sky maintains it so for many hours, and as it was yesterday so it will be to-morrow. Return to it and you will find it the same as you placed it on your palette a month before. In Flanders it varies incessantly along with the variations of light and the ambient vapor. Here again, I should like to take you into the country and let you appreciate yourselves the original beauty of the towns and the landscape. The red of the bricks, the lustrous white of the façades are agreeable to the eye because they are softened by the grayish atmosphere; against the neutral background of the sky extend rows of peaked, shell-like roofs, all of deep brown, here and there a gothic gutter, or some gigantic belfry covered with elaborate finials and heraldic animals. Frequently the crenelated cornice of chimney and of ridge is reflected as it glows in a canal or in an arm of the sea. Outside the cities, as within them, all is material for pictures you have nothing to do but to copy. The universal green of the country is neither crude nor monotonous; it is tinted by diverse degrees of maturity of foliage and herbage and by the various densities and perpetual changes of haziness and clouds. It has for complement or for relief the blackness of clouds which suddenly melt away in transient showers, the grayness of scattered and ragged banks of fog, the vague, bluish network enveloping distances, the sparkling of flickering light arrested in flying scuds sometimes the dazzling satin of a motionless cloud, or some abrupt opening through which the azure penetrates. A sky which is thus filled up, thus mobile, thus adapted to harmonizing, varying and emphasizing the tones of the earth, affords a colorist school. Here, as at Venice, art has followed nature, the hand having been forcibly guided by optical sensations.

If, however, the analogies of climate have endowed the Venetian eye and that of the inhabitant of the Netherlands with an analogous education, differences of climate have given them a different education. The Netherlands are situated three hundred leagues to the north of Venice. The atmosphere there is colder, rains more frequent, and the sun the oftenest concealed. Hence a natural gamut of colors, which has provoked a corresponding artificial gamut. A full light being rare, objects do not reflect the imprint of the sun. You do not meet with those golden tones, that magnificent ruddiness so frequent in the monuments of Italy. The water is not of that deep sea-green resembling silkiness, as in the lagoons of Venice. The fields and trees have not that solid and vigorous tone visible in the verdure of Verona and Padua. The herbage is pale and softened, the water dull or dark, the flesh white, now pink like a flower grown in the shade, now rubicund after exposure to the weather and rendered coarse by food, generally yellow and flabby, sometimes, in Holland, pallid and inanimate and of a waxy tone. The tissues of the living organism, whether man, animal or plant, imbibe too much fluid, and lack the ripening power of sunshine. This is why, if we compare the two schools of painting, we find a difference in the general tone. Examine, in any gallery, the Venetian school, and afterwards the Flemish school; pass from Canaletto and Guardi to Ruysdael, Paul Potter, Hobbema, Adrian Van der Velde, Teniers and Ostade; from Titian and Veronese to Rubens, Van Dyck and Rembrandt, and consult your optical impressions. On going from the former to the latter, color loses a portion of its warmth. Shadowed, ruddy and autumnal tones disappear; you see the fiery furnace enveloping the Assumptions going out; flesh becomes of the whiteness of milk or snow, the deep purple of draperies grows lighter, and paler silks have cooler reflections. The intense brown which faintly impregnates foliage, the powerful reds gilding sunlit distances, the tones of veined marble, amethyst and sapphire with which water is resplendent, all decline, in order to give place to the deadened whiteness of expanded vapor, the bluish glow of misty twilight, the slaty reflections of the ocean, the turbid hue of rivers, the pallid verdure of the fields, and the grayish atmosphere of household interiors.

Between these new tones there is established a new harmony. Sometimes a full light falls upon objects, and to which they are not accustomed; the green campagna, the red roofs, the polished façades and the satiny flesh flushed with blood show extraordinary brilliancy. They are adapted to the subdued light of a northerly and humid country; they have not been transformed as at Venice by the slow scorching of the sun; beneath this irruption of luminousness their tones become too vivid, almost crude; they vibrate together like the blasts of trumpets, leaving on the mind and senses an impression of energetic and boisterous joyousness. Such is the coloring of the Flemish painters who love the full light of day. Rubens furnishes us with the best example; if his restored canvasses in the Louvre represent his work to us as it left his hands, it is certain that he did not discipline his eyes; in any event his color lacks the rich and mellow harmony of the Venetian; the greatest extremes meet; the snowy whiteness of flesh, the sanguine red of the draperies, the dazzling; lustre of silks have their full force and are not united, tempered and enveloped, as at Venice, in that amber tint which prevents contrasts from being discordant and effects from being too startling. Sometimes, on the contrary, the light is feeble or nearly gone, which is commonly the case, and especially in Holland. Objects issue painfully out of shadow; they are almost lost in their surroundings; at evening, in a cellar, beneath a lamp, in an apartment into which a dying ray from a window glides, they are effaced and seem to be only more intense darks in a universal duskiness. The eye is led to noticing these gradations of obscurity, this vague train of light mingling with shadow, the remains of brightness clinging to the lingering lustre of the furniture, a reflection from a greenish window-sash, a piece of embroidery, a pearl, some golden spark astray upon a necklace. Having become sensitive to these delicacies, the painter, instead of uniting the extremes of the gamut, simply selects the beginning of it; his entire picture, except in one point, is in shadow; the concert he offers us is a continuous sordine in which now and then occurs some brilliant passage. He thus discloses unknown harmonies, those of chiaroscuro, those of modeling, those of emotion, all of them infinite and penetrating; using a daub of dirty yellow, or of wine lees, or a mixed gray, or vague darks, here and there accentuated by a vivid spot, he succeeds in stirring the very depths of our nature. Herein consists the last great picturesque creation; it is through this that painting nowadays most powerfully addresses the modern mind, and this is the coloring with which the light of Holland supplied the genius of Rembrandt.

You have seen the seed, the plant and the flower. A race with a genius totally opposed to that of the Latin peoples makes for itself, after and alongside of them its place in the world. Among the numerous nations of this race, one there is in which a special territory and climate develope a particular character predisposing it to art and to a certain phase of art. Painting is born with it, lasts, becomes complete, and the physical milieu surrounding it, like the national genius which founds it, give to and impose upon it its subjects, its types and its coloring. Such are the remote preparatives, the profound causes, the general conditions which have nourished this sap, directed this vegetation, and produced the final efflorescence. It only remains to us now to expose historical events, the diversity and succession of which have brought about the successive and diverse phases of the great flowering epoch.

Notes[edit]

  1. "Manuel de l'historie de la Peinture," Vol. 1, p. 79.
  2. In this respect the verdict of Michael Angelo is very instructive, "In Flanders," he says, "they prefer to paint what are called landscapes and many figures scattered here and there … There is neither art nor reason in this, no proportion, no symmetry, no careful selection, no grandeur … If I speak so ill of Flemish painting it is not because it is wholly bad, but because it seeks to render in perfection so many objects of which one alone, through its importance, would suffice, and none is produced in a satisfactory manner." We here recognize the classic and simplifying trait of Italian genius.
  3. W. Burger's "Musées de la Hollande," p. 206: "Modelling, and not lines, is what always impresses you in the beauty of the North. Form, in the North, does not declare itself by contour, but by relief. Nature, in expressing herself, does not avail herself of drawing, properly so called. Walk about an Italian town for an hour, and you will encounter women accurately defined, whose general structure brings to mind Greek statuary, and whose profile recalls Greek cameos. You might pass a year in Antwerp without finding a single form suggesting the idea of translating it by a contour, but simply by saliencies, which color only can model … Objects never present themselves as silhouettes, but, so to say in full shape."
  4. W. Burger's "Musées de la Hollande," p. 213.