Gateway to the Classics: The Story of Dutch Painting by Charles H. Caffin
 
The Story of Dutch Painting by  Charles H. Caffin

The Old Order Changes

T HE forty-five years, following the abdication of Charles V, yielded no indication of the harvest of painting that was to signalize the succeeding century. The earlier half of the period embraces the work of Pieter Aertz, first of the distinctively Dutch genre painters, and the latter half sees the growth to manhood of the portrait-painters Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt and Jan Anthonisz van Ravesteyn, while the whole period covers the active life of Jan de Bray. He, like the other two, was an honest but entirely uninspired portrait-painter; and it was not until nearly the end of the century that three men were born who were subsequently to become notable. These are Frans Hals, Jan van Goyen, and another landscape-painter, less well known, Hercules Seghers.

It was a period, indeed, solely of upheaval and preparation, during which the ground was plowed, harrowed, and fertilized, while its old landmarks were being removed, new boundaries established, and a new proprietorship asserted and exercised. It covered, moreover, the whole of Philip the Second's miserable reign.

This monarch, tiring of the atmosphere of the Netherlands, soon withdrew to Spain, whence for the remainder of his life he attempted to govern the distant provinces as a satrapy, through vice-regents, military commanders, and bishops. His aim, as became his father's son, was autocracy over the lives, fortunes, and consciences of his subjects. But, to do him justice, it was their own good, as he saw it, that he labored and intrigued for: to purge them of heresy and retain them within the fold of the Roman communion. For nothing is to be gained in the way of understanding the temper and conditions of that day by regarding Philip as an inhuman monster. Judged by the manner of our own time, he may seem to have been; but, judged by the tenacity and unscrupulousness with which men still cling to what they believe to be their rightful privileges and pursue what they are convinced is the dictate of their conscience, he is seen to be but a natural product of the mental and social conditions of his day. He was a recognizable and for a time even tolerated part of a system that men as yet had not thought of disturbing.

It was so, at first, that the citizens of the Netherlands, even William, Prince of Orange, regarded him. They held his overlordship sacred, even while they opposed the acts of his official representatives. They expected to be roundly taxed, but at the same time to have the machinery of their local government of free cities and Estates-General unimpeded; and it was against the interference with this on the part of Philip's mercenaries that they first remonstrated. For, in the pursuance of his policy of riveting Roman Catholicism upon the Netherlands, Philip had induced the Pope to create more bishops and archbishops, to uphold whose hands in the extirpating of heresy four thousand Spanish troops were to be retained in the country at the expense of the Estates. The latter and the cities remonstrated, and the troops were withdrawn, though the Inquisition continued its fell work. So matters drifted until 1566, a memorable year in the story of the rise and growth of Holland.

The Flemish nobles, though Roman Catholic to a man, drew up a "Compromise" and pledged themselves to resist the Inquisition. William of Orange, also a Catholic, though he had married a Protestant princess, Anna of Saxony, and would later change his profession of faith, instituted a secret system of espionage in Madrid over the acts and counsels of Philip. Then the League of Nobles, Orange assisting in the wording of the document, presented a "Request" to the vice-regent, praying that the edicts against heresy and the Inquisition might be withdrawn and the management of affairs restored to the Estates-General. Its presentation drew from one of the vice-regent's counselors, Berlaymont, the expression: "Is it possible that your Highness can be afraid of these beggars?"

Three days later the dissentient nobles were entertained at a feast by Brederode. When the enthusiasm was at its height, and the guests were debating on a name and a watchword, the host let drop among them Berlaymont's contemptuous phrase. At the same moment he produced a beggar's wallet and bowl; and, slinging the one over his shoulder and filling the other with wine, called upon all present to drink to the Beggars. The word was caught up, and from man to man the wallet and bowl were passed round, until all had enrolled themselves in the Beggars' ranks. Then, at the height of the excitement, the counts Orange, Horn, and Egmont entered the room. They were compelled to drink to the pledge and, although they immediately retired, were henceforth marked for Philip's special revenge.

Later in the same year the "Image-breaking" occurred in Antwerp. It was unpremeditated and in its occurrence unguided: the spontaneous explosion of latent passions smoldering in the mob; the spark that kindled it, the annual procession and parade of the image of the Virgin. Scoffs and ribaldry were succeeded by horse-play, which involved a rough-and-tumble fight among some of the mob that filled the cathedral. The excitement grew. The mob, surging in and out of the building, began to mock an old woman who sold images of the Virgin at the cathedral door. She retaliated in kind, and from the bandying of words the mob and their victim proceeded to the hurling of missiles. A riot was averted for the moment by the arrival of the margrave and senators; but, when evening came, the cathedral was still occupied by a mob, now bent on mischief. The image of the Virgin was the first object of its fury, which, however, soon spread to a wholesale wrecking and desecration. The sacred vessels, the glory of stained glass, and the intricate beauty of carved work—every object of beauty that had made this one of the richest shrines of religious art in Christendom—were irretrievably destroyed. The blind, unreasoning fury, thus aroused, spread to other cities. Philip retaliated with another fury, coldly and calculatingly horrible. Alva was despatched with ten thousand troops, and the so-called Spanish Fury was inaugurated.

The first victims were the counts Horn and Egmont, William of Orange escaping into exile. A Council of Troubles, or, as the Netherlanders called it, of Blood, was established, and in the six years of Alva's stay eighteen thousandand six hundred persons were put to death. These were irrespective of those who fell in armed resistance. For in 1572 the Beggars of the sea took Brill, and a little later drove the Spanish garrison out of Flushing. It was the signal for revolt. Nearly all the cities of Holland and Zeeland declared for William of Orange, and, in an assembly of the Estates at Dort, voted funds for a war, directed, however, even then, not against the sovereignty of Philip, but to the expulsion of his soldiery. The fortunes of the patriots were checkered with more defeats than victories, but meanwhile the Spanish operations were impeded by lack of money; the troops depending upon the pillage of an impoverished country and the occasional sack of a city, while the treasure-ships of Spain were being intercepted and her commerce continually harassed by the Beggars of the sea. So Philip sparred for breath, and through his vice-regent agreed to the withdrawal of his troops, a treaty to this effect being signed at Brussels in 1577.

William, however, was too convinced of the duplicity of Philip to be a party to the treaty, and persuaded the northern provinces to refuse their assent. The struggle was continued, punctuated by the Union of Utrecht, in which the Estates agreed upon a Dutch republic; by Philip's rejoinder in the shape of a ban declared against the life of Orange, with a price of twenty-five thousand golden crowns upon his head; and by the counter-movement of the patriots. This was the declaration of Dutch independence, formally issued at The Hague on the 26th of July, 1581.

To ideas that had been slowly but steadily accumulating under the pressure of dire facts a formulation had at last been discovered and a name given. A new word had been uttered in the world, that was, as the centuries advanced, to be echoed and reëchoed and to be fruitful in newly advancing ideas. Comparable only to it, in modern history, was the word spoken sixty years before by Luther at the Diet of Worms. And now the doctrine of the responsibility to itself of the conscience, with its allied doctrine of religious freedom, had been completed by the political doctrine of the responsibility of government to the governed, and its allied doctrine of a nation's right to the choice of its own form of government. But, just as the idea must be in labor until the word for it is delivered, so the word itself is but a battle-cry, the fruits of which are painfully and slowly won. The labor of Holland's actual independence, begun fifteen years before, had yet to be protracted sixty-seven years.

Hitherto all the hope of the patriots had centered in William of Orange. In declaring their independence, they offered him the crown. Partly to prove the disinterestedness of his motives, still more perhaps because he believed that the final release from Spain could be effected only by putting the new state under the protection of France or England, he refused the dignity. Fortunately, however, France continued to be a reed on which no dependence could be placed, and the English help, when it did come, was indirect. Meanwhile, Philip's ban was still out against the Stadtholder, and an attempt was made upon his life. He was shot in the face, but recovered from the wound, to fall a victim, however, two years later, to the pistol of one Balthasar Gerard. The tragedy occurred on July 10, 1584.

It had removed the chief obstacle to Philip's success. Maurice would worthily succeed his father in the generalship of the war; but the brain and conscience, the unswerving patience and unselfishness, that had given some reality of union to the rival elements of the United Provinces, were buried with William the Silent. The exaggerated individualism of the several provinces and cities would have put them at the mercy of Philip, had he not himself been distracted from any singleness of purpose by the same cause. His own exaggerated egoism, inflated with the ambition to be a world-power, prevented him from concentrating his efforts upon the subjugation of the republic. He still strove to force his influence upon the affairs of France, and meanwhile made preparations to subdue England.

Thus Elizabeth, much as her Tudor instinct may have shrunk from the idea of encouraging rebellion against kingship, was induced by her advisers to make common cause with the Dutch against Spain. She refused their offer of the crown, but lent them money and some troops under the command of Leicester. He proved inefficient as a general, and, while a few names, such as that of Sir Philip Sidney, stand out heroically, England's real contribution to Dutch independence was indirect. It was Drake's incessant harrying of Spanish ships and ports and the destruction of the two Armadas that distracted Spain, broke her power of offense, and hastened the exhaustion of her waning resources. Thus the struggle with the provinces continued on land, but became more desultory, while of the sea the Dutch had practically undisputed mastery. The result was an accession of adventurous spirit that, while it failed in the attempt to discover a Northwest Passage, established settlements in the East Indies, wore down the competition of the Spaniards in the trade of those regions, and inaugurated a condition of extraordinary commercial prosperity.

Meanwhile Philip's long reign of forty-three years was drawing to a close. In May, 1598, he handed over the Netherlands to his daughter and son-in-law, the Archduke Albert, and a few weeks later died. It is sufficient for our present purpose to recall that the prolongation of the war on behalf of the archduke by various generals, including Spinola, was stopped by the bankruptcy of the attacking parties. A truce of twelve years was agreed to in 1609.

Such was the background of events that preceded the birth of a new art in Holland. A new nation had been formed, and the circumstances which attended its formation had a direct influence in shaping the character of the new art. That it involved a departure from the decorative grandeur and the religious motive of Italian art was an incident of the Dutch having repudiated alike the Roman Catholic form of worship and the ceremonies of a regal court. Almost equally incidental was the fact that the artists were limited to subjects drawn from the personages and conditions of life within their own borders; were influenced, in fact, to become realists. This, I repeat, was incidental and not unexampled, for realism was at the same time revived in Italy and continued in Spain. The fundamental thing was to be the character of Holland's realism; and this was a direct product of the national events we have been describing. For it was a symptom of the general character that the people had been forming in itself during more than half a century of nation-building. It was essentially a moral character.

I need hardly say that I do not use the word "moral" in its narrower sense, but to the full extent of its suggestion of a stout fiber of conviction and purpose that habitually promotes integrity of conscience and determines the conduct of a nation or an individual. It is nearer to our borrowed word, "morale." It is the product, I take it, primarily of a great and worthy pride in oneself, and then of loyalty to the best in one's self that such pride engenders and makes necessary. It is what an artist, least of all men, can afford to be without; for his work is necessarily an expression of himself, and, if he has not morality in the sense we have been describing, his work will inevitably betray the fact and prove the weaker for it. No artist in any medium can maintain a bluff. Even if it hoodwinks his contemporaries, posterity will "call it."

Now, in the case of Holland, the struggle for a great principle, persevered in against all discouragements, had gradually established in the nation just such a morality, which during the years of the truce and for some thirty years later was to demonstrate its value in practically every department of human activity. To higher learning and research, to the practical affairs of life, such as manufactures, commerce, banking, engineering, agriculture, and dairy-farming, to questions of disease and hygiene, and to the systematizing of the legal relations as well of nations as of individuals, the Dutch brought the application of a new principle, substituting for empiricism and laissez-faire  the method of approach and treatment that we now call scientific.

It is a term, by the way, that from time to time has been assumed to be antagonistic to morality; whereas, if properly considered, it should and does surely represent a morality of the most exacting and, frequently, the most disinterested kind. One after another, then, the Dutch in those days of newly realized nationality confronted the problems of intellectual, material, and social progress, bringing to their study a keen analysis, and handling their solution with integrity and thoroughness. With morality such as this conspicuously abroad in the community, it would have been strange if her artists had not reproduced it in their own special field; if to directness and sanity of vision they had not brought a scrupulous artistic conscience, that resulted in integrity and thoroughness of craftsmanship. That certain of them at some period of their careers deviated, as we shall see, from this high standard does but emphasize the existence of the latter, which, too, was reached, not by a few individuals, but by the artists as a body; so that in no other school of painting can you find such wide-spread excellence of technique. This, indeed, if we may anticipate the sequel, proved to be one of the causes of the school's subsequent decline. Technique came to be pursued as a motive. But this was itself a symptom of a deeper cause—the freshness of the original motive had been outworn, its vigor slackened. The nation itself had by that time lost the simple directness of its early ideal and become enamoured of the sophistries of a world-wide ambition.

But to resume the thread of the story. At the commencement of the new century Hals was sixteen years old; Daniel Seghers, eleven; Van Goyen and the portrait-painter Thomas de Keyser, four. The train, in fact, was already laid for a new kind of portraiture and for a new motive in painting—that of naturalistic landscape. Otherwise the men destined to be the most representative of the new school were as yet unborn. With the opening of the century, however, their names appear thick and fast, and continue to arrive for forty years; after which the list of those conspicuous in the annals of the Dutch seventeenth-century school ceases. Dating, therefore, from Hals's birth in 1584, the period covered is fifty-six years.

It is perhaps convenient for the purpose of assisting the memory to divide the first forty years of the new century into two parts: the first ending in 1621, with the conclusion of the twelve years' truce; and the second with the marriage, in 1641, of the Prince of Orange's son, William, to the eldest daughter of Charles I of England. The historical aspect of these two periods in relation to the story of art may be considered after we have reviewed the names of the principal artists whose births they contain.

The earlier division, then, includes the greatest name in the art of Holland, one of the greatest in all art, that of Rembrandt, who was born in 1606. The latter is the birth-year also of the flower-painter Jan van Heem, while the preceding years of the century disclose the names of the marine-painter Simon de Vlieger and the landscape-painters Salomon Ruisdael and Aert van der Neer, and Palamedesz, painter of genre. The year 1610 gives us Van Ostade and the landscape-painter Johannes Both; 1611, Ferdinand Bol and Willem van de Velde the Elder; 1613, Wouwerman and Gerard Dou; and 1615, Govert Flinck and Jan Wynants.

Here we may check the routine of enumeration to note another great name, one of the most distinguished of the Holland School. It is that of Gerard Terborch, born in 1617. He is followed, in 1619, by the landscape-painter Philips Koninck and the portrait-painter Bartholomeus van der Helst. To them succeed in 1620 Aelbert Cuyp and Nicolaes Berchem, followed in 1621 by Eeckhout and Allart van Everdingen.

This enumeration does not pretend to be exhaustive. The aim has been rather to include as few names as possible, so as to simplify the study by concentrating attention from the start on those which are most representative and most often met with. After familiarizing one's self with these, it is comparatively easy to add to their number and to place the newly acquired ones in their chronological relation to this preliminary list. The same motive determines the selection for the second period.

It begins in 1624 with Carel Fabritius; but the following year discloses a name that in the Holland School stands very close to Rembrandt, Jacob Ruisdael, and another name of great reputation, Paul Potter. To 1626 belongs Jan Steen. After the birth of this artist there is a pause of four years, when Gabriel Metsu and the still-life painter Kalf appear, to be followed two years later, in 1632, by a notable trio, Nicolaes Maes, Pieter de Hooch, and the most distinguished, Jan Vermeer of Delft. With 1633 comes the marine-painter Willem van de Velde the Younger, and with 1635 Frans van Mieris; while 1636 yields Adriaen van de Velde, landscape- and figure-painter, and the painter of birds and poultry, Melchior d'Hondecoeter. Finally, the painter of architecture, Jan van der Heyden, is born in 1637; Hobbema in 1638, and in 1640 the painter of animals and dead game, Jan Weenix.

If one glances back over the names of these two periods, it is to note some interesting suggestions. In the first place, one of the earliest names, Van Heem, and the last of the list, Weenix, represent painters of still-life. The fact emphasizes the hold which this branch of painting had upon the interest alike of the painters and their public, and the part it plays in the general work of the school. In our own day there is perhaps a tendency to underestimate the interest of still-life. "Only a picture of flowers or fruit or game," represents the feeling of many people on the subject. It is an attitude of mind, resulting from the habit of relying on the mind to appreciate a picture. Thus, as a subject for mental study, a bunch of flowers, a mass of vegetables, pots and pans and the like, may not be interesting. On the other hand, I think it would be a mistake to assume that the Holland public of the seventeenth century were free from this tendency; or to suppose that they regarded a picture as a thing to be viewed and to be appreciated solely through the abstract pleasure that is communicated by the joy of sight. As a matter of fact, they were actually interested in the objects represented in the still-life pictures. They were enthusiastic cultivators of flowers and vegetables, keen sportsmen, and shared with the women of their families a pride in all the objects of decoration and utility in their homes, so that even utensils of ordinary use were made and kept in a state of being ornamental. Accordingly, with that simple directness, characteristic of the race, they took a positive interest in the representation of such things. The latter were subjects of importance in life; accordingly, since their art was so intimate an expression of their life, they were welcomed as subjects for pictures.

The public also applauded the skill with which such subjects were rendered by the artists, and the latter, since still-life presented excellent opportunities for the display of craftsmanship, were glad enough to reciprocate the popular taste. Thus resulted what one notes as a second point in the consideration of Holland still-life painting: namely, that the artists freely introduced objects of still-life into their portraits. I cannot cite a more typical instance than the earliest military group-picture, by Frans Hals in the Haarlem Museum. Here the viands and furnishings of the banquet are rendered with at least as much gusto as the heads, and for the present with more assurance. Thirdly, it is easy to trace the influence that this joy in the representation of still-life had upon the evolution of genre painting in the Holland School and upon the particular character that it assumes. In fact, the interest in still-life subjects, with the influence it had upon the methods of the artists, was a most important factor in the development of the Holland School. Closely allied to it is the interest in portraiture.

How radically this interest affected the art of Holland may be gathered from another glance at the foregoing list of names. It is in the beginning of the new era, in the earlier division of names, that all the famous portrait-painters appear. Not to mention Rembrandt, whose genius was of the universal kind, embracing in its single scope the separated motives of other artists, we find the names of Hals, Mierevelt, Ravesteyn, Van der Helst, Terborch, De Keyser, Cuyp, Bol, and Flinck. On the other hand, among the names in the second list, selected without any parti pris,  there is not one of first or even second rank as a portrait-painter; only men like Maes and Netscher, who were primarily and far more worthily genre painters.

For it is the genre painters who form one of the chief distinctions of the later generation. It is true that Dou belongs with the earlier, and he was and still remains popular. But he is not in the same class as Vermeer and Steen, nor as Maes, Metsu, and De Hooch, scarcely as a painter even to be reckoned with Ostade. Indeed, he is nearer to Van Mieris and Netscher, the men in whose hands genre sank to a distinctly lower level. The only example in the earlier generation of a great genre painter is Terborch, who presents the exception, and a brilliant one, to the generalization I have suggested.

Another point of interest to be derived from this summary is the place that landscape takes among the motives of the Holland School. We see, in fact, that it figures at the beginning of the new era and continues to the end. Seghers and Van Goyen precede the century, which immediately opens with Salomon Ruisdael and Aert van der Neer, followed in the earlier division by Both, Wouwerman, Koninck, Cuyp, Berchem, and Van Everdingen. Then the second period opens with the birth of Jacob Ruisdael, and, including Potter, Adriaen van de Velde, and Vermeer (the last named with one known example), ends with Hobbema. Similarly, in the allied department of marine-painting, the century opens with Simon de Vlieger; Willem van de Velde the Elder follows, and in the later period the art is represented by Bakhuysen and Willem van de Velde the Younger.

As a matter of fact, in each field of motive the seed was laid in the beginning of the period under examination. What followed was a rotation of crops and an enriched development of each variety.


 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The End of the Old  |  Next: Beginning of the New
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2020   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.