The American in Holland/Amsterdam as Brain Stimulant

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The American in Holland by William Elliot Griffis
Amsterdam as Brain Stimulant

Amsterdam furnishes a tremendous brain stimulant to the student of American history. The city recalls cradle memories of the founders both of New England and of New Netherland. Here is one of the first homes of our nation's chief glory, - religious freedom.

Bright and clean as is this most smart city in the nineteenth century, - brilliant as one of the diamonds cut and polished on its own mills, - yet my thoughts are not at first on the present, but fly back to the days of liberty in religion fought for, won, and intrenched here, when England wanted no such dangerous stuff.

Leaving Lyra and the ladies for a morning in the shops and the Burgomaster Six's gallery of paintings, I started at once to find three sites, the Pilgrim quarters, the place of the martyrs, and the Brownist's alley. We are all to meet again at four P.M. in front of Rembrandt's "Night Watch" in the Rijks Museum, and then go to drink five o'clock tea in a home on the Heerengracht. Harada hies to Leyden to see Professor Abraham Kuenen. In the evening we shall both call on Dr. Abraham Kuyper. Of the Reformed theological world in Holland, these eminent men are the antipodes. Each one is father of the faithful among seekers after truth.

Dr. Abraham Kuyper

In every Dutch city one can buy at the bookshop a platte-grond, or ground-plan of the streets. With this in hand it is easy to find the points sought, especially if one knows a little polite Dutch.

From the Dam, the old core of hard land, once inside the mediæval burg, or castle walls, I started for long rambles in the Kalver Straat, the Beguin Hof, Doelen Straat, the Nieuw Markt, Bloed Straat, Barndesteeg, Brownisten Gang, down to the Schreyer's Toren, and thence to the Dam again. All these are names and places luminous in that story of Dutch freedom which is part of our American inheritance. As on a rosary, we tell the beads and think of more, - our fathers refugees from England for conscience' sake, the blood shed and the bodies burned, the little street of the "Brownists," and the Weeper's Tower, call up again the martyr, the Pilgrim, the Henry Hudson and Half-Moon story. Then, by tram-car, from the Dam we reach the Rijks or National Museum.

First impressions are powerful, whether of the ocean, Niagara, or Fuji San, especially when joined with sudden surprise. In the level lights of later afternoon, when everything swam in a sea of that golden-brown glory which Rembrandt loved to put on his canvases, I passed up through the hall, corridor, and gallery of the Rijks Museum. Unexpectedly, and in a moment, I stood before the great picture popularly called "The Night Watch."

The effect was electric. My soul was fascinated. Here was the miracle of genius. Reverent admiration was the overpowering emotion of the moment. I wanted neither to speak nor to hear a word. "Come thou, expressive silence, muse His praise."

What a splendor of color, perfection of figure, depth of perspective, glory of composition, delicacy of detail! Descriptions, criticisms, panegyrics, - a hundred times over had I read them. All were as nothing in the presence of the splendid reality. Before such a triumph of one Dutch painter's genius, for the moment, at least, America's glories paled. She has no Rembrandt and no art like this.

Amsterdam is the place for the study of this Shakespeare of color, light, and shade, this greatest of the northern painters.

I found that to know Frans Hals one must go to Haarlem ; to see Jan Steen and Paulus Potter one must visit the Hague; but here in Rembrandt's own city are the mightiest of his mighty works. What a marvel was this child of genius, Rembrandt van Rhijn. Born in Leyden in the year that saw Jamestown founded, he grew to manhood while the founders of Massachusetts were enlarging their souls with his in the same heroic city. He painted this, his most wonderful work, in 1642, when thirty-five years old. This was in the year before the New England Confederation, and when the Dutch Republic was in its bloom. The picture, which measures eleven by fourteen feet, is set near the ground, suggesting admirably the life and motion of Frans Banning Cock's Company of Doelen, or Targeteers, who are marching out of their Doel, or Guild House, into the sunlight, to practice at the butts on the Singel. This is not a "night watch," but a day picture. Traditional or popular names given to paintings are often as misleading as the chapter-headings set on by printers and dogma-makers in the Bible; or as in the newspapers, where the editor's headlines do not correspond with text or fact.

What a grand interpreter of elemental forces, both in nature and in the human soul, was Rembrandt! He set on canvas, in line and color, exactly what the Dutch peasants believed about Christ and the holy things of Scripture. He was a realist of the first order. He would be satisfied with nothing but ultimate actualities. He honored the human intellect and the right of the individual, apart from privilege and corporations, to interpret things elemental, eternal, and divine. How this truth-loving interpreter must have delighted in the text, "I make light, I create darkness"! The cavernous deeps in his perspective fascinate the eyes that look often into them. His chiaroscuro seems to be perfect. With naked truth and that love of it characteristic of the Teutonic occidental, he yet delights in an oriental splendor of color and decoration.

It is most interesting to study Rembrandt's works in the order of time and note the evolution of his power. It is a sweet surprise to greet the pretty face of Saskia, his beloved Frisian wife, as she appears and reappears in many of his pictures. Often she is loaded with jewels and the richest oriental fabrics. How splendid are Rembrandt's golden-brown tints! How richly does he combine the total effects of the oriental masters of color with those of the western masters of line and form! Some of his paintings show that he reached the secret of the Japanese artists; while with the harmonies of Hindoo coloring he must certainly have been familiar. I recognize umbrellas, fans, dainty keramics, and bricabrac from Kioto and Nagasaki, in not a few Dutch pictures of the seventeenth century. In one, Saskia holds a Japanese parasol.

Look at the weapons. Fascinating is the study of the evolution of the leaden arrow from flint head, through bronze and iron point and barb, steel-headed bolt, round and cylindrical bullet, to the long-range rifle shaft of our day, - Mauser or Krag-Jörgensen. In Rembrandt's pictures the arquebus, or bow-gun, is becoming a musket. In the stock we still behold the sunken place between the butt and the trigger. In the old days of clumsy machinery one had to get a good grip with all his fingers upon the neck of the stock, so as to be able to cock his musket and even to fire it. The hair-trigger is the fine nerve of centuries of evolution. The Murata rifle of Japan, with a breech-movement delicate enough for a lady, but which would quickly come to smash in the hands of British soldiers, fits exactly the taper fingers of the little men of the Orient.

Note also the prize to be given to the winner. The girl in the picture is holding up a cockerel. The gift of a capon, presented by a richly attired young woman, was as common in those days as is a silver coffee-pot at present. Rare is the Dutch picture of outdoor life which does not have a chicken of some kind on the canvas. In that which shows the Pilgrims leaving Delfshaven, perhaps painted by the Cuyps, - wherein my friend Mr. George H. Houghton, R. A., its discoverer, declares, with great plausibility, that he can pick out Captain Miles Standish and Elder Brewster, - there is in the background the inevitable fowl. In Hondecoeter's pictures we have the genius of the greatest of Dutch painters of feathered life shown. He did for our "little brothers of the air" what Landseer has done for dogs, and Verboeckhoven for sheep. No artist has so glorified the parental love and care of speechless creatures as this master.

I could look at but one picture that day. I was even glad to pass by the miles of paintings in the Rijks Museum. However, to oblige our kind Dutch convoy, we spent some time before his particular favorite. It is by Rembrandt, and depicts an old woman, probably the artist's mother. The perfection, the face lines, wrinkles, and flesh tints show fascinating reality. The lady seems to have just finished speaking. Leaving her, I turned once again to gaze at the supreme picture, until the whistle of the orange-collared custodians sounded five o'clock. Then, with reluctance, we all departed.

Soon in the home of one of the young bankers of Amsterdam, who lives on the Heerengracht, our interest is less in the liveried butler, ancestral portraits, grand old heirlooms and furniture, massive and invitingly cosy, than in his wife, the bonnie madonna of the steaming cups, as she brews and pours fragrant tea. Beside her heart-warming welcome, she chats in faultless English. Soon Lyra, whose thoughts have flown back over the Atlantic, pleads to see the children, who are yet invisible.

The light of mingled pride and delight breaks over the young mother's face as she taps the bell and orders down the platoon. Five recruits and a maid answer the call. Flaxen hair, blue eyes, white arms, and dimples are soon "in evidence." Four are boys. One, the oldest, is in a naval suit; one is in the nurse's arms; and one, the fifth, is a tiny maid. The two older answer our questions in good English. All bear themselves handsomely, the little ones receiving the caresses of Lyra, - who is suspected of fondling them vicariously for her own babes left behind in Boston.

"May we?" is hardly spoken before our hostess divines our wish and says, "Will you?" A trip upstairs to the nursery gives opportunity to enjoy the sight of this our first, but not last, introduction to the penetralia of a Dutch home. The play-room is a child's paradise. The governess teaches but one of those four languages, Dutch, French, English, and German, which almost every educated Dutch gentleman or lady is able to speak. We meet also a sister of our convoy, who is married to a grandson of the historian and novelist, Van Lennep, whose works so many Americans, besides millions of Dutchmen, have read.

To this lovely home we have since come again and again, but this our first was also - even though I saw the Queen come to her enthronement - our greatest day in the Netherlands. In the gladness of fresh surprise we have had our introduction to Holland's two greatest treasures, - her art and her home life. Can any nation on earth excel the Dutch in these? How pretty their own proverb, - "One God, one wife, many friends."