Dutch Art in the Nineteenth Century/The Hague School: Introduction
|←The Masters of the Cabinet Picture||Dutch Art in the Nineteenth Century by , translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos
The Hague School: Introduction
The Hague School: Introduction
If we look back upon the painters of whom I have written in the previous chapters, we behold a procession of teachers who displayed their talent to its fullest extent in their pupils. We find in Amsterdam J. W. Pieneman and J. A. Kruseman, who have the honour of having introduced Jozef Israëls to Dutch painting; B. J. van Hove, who gave us Bosboom, but also Weissenbruch - two painters who, despite the different forms of their art, and probably owing to the influence of their master, show so many traces of resemblance - and also his son Huib, who, in his turn, produced Jacob Maris, Bisschop and both David Bles and Bakker Korff; Schelfhout, who, in Jongkind and Weissenbruch, gave us the best that he had to give and, through his pupil Nuyen, prepared Rochussen for us; Samuel Verveer, who contributed to Jan Weissenbruch's artistic training; Louis Meijer, the pupil of J. W. Pieneman, who taught Matthijs Maris the rudiments of his art, and P. F. van Os, to whom Mauve and Roelofs owe much, while Roelofs, to a certain extent, formed Mesdag. We find H. van de Sande Bakhuijzen, who taught his son Julius and his daughter Gerardina, the flower-painter, and who was also the master of Weissenbruch and Ter Meulen; B. C. Koekkoek, who formed Hanedoes (b. 1822) and J. W. Bilders, the teacher of his own son Gerard (1838-1865); Gijsbertus Craeyvanger (b. 1810), the painter of town-views, who for a time had Albert Neuhuijs as his pupil, while Bisschop gave Blommers and Israëls Artz lessons which they turned to good account.
And in these names we see the whole glorious array of the masters of the Hague school. The Hague school! An approximate title invented by the Amsterdam painters of a younger generation. A name for which there would be no room in our little Holland, but for the fact that, in general, Amsterdam and the Hague differed so greatly in their methods of painting. A name that expresses the loftiest point reached by Dutch painting since the seventeenth century.
And yet, when Bosboom, in 1833 to 1834, painted his first town-view in his master's manner; when Israëls, in 1848, sent his first picture, a biblical subject, from Amsterdam to an exhibition at the Hague; when Rochussen, the oldest of them all, who did not begin to paint until 1836, exhibited his small pictures and Weissenbruch painted his Schelfhout-like landscapes; when, lastly, during all those years, Schelfhout and Koekkoek, the Pienemans and the Krusemans remained the great men and, of the work of all those who were afterwards to be known as the Hague masters, only that of Bosboom was distinguished by those same qualities for which he was to be admired all his life and long after; nay, even when a member of a younger generation, Jacob Maris, painted in oils or water-colour his now so highly valued genre-pieces and when, in 1863, Matthijs and Willem Maris raised a contest through their personal views at a Hague exhibition, a contest which Jacob was afterwards to wage in a more lasting fashion: even then there was no mention of a Hague school!
Matthijs Maris in his Back Slum and Willem in his Landscape with Cattle display a quality of colouring of which young Bilders, painting in the same style as Willem Maris, gave the formula, oddly enough, before it had actually come into existence. Their colours are worked up into a tonality out of which the light draws the forms to the foreground, whereas, before their time, the sky was generally no more than a piece of scene-painting, against which each form was traced out separately and positively. In 1860 (Willem Maris was then sixteen), Bilders wrote to Mr. Kneppelhout:
- "I am looking for a tone which we call coloured grey, that is a combination of all colours, however strong, harmonized in such a way that they give the impression of a warm and fragrant grey."
- "To preserve the sense of the grey even in the most powerful green is amazingly difficult and whoever discovers it will be a happy mortal."
Later, he wrote:
- "It is not my aim and object to paint a cow for the cow's sake or a tree for the tree's, but by means of the whole to reproduce an impression which nature sometimes gives."
And, although he was not given time (he died at twenty-six) to attain in his work that symphonic result which a riper generation achieved, he did, in his little landscape in the Rijksmuseum, come near to finding the grey for which he was seeking and he showed that he did not paint the cow for the cow's sake. In the same year, 1860, in which he voiced his longing for a warm grey, he received the revelation of what painting can be, a revelation which the painters who came after him received in the same measure:
- "I have seen pictures," he wrote, speaking of Brussels, "of which I had never dreamed and in which I found all that my heart desires, all that I nearly always miss in the Dutch painters. Troyon, Courbet, Diaz, Dupré, Robert Fleury have made a great impression on me. I am a good Frenchman, therefore; but, as Simon van den Berg says, it is just because I am a good Frenchman that I am a good Dutchman, since the great Frenchmen of to day and the great Dutchmen of the past have much in common. Unity, restfulness, earnestness and, above all, an inexplicable intimacy with nature are what struck me most in these pictures. There were certainly also a few good Dutch pieces, but, generally speaking, when you place them next to the great Parisians, they lack that mellowness, that quality which, so to speak, resembles the deep tones of an organ. And yet this luxurious manner came originally from Holland, from our steaming, fat-coloured Holland! They were courageous pictures; there was a heart and a soul in them."
Probably this is the place once more to show how these so-called Barbizon painters, who were so entirely un-French in all their being, could be developed in France, in Paris; how an accumulation of foreign methods in England kindled the spark which ignited, in that country, a flourishing renascence of Italian and Dutch painting and, in so doing, transferred the art of absolute painting to modern times.
The English people are characterized in opposition to the foreigner mainly by their practical sense. This quality has, from an early date (and perhaps by way of reaction), prompted the English to cultivate all that is beautiful and has produced that series of poets of whom they are so justly proud, while their wealth has always enabled them to supply the lack of a native art of painting by inviting to their country successive famous painters from abroad, of whom Holbein and Van Dijck are the chief. They have done more. Since the days of Charles II., they have never ceased buying pictures from the Continent: Italian and especially Venetian masters; Flemish masters; and, with an evident preference, Dutch masters. No country has collected with greater perspicacity than England; no people have so thoroughly realized the value of Dutch landscape, for which reason, perhaps, it has been said that, after the Japanese, no people are more devoted to what is nowadays called "nature" than the English.
This was bound to have an effect; and, eventually, from all these imported painters and paintings arose the great English portrait-school of Reynolds and Gainsborough, based on Rembrandt and the Venetian masters and especially on Van Dijck. And, as the aristocratic life of the English was spent mainly at their country-seats and as these portrait-painters, with Gainsborough in particular, painted the portraits of the women of their time with unparalleled elegance against the backgrounds of their parks, the natural result was that, together with the portrait, the love of the landscape must lead to the painting of landscape for its own sake. And so it happened that, from the stately parks of his portraits, from the rustic village in which he was born, Gainsborough derived the first modern landscape based upon Rubens, but gently modulated, full of style and great. For, though he may afterwards have painted landscapes illuminated by his admiration for Cuyp, though he may occasionally remind us of Watteau and sometimes presage Corot, he was the first painter who, in the Netherlands manner, rendered the English landscape in the English style and thus became the harbinger of a renascence of the Dutch school of landscape-painting.
The question has also been asked by the English whether Van Dijck was not, in his turn, influenced by England, a question which, to judge by his English portraits, seems very possible, the more so as their particular qualities are those which we find most frequently repeated in the later English school. For, however much both Van Dijck, who was Gainsborough's exemplar, and Rubens inspired Gainsborough's landscapes, however Dutch Constable showed himself to be, to whatever degree these two reproduced their English landscape in the pure pictorial form of our seventeenth-century masters, there is no trace of plagiarism, no question of copying: their art, like that of Bonington, was purely English. And it was this art which was as a revelation to the French landscape-painters, whose works, exhibited in Brussels and Paris, in their turn gave the Dutchmen an understanding of their own being and a clearer insight, which, at first, perhaps, with a suggestion of borrowed riches, led them back at length into their own domain.
It is easy to overestimate an influence. For, although the art of painting, colour and the sense of a powerful movement can be taught and learned, it is not often that a foreign tradition leads to great display of strength. And the style built up from the classic Dutch landscapes has passed away in both England and France and survives in Holland alone of all the countries where it was introduced. Holland alone perpetuated it in its purity, stripped of all foreign adornments. And, although numbers of Germans, Swedes and Englishmen set out for the Forest of Fontainebleau to catch something of the spirit of the Barbizon masters and sat by the edge of the ponds at Ville-d'Avray, seeking for the genius of Corot, or came to Holland to study the old and new landscape-painters, the essence of the national art of the country remained as foreign to them as the land itself and the race.
The Hague masters did not at once achieve their complicated solutions of light, their breadth of view, their masterliness of touch.
The genesis of our art follows the same law at all times. Every painter, every school of painting passes through that which is symptomatic of the whole art of painting: stiffness and precision at first, breadth and width in the fuller expansion, more open in the measure as it commands more and occupies a freer position towards the technical power of representation. Is not the progress of Rembrandt, from the naive and compact little portraits of his early years to the Syndics of the Cloth-hall and after, on a line with the development of Bosboom, Israëls and the Maris brothers? An immensity of talent and work were needed to bring our school of painting out of its latent power to the rich aftermath which it produced.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, almost all our cities Amsterdam, the Hague, Rotterdam, Utrecht, Leeuwarden, Dordrecht, Delft had their own painters. In 1870, the Hague, like Paris, became a centre to which all the painters flocked. Nor was this due to accident. The Hague, thirty years ago, was surrounded on every side by nature in all her fulness: to the south and east lay the endless, luxuriant meadows, with the distant horizon, absorbing every colour, unchanged since Potter's days; to the north and west, the delicious low-lying dunes and rich dune-valleys, with the great North Sea, which communicates its pale-grey atmosphere to the greater part of the Hague, and the long Scheveningen beach, with its active fishing life, all under that same silvery sky. Here, surely, if anywhere, the grey of which Gerard Bilders had dreamt was to find its realization.
To a certain extent, the Hague of 1870 to 1890 may be best compared with fifteenth-century Bruges. Even as the skilled painters of all the northern countries gathered at Bruges, so, in 1870 to 1871, did the skilled painters of these later days come to settle at the Hague, attracted by the sea and the landscape, by the painters already residing there and, as at Bruges, by more material advantages, which consisted not, as at Bruges, in the presence of wealthy merchants, but in the recent establishment of the Maison Goupil, which in Paris, under Vincent van Gogh, had so strenuously supported the younger Dutch painters.
Israëls came to the Hague in 1869, from Amsterdam, as "a made man," although his greatest and most philosophical works were yet to come; Mesdag came in the same year, after achieving his first successes in Brussels; Mauve arrived in 1870; Weissenbruch was a native of the Hague; Bisschop, the Frisian, was living there as a young painter; Jacob Maris returned to the Hague in 1871, after the Paris Commune, and Artz a few years later. Albert and Jozef Neuhuys moved to the Hague from Utrecht in 1875; Gabriël from Brussels in 1884; Roelofs a little later; Breitner about 1880; and Tholen, Toorop and others joined the rest in 1886. When the first of these painters came to the Hague in 1869 or 1870, they found Bles there, as well as Samuel and Elchanon Verveer and such painters as Tom, Destrée, the Van Deventers, Van Everdingen, Nakken, Stroebel and Hanendoes and also Bosboom, in the full vigour of his powers, and Willem Maris, who had pursued his own road as calmly as Bosboom himself.
The nucleus of the Hague school consists of Bosboom, Israëls, Matthijs and Willem Maris and Mauve. It is true that Matthijs Maris' Dutch period proper occurs before 1870 and that, in this case, the painter would be outside the circle of the school; but I have purposely, for practical reasons, drawn this circle pretty wide and, moreover, the more we come to know this painter's earlier work, the more we realize his great significance for his contemporaries, from 1860 to 1868, and the great influence which he exercised upon those who were to follow him in this school.
Bosboom was the master continuously from 1833, the year in which he first exhibited, to 1891, the year of his death. He may have been influenced by the Romanticists and, in particular, by Nuyen; later, he may have striven after heavier effects in his admiration for Rembrandt; after 1870, he may have allowed himself to be seduced by the modern breath of a budding impressionism (and this was incontestably the case): all this does not detract from the fact that, from the start, he remained himself, and was recognized for his gifts of heart and hand.
And the artist who influenced him more than any other was Rembrandt. The influence is seen in the motives of his Synagogue at Amsterdam and his Treves Cathedral, heavy and monumental in the second, glowing with rich effects of colour and light in the first. These are the pictures which brought him into general consideration about 1870, for the sake of the grandeur of their conception and their poetic mood, although a later generation prefers the simpler and more open drawings illumined by a less direct Rembrandt light, because they perhaps come even nearer to the essence of the master whom he held so high.
These drawings date to 1863, a year of adversity for Bosboom, of an adversity rich in consequences. In this year incredible though it may seem, when we contemplate the well-balanced work of this classic painter he was smitten, not for the first time, with an attack of melancholy and with so great a feeling of impotence that he wished that he might never have to paint again. He recovered his equilibrium at the country-seat of Jonkheer van Rappard, with whom he and his wife, the well-known novelist, went to stay. Van Rappard acted as his Mæcenas and bought all the drawings which he produced, while urging him not to confine himself to church-interiors. The hospitality and liberty which Bosboom enjoyed enabled him to wander peacefully between Utrecht and Loosdrecht, where he was struck by the massive build both of isolated trees and of the great farm-houses whose intimacy, whose ample construction he so well succeeded in reproducing. In later years, the number of his water-colours began to exceed that of his oil-paintings considerably. And, after 1891 , the year of his death, portfolios came to light crammed with drawings, sketches and scrawls, by the hundred, which suggested great art even where the paper was barely touched, as in the sketch of the great church at Alkmaar, in the cloister-stairs, in lightly-washed chalk-drawings, and made the same revelation to the more modern that his more solid work had made to an earlier generation.
And Bosboom's water-colours! Compared with the analytical water-colour art of Allebé, how great is his power to solve the most intricate difficulties by the simplest means, in his stately church-interiors, in his cloistered corridors, in his sacristies, as in his suites of apartments or his drawings of the Hofje van NIeuwkoop, the old home of Pulchri Studio. It is inconceivably simple; and, even if one stood behind him, following those little drawings, the simple movements of his hand, the brush flowing, dragging or serving as a drawing-pen, the fixing of a few details in those fluent, colourless spaces until everything is there, light and shade, the full, absorbed tone, the bright lights and, above all, a great, simple truthfulness: even then it appears to us a mysterious movement of the fingers, under which - O wonder! - that pure plastic art comes into being and gives its value to Bosboom's slightest sketch.
This great artist, who used to declare that he had known no other master than Rembrandt, adopted all that we most admire in Rembrandt's etchings: the stately design, the noble line, springing straight from the heart, the generous riot of his lines, the spacious gestures which have been handed down to us in his least scrawls, in his most ingenuous drawings or sketches in oils. But Bosboom did not inherit all his master's attributes. Rembrandt saw mankind: he was the seer who beheld the divine revealed in humanity; he saw men in their helplessness, their imperfection, in their awkward movements; he saw them poor, hideous or honourable; out of his rich life he saw them as they are: beautiful, because of that life; beautiful, because they live their piteous lives simply and manfully; great, because they are men and, therefore, of divine origin. He saw them with the eyes of the Bible: the halt and the lame, the blind, the Samaritans; he also saw the Pharisees. And it was this side of him that Bosboom was unable to touch, the side which none in these days was able to approach save Israëls alone.
Jozef Israëls sprang from a very different environment. Bosboom succeeded Van Hove, Schelfhout, Waldorp, Nuyen, the natural precursors of the Hague school, and saw his road lie straight and smooth before him. Israëls had not only to rid himself of the conventional conceptions of his masters, Pieneman and Kruseman, but also to shake himself free from Picot and Delaroche and his early admiration of Ary Scheffer.
Richard Muther fixes "the decisive year which led the stream of Dutch painting back into its old course" at 1857, "the very year when a new movement in Dutch literature was begun with Multatuli." Max Liebermann, in many respects a pupil of Israëls and, in any case, his brother in art, says:
- "Israëls first realized himself at an age at which most painters have already produced their best work; and, had he had the misfortune to die at forty, Holland would have been unable to boast of one of her greatest sons."
He, therefore, fixes the date of the present Israëls at 1864. Jan Veth gives 1860 as the commencement of the Hague school; and, although there is truth in all these views, I prefer to place the date at about 1870, the period when Israëls settled at the Hague, when Jacob Maris came home from Paris, when Mesdag and Mauve moved to the Hague and when Artz also came here for a time from Paris, to settle down definitely a couple of years later. For, if fate had decreed that such painters as Israëls, Jacob and Matthijs Maris, Willem Maris, Mauve, Mesdag and Weissenbruch should have ceased production about 1870 (as in the case of Allebé, Matthijs Maris's contemporary), there is no doubt that, in spite of the precious pieces which they bequeathed to us between 1860 and 1870, there would have been no question of a modern, of a Hague school of painting. They had, it is true, produced master-pieces which, to a certain extent, remained unsurpassed by their later and more matured works; but these mark the zenith of the art of 1830 to 1840 rather than an inspired and inspiring new birth. Only in Bosboom's sketches should we have perceived an unknown spirit, the announcement of an unfulfilled promise, while from the little pictures of the Thijs Maris of that time we should have seen that the seventeenth-century powers of Rembrandt and De Hooche were not entirely lost.
We can trace the general development by following Israëls' studies. Born at Groningen in 1824, he was brought up in the traditions of the old faith and was destined for the rabbinate. He seems to have been a promising lad, who was handy with his pencil, read the Talmud diligently, played the violin and wrote little poems. When he grew up, his father, who had a small business as a stock and share-dealer, required his services; and Israëls loves to tell how, as a boy, he used to go with his bag of notes and securities to the office of old Mr. Mesdag, where H. W. Mesdag was afterwards himself to sit on a high stool. About 1840, upon the persuasion of a Groningen Mæcenas, Mr. de Witte the lawyer, Israëls' father consented that he should go to Amsterdam to study under Kruseman and, for seven years, he worked in Kruseman's studio and followed Pieneman's classes at the Academy. But it was not to be expected that this lively, emotional, Jewish nature, brought up on the flowery, colourful narratives of the Old Testament, should rest content with the systematic methods, based at it were upon formal recipes, of his two painting-masters. He received his first great impression in 1855 from Ary Scheffer's Gretchen at the Spinning-wheel, then exhibiting in Amsterdam. He here found something different from the "calculated preciseness" that had been dinned into him and sentiment and poetry attracted him more than mere craftsman's skill. In the following year, he went to Paris and worked in the studio of Picot, a painter of the school of David. He returned in 1848, the year of the revolution; and it was clear that he had seen nothing in Paris of what was already brewing in the world of art, for, in that year, he exhibited in Amsterdam, where he had a studio in the Warmoes Straat, his Aaron discovering the Corpses of his two Sons, a biblical subject, in the style of his master, which met with as little success as his portrait of Madame Tagny, a Parisian actress at that time performing in Amsterdam. He continued, in spite of his inward leanings, to cling to tradition. Once, when he had painted the head of an old and ugly woman, Jan Kruseman told him that it was not right to paint ugly people, because this spoilt one's taste; and, although he proved later that out of old, crumpled faces he was able to create a beauty that was imperishable, he still hesitated between his master's and his own inclination to the extent of producing his Reverie in 1851, a violinist, Adagio con espressione (afterwards lithographed by Allebé), in 1852 and, in 1855, The Prince of Orange for the first time opposing the orders of the King of Spain, which was hung in the Paris Exhibition. Lastly, after he had found his province at Zandvoort and, in 1856, had painted that dramatic episode, taken from the fisherman's life, By Mother's Grave, he exhibited at the Hague a Hannah vowing Samuel to the service of the altar.
But the impression made upon him by the existence of the fisher-folk at Zandvoort was a lasting one. Israëls had gone to Zandvoort for his health and stayed in the house of a small shipwright, whose domestic life he shared; and here, far from studios, painters and the precepts of his masters, he began to observe for himself the daily routine of the fishermen's lives: their quiet movements, their natural, simple existence, with its sorrows and terrors and also its little joys, all unspoiled by social forms. In this environment, his eyes were opened to the beauty of real life, to the poetry of truth; and he came to see that there was a drama in life well worth depicting and yet far removed from the biblical, the historical and the heroic.
In 1856, he took a studio in Amsterdam, on the Rozengracht, in the house of a Mr. Helwig, whose portrait, now in the Rijksmuseum, shows how far Israëls' art had already advanced. In 1863, he married and settled on the Prinsengracht; but it was not until 1869, the year in which he moved to the Hague, that he began to earn the title of head of the modern Dutch School which he has ever since retained. In this year, he began to paint that memorable series of interiors which, commencing as dramatic and romantic episodes, gradually expanded into more philosophical conceptions, wherein sometimes the family was exalted to the level of the patriarchal sense of the word. He not only painted his figures with extraordinary truth to nature, sitting at the frugal board, with all the dignity that characterizes the simple of heart, eating their dinners from the common dish, or folding their hands at grace before meat, or, in the case of the housewife, baking her cakes, or cooking food for the cattle, or sewing, or tending her child (this last was an inexhaustible source of subjects for the painter), but he knew how to make the surroundings, the atmosphere of those steaming fishermen's homes so tangible that the figures moved in it, breathed and lived their own unvarnished lives, at first amid a mass of symbolic details, afterwards with the latter merely suggested to the spectator, while the whole of these small happenings was transferred to the wide domain of humanity.
How expressive are Israëls' hands! Van Dijck is said to have had a model with beautiful hands, whom he used for all his portraits of men. Here, the hands are the bearers of a sentiment, they serve to express the incident, they fill an important place in the painter's psychological powers of expression; they tell so soberly what they have to tell: they tell of the coldness of the hands which the shivering woman puts out to catch the last gleams of warmth of the dying peat-fire; they tell of impotent resignation when they lie squat and square on the knees of the figure in Nothing more; they tell of the spiritual weariness of A Son of the Old People as they hang limply between his knees; and they tell of ecstasy in the passion with which a harpist strives to draw tones from his classic instrument.
Israëls is, above all things, a psychologist, to whom no picture is complete without thought. He endeavours always to achieve the highest form of expression and never aims at rousing admiration by la belle peinture. But we must not imagine that, for this reason, he is any the less important as a painter. For it is not until we are penetrated with the fact that Israëls gropes rather than paints with his colours and brushes, that his pictures are born of hesitations and approximations rather than of regular painting: it is not until then that we come to be impressed by the mighty colour-schemes with which he has made tangible the atmosphere of a room, by solutions of light so subtle that everything concerts to draw the figure forward and to support it with light, colour and tone, so that the figure is firmly fixed in its environment, which nevertheless hangs quite freely around it; and we then see that Israëls is a painter who has a perfect command of the instrument which he himself has created, but seeks not so much to draw sweet tones from it as to turn it into the representation and symbol of life itself.
Nor, again, is anything less true than to say, as has lately been so often and so variously said, that Israëls painted his fisher subjects with an idea of raising the "fourth estate:" this classification of estates is not mine. No proof is needed to show how great is the misconception. Israëls is far too much of a painter to be preoccupied with any such Tendenz intention. What attracted Israëls in the lives of the fishermen was the natural manner in which these unpolished people displayed their little joys, their sufferings, their fears, against the majestic background of the sea, the source alike of their livelihood and their affliction. A painter, he beheld in them picturesque figures in harmonious surroundings filled with atmosphere and with that incalculable light which is but seldom to be found in a solid, square interior fashioned of bricks and wood; he saw the children playing freely in the pools left behind by the retreating tide; he saw the mothers lulling their children to sleep; he saw death striking at the household; he saw the fishermen in touch with the sea. And his art is great even outside these subjects; and, without speaking of his portraits, which come so near to life, we admire the same breadth of view, the same expressiveness, the same poetry, whether he paints himself under the light of a lamp, or a harpist seated at her instrument, or a fashionable woman at her window, or a woman bathing. Even in his Sexton, that great pendant of the psychological interiors, that remarkable piece which, in its soberness, of all Israëls' mighty work perhaps approaches nearest to Rembrandt and, at the same time, is allied to the greatness of our little masters: even here there is not a vestige of what we may call Tendenz.
One who did not know Israëls and who judged him only by his works could readily picture him as a melancholy man, burdened and bent with the suffering which he reproduces in his paintings. Nothing is farther from the truth. He sees the suffering; he penetrates into the loneliness, the poverty, the very being of forlorn humanity; he has the imagination necessary to exalt his single figures into types, to raise his episodes of the fisherman's life from the particular to the general. But he need no more be identified with the figures in his paintings than the novelist with those in his books. For, in his own being, he is a Jew, in whom the strength of the old race finds voice; a Jew to whom all philosophy is experience of life; in bone and marrow a son of the old people, not according to the letter, but according to the spirit, with a healthy dislike of all feeble sentiment.
Jozef Israëls is incontestably the head of the Dutch school of painting in so far that he, the powerful painter, the great psychologist, ranks with the most important artists of all countries, in so far, especially, that he has enriched our school with an art that observes the underlying essence of the things depicted. His influence, which at first related chiefly to his subjects, afterwards had the most far-reaching effects upon a much younger generation, owing to the purity of his psychology and his ever more and more magical powers of expression, while the delicate culture of his mind and his truly unsystematic philosophy made him the centre of a vast circle of admirers and friends.
On the other hand, Jacob Maris, thanks to his powerful palette, his masterly touch, his classical method, exercised a greater and a much more direct influence upon his contemporaries and the younger painters. This was not only through his work, but also through the force of his personality, which gathered all the younger painters around it, daily and incessantly, in evenings at which, in the intervals between the music, painting was discussed and all his words remembered and reported.
Eckermann tells, in his Gespräche mit Goethe, of the German painters in Rome, who, whenever there were enough of them collected in the osteria, came to loggerheads touching the respective merits of Michael Angelo and Raphael and, when the dispute was at its height, rushed off in two bodies to the Vatican, there to demonstrate in the presence of the paintings, and returned to the tavern to make friends over a bottle of wine and … to begin all over again on the morrow.
Even so men have quarrelled about other great artists: about Rembrandt and Velasquez; or, as they did and do to this day, about Jozef Israëls and Jacob Maris. Israëls was the first to give us, in the nineteenth century, life, living man in conflict with every phase of life, psychology, in short. Jacob Maris was the first to give us, in our day, colour, the joy of colour revealed in the gladness of Holland's skies and cities and fields, colour in light, colour in shade: he brought us master qualities of painting, the equilibrium between form and colour and the glory of light. All that he sought to achieve he achieved fully; he was in harmony with his conception; he was one with his art. This cannot always be said of Israëls. But Israëls aimed at something that lies outside the painter's art, something that may be described as metaphysical.
Although Bosboom stood first in the series of the Hague masters and Jozef Israëls was destined to represent Dutch painting, we must always look upon the three Marises, but especially Jacob and Willem, as the founders of the Hague School. There were great landscape-painters before them, including Hanedoes and Willem Roelofs (1822-1897), of whom both had, long before, felt the inspiring influence of the Barbizon painters and of whom the second had shown an early disposition as a colourist and the first, in his Sunset, in the Hague Museum, had proved that he realized how the sky gave life to the landscape, long before the Marises had learnt to know the French painters. But, though Roelofs, the Amsterdammer, drank with deep draughts of the wealth of colour which the Barbizon masters retained from the romantic period; though he was the precursor; though, at times, he was successful in his application of their colour-schemes: for all that, he never felt that the real being of their art was Dutch. And the result was that he saw the Dutch pastures, the fat fields, the great pools of water through their eyes, but did not, through them, come to realize and acknowledge the art of his country and his race. This does not do away with the fact that he was a strenuous painter, who often succeeded in reproducing the influence of wind and weather on the landscape.
When, in 1870, Jacob Maris made his appearance with his Ferry-boat, the difference became evident. To him had been revealed not so much the masters of Barbizon and their works, but the nature and essence of the lowlands of Holland. In the case of Roelofs, we behold a generous admiration and an admiring compliance; in that of Jaap Maris, an understanding, a revelation of his own country. And not one of them all (I am leaving Bosboom outside the question), about 1870, brought forth a work in which the traditions of our country and our people, the essence of our Dutch atmosphere are so exquisitely understood and reproduced as in this Ferry-boat which, once and for all, marked the return to sheer painting.
He restored to the Netherlands, first of all, colour, which none of our nineteenth-century painters before him had displayed so purely. He also brought with him the art of painting, art in the sense in which the little masters of the seventeenth century understood it. For none of his works betrays Barbizon influences. No doubt, from the very beginning, he sought his way through formulas of every kind; no doubt, Matthijs Maris exercised a great, a very great influence upon him; but, starting with this first painting in which he proved that he had seen his country, he was the real Dutchman: full of colour, lucid, great, above all, in those light skies in which Ruysdael and Vermeer of Delft before him so gloriously expressed their love of their country, firm of touch, sensitive in delineation, broad in expression, steadfast in workmanship and endowed with a colourful, but pure palette. The first of his town-views, smaller in dimensions than the later ones, more compact in composition, more pronounced in form, displays all the merits for which Jan Vermeer's View of Delft, the pearl of the Mauritshuis, is so dear to every Dutchman. All the merits? Maris gave us more, but also gave us less, for, if the work of the modern master was more symphonic, he was not able to give that unfailing, self-contained representation which, when all is said, makes Vermeer so unapproachable. Still, the emotion in this apparently unemotional work is, as in that of the Delft master, of the purest order. His art is purely pictorial, his moods, his agitation, his admiration have their source in a rhythmical disposition which, seeing things in their own splendour, places them on view in the delicious colour-gradations of its own rich nature.
If we mention not only Vermeer, but also Rembrandt and Jacob Maris in one breath, we must remember that they who shout, "Rembrandt! Rembrandt!" the loudest, without being impressed by Jacob Maris' greatness, would certainly have belonged to those who, in Rembrandt's own day, most violently reviled him, or, for lack of understanding, denied him. And yet our delight, the nature of our emotion in the presence of Jaap Maris is less intense than in that of Rembrandt. It is the same insatiable feeling; the same sense of not being able to grasp so much that is grand and majestic and beautiful and instructive; the same growing admiration for the range the wealth and the variety of the subjects, for the richness of the colour and the luxuriance of the treatment, for that noble structure and calm power of expression, for that same simplicity of heart, even though the later painter lacks the childlike faith that roused the visionary in Rembrandt. But all Jacob Maris' existence lies in the stately equilibrium, the glorious sense of measure which enable him to balance tall, burly windmills with huge banks of clouds, low-lying towns with the light of water and sky, smooth beaches with the rugged clouds in their grandeur, until, in a glorious equipoise, they set the very soul of the Dutch landscape before us.
Has it ever happened before that one family has produced three sons, artists all three, all masters, all great in different manners? Three brothers, all entering upon life with the same ideal before their eyes, each moving along his own appointed road: Willem, the youngest, enamoured of the sunlight, the full sunlight as it lies spread in a golden glory over medes and meres or as, in the morning, it dispels the mists, absorbs the dew of the pastures and plays upon the moist twigs of the ditch-side willows; Matthijs who turned his dreams into revelations with the reality of his memories; and Jacob, who, as it would appear, expressing himself more slowly and gropingly, prepared himself for the loftier flight which he was to take up, preceding his younger brothers, influenced by Thijs (especially in Paris) and caring for him, with his nature broad and great from the beginning: three brothers, all largely gifted, all three pure painters, who, from their childhood, felt the road that lay before them and who were painters at an age when most lads are still at school. This was how it came about that, from the beginning, they thought, felt and expressed themselves in paint, with never a literary tendency to disturb their intellectual power, concentrated wholly upon the logical execution of their painting: Jacob, who, discovered, in a certain sense, by his schoolmaster, began to study under Stroebel when he was twelve; Matthijs, who went to Louis Meijer at the same age; and Willem, who received no other direct tuition than that of his eldest brother and who worked untrammelled and uninfluenced from 1863 onwards. The three grew up in very fortunate circumstances, in a happy, simple household, of which the father, an Austrian on the paternal side, with Maresq for his name originally, was a compositor, earning twenty shillings a week and free from one-sided intellectual prejudices; simple, sensible people, who acknowledged their sons' talents and looked upon painting as a fine, a very fine profession and not as a luxury. Brought up under these conditions, the two elders were soon obliged to work for their livelihood and for the common good and they learnt their trade by copying old and modern pictures in water-colours, working for painters and studying under them: an artistic education in our old-Dutch manner.
Johan Anthonie Balthazar Stroebel, whose solid instruction Jacob Maris received, was born at the Hague in 1821 and was the pupil consecutively of B. J. and Hubertus van Hove. Like his second master, he was distinguished for his old-fashioned doorkijkjes, or domestic vistas, but expressed himself in warmer, sometimes a little fiery, but so-called Rembrandt tones. He made his pupil draw water-colours after still-life and also from models employed by himself, a method of instruction to which, in later years, he attached great importance.
A dealer in works of art, Mr. Weimar, found Jacob sitting one day with Matthijs on the Groenmarkt, where the first was making a drawing of the old Town-hall; and this meeting had as its result that the youg painters (Jacob was then fourteen or fifteen years of age) came to work for him and, in particular, made water-colour copies of the pictures in his gallery, which contained the best products of Dutch and Belgian art. Weimar also introduced Jacob to the studio of the excellent Huib van Hove, which was then in the Hofje van Nieuwkoop, afterwards the first home of the Hague Artists' Club, best known by its motto of Pulchri Studio. In the evenings, Jacob visited the Hague Academy, as did Thijs, who, in his twelfth year, began to study under Louis Meijer, In 1853, he accompanied his master to Antwerp, where he visited the Academy from 1854 to 1856, Matthijs following him there in the latter year. After Antwerp, the brothers settled in the Hague, where Jacob made himself useful to the ailing Louis Meijer and also found time to work for himself. They were also for some time at Oosterbeek, where they met the elder and the younger Bilders, De Haas, Mauve and Gabriël and where the three brothers painted elaborate studies.
Jaap Maris felt his younger brother's influence most strongly after the trip which they undertook together to the Black Forest, thanks to a little fortune which they had earned by their copies of the Frederick Henry and Amalia of Solms in the House in the Wood, for which they received seven hundred guilders, or nearly sixty pounds, apiece. The return journey was made over Cologne to Mannheim by boat, Heidelberg, Carlsruhe, Basel and Lausanne and back by Neuchâtel, Dijon, Fontainebleau and Paris. At Cologne, they found an exhibition in which the painters of the German romantic school, Moritz, Von Schwind, Kaulbach, Rethel and others confirmed to Matthijs all that he had learnt to surmise at Antwerp, while Jacob admired only the cartoons. In any case, although we find the subjects taken from this journey elaborated in a higher degree in Matthijs' work, we may take it that his ideas carried Jaap Maris with them, for the Paris period, which followed soon after, gives the masterly Marlotte, that little pearl-grey French town painted in full detail against a hill, The Cradle and other pieces which, like his romantic church-interiors and The Bird-cage, we are disposed, at first sight, to ascribe to Thijs. The pictures are compactly painted and almost as elaborate as the younger brother's. Only, the difference here, too, is that Jacob was simpler and, from the first, inclined to look rather for the purely pictoral and that his work, therefore, did not possess that laboured quality which has from the beginning and always distinguished Thijs, if we except just one or two studies. He also underwent the influence of Hubert's studio, to which we owe a series of figures of Italian girls that had a quick success in Paris and in our own country. After his death, a number of fine, thoughtful little paintings were discovered, dating back to his Paris period; but it was not until he stood all alone in Holland that he became himself a pure painter of the old Dutch stock, powerful and delicate, distinguished and intimate at one and the same time.
Matthijs Maris' Dutch period really precedes the movement which was afterwards described as the Hague school. He never sought or hankered after what has been called impressionism; and it seemed rather as though he disregarded all other painters to follow only Pieter de Hooche, a perhaps unconscious endeavour which sometimes made him go in search of an even earlier method of painting: the early Flemings and Cranach.
As a lad of twelve, studying under Louis Meijer, he soon surprised him by the manner in which he had painted a boat with figures into a little sea-piece of Meijer's, a manner so excellent that his master admitted that he himself could not have done it so well and confessed that the picture was increased in value because of it. And we can safely say that his apprenticeship was devoted exclusively to self-realization. As Jacob Maris said of him:
"Thijs knew everything of himself; he was a genius."
The archives of the Hague Drawing Academy contain some drawings by Matthijs which are remarkably mature for a boy of fourteen or fifteen. One, a head of Christ with a crown of thorns and a naked breast, was drawn when Thijs was only thirteen and already shows wonderful qualities.
It may occasion surprise that the work of the Marises, who visited Fontainebleau and Paris as early as 1866, betrays so little of the influence of the Barbizon school. Although a few complete studies made by Thijs in the Forest of Fontainebleau show something of the luxuriant green, of the heavy tonality of this school, we can take the wonderfully perfect little piece exhibited some time ago at the Biesing galleries at the Hague a rustic bridge in a wood, with a couple of figures on it and compare it quite as effectively with the angler in Isaac van Ostade's etching; for, in point of fact, the drawing in this little piece is of a quite different order from that of the French painters of 1830. And again, if we take all the known work of Thijs Maris together sketches, drawings, studies, elaborate paintings and academic studies it would appear that the only work which betrays a trace of the broad, full tone of the French landscape-painters is the superb Head of a Ram in the Mesdag Museum. He is said to have been a boy still when he painted this admirable work; and, although this seems hardly credible, the fact remains that it stands alone, whether, as some think, it was painted in Paris or in our own country. Undoubtedly the most perfect work of this earlier period is the famous Souvenir d' Amsterdam. It shows an extraordinary clearness and breadth of vision, combined with an unfailing touch, and the whole is permeated with a sentiment that seems to have its being in the essence of the capital rather than in the depths of the painter's soul. This view is the purest and most complete portrait that has ever been produced of Amsterdam; and there is not a painting in the world that can be quite compared with it, unless it be the perspective in Van Eyck's Vierge au donateur in the Louvre, which compels our admiration through the same accuracy of vision. True, Jacob Maris, in later years, painted views in the city of Amsterdam in which, in the inspiration of the moment, the touches seem almost more brilliant; he built up skies under whose movement the canals beneath appear small and low; constantly he took Amsterdam as a Motif with which he raised the harmony of light and colour and line, in rhythmic swellings, into a symphonic poem. Later again, Breitner set up the great town movement of Amsterdam, piece by piece, full of colour and full of life, against the old background of the canals or the Dam, with mighty and vigorous strokes. But neither has represented the imperishable type of the old trading-city, in all its complicated essence of restfulness and bustle, with such absolute completeness as Matthijs Maris.
Thijs Maris went to France in 1869 at the instigation of his mother, who did not know what to do with this unpractical son of hers who preferred to erase and hide his work rather than sell it. Jaap, who was always good to his brothers, had invited him to Paris, where he was living with his wife and child, and it was no great burden to him to receive the ascetic Thijs into his household.
The parting with his output continued to be the difficulty which Thijs was ever less and less able to surmount. Jaap has described how Thijs would work at the most exquisite things, until the time came when the picture could easily be finished in a day. Then he would upset the whole work and utterly refuse to be convinced of its excellence. He painted, for instance, a Mother and Child for which Mrs. Jacob Maris and her baby sat. This, according to Jacob, developed into one of his finest pictures, both as regards the faces and, in particular, the modelling of the child's little legs and feet. When it was almost finished, he began to paint it all over again, in a stiff, old-German fashion, and to make it look like a Cranach, with the result that all his work was wasted.
Nevertheless, Thijs produced some of his most charming pictures in Paris, such as, in 1870, his View of a Town and, in 1874, The Butterflies, that sunny page in his work: a little girl, in a blue frock, with a face lit up with an indescribable smile, not unlike those which curl the lips of Leonardo's women, her hair the colour of that old red gold of which Wagner speaks; this fairy-like, but positively-rendered child, in an environment of Dutch sand-dunes, in which the sweetbriar grows around her and, a little further on, the sedge stands in rhythmical rows; and two butterflies, at which the child reaches with upraised hand, in the sultry summer sky. A little before this, he painted The Woman baking Cakes, that half- mediaeval, half-modern, French-Flemish kitchen interior, a pearl-grey master-piece that has its home in the Mesdag Museum; also the magnificent Montmartre, of which, as of The Butterflies, a second similar work is in existence; drawings of Gretchens, or, at least, of the type which we call Gretchens; of churches with figures, sketches executed on his travels or from memories of them, such as the interesting Black Forest drawings, The View of Lausanne, the scarcely rivalled Outskirts of a Town, the Three Mills; memories also of Oosterbeek; and portraits, of which that of Artz the painter is a model of simplicity in the rendering of a face.
Amid all these works imbued with the peace of by-gone centuries, in the midst of the thought which he devoted both to the conception of his subject and to its immaculate execution came the Commune, which coincided so entirely with his views, but in which, nevertheless, this Hamlet-like nature took part not of his own will, but because he was enrolled in the Municipal Guard and was therefore automatically transferred to the troops of the Commune.
After the Commune, Jacob Maris left Paris, leaving Thijs behind him. Although Matthijs worked and occasionally sold a picture (Goupil's bought his Butterflies for £50, which was not a bad price at the time, although the picture has since fetched forty times as much), he passed years of distress before, in 1877, he was discovered in a sorry plight by young Van Wisselingh, the son of the artistic art-dealer of the Hague, at whose suggestion he went to London.
There was a time when innocent sceptics had drawn a line through his name. But, slowly and gradually, through works despatched by Van Wisselingh's London branch to Amsterdam, through auctions at which his early works came under the hammer and through select exhibitions, the wonderful personality became a living thing to us, the dreamer better known to us; his stately fancies roused new sensations; and, when the masters of the Hague school, in 1890, had already displayed the extent of their glorious talent, Matthijs Maris revealed himself in his full force, of past and present, as the noblest of our possessions. And this revelation concerned not only his sovereign imagination, but also his peerless knowledge and the perfection of his workmanship.
There came a time, in this English period of his, when Thijs Maris, who was, as the poet Surnburne has said of Blake, "beautifully unfit for walking in the way of any other man," was no longer content to paint things in their sheer being, as they were, when complete representation made way for imagination, for the dreams that haunted him, when his thoughts wandered aside in lonely musings that brought before his eyes forms which defied all positive knowledge, musings that summoned poetic figures which he endeavoured to grasp and to embody. And these figures were full of life: laughing with their perturbing smiles as in The Butterflies; more monumental in the etching of the woman with the distaff; fleeting joyfully towards the heyday of life like The Bride; figures of exquisite refinement as in Primavera, of a princess's fairy-tale as in The Promenade or in The Lady of Shalott: all with that intensity of life which thrills in its pure form, all with something of the exquisite longing for life of the Florence of Botticelli and Da Vinci … His figures, monumental and child-like, constitute a type of woman of their own: they are women through and through, with something of the child and something of the bacchante, Juliet rather than Beatrice, living and full of life, rhythmical of shape and, at the same time, figures of light, with raised hands and sphinx-like smiles, a wonder in our day, a wonder of feminine charm and, lastly, an exotic flower budding in a suburb of Puritan London, reversing Taine's theory of environment.
Outwardly considered, Willem Maris, the youngest of the brothers, has little or nothing in common with Matthijs, as regards either the technique or the conception of his subjects. Nevertheless, there are studies and also pictures of the Oosterbeek period in which all the three brothers show an inward similarity with one another; there are carefully-executed sketches in which we find a closer link between Willem and Thijs than between Willem and Jaap Maris. And, like Bosboom and Israëls, the three Marises all have something of the central point round which all Dutch art revolves: Rembrandt. In Willem Maris, this lies in the expression of the sunlight, in the broad, sketchy touch, in that pure impressionism of which Rembrandt, in his later period, appeared to be the originator.
Willem seems to have "arrived" at an early date, for we know, through Gerard Bilders, that the fame of his talent reacted Amsterdam as early as 1863 through his two little pictures. Cattle at a Pond and Young Calves at the Milk-pail, which he sold for £2 each at the same Hague exhibition at which Thijs received £16 for his Back Slum. Willem Maris was then just nineteen. Mauve has hold how, at Oosterbeek, a pale, delicate little lad came up to him and modestly asked leave to introduce himself and to accompany him, so that they might work together:
"At first," says Mauve, "I did not feel much inclined to agree, but I did not like to refuse the little fellow flatly, so we went off together. My companion did not suffer from loquacity; and, coming to a field with cows in it, I sat down to go on with a drawing which I had begun that morning. The little chap strolled around a bit and then settled down to work himself. We sat there for hours under the pollards, until I grew curious to see what the little fellow was at. He sat sketching with a bit of chalk; but, oh! I stood astounded. I seized him by the hand and stammered In my turn, 'My boy, what an artist you are! You stagger me! It's magnificent!'"
Even as with Jacob, so for Willem a painting has always been a material reproduction of a momentary aspect of nature. His glorious ditches with their waving reeds, with the gold-green duckweed, so full of rich colour, are the synthesis of a series of close observations of such a character that their expression, synchronizing with the painter's mood and with an impregnable truthfulness, presents a scene, simple in itself, so marvellously that we learn through it to see and admire nature. Willem Maris is the last of the great lyrical painters of our time. His sentiment is what it was in the glorious days of 1880 to 1890 and there is none too approach him in that artistry in which every point of view at once becomes lyrical.
Anton Mauve has not the depth of colour, nor the rich palette, nor the powerful and supple touch, nor the rhythmical line, nor the symphonic composition of the Marises. He does not wield the plastic powers of Jozef Israëls. And, compared with Millet, whose influence and personality held perhaps even greater sway over the painters of northern countries than over the Parisians, Mauve is so domestic, so unspeakably simple, that the two painters are not to be named in one breath. Millet and herein lay his greatness saw the peasants in the great biblical simplicity of their existence. His art is a sentimental art, full of style, representing the husbandmen with all the purity of form of the ancient Greeks. Mauve's relationship with Millet lies in the inward calmness with which they both set down the little actions of the simple labourers, without comment. But Millet's was a more far-searching formula, whereas Mauve's best works, his water-colour drawings, are more spontaneous. He followed the old painters, the Ostades and Esaias van de Velde, but he was more refined in his representation; he had a modernity that was all his own.
It is a sort of privilege to find, in the shop of a Paris art-dealer, one of these drawings of Mauve's surrounded by an environment of French boudoir art, an environment in which this drawing is even more full of surprises than an old Dutch painting in a foreign museum. It is pleasant to admire the unartificiality, the delicate truthfulness of it; to contemplate just that ditch, with the little white goat, among all those cold and clever things.
To this first period belong those masterly studies of calves on the dunes and in the fields, painted so firmly and broadly; those scenes on the sea-shore with donkeys, horses, fishing-boats drawn up on the beach, brown horses in the silky light of the Scheveningen sands; those delicate, grey roads; those water-ways with the sluggish barges; those admirable pictures of cows.
Compared with the Marises and Israëls, Mauve's pictures of the Laren period are sometimes dry and colourless and inferior both to his earlier work and to the water-colours which he produced at Oosterbeek or in the dunes. They have not the same power of colour or of workmanship as his earlier studies of cows, nor the attentiveness of his water-colours: they betray a certain weariness and hurry.
And yet, in his later drawings, he never entirely lost his touch, never neglected the delicacy of the representation. He painted the still, pearl-grey days of autumn and winter, when the sheep stand out warm against the withered green of the meadows and the labour in the fields is confined to ploughing and potato-digging; or when the snow lies untouched over the farms; or when there is thaw in the air and pale-yellow and lilac streaks appear above the sheep-fold. Or else he painted those exquisite days marked by neither sun nor wind, white days on which, as they say in Overijssel, "the weather stands listening:" this is the atmosphere in which he preferred to place his figures.
Mauve was born at Zaandam in 1838 and died in 1888. He was taught at Haarlem by the animal-painter P. F. van Os and by Wouter Verschuur (1812-1874), the gifted but not powerful follower of Wouwerman. At Oosterbeek, he painted in the company, especially, of Bilders and, later, of the Marises, without whom he himself declared that he would never have become the personality which we recognize in him and value.
Among the talented and honest admirers of Mauve, the first place is occupied by Francois Pieter ter Meulen, born in 1843, who was intended for literature, but studied painting instead under H. van de Sande Bakhuijzen. He never possessed the purely pictorial point of view of his illustrious exemplar and his colouring, generally, is somewhat cold. Nevertheless, in his water-colour in the Mesdag Museum, A Drente Sheepfold by night, the colour is higher than we usually find in Ter Meulen.
Many other Dutch painters of similar current subjects have, with more or less success, followed the fluctuations of the American market, that degrading market which now, as in Mauve's day, asks one year for "Sheep going to pasture" and the next for "Sheep returning" and the year after for something else, much as the height and breadth of our hyacinths is laid down for us by the exigencies of Anglo-American taste. Mauve himself suffered from these conditions in a certain measure, as did all our leading painters. Jacob Maris would receive a commission for four pictures all of the same size, all four to contain white clouds; Jozef Israëls is asked for countless replicas of his works or else has orders for pictures with one or more figures, according to the sum to be expended on the purchase; Gabriël and Weissenbruch are asked for windmills to the exclusion of all else. Hence, the appearance of the American dollar would be unwelcome in the midst of our art, but for the fact that great painters commit these domestic crimes as it were with the left hand and that the reaction against this degrading toil gives birth to the purest works and to moments of inspiration. Only the weak succumb.
At a time when the nineteenth-century sea-painters, in imitation of Ludolph Bakhuijzen, composed their tempestuous seas as the history-painters composed their historical episodes; at a time when they threw a huge wave in the foreground in the shade the better to enhance the effect of light towards the horizon; at a time when they dramatized the sky and the waves in accordance with the horrors of the shipwreck depicted, Hendrik Willem Mesdag came, with his direct, realistic point of view, to surprise the world with the fact that the unbiased painting of the sea, straight from nature, was not only possible, but even so desirable that the aspects of the North Sea coast were now for the first time, in the nineteenth century, represented as they appeared daily before our eyes.
It does not often happen that one who has sat on a high stool in his father's office until his thirty-fifth year ends by becoming a painter, even though he may have sketched and painted in his spare moments. The greatest painters tried to dissuade Mesdag, who was born in 1831, from his plan. But a man like Mesdag is not so easily dissuaded; moreover, he was firmly supported by his wife, who herself afterwards became a deserving artist. For that matter, if all men followed the wise counsels lavished upon them in their youth, there would never have been a great man in the world. In any case, Mesdag, with his wife, went to Brussels in 1866. He there found his friend and kinsman Alma Tadema and also the Dutch landscape-painter Roelofs.
In the summer of 1868, Mesdag visited Norderney, not so much for the purpose of painting, as for relaxation and health. This visit was to be for him what the stay at Zandvoort was for Israëls. He brought back with him a series of studies so fresh and original that they decided his career for good and all. From an industrious pupil he had become an original painter. In the same year, he settled at the Hague, so as to be near Scheveningen, and, in 1870, he received the gold medal in Paris for a sea-piece. The fact that the French painters were readier than the Dutch to admit Mesdag's talent in doubtless due to this, that his simple, natural, artless realism seemed to them refreshing after their own affected academicism and the profundity of the Barbizon men, whom the Parisians had never understood.
There is something so open in his work, so much frankness in his subjects and their treatment, such an utter absence of introspectiveness, that one could almost describe his pictures as decorative, although this is not wholly the case, for the painter loves above all things the broad whiteness of the open air and, if he does not always find unity in the light, it is there in the treatment, so that Mesdag's least scrawl possesses the allure which distinguishes his completed paintings wherever exhibited. This painter, ill-suited to spend his life on an office-stool, was not the one to sit patiently bending over the easel, plunged in the secrets of his craft; and we may here seek the reason why he did not achieve fame in the land of pure painting so early as in France.
Mesdag may be described as the transition between landscape-painters like the Marises and Hendrik Johannes Weissenbruch. In neither of the two artists is colour the impelling force of his art: form, rather, predominates. The white clouds in Weissenbruch's pictures are connected with the landscape through their outline; they counterbalance the mills, the houses and trees by their form rather than that they exist as the result of a logical connection of the light falling on the earth, as in the more symphonic compositions of Jacob Maris.
What matter if Weissenbruch, nicknamed the merry Weis, was not the man to sink into his own moods? All roads lead to Rome! He belonged to the real stamp of those landscape-painters who, starting betimes, receive quick impressions, ready subjects, nimbly-seized moments of the day. He was a passionate fisherman and, perhaps more than any other, caught the atmospheric influences on the marshy lands, the construction of the broad pools and water-ways and dykes and polders, while his water-colour sketches are about the finest in modern Dutch art.
This artist did not receive the public recognition due to him until late in life. It is true that he had never to complain of lack of appreciation by the artists. And then his early pictures were so different: works with fine artistic qualities, better works perhaps than his later, somewhat too facile productions. Still, like most of the painters of his generation, Weissenbruch delivered his purest work after 1870. He was born at the Hague in 1824 and died in 1890. The Dutch Frenchman, Victor Bauffe, and De Bock were both pupils of his.
Although Paul Jozeph Constantin Gabriël was also impressed by the low clouds hanging over flat polders, this delicate painter never belonged to the real impressionists in manner and one might more justly describe as natural problems, scientifically solved, his polders, his canals with windmills, his expanses of water with eel-traps, with the light reflected in the water or influencing the land. For they are rendered with so much certainty, so much calmness and precision that they place the spectator in the presence of a fact that admits of no discussion. Speaking of these somewhat concrete landscapes, Gabriël used to say that he preferred subjects that did not contain much in themselves. And no simpler subjects could well be imagined: great splashes of water, which he selected in the bogs round Giethoorn, in which the only accident is a punt, an eel-trap or a duck-fence; canals cutting straight and square through the fields, with the tall windmill at the end; pools with a few willows; huts by the water-side. And all painted with the simplest means, clearly and thinly, with finely-chiselled outlines. Gabriël carried his painting so completely in his head that the setting down of it on canvas seemed to cost him no trouble and scarce a repentir. To make sure of his tone, he used to place the picture upside-down or sideways on his easel. He was one of the few Dutch painters whose delicate poetry was understood in Paris. Geffroy, writing of the Dutch exhibitors, rarely mentions any save Israëls and Gabriël.
Gabriël was born in Amsterdam in 1828. He received his first tuition at the Amsterdam Academy and afterwards went to the landscape school set up by B. C. Koekkoek at Cleves. He lived for some time in Brussels and settled at the Hague in 1884, when the Hague school was at the height of its fame. He died in 1903. Gabriël's chief pupil is W. B. Tholen, who worked in his studio in Brussels.