Dutch Art in the Nineteenth Century/The Reaction of the Younger Painters of Amsterdam

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227902Dutch Art in the Nineteenth Century — The Reaction of the Younger Painters of AmsterdamAlexander Teixeira de MattosGerharda Hermina Marius


The Reaction of the Younger Painters of Amsterdam

A crisis came.

There were many who did not see it. Many refused to see it. Others, who did, almost refused to believe - so great was their instinctive hatred of the new that were to supplant the old ideals; and yet they were bound to accept it, because this new form of artistic utterance forced itself upon us with an undeniable cleverness, with strength and conviction, with an overwhelming importance. The formula adopted by the new men was not intimate, was not "pretty," did not captivate the eye, rarely betrayed a mood of some sort. What they sought for was a more decorative composition; what they wanted was a more concrete form; what they longed for and found was line, outline, a reaction that must necessarily follow upon a form of art that dissolved its lines in atmosphere, subjected colour to the influence of light and regarded a line merely as the division between two pieces of colour. It was the reaction by virtue of which an art of outlines was as inevitably bound to succeed an art of mere brushwork as the conventional music of Beethoven was succeeded by Wagner's more outspoken phrases.

And so it came about that a race of painters arose between 1885 and 1890, formed at the Amsterdam Academy under the guidance of the conscientious Allebé, who impressed a whole generation of younger men with the stamp of his culture. The men of this race or generation soon showed that they were determined to seek a road for themselves, each according to his own nature, rather than follow feebly in the footsteps of the Hague masters whom they all so greatly admired. Most of them were figure-painters, either from personal inclination or because of their training.

The reaction of these painters, known as the reaction of 1880, moves within a period of ten years. Their names are Van Looy, Van der Valk, Voerman, Haverman, Derkinderen, Toorop, Witsen, Karsen and Veth. If we wish to sum up the endeavours of these artists in a formula, it may be expressed as a mistrust of any sort of impressionism, of any passion or painter's enthusiasm, a mistrust sprung from a reaction against the inane and feeble imitators of the Hague school, against the impressionism which Gerard Bilders went so far as to think that he could see in the imitations of the Barbizon school, and, consequently, as a conscious striving after form, pronounced line and purity of colour.

Jan Pieter Veth was born at Dordrecht in 1864. As a child, he used to draw historical subjects, perhaps in consequence of the spirit prevailing in his father's house, where Potgieter was much read; perhaps also through the influence of Ary Scheffer. He went to the Amsterdam Academy in 1880 and exhibited portraits of his sisters in 1884 and 1885. These and his other painted portraits, including those of Dr. de Vrij and of Mr. Lebret in the Dordrecht Museum, are clever works and show power of colour analysis. They belong to an early transition-period which soon made room for portraits aiming more exclusively at the reproduction of expression and character and were often inlaid and paint-drawn rather than painted in the strict sense of the word. The same reasons that led to the great development of his critical powers caused him also to adopt a critical method of painting, that is to say, to portray heads showing character, to seek for the causes that bring lines and wrinkles into a face, to enter into the minds of his sitters. It goes without saying that his method was most successful when applied to eminent men who had distinguished themselves in any sphere of activity.

In 1892, the portraits of well-known contemporaries published in the Amsterdamsch Weekblad attracted general attention. They were lithographs by Veth, the painter, who was just becoming known at the Hague, but who had already made a definite name for himself in Amsterdam through the personal note of his portraits. One of this series, the little portrait of Jacob Maris sitting at his easel, was a revelation not only as a likeness of the painter, whose head, in full-face, reminds one of Jupiter, while, viewed in profile, the round forehead and the peculiar blue eyes show something at once refined and childlike, but also on account of the manner in which, after many years, photography had again been beaten by drawing pure and simple. Not all were executed in the same way: some were in outline, others elaborately drawn, others again set down in the old-Dutch fashion. Some were rather exaggerated and looked a little forced when seen beside Allebé's simple and complete little portraits. But still they were so characteristic, they showed such perfect grasp of the nature of the model (as in the portraits of Louis Couperus and of Dr. Frederik van Eeden) and they were so much admired by the Hague men that, later on, they often detracted from the appreciation that would otherwise have been evoked by his painted portraits. It is a remarkable thing that this painter, who so greatly admires Jozef Israëls, the brothers Maris, Bosboom and Mauve, should have deliberately turned aside from any of the magnificence or display which they showed in their work. He was like an ascetic, who knows how to value the pleasures of life and yet rejects them.

These psychological portraits, in which character-analysis is so clearly visible, must, necessarily, often be more attractive to the philosophical spectator than to the sheer painter, who, moreover, frequently considers that portraiture does not come within the scope of pure art. Nevertheless, Veth has proved himself a master in this series of portraits, not only by his search for the intellectual qualities of the sitter, but by his systematic construction of the portraits, in which good modelling of the head, minute and careful drawing, expression and will-power are evident. We must needs make our choice and it is difficult in our day to reconcile one of these complete representations of character with a portrait painted with a free brush. At the same time, we must remember that Veth is still young and it is quite possible that he may wish to acquire in his painted work something of that quality which he so greatly admires in the masters of the Hague school.

One of Veth's pupils is Miss Johanna Cornelia Hermana (Nelly) Bodenheim, who was born in Amsterdam in 1874. She made her first appearance in 1896, in the Kroniek, with a coloured lithograph, a sort of illustration to a well-known folk-song, in which she recalled the middle-ages in fresh and simple colours, without pomp or display, but with the same candour as the song itself; and I can only hope that she will not forsake this style altogether in favour of her clever and amusing illustrations to our national nursery-rhymes.

Miss Walburga Wilhelmina (Wally) Moes, born in Amsterdam in 1856, the painter of Laren interiors, although a pupil of Allebé and Richard Burnier, deliberately chose Veth as her leader, both in the modelling of the features as in general style, with the result that the expression of her women and mothers often acquires something very sensitive. Dutchwoman though she be, her talent often leans towards the German, inasmuch as her work is painted for the sake of the expression of the subject rather than for the sake of the general effect or of the colour.

In this respect, she resembles Louise Eugenie Steffens (1841-1865), a Catholic painter who died very young, not, however, before producing a few excellent pictures, convent-scenes or genre-pieces, all more or less German in sentiment.

Hendrik Johan Haverman was born in Amsterdam in 1857. He entered the Academy in that city in 1878 and, two years later, began to attend the Antwerp Academy under Verlat. Afterwards, he worked for a time in Brussels, where he admired Henri de Brakeleer and Stevens and was impressed by the powerful tradition of Jordaens, and then, not feeling certain of his own strength, returned to Amsterdam, to work under Allebé, from whom he received private lessons at the Academy. He painted mainly from the nude; and, although as early as 1880 he had sent a town-scene for exhibition from Antwerp, he made his first real start with figure-painting. To judge by The Flight, which he presented to the collection of modern pictures in the Amsterdam Municipal Museum, his style at that time was dry and his draughtsmanship correct rather than lifelike; yet this was a good foundation, upon which he worked at a much later date and more nearly approached the reality and beauty of the nude. He had learned a great deal at the different art-schools; but, like nearly all who have passed through a complete academic training, he had to drudge long before he was able to achieve anything of importance and before he discovered the formula which was to reveal him to himself.

He returned from a trip to Spain, Tangiers and Algiers, in 1890, with a number of studies and small paintings, remarkable for striking realism, well-painted and broadly-conceived. In 1892, he made in wash, on a small scale, a full-length portrait-study of an uncommonly fat female figure, which he exhibited at Arti in 1893. The happy thought of reproducing the stoutness of this large sitter, who is wearing a tea-gown, of expressing the exact truth and yet producing an harmonious whole by means of careful colouring attracted the attention of the younger men. It is this frankness, this representation of a person not as what he should be, but as what he is, as himself, as what even his friends do not know him to be, it is this revelation of personality which distinguishes Haverman even as, in another sense, it makes Veth remarkable.

Other important portraits followed Dr. van Delden, Dr. Birnie, Richard Bisschop, the artist's wife until, in 1897, Haverman began to draw portraits of "celebrities of the day" for the then newly-started (and now no longer existing) monthly, Woord en Beeld. And, although wood-cuts rarely do justice to an artist and it is to this day to be regretted that he did not himself prepare the lithographs for the press still it is the original drawings for these reproductions that have made him a permanent name.

If I were to compare the two most successful portrait-painters of late days, Haverman and Veth, I should say that, in the drawn portrait, Haverman's powers are more virile, the focussing of the features on the whole more sure and the likeness often sharper, whereas Veth, who searches rather for the mind of his sitter, draws out not so much his strength as his gentleness and goodness. That there are exceptions goes without saying: Veth's portrait of Dr. Kuyper, the late premier, and Haverman's Portrait of Mrs. S. are cases in point.

Antoon Derkinderen was born at 's-Hertogenbosch in 1859 and grew up under the majestic shadow of its cathedral, where both he and his father sang in the choir. It was, therefore, by no accident that he was the first in our country to dream of monumental art, the first to achieve success in it. Moreover, his father was a goldsmith; and in his father's workshop he admired the monstrances and ciboria which were sent there for repair. He was brought up at the State training-school for school-teachers at the Bosch, where instruction was given in the arts of music and drawing, and he afterwards continued to receive drawing- lessons from J. P. Stracké, the sculptor, who was the director of the Royal School of Arts and Crafts in the Brabant capital. In 1880, he entered the Amsterdam Academy.

Imbued with the Catholic spirit, he went to Brussels in 1882 to work in the Royal Academy under Portaels. While there, he received his first commission, to paint a religious and commemorative fresco for the church of the Amsterdam Béguignage: The Procession of the Miraculous Blessed sacrament as held in Amsterdam up to the sixteenth century. Never was ecclesiastical painting executed in a more pious and joyful mood, more pervaded with the spirit of the Te Deum, as personified in this procession bearing the Blessed Sacrament along the shore of the IJ, with the shipping of the commercial capital for its background.

Nevertheless, the painting was not approved of and was indeed refused by the church. If Derkinderen had remained within the circle in which he spent his childhood and his first youth, if he had never known and admired the pictures of Puvis de Chavannes, if, above all, he had retained his early admiration of the services of the Catholic Church, his ideas would have been conceived in the spirit rather than according to the letter of Puvis de Chavannes and he would have understood that the works of Puvis, with his conception of colour, would have been as much out of place in a Roman Catholic church as a Fra Angelico in a Pantheon. Even though the church in the Béguignage were whitewashed in the style of the Reformation, a picture of this description has to serve for devotional purposes: its colours must harmonize with the stained glass and the brilliant vestments; it must keep its form and colour in the twilight of the columns and in the pale candle-light. And then too the young painter might gradually have developed into an artist who would have helped to raise the Catholic Church out of the slough of chromo-lithography into which she had sunk. This pale-golden painting, as it now stands, owes its origin almost entirely to a Germanic feeling and gives an exquisite representation of the religious life of the time, as seen through modern eyes that are themselves yearning to believe.

The paintings at the Bosch, which rank at the present moment as Derkinderen's finest works, owe their origin not so much to the wishes of his fellow-townsmen as to the initiative of a few amateurs. The dignity and distinction with which the artist, following the old chronicles, has, on the first wall, depicted the founding of the city in pure architectural forms make this work the master-piece of a transition-period, a master-piece in which the great lines of history are imbued with the spirit of the building of the city until they form an harmonious and truly monumental whole. The second painting, representing the construction of the interior of the cathedral, has more logical quality if regarded as a fresco, inasmuch as the whole design is on one plane. Yet it cannot be denied that the somewhat Byzantine character of the subject robs this work of that pious simplicity which makes the two earlier paintings so attractive.

Among the different forces and ideals of this age, Jacobus van Looy occupies a place apart. Born at Haarlem in 1855, he is a true artist, whose pictures, in spite of their strong brushwork, have nothing in common with those of Breitner or Isaac Israëls. Van Looy first made his name as a writer of stately prose, in which he describes external things in such a way that they stand out, as it were, in the full glare of everyday life, a prose which becomes purely plastic in the hands of this painter in words, even as it is purely lyrical in those of Lodewijk van Deyssel. Those who know his prose know the subjects of his pictures. Both are the outcome of his impressions and are as closely related as are Rossetti's pictures to his sonnets.

He was one of the first in our country to make a study of the daily life of the streets. Take, for example, his Peepshow; or a barrel-organ, in a back slum, with a group of fat Jewesses and street-girls dancing to its strains, amid effects of light that remind the spectator of The Night Watch. His colouring is often unreal and betrays a search after colour in the studio; but the action is taken from everyday life and seen with the eyes of an artist.

He was brought up for a carriage-painter, studied under Poorter and Allebé at the Academy and was subject to no other influences. His greatness is due to the power of his painting, but as an artist in words he is greater still: the prose of his Spain has perhaps never been surpassed in our literature. Who shall fathom the complex nature of this positive and strenuous painter-author?

Jan Voerman, born at Kampen in 1857, is, after Van Looy, the oldest of this younger generation. His first work, produced and exhibited in 1882, was a genre-painting of Jews, painted in the heavy manner of the Amsterdam school, a cleverly executed study. But his native preference was for landscape and nature: in 1883, he began to paint impressionist town-scenes and flowers; in 1889, he settled at Hattem and produced those pure water-colours of violets or azaleas in coloured ginger-jars, exquisitely drawn, full and dainty in form, which were to be seen at the exhibitions of the Sketching Club and of which an example now hangs in the Mesdag collection. Voerman was an impressionist and nothing more in those days, although he was already beginning to feel that he would need a different formula to express his own nature. By degrees he grew to understand that the work of the Dutch painters was not pure enough in colour; and he was struck with this fact more especially by observing the contrast between the works of Maris and Toorop and those of all the other artists at an exhibition held at Arti in 1891 or 1892. He had not visited an exhibition for years. It now became evident to him that he must alter his methods; and from that day he began to paint everything with pure colours and to mix as little as possible.

This simplicity, which the works of Maris and Toorop made manifest to him, expressed itself in his productions in a very different way. His Irises, shown at the Utrecht Exhibition of 1892, revealed a purity of colour, a beauty of form which, for the first time, perhaps, rendered the firmness of the petals with justice and already exceeded the efforts of a Jaap Maris. And afterwards, both in the exquisite lines and colouring of his La France roses in a crystal bowl and in his later landscapes, all painted in a kind of wash-coulour, his style (perhaps against his own will) approached Toorop's more nearly than that of Jacob Maris, to which, in point of fact, Voerman's method but rarely showed any resemblance.

Eduard Karsen, born in Amsterdam in 1860, should no more than Voerman be said to belong to the Hague school. If he did, it could be objected that his treatment of his pigments is not supple, his manner uninspiring, his view of things narrow, that his colour would be more properly described as negative, that his work is lifeless, while the melancholy which it breathes is not such as music can give us; and yet, despite all this, there are few who, like Karsen, understand the charm of still-life, few who so well know how to reproduce the dark side of nature, that contracted side which tends so greatly to sadden sensitive characters. This is the spirit in which he renders those silent North-Holland farmhouses, lying in their heavy masses on the wide fields, or those small low houses by the side of the canals, lonely and still, mirrored in the water as though waiting for the coming of the night.

To the names of these artists must be added that of Pieter Meiners, who was born at Oosterbeek in 1854 and died in 1903. He had an impressionable talent, though he made no great name for himself and left but few works behind him. He was a pupil of his father (himself a comparatively unknown painter) and also of the Amsterdam Academy, which he left with a pronounced feeling for form, softened by the supple touch of the Hague Masters. He produced carefully-observed pictures of still-life, notable for their silky tone, their inoffensive composition, their light shadow, their striking technique. His work was peculiarly placid and seemed never to have cost its author an effort. His talent was not great, but he had the good taste to make no endeavour to force it in any way.

In 1885, the younger men founded the Netherlands Etching Club, with Jan Veth for their president. This promotion of the arts of drawing, etching, lithography, of black-and-white work generally, to an honourable position was to the later generation all that the Sketching Club of twenty years before had been to the Hague men. The result was that the etchings of the Hague masters, of Israëls, Jacob and Matthijs Maris, Mauve, now saw the light of day; that the crayon-sketches of these masters were rescued from studio corners; and that, above all, graphic art once more began to enjoy the consideration of the art-loving public.

True, we had two professional etchers, one of whom, Jonkheer Carel Nicolaas Storm van 's-Gravesande, born at Breda in 1841 , a pupil of Roelofs and of Félicien Rops, had, long before this club came into existence, made himself a name at home and abroad by a set of distinguished etchings, nearly all of them of Dutch river-scenes. The other was Philippe Zilcken, born at the Hague in 1857, a pupil of Mauve and, like Jonkheer Storm, a painter, but, first of all, an etcher. His etchings after Thijs Maris' A Baptism in the Black Forest and Alfred Stevens' La Bête au Bon Dieu are triumphs in their way. His original etchings include a number of well-known profiles in dry-point.

When the Etching Club was founded, Willem Witsen, born in 1860, at once established his reputation as a great etcher by his series of open-air figures in the manner of Millet or Mauve. And, in spite of his water-colours and oil-paintings - his London bridges, his Millet figures standing out distinctly marked against the evening sky, his characteristic old Amsterdam houses - Witsen, like Bauer, is an etcher first and foremost and builds up his paintings and especially his water-colour drawings from subjects seen with an etcher's eye, with the same firm hand, the same preference for the massy, the same distaste for detail, the same powerful line and the same pure sense of values. Nevertheless, his pictures lack the compactness, the charming effects of light and shade which he succeeded in giving to his monumental London etchings produced between 1888 and 1891.

Witsen also lapses occasionally, as a painter, into the style in which the last word has been spoken by Breitner and this is not the style in which one would prefer to see him work; but I am inclined to think that this will prove to belong to a transition-period, for a man who has been able to produce such master-pieces as the London etchings and water-colours must needs have at his beck both ideas and powers which he will set forth for our admiration in his own good time.