Dutch Art in the Nineteenth Century/Intermezzo

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CHAPTER VII

Intermezzo


An attempt has been made in this volume to group the nineteenth-century painters. The Hague masters, in particular, have been collected under the heading of the Hague school, which, however, can hardly be made to include such painters as Jongkind, the Oyens brothers or Alma Tadema. And yet, even as Bisschop is essentially related to Tadema and, properly speaking, has very little in common with the Hague school, so Jongkind is essentially related to this particular circle.

If we could lay side by side a beach-scene by Bosboom, one by Weissenbruch in the Mesdag Museum and one by Jongkind in the Hoogendijk collection, water-colours all three, we should be struck by the same sensitive sureness of construction, the same manner of design, the same treatment in each case. It is true that Bosboom and Weissenbruch were pupils of B. J. van Hove and that Weissenbruch and Jongkind were also pupils of Schelfhout.

Jongkind's art, like Bosboom's, was rooted in Schelfhout, the master whom he always held so high; and, like Bosboom again, Jongkind, with his watercolours, came near to the most modern feeling: to Monet, Pissarro and Sisley. Edmond de Goncourt constantly praises him; and, not long ago, the writer heard a modern Parisian artist tell how, at Durand-Ruel's, where a Jongkind was hanging among a number of Monets, Sisleys, Seurats and Maufras, he had said to Pisarro that all these things seemed feeble beside Jongkind, whereupon Pissaro replied:

"Yes, if he had not existed, none of us would have been here."

Despite his modernity, he was and remained a genuine Hollander. Year after year, he left Paris for the pools between Rotterdam and Dordrecht. He sketched his water-colours direct from nature and painted his pictures from them. When, in 1891, the year of his death, his works were exhibited before the auction at the Hôtel Drouot, all Paris stood amazed not at the paintings, which were known to every connoisseur, but at the exquisite, fresh, spontaneous water-colour sketches.

Gustave Geffroy called him the inventor of the atmospheric shades, but, at the same time, admired in him the careful composition, the fine division into back- and foreground peculiar to the old Dutchmen. Despite the appreciation which he met with, things did not go well with him. He appears to have been content to earn his 3,000 francs a year, whereas his Maas at Rotterdam was sold, in 1892, for 28,000 francs and his Canal at Brussels for 17,000 francs, not to speak of the comparatively even higher prices fetched by his water-colours.

Johan Bartholt Jongkind was born in 1819 at Latdrop, near Ootmarsum, and died in 1891 at Côte-Saint-André, mourned by his Parisian colleagues for both personal and artistic reasons. Holland must admit that she did but little for this pure national painter. Boymans' Museum bought a Moonlight Scene of his and the dealers occasionally exhibit one of his precious little paintings or some of those water-colour drawings which roused so much admiration at the Hôtel Drouot after his death and won for him that unstinted recognition for which he yearned when living.


There is another painter, or rather there are two others who worked all their lives in a neighbouring country as real descendants of the seventeenth century, robust and delicate, artists and observers, painters of still-life and painters of manners, combining the palette of a Brouwer with a structure of line not unlike that of the classic Degas, while either their own nature or their long residence in Brussels caused them to couple the copiousness of a Jordaens with Adriaan Brouwer's greater delicacy. The work of these two brothers, David and Pieter Oyens, has, in point of fact, little in common with our modern Dutch art; at any rate, their work has none of the sentiment or emotion displayed by this art, though they had a very correct sense of what we call "values." They selected the subjects of their pictures for the most part in their studio, where the brothers sat to each other by turns, sometimes with a third or fourth figure added. One of them is turning over a portfolio, or painting, or peering through his eye-lashes at the model, or arranging his palette while the model is getting ready to pose. They supplemented this with new attitudes or curious incidents, observed in a café, which they studied together, one of them the next day adopting the pose with a full sense of the situation. In this way, that witty little piece came into being in which a broad-backed man is holding an open newspaper before him, the paper forming a diagonal across the reader's outspread arms, and also The Beer-drinkers, which is so very old-Dutch just a figure at a little table and at the same time so modern, taken as it is from life. Sometimes we see more complicated little scenes, such as Le Farceur, who is amusing a couple of servant-girls.

The difference between David and Pieter is considerable. Pieter was the robuster of the two in his work, more flamand perhaps, whereas David's talent was more supple and pliant, his workmanship more delicate, his wit more abundant. Pieter was the sturdy worker who, producing with greater difficulty, brought forth good and solid work; David was the one who gave life to things.

These two real painters were born in 1830 (they were twins) of an important Amsterdam commercial family and it is surprising to see how little their birth hampered them and what thorough painters they were, reading little (except Dickens, whom they read from cover to cover): painters, no more and no less. They received their education in Brussels under Portails and in Amsterdam under P. F. Greive. Pieter died in 1894 and David eight years later.


Very different from the quiet life of these two artists is that of the Parisian Dutchman, Frédéric Henri Kaemmerer, who, born at the Hague in 1839, gradually freed himself from the culture of his native land and cleverly conquered a place of his own in the French art of the Salon. He excels in the reproduction of Directoire costume and has made a name by his Wedding and his Baptism under the Directoire. The photogravures of these paintings have been favourites even in Holland and the former has been reproduced as a living picture at wedding-feasts innumerable. We are compelled to admire the cleverness of his pretty figures, with their coquettish colouring, even though that cleverness lies entirely outside the frontiers of our own art of painting. Nevertheless, Kaemmerer, who has since painted mondain subjects for the Paris Gobelins factory, began by painting familiar Dutch topics. He exhibited a Wood-cutters in 1863 and also had a few subjects in common with his friend Artz.


In mentioning the English "Sir Lawrence," I run a danger of being accused of wishing to adorn the cap of Dutch painting with a foreign feather. It is true that Laurens Alma Tadema, born at Dronrijp in 1836, in accepting naturalization, fairly turned his back on his countrymen. But the early period of this painter's career is inseparable from the Leeuwarder Bisschop, while his first years of tutelage under Leys, whose art constituted a renascence of the old Dutchmen and Flemings, added to the fact that he was the master of Mesdag, cause Tadema to figure at least in part in the history of Dutch painting.

It is easy to see that Alma Tadema and Bisschop came from the same district. There are so many points of unison in their view of their art; both were wholly immersed in by-gone times, although Bisschop's Hinlopen is of very much more recent date than Tadema's Pompeii or Byzantium; while their minute rendering of antique objects with no other aim than to serve as a scene and setting for the figures makes them, however greatly they may differ from each other, stand side by side as against the Hague masters, their contemporaries. And there was reason enough for this in Friesland. When these two painters were young, many Leeuwarder woman still wore their gorgeous costume, with its Eastern cachet: the free Frisians had not yet submitted to the shackles of Paris or London fashions. And, although, probably, as boys, they paid but little attention to this circumstance, the difference must have made all the greater impression upon them in their subsequent residence at Antwerp and the Hague. Add this fact, that Friesland contains not only a mass of Merovingian antiquites, distributed over the private houses as well the museums, but also many treasures of artistic craftmanship of the eighteenth century and earlier, so that the love of pretty things grew in these painters with their imagination and their memory. Again, the dallying with the past, the search for historical surroundings formed part of the time in which they both "arrived," although Tadema was a good deal younger than Bisschop.

Alma Tadema enjoyed the privilege not only of having Leys for a master, but of assisting him, in 1859, with his frescoes for the Antwerp Town-hall, which at once introduced him to monumental painting. It is a pity that Tadema did not keep more to this trend, even as, from a Dutch point of view, it is to be regretted that he allowed himself to be diverted from his first artistic ideas, possibly by German influences.

I do not propose to trace the career of this well-known painter, who was a Frisian by birth, a Belgian by training, an archeologist by inclination; who, it is true, had Mesdag for a pupil, but finds his followers in London; and who has exercised no influence upon modern Dutch art and has remained uninfluenced by it. Not his manner of reproducing textures, nor his composition (and herein lies his chief force), nor his workmanship, nor his colouring, nor even his modelling or drawing is Dutch or ever has been Dutch. His art has always been decorative, even as our seventeenth-century art and that of the nineteenth-century Hague painters are, in their essence, concentrated. He has never been anything of a tonalist, not even in the more pictorial sketch of Willem van Saeftinghen, which, after the manner of the great Leys, has something rather of the hot colouring of burnt glass. He has never envied anything in the modern Dutchmen, as, from the start, he saw colour prettily as colour and, in a cunning sequence of equivalents (see his Prætextatus in the Amsterdam Municipal Museum), set it down flat and smooth into a well-ordered colour-scheme, governed not so much by lines as by a monumental architecture amid whose forms the figures play their decorative parts. To imagine that Alma Tadema looked for colour only in the second place would lead to mistaken conclusions, for, although his art is not emotional, he does not belong to the literary painters and all his works, although decorative rather than purely pictoral, are "observed" from the painter's point of view. Nevertheless, superb as is the composition of his larger paintings, as in his Vintage Festivals and Prætextatus; unsurpassed as is the cleverness of his reproduction of marbles, of textile fabrics; beautiful as is the colouring of his smaller pieces, the quality in which he excels first and foremost is that in which all the figure-painters of all time have ever excelled in England: the depicting of pretty Englishwomen in nicely-chosen attitudes.

Whether the great painters of the eighteenth century, in a more frivolous age, painted the charms of Lady Hamilton as a bacchante, or Rossetti imbued his English models with the passion of a Juliet or the sensual charm of a Venus Astarte, or Lord Leighton, following Ingres' example, gave them the impassivity of goddesses, or Alma Tadema, in his turn, paints Englishwomen as Pandora or Sappho or dancing at a vintage festival or reclining upon panther-skins, they remain, for all that, with their fair, full faces, their phlegmatic movements, their studied attitudes, their invariable classic outlines, types of English beauty of their day. Here we have the lasting side of Alma Tadema's art. His archaeological pictures may prove his originality and his sound acquaintance with by-gone ages; but it is the beauty of his female types that gives them their value.