Dutch Art in the Nineteenth Century/The Masters of the Cabinet Picture

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Dutch Art in the Nineteenth Century by Gerharda Hermina Marius, translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos
The Masters of the Cabinet Picture


CHAPTER VI

The Masters of the Cabinet Picture


David Bles was the foremost painter at the Hague when Jozef Israëls was feeling his way in Amsterdam, from 1854 to 1864, and when Bosboom, at the Hague, was following the road which he had seen clearly before him from the beginning. Israëls has described how honoured he felt when, as a promising painter, he was permitted to walk round an exhibition arm in arm with Bles and how lucky he thought himself to receive a word of approval from the great man, who, nevertheless, told him pretty frankly that he did not understand the so-called poetry in Israëls' painting and that, for the rest, he had never understood what poetry and painting had in common.

Nor was this to be expected from our rather cynical artist, with his humorous subjects borrowed, to a great extent, from la vie galante. He was a clever draughtsman and a good painter, who improved upon the soapy method of his time by means of cunning after-touches, smart strokes and powerful shadows and who placed his cleverly-conceived little figures freely and spaciously and yet in such a way that the action was concentrated and the point of his anecdote invariably realized. Still, he was in every respect the very opposite of an Israëls or a Bosboom, though he was artist enough to entertain a great respect for the work of the latter.

Born at the Hague in 1821, he first studied, for three years, under Cornelis Kruseman and afterwards worked in Paris in Robert Fleury's studio. At a very early age, he painted, under the influence of his first master and even more under that of the romanticism of his day, such genre-pieces as a Savoyard Hurdy-gurdy Girl, an Hungarian Mousetrap-vendor, or else he made offerings to history in the shape of a Rubens and young Teniers or a Paul Potter taking his afternoon Walk, until, after his return from Paris, at twenty-two, he found himself soon devoting his powers to those little anecdotal paintings which attained so widespread a fame both in his own country and abroad.

His subjects were taken from our middle-class moral life. He almost created a special type of soubrette, with roguish, ogling brown eyes, tiny fingers and dainty, neatly-rounded figures. He began at a time when brunettes were in fashion, at a time when one half of the public went mad about the tear on the cheek of a Monica, while the other half, brought up on French literature, enjoyed the smallest suggestion of a double entente. It was also the time when collectors attached importance to a picture according to the number of pretty figures of women which it contained, the time when they would put their little paintings on the table before them in order to examine them at their ease, discuss the qualities and the expression and, magnifying-glass in hand, smack their lips over the piquancy of the anecdote represented. It goes without saying that so-called miniature-painting was then in great favour; but the carefully-executed subjects, details and figures, the natural poses, lively presentation and warm colouring and, especially, the clever little lights and touches, so very comformable with the spirit of the subject, are all qualities which we can even now afford to appreciate.

And yet his sketches, heightened with sepia, often show something that attracts us still more. A swiftly-grasped movement, such as that of a girl pulling on her slipper with one finger, bending slightly aside, her shoulder thrust back in the doing of it; a flute-player; a soubrette hurrying past on her high heels; a fragile figure of a woman recovering after her confinement (in the completed picture, the young husband bends over her, while a healthy peasant-woman nurses the child): these are the figures in his sketches, which we find repeated in his favourite subjects, reproduced in a bright, life-like and natural style.

A time came, a time was bound to come when people had had enough of these anecdotes, of these stories in paint, when they were no longer able to laugh at the ready-made gaiety of these pieces. This was the time when the masters of the Hague school offered their inner vision for our contemplation instead of an anecdote, when the depth of emotion of the Barbizon painters, the epic simplicity of Millet, the large view of nature of Daubigny, the more rugged greatness of Rousseau and the tortured Dupré, as contrasted with the classic Corot, made their influence felt. It was the time, too, when the Marises, with the magnificence of their conception of things, against which Bles seemed so trivial, and with their purity and their wealth of colour, when Israëls, with the biblical grandeur of his interiors, Bosboom, with the sober stateliness of his churches. Mauve, with his simplicity, saw the world from a nobler standpoint and rendered in pure plastic form not so much external objects as the depths of their own feeling.

Time is just.

The pictorial qualities for which, at this or that time, a given painter has been valued remain the same. His good qualities are often thrust into the background, because of a change in the accepted formula; but, at each new turn of the road we catch a fresh glimpse of the former period, which is then weighed and frequently valued anew. But what can never be made good is the sorrow that must needs be felt by a painter who, after passing through years of triumph, is forgotten in his own lifetime. David Bles died in 1899, too early to witness the revolution which has once more enabled us to see what was good in the days before the coming of the great Hague men.


If we place David Bles side by side with Bakker Korff, the Leiden painter (and there is due reason for the comparison), we feel inclined to compare the subjects of the first with a spicy French farce and those of the other with a drawing-room play at a girls boarding-school, performed mainly for the sake of the "dressing-up" involved. David Bles's pictures are seldom complete without some allusion to la vie galante aforesaid, whereas Bakker Korffs afford a genial laugh at the affectation of the pompous and stately old spinsters, with their scent-bottles, bonbon-boxes and fiddle-faddles, continuing the greatness of their forefathers in the sumptuous decoration of their houses, chatting and enjoying themselves with friends who resemble them in every respect, waxing sentimental over a forgotten ballad, sitting rapt in admiration round a fine fuchsia or a bowl of gold fish, talking scandal, arch, simple, but always with a suggestion of that same "dressing-up" and always seen with the eyes of a painter of still-life. It is in this that the value of these little panels lies. The Saxony soup-tureens, the lacquered Chinese urn-stands, the flounced skirts, the black silk aprons, the costly tea-services, the motley carpets, all reproduced with cunning touches of colour in a dignified, eighteenth-century living-room, the faces with the prominent noses, the little curls on the temples and all the coquettish gestures of the old belles who had been flirts in their day, the delicious effects of light, which Bakker Korff employed so sparingly, but to such good surpose, the firm painting and witty brushwork, with something of Meissonier in the drawing: all these cause him to rank perhaps a little higher than David Bles, even though the latter displays more variety in his subjects, more expression in his figures and more point in his anecdotes.

Alexander Hugo Bakker Korff was born at the Hague in 1829, attended C. Kruseman's studio together with David Bles, H. ten Kate, Jan and Philip Koelman and Vintcent, took lessons under J. E. J. van den Berg at the Hague Academy and afterwards worked in the studio of Huib van Hove. His first pictures consisted of biblical and historical subjects: life-size figures, exacted by the classic painters in imitation of the antique statues, as though there were no salvation outside the giant cartoon. He excelled to better purpose in smaller compositions drawn with the pen, after the manner of Rethel and Flaxman. And, soon, driven to the painting of miniature-pieces either because of his near-sightedness or because of the taste of the day, we find him at Oegstgeest, far from all schools of art, taking up that genre-painting in which he was essentially himself and for which his unmarried sisters sat as voluntary models. Although the pictures with many figures are more interesting, I prefer the single figures for their colour-scheme: it is more unconstrained and often contains more tone. I know a little piece in which a portly person of the middle-class, in pink cotton, is mending a calico coverlet. The woman in this bright pink contrasting with her black apron, with the many-coloured coverlet on her lap, against the elaborate background of an old-fashioned kitchen, or else a single delicate little figure, all in white against a rich background: these are the pictures that stand highest as specimens of his powers. He is also admirable in such pieces as The Mischief-maker, The School for Scandal, The Fuchsia, while, of his larger works, The Ballad is perhaps best-known, because of the engraving. Less well-known is a still-life picture of fine glass seen against a mirror, a problem which seems hardly solvable, but which he was nevertheless able cleverly to decipher. Bakker Korff himself regarded this as his best work. He died in 1882 and, though his work too was disregarded for a time, it is now valued more highly than that of Bles. It is something that both escaped the soapy influence of Cornells Kruseman.


As much cannot be said of Bakker Korff's pupil Herman Frederik Karel ten Kate (1822-1891). His pictures illustrative of the Eighty Years' War appear, at first sight, to be treated in lively fashion and a certain roughness of colour gives them a spurious air of strength. But, on reconsideration, everything about them the colour, the workmanship, the composition becomes tedious and nothing remains but a considerable adroitness. His soldiers, clad in mail or jerkin, endowed with huge jack- boots, drinking, dicing, courting the wench at the inn, are all cut from one pattern and, though we know that their costumes are authentic, they remain stage characters in a stage scene. Herman ten Kate's was an affected method. He lacked the certainty of workmanship which give Bles's subjects their pictorial value. Nevertheless, his work was greatly sought after and he was personally highly respected.


Johan Mari ten Kate, born in 1831, his younger brother and pupil, borrowed his subjects from child-life; his work is often weak and, at the same time, a little exaggerated in the conception of it. Mari ten Kate's best work consists of the studies which he made at Marken with his brother Herman.


Allebé may be regarded as the fine painter who closes one period and introduces a new one. He belongs to the anecdotal painters in so far as his subjects are concerned, while the composition and the execution of his best works approach very near to the finest that we possess. It is owing to the distinguished quality of his talent that this artist, who, for some years, has practically ceased production, is rated perhaps even more highly in this twentieth century than when he was most constantly at work.

Allebé is a born painter of cabinet-pieces. These are well-considered compositions, often endowed with a touch of anecdote, at times romantic, but rarely sentimental. One would have to collect all his works together in order to trace any sort of gradual development. To judge from what we know and this is constantly increasing in volume in proportion as our admiration increases of late years he is one of those artists who confirm the rule that a man is either an artist or not. All that we do know is distinguished by a certain completeness. The subjects are interiors such as that with the little old Brabant woman winding up her clock, a more or less witch-like type which he repeated later and strengthened by adding one of those tortuous, stretching cats which often recur in his work. Would you see how a little picture such as this is painted? You can tell neither where it begins nor where it ends. Muther once said of Menzel that he added up with too many small figures. The same remark, differently applied, might be made regarding Allebé, were it not that every detail of the treatment in his case is covered with so delicate a gloss, while all those tiny dots of colour are mingled so inextricably that it is hopeless to look for any weakness.

From the point of view of the effective distrubution of light, The Well-watched Child at the Rijksmuseum stands highest of all Allebé's pictures. The subject is an old-fashioned farm-house, containing dwelling and stable in one. In the background is a cradle with a child, watched over by a placid cat, a cow and a number of yellow chickens, which trip close past the cradle: a deliciously homely and delightfully-painted slice of life, enlivened by the rays falling from the skylight upon the cradle and deepening all the colours in the foreground, so that the blue becomes bluer, the green real, mellow grass-green, and the scene of the cradle, the cat, the cow and the chickens, with a few objects around, placed in the full light, forms the centre of the picture.

Auguste Allebé was born in Amsterdam in 1838 and received his first lessons at the Academy. Later, he followed the course at the École Normale in Paris, where he learnt much of Mouilleron, the wellknown lithographer, and it is perhaps to the latter's lessons that we owe those immaculate lithographic portraits of Allebé's, which are models of simple, unaffected draughtmanship. Together with Jamin and Maurits Leon, he worked for two years in P. F. Greive's studio, subsequent to which came his Early in Church, formerly in the Van Lynden collection. In 1868, he went to Brussels and, on his return, in 1870, was appointed professor at the State Academy of Plastic Art, under De Poorter, whom he succeeded as director on the latter's death in 1880.

Many have regretted the fact that this fine painter, with his pronounced talent, should, after ten years of success and general appreciation, have abandoned his artistic career. Perhaps, at first, he flattered himself that he would be able to combine the two callings and allowed himself to be persuaded accordingly. But, even as he had been a conscientious painter, so now he became a careful and scrupulous teacher. The two were not to be combined and the artist was swallowed up in the professor. And, however much we may regret this from the point of view of our national art, it is not for those who have enjoyed his teaching to complain: the excellent pupils whom he has formed bear witness, in many respects, to the culture that distinguished his teaching.

His years of study and his principal years of work, from 1860 to 1870 (although some of his best water-colours are dated after 1870), coincided with those of Matthijs, Jacob and Willem Maris and with the time when the masters of the Hague school, while preparing for the full flight which they were to take after 1870, had already produced some of their most finished work. It was a time rich in promise, strong in reserved force; for the Hague school it was the burgeoning of the buds, the beginning of a spring which was soon to burst into full blossom and become a luxurious summer of latter-day Dutch art.