Dutch Art in the Nineteenth Century/The Younger Masters of the Hague School

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The Younger Masters of the Hague School

All who followed the older masters of the Hague school based their methods upon them at the start and in this sense, therefore, followed in their footsteps. But the more powerful figures in this second generation, as soon as they were able to dispense with the crutch of the older men, struck out lines of their own. Their names are Bauer, Breitner, Isaac Israëls, Van der Maarel, Kamerlingh Onnes, Suze Robertson, Tholen, Verster and De Zwart.

George Hendrick Breitner, born at Rotterdam in 1857, was the oldest and also the most vigorous of his contemporaries. He was a pupil of Willem Maris, whose broad smooth touch he applied, together with the colour-schemes of Jaap Maris, to a more passionate colouring in his charges of cavalry, in his artillery seen in profile against the sky-line, powerfully built up, with the long foreground represented clearly and evenly in forcible tonalities. He is, above all, the painter of movement, whose artistic bent inclined him towards the depicting of the bewildering bustle of military life: mounted artillery-men displaying their outlines against the smooth sky, or galloping down the dunes, full of screaming yellows and blacks, of horses and of the bright, white sand; or a shoeing-smith; or a halt by a Brabant homestead, one of those moments in the manoeuvres which he would attend sketch-book in hand. Afterwards, it drove him to paint the huge complication of the trams starting from the Dam at Amsterdam, with all its noisy life and bustle of motley pedestrians and passengers and vehicles, or else of overburdened coal-wains, standing out high and huge against the petty life of a still canal. These town-views are pieces of a magnificent naturalism, of a passion that contains none of the spacious quietude in which Jacob Maris sees the town lying under the fleeting clouds, none of the latter's melodious harmonies, none of his symphonic view of nature, but rather a modern instrumentation, in which the brasses prevail. For Breitner is essentially a modern painter, who, coming from the restful Hague, must needs have been impressed with the great movement of a capital city; a passionate painter for whom it was reserved to reproduce in large and mighty and truthful strokes the monumental greatness of the old town and also its modern street-life, with the dissonance of the shrill street-lamps, the brightly-lighted shops, glaring through the peace of the evening, shining fiercely upon the passers-by, turning the wet asphalt into a mirror in which the figures are lengthened in an unreal fashion.

But for us who acknowledged Breitner from the beginning it was finer than all this to watch him on the drawing evenings at Pulchri Studio, in the little sketching-room, with the tobacco-smoke floating up to the ceiling and obscuring the model. There he sat fixing a water-colour, holding the drawing-block between his ankles, dripping the paint from his brush according to its true values. And in a moment there would come into being the white of an apron, the blue of a soldier's uniform, amid the admiration of those who stood gathered round this perfect virtuoso in colour.

This was in the Hague time of his period of storm and stress, when he painted as and because he must. I remember later an occasion at the short-lived, but uncommonly distinguished art-club on the Keizersgracht in Amsterdam, how Lord Leighton's Phryne compelled our admiration by the magnificent soundness of its qualities and how we were in the same moment impressed by a brilliant colour-sketch of Breitner's, a woman in yellow with a withered tulip in her hand, painted entirely with an eye to beauty. It was thus that Frans Hals painted his master-pieces: The Laughing Cavalier, the corporation-pieces at Haarlem; thus that Rembrandt painted The Lesson in Anatomy: not thinking of the public, disregarding commercial values, from sheer love of beauty, following nature's promptings alone. And it was thus that Breitner, who, in the matter of his tones, is himself an old master, painted that woman with the black cat, painted those portraits of himself in that warm, yellow tone, painted those firm, yet delicate, living flowers, painted those powerful Amsterdam studies from the naked model.

Although his artistic training was very different from that of Jacob Maris, Breitner never ceased seeking for means to overcome his defects of form. And, notwithstanding the effective hints which he received from that fine horse-painter, Rochussen; notwithstanding the fact that he passed an examination in intermediate drawing (he used to say that, if you stood in the Veenestraat pelting people with potatoes, nine out of every ten men hit would have one of those certificates in his pocket: nevertheless, his own enabled him to give a course of lessons at Leiden, where, among others, Floris Verster was his pupil); notwithstanding his having painted for twelve months in the studio of Willem Maris, who then lived at Oud-Rozenburg; nay, even after he had already made an absolute name for himself among the younger and even among some of the older painters of his time, he resolved to go for two years to the Amsterdam Academy, to learn drawing under Allebé. I know not in how far he here found what he had come to seek; but one thing is certain: he saw Amsterdam, was smitten with its strenuous life, became the great painter of the great city and never returned to the more contemplative Hague.

If Breitner, in his later paintings of moorlands on the bright outskirts of Amsterdam, was obliged to subordinate his rich tonalities to a more open technique of line, Suze Robertson, on the other hand, born at the Hague in 1857, although more closely related to him at the start, was able not only to retain, but even to increase the wealth of her palette. Nearly all the painters of the Hague school lost the Intensity of their colour in the search for light in a wider aspect. She, who can hardly be called a landscape-painter, except in her little views of Noordwijk, of which she only borrows the form to employ it as a subject for her colourful temperament, has made splendid studies of figures in her studio, worked up occasionally to something very complete, as in the little dark figure of a girl seen against a yellow silk background, a subject which, thanks to its heavy modelling and its heavy tone, became a quite exceptional and independent artistic utterance. Combined with great technical qualities, she has displayed this wealth of ripe tones both In oils and In water-colours, a feeling for colour that is visionary rather than realistic. Her models do not command the gloriously outspoken veracity of Breitner's: they approach more nearly Rembrandt's conception; and I doubt whether Suze Robertson has ever admired any Rembrandt more than the Suzanna in the Mauritshuis, seen through her own rich temperament.

She is of the same age as Breitner; but, although born at the Hague, she hails by origin from Rotterdam, the great commercial city on the Maas. Like Breitner, she began by passing her examination for intermediate education at the Hague Academy and, like him, began by giving lessons. Her circumstances compelled her to remain first for six years at the secondary girls' school at Rotterdam and for one year in a private intermediate school in Amsterdam.

If Thérèse Schwartze may be described as the most famous Dutch female painter of her time, Suze Robertson is undoubtedly the greater artist, perhaps the only woman of our day whose femininity betrays itself in her art not as weakness but as strength. In 1892, she married Richard Bisschop, the painter of church-interiors.

It is a remarkable fact that Isaac Israëls, who, born at the Hague in 1865, grew up as much as or even more than Breitner in the florescence of the Hague school, never really belonged to it. For, when he began, he was first attracted by soldiers (I do not know if this was in imitation of Breitner) and painted them according to his own ideas, in small, compact, daintily-drawn pictures, independently of his father's work and very cleverly for so young a painter. At the same time, he produced some very delicately-painted little portraits of women, including one with a park for its background, without troubling about any considerations of plein-air. Still, these portraits were noticed only by a few in a time of broad brushwork in portrait-painting and it was the scenes of military life that made his name at a comparatively early age. His picture of colonial troops on the bridge at Rotterdam had a success in Paris.

How he brought himself to fling away what he had achieved before he had found a new pair of shoes to fit him I do not know; but one thing is certain, that the Amsterdam Academy, Amsterdam life, the influence of the literary movement that circled round the Nieuwe Gids, that this half-literary, half-pictorial, but in any case wholly intellectual life was well-adapted to change his point of view. In Paris, he would have belonged to that array of immense draughtsmen who reproduce the life of the boulevards with so much sadness, but also with so much refinement of form. With us, he also became a peintre de mœurs; but through it all, in spite of himself, there gleamed the impressionism of the Hague school. He began by making chalk-drawings, straight from nature: canals with figures, streets seen from some well-placed window; and in these very first drawings everything had disappeared that one used to admire in him: they were clever scrawls and scribbles, snapshots that presented an interesting glimpse of Amsterdam, without supplying anything new, unless we except The Kalverstraat. The first important production was The Dancing-house, an interior showing a stifling atmosphere, where, in a thick haze, sailors stare at women spinning round, a sickening episode, crudely and inexorably outspoken, like a scene from Zola, while in that perturbing painting, Women smoking, he displayed types that belong to the most naturalistic pages of our nineteenth- century art.

We must not look in these works nor in any others of his later period for the harmony of the great Hague men his masters, nor for their colouring, their sheer beauty, their charm of workmanship, their well-balanced composition. Nor again must we look to find in him a subject developed into a complete picture. What Isaac Israëls aims at is to seize the moment, the movement, the street types, the street life forming part of the streets, of the town. He is essentially one of the younger men, endowed with more sensitive nerves and less balance than the Hague men, a son of his time, a son too of Jozef Israëls the psychologist.

No more honest artist exists; and, like that virtuoso of the brush, Manet, he might have said, in the catalogue of his first exhibition:

"Come here to see not complete, but upright work."

He sacrifices nothing to commercial values; one knows of no concession made by this restless worker; he adds nothing conventional, nothing acquired by knowledge or experience to his work. The faces are characterized with a stroke or two; the figures and the whole episode are reproduced with a genuine realism which is never touched up in the studio or elaborated into an imposing colour-scheme. His work is one long array of human documents, unique in our country for their unvarnished truthfulness. Nevertheless, in quite recent years, he has produced works which show that he is adopting a more synthetic manner of seeing and a more monumental, though always life-like mode of expression.

Pure landscape-painting is represented in this generation by De Zwart and Tholen. Willem Bastiaan Tholen, born in 1860, was, like Voerman, denied the privilege of being born at the Hague or, rather, of growing up there amid the riot of beauty to which the work of the great masters contributed daily. Both of them were natives of Kampen and received their education first under Hein, the landscape-painter, who was not able to instil much life into his pupils, and later under J. O. Belmer, the painter and drawing-master, who, newly-arrived at Kampen, encouraged his pupils, prepared them for the Amsterdam Academy and reconciled their parents to the idea of bringing up their sons to an artistic career. At the Hague and even in Amsterdam, it is easy to become a painter, almost too easy, in fact. But in the smaller towns, which possess no academies, no animated art-life, no picture-galleries, we cannot show sufficient appreciation of a painter who, compelled by circumstances to accept a position as local drawing-master, displays a true love of his art and devotion to his pupils. Tholen never fails to admit that, without this guidance, he would never have become the man he is. All his later masters might have been different; but he would have been nowhere without Belmer. After the Academy, he took Gabriël, then still in Brussels, as his master. This choice is an early characteristic of the practical painter that Tholen has since become.

Practical, sure of himself, learning in the midst of his admiring commerce with the Hague masters, Tholen made an early name with a couple of water-colours of the children's playground in the Scheveningen Woods. Later, at an exhibition of the Dutch Drawing Association, he showed the interior of a dairy, in which the reflections of the brass milk-pails, the white walls and a touch of blue were carried to a pitch of uncommon purity. Perhaps even more elaborate was The Butcher s Shop, an admirable interior with a vista, which, thanks both to the execution and the water-colour treatment, gained the admiration of all painters, young and old masters alike. A country-house in a labyrinth of bushes and bracken, green-houses, a toll-house, Scheveningen streets, the Scheveningen canal may be numbered among his most precious water-colours.

Tholen's work shows no trace of an endeavour in any other direction than the picturesque. From the first, he proves himself a sound and powerful landscape-painter, whose streets and landscapes, with their boldness of construction and brightness of tone and firmness of line and colouring, tell all that they have to tell, without ever degenerating into illustrations. He is one of those painters who dare to be themselves, who place strength above feeble sentimentality, who do not consider our Dutch art of landscape-painting to be bound to any one formula and who do not object if they are called cold because of their cool expression of a fact, for the reason that they are convinced that strength and not weakness is their motive power. Years passed in which his work was sent straight to England, so that we but rarely saw anything of it. At present, his subjects are taken to a great extent from the Zuider Zee or rivers. And, if a change be perceptible in his work, this is in consequence of the reflections in which a painter often indulges at about his fortieth year, the age when we throw off the influences received from without and recover our own natures.

Tholen's nature is not an expansive one and therefore his merits as a painter are not always equally obvious. And, in the ever-growing admiration for a more fixed art, for the older men, he, with the best of the younger masters, stands alone.

Willem de Zwart, who is before all a colourist, was born at the Hague in 1862. He was a pupil of the Hague Academy and, what is more, he is, in point of fact, the only direct pupil of Jacob Maris. The influence is seen in his "Sand-pits" of about 1885 to 1890. Mellow, firmly-painted, bright and full of tone, these sand-pits, lying in the yellow dunes under the grey skies, reflected in a canal, enlivened by the movement of sand-boats and navvies, belong to the best that he has yet painted. At that time, he was living at the Hague in the Beeklaan, a favourite quarter with artists, lying between the dunes on the one side and the fat fields, canals and farmsteads on the other. Here he would also surprise us with his figures of women, full of the breath of life, like Breitner's women, like Jacob Maris' portrait of his sister, like Terburgh's women, although less refined. And, above all, he was the first to turn into a sheer feast of colour the bright squares of the town, with the gleaming black panels of the passing carriages, pieces filled with rich tones, thoroughly intelligent performances which, nevertheless, did not go beyond the just demands of landscape-painting.

A turning-point arrived in his career too. This was when the Hague ceased to be the artistic centre, when Breitner and Isaac Israëls were settled in Amsterdam, when Bauer went to Bussum and when De Zwart himself had gone to Hilversum. Was this for private reasons, or to enter the environment of the younger Amsterdammers, or from the longing for the country, for solitude, that drove the strongest to seclusion? One thing is certain, that De Zwart had his work cut out for him to recover his "form." He drew in chalks, he etched, he painted, until, a few years ago, he again began to produce paintings which attracted notice through the robust, not always harmonious colouring, through the powerful draughtsmanship which he displayed in somewhat Old-Dutch subjects, such as a Poultry-market, a water-colour, or in bright-coloured little interiors, or in pictures of slums. From that time, he has shown comparatively little connection with his master or with the traditions of the Hague school.

The talented colourist Johannes Evert Akkeringa, born in the isle of Banka in 1864, though not a pupil of De Zwart's, belongs to his school. He studied at the Hague and Rotterdam Academies and has produced supply-painted little pieces figures, dunes, flower-gardens real little cabinet-pieces, which are greatly valued and yet are modern, like something lying half-way between De Zwart and the earlier Rochussen. He has this in common with all the younger painters of the Hague school, that he has not yet said his last word.

Van der Maarel is a colourist of a different type from either Breitner or Mrs. Bisschop-Robertson. Verster, in his colour period, and Voerman, in his early flower-pieces, both had something in common with him; nevertheless, Van der Maarel's aspirations in the matter of form and colour find a different expression. In reality, he is more nearly related to the Venetian masters, with their passionate love of colour, than to the Dutch. I remember, many years ago, seeing a figure of a little Italian girl by Van der Maarel, leaning against the stone balustrade of a Paris bridge, with a grey sky just broken up by harmonious orange. The purity of the red in the little figure and the charm of colour in the sky at once attracted the attention of the younger men, whereas some of the older painters did not think it worth while to make so much fuss of a bit of sky like that, which anyone might have painted in a happy moment.

Van der Maarel is also, is, in fact, before all a painter of portraits; at least, he has produced his most important work in this direction. Yet he must not be regarded as a professed portrait-painter; for the demands of this branch of art are not, in his case, confined to a more or less simply-painted counterfeit presentment nor to that penetration into character which leads to psychological portraiture. For him, a portrait, even as a still-life piece or a landscape, is a piece of temperamental art, a problem in colour, so much so that he is unable to start upon his portrait, has no inclination to do so, before all the conditions of tonality in the face of his model and in the environment selected by him are such that they respond in a measure to the painter's own sense of colour.

Marius van der Maarel was born in 1857 at the Hague and began by attending the Hague Academy. Afterwards, he became a pupil of Willem Maris. Thanks to the distinction that marked his efforts, to the taste and refinement of his art, he was, in his earlier years, a leader of many. Bauer, in his richly-painted pieces of fashionable life, Verster and several others underwent the influence of this painter who had been fully formed at an early age. The superior colour-arrangements of Anna Adelaïda Abrahams (born in 1849), the still-life painter, may be regarded as belonging to his school, while, as a direct pupil of his later period, we can reckon Frederik Salberg (born in 1876), who, up to the present, follows his master's ideas in figures and flowers.

Floris Henric Verster, born at Leiden in 1861, is rather difficult to understand. No sooner do we think that we have caught the intention of this pure artist than he changes his formula; and, when we penetrate this, he comes up with a work so directly opposed to the last that we are constrained forthwith to change our second conception for a third. Vermeer of Delft was called the sphinx of our seventeenth-century painting. I do not wish to suggest a direct analogy; but it must be admitted that Floris Verster is our latter-day sphinx, who, refusing to allow his riddles to be solved, poses a new riddle with each new picture.

In 1887, he produces a work representing two plucked fowls on a newspaper, painted in cool, firm tones of an original order, yet closely related to De Zwart and Jacob Maris: a master-piece, this drawing. Next, with mellower pigments and in deeper tones, he paints hollyhocks, with something of the passionate enthusiasm of Breitner. Then he changes his colour-scheme for more cruel tones in red and purple anemonenes, in pale-violet chrysanthemums, blood-red tulips, deep red and yellow roses and amaranth phlox, colours that suggest passages of Berlioz' Faust. Again, after turning over so many new leaves, he produces his gourds, his eucalyptus, his flowering branch in a Japanese vase, executed in childish detail with a wax-pencil: powerful, this, but suggestive of a woman picking out a flower on a tapestry; beautiful, but so coldly beautiful. Then, suddenly deserting his spontaneous landscapes, he builds you up his houses and streets and churches carefully, brick by brick. What next? Yet all these different phases are the work of one man, spring from the temperament and the sense of colour of one artist, intelligent always, a fine and true painter in his first, a turbulent painter in his second period and, in all, a distinguished master of the technical side of his art, who has undoubtedly not yet shown us his last formula and is keeping many exquisite surprises in reserve for us.

Menso Kamerlingh Onnes, born in 1860, is first and foremost a flower-painter, though he has also painted portraits. He, in his turn, has enlarged the technique of water-colour. Herein lies his strength. He is like a conjuror with his water-colours, with his solutions of colour, his fluent colours, in which he is able to produce his flowers with diaphanous delicacy. None of our artists is able to juggle with technique in the way that he does. And, although technique is far from being everything and his work often springs rather from a sort of cleverness than from an endeavour to represent what he sees or feels, yet he has given us, for instance, a drawing of quinces on a white plate, in a simple arrangement of yellow-green, white and a touch of black, that has seldom been surpassed as a pure reproduction in water-colour.

Marius Alexander Jacques Bauer was born at the Hague in 1864. He was a pupil of the Hague Academy, but received his real training at the hands of Jozef Israëls' friend Salomon van Witsen (born in 1833), a painter who produced but little and whose knowledge and impartial judgment rank higher than his painting. From his earliest days at Pulchri Studio, Bauer seems to have held the "muddy ditch" style in abhorrence; for what we know of him consists of glimpses of a music-hall, or an elegantly painted piece taken from a suburban restaurant. He was much talked about, but worked little. When, on his return from his first visit to Constantinople in 1888, he brought back with him a view of a town in chalks and water-colours, this was considered really inadequate for one of whom so much had been heard. True, the foreground had something of the dry treatment of his rare Pulchri-Studio sketches; but, at the same time, the composition of the many-cupolaed city, seen in the distance against a yellow sky, was full of suggestion, both as regards form and, especially, in the matter of the conception, which caused an oriental city to spring up on the horizon in all the haziness of a Dutch town.

Bauer, who had little in common with the Hague painters, sought to find a common standard abroad; and, despite the great difference, despite the eastern subjects amid which Bauer, the Hague man, prefers to move, despite the fact that he is more of a glorious imaginer than a mighty painter, we can look upon him as springing from the Hague school. For not only does he display Rembrandt's manner in his etchings, not only is the influence of Bosboom's drawings very evident in his work, but he has "seen" and reproduced the East after the manner of a painter of the Hague school, of one who has grown up under its masters.

Certainly, no one can expect of an occidental that he should see the East with the fatalistic impassiveness reflected in the art of that region. Nor can one expect that every one who visits the East should contemplate it with the same eyes. In how many different ways has not our simple, methodical Holland been viewed by foreigners? I have heard of travellers who have disliked Egypt because the Sahara does not differ greatly in appearance from our dunes, while the dust provides an equivalent for the atmosphere of our country; whereas others will never cease dilating upon the glaring white of the sunlight on white walls, upon the light blue shadows under the motionless blue of the sky, a view which shows that not every one shares Bauer's acceptance of the East. It is true that to many northern natures the East is often a sentiment rather than a fact, a longing for mother earth, a craving for miracles, for the land of the Bible, a dream of Paradise. And, if we are convinced that all art proceeds rather from self-recognition, then it follows that intuitive natures are able to feel and see the East, without ever having been there. Delacroix for many years produced his scenes of the East, full of the colours which we associate with that world, from studies of the local colour brought home to him by a friend. And, while it is true that the dream is often fairer than the reality, yet there must also be artists, impressionable natures, who, going to the East full of expectations, but free from prejudices, have gazed upon the land with admiring eyes and returned overflowing with impressions.

I would include Bauer among the latter. It was about 1889 that he produced a swarm of etchings, studies, impressions, drawings, little paintings, a medley of bright green, hard pink, Indian yellow and Persian blue; scrawls of colour from which emerges a street, a troop of cavalry, a procession; or else an undecipherable harmony of grey-white, blue-white, rose-white, brilliant colours in subdued tones, whence arises Stamboul with its bright cupolas, like a flock of sheep rounding themselves against a pale copper sky; or, again, the caravans, biblical in their primeval surroundings, marching or halting, camels, riders, loads: one of them stands silhouetted against a town merged in twilight.

In later years, he saw Egypt: his realistic Sphinx dates from this time; it is faithfully drawn, spaciously observed. In 1896, he travelled through British India, delighting in the monumental character of the country, in the symbolism of the buildings, of the cities reflected in the Ganges. Bauer is said to have always dreamt of illustrating the Arabian Nights in their entirety. He could not do so in a livelier, more real, more fantastic way than he has already done in the colours which he makes us feel in his etchings.