Gerard Terborch, Jan Vermeer, and Jan Steen
T ERBORCH is the aristocrat among Dutch painters, Rembrandt excepted. But Rembrandt's is an aristocracy of genius, while Terborch's is an aristocracy of talent and temperament. He owed something of this to his father, who, besides being a painter, held an official post in his native town, Zwolle, where Gerard was born in 1617. The father had enlarged the horizon of his life by travel and the study of foreign languages, and the son followed his example. He was already a good draftsman, when he moved to Haarlem to study with the landscape-painter, Pieter Molyn. After three years spent in Haarlem, during which he experienced the influence of Frans Hals, he spent some time in England and later in Italy. Then followed some five years in Amsterdam, where he profited by the example of Rembrandt. In 1646 he went to Münster, in Westphalia, being present there during the negotiations of the peace, mingling with the delegates and painting portraits, which he afterward embodied in the famous group-picture, The Peace of Münster, now in the National Gallery, to which it was presented by the late Sir Richard Wallace. On the completion of this picture in 1648 he visited Spain and made the acquaintance of Velásquez and his work. Returning to Holland, he spent four years in Zwolle, and then, in 1654, the year in which he married Gertrude Matthyssen, settled in Deventer. Here he continued to reside until his death in 1681.
All these details of his career are pertinent, for they point not only to the various influences, successively of Hals, Rembrandt, and Velásquez, under which he came, but also to the scarcely less important fact that he had mixed with a variety of men of parts and consequence and become acquainted with various kinds of civilizations. His experiences enabled him to form a very distinguished technique of his own, and at the same time cultivated in him an extraordinarily refined taste and a very high regard for the dignity of human nature. In technique, taste, and point of view he became essentially a true aristocrat.
His portraits eminently epitomize these qualities. Usually very small in size, they suggest Velásquez in miniature; exhibiting the same discretion in avoiding unnecessary accessories, the same eloquent use of blacks and grays, occasionally relieved with old rose or blue, and, despite their minuteness, a corresponding breadth and distinction of fluency and simplicity. All these traits of technique are the expression of his attitude toward his subject, which is essentially one of respect for its humanity. This attitude is a rarer one in portrait-painting than might be expected. Certainly in the Dutch School one is not impressed with its prevalence. There is characterization, good, bad, and indifferent, and the suggestion of the subject's position in his or her social environment, but of the reverence for humanity as such, very little. Indeed, outside of the portraits by Rembrandt, Terborch, and occasionally Maes, I question if you will often find it.
A similar reverence for humanity and its environment—the product, I take it, of the artist's high-bred respect for himself and his art—distinguishes also Terborch's genre pictures. He began by painting guardroom scenes and continued to be fond of subjects in which officers and soldiers figured. Sometimes the circumstances are equivocal, but their salience is not enforced; indeed, as Bode points out, the models for the ladies appear to have been his sisters, while his brothers posed for the military. The scene and the occasion are but an excuse for a picture. In fact, the subject counts with him for very little; it is the pretext that it offers for pictorial representation in which he is interested first and last. And to this he brings an extraordinary degree of refined sensibility and of virile and at the same time exquisite realization.
The virility appears in the drawing and construction of his figures, to which Fromentin has paid so high a tribute in his analysis of The Gallant Soldier, in the Louvre. And, as the French critic points out, in discussing the representation of the man's shoulder and arm, it is a virility tempered with extreme sensibility. It has nothing of the improvisation of Hals in the following of surfaces, but rather Velásquez's mastery of plane-construction; only here, in the case of this small figure, it is not with the open palm but with most sensitive touch of finger-tips that we imagine ourselves discovering the reality of the form. Or, again, examine the wonderful example of drawing in The Concert of the Berlin Gallery, where the foreground is occupied by a seated figure of a lady, whose back is toward us, as she plays the violoncello. Even more remarkable than the fine structural reality of the figure is its play of expression, as it bends over the instrument and seems to be vibrating to the touch of the strings. Again, what extraordinary realization of action, at once broadly and subtly characterized, appears in the two figures of Officer Writing a Letter, in the Dresden Gallery; or, in the same museum, in the figures of the mistress and her maid in Lady Washing Her Hands; or in the action of the hands followed so absolutely by the gesture of the head in the Old Woman Peeling Apples of the Art-History Museum, Vienna! These are but examples, taken more or less at random, of Terborch's gift of drawing, which in its mingling of virility and exquisite sensibility is unsurpassed in Holland painting.
Nor less admirable is the marvelous unity that he imparts to the whole scene. Tonality has much to do with it, yet that is but a means. The cause is in himself, in the reverence that he has even for the accessories in his pictures; and the result is a harmony that is at once esthetic and intellectual. Mind, as well as taste, has ordered everything. All the artists of Dutch genre had more or less the faculty of heightening the value of beauty in the accessories they used; but none, not even Vermeer, to so extraordinary a pitch of artistic propriety as Terborch.
His discretion in the selection is so choice, and his feeling for arrangement at once so big and simple and so concentrated, that the presence of his own high-bred feeling pervades almost every interior he has painted and makes its privacy a thing of exquisite aloofness and, if I may say so, of consecrated self-possession.
Equally distinguished is Terborch's use of color. His gamut of local hue is larger than Vermeer's, and his treatment of values scarcely less subtle; while his feeling for color is, I believe, superior. He has the faculty of raising a local color to its highest power of esthetic suggestion; witness the lady's jacket in The Concert of the Berlin Gallery, a gallery, by the way, exceptionally rich in examples of this artist's work. To specify its color we may call it salmon, but this only vaguely suggests its place on the palette; the precise register of its hue and, still more, its quality are indescribable. Similarly evasive and yet profoundly suggestive is his treatment of blue, yellow, red, black, and the hues of gray from drab to pearly white. These are enveloped in tonality. For in this respect particularly Terborch differs from Vermeer. The latter in his most characteristic pictures shows himself a student of daylight. But in Terborch's pictures, so far as I recall them, there appears no window; the interior is dim, and the light has no pretensions to being natural. It is a studio invention, distributed or concentrated to suit the imagined scheme of harmony. Vermeer is, in the modern phrase, a plein-airist, while Terborch, true to the traditions of the Dutch School, is a tonalist. It is in the invention and realization of his tonal scheme that he is the superior of the other genre tonalists, and the reason in the final analysis is that to taste and technique he brought the refining discretion of a superior quality of mind.
Johannes (Jan) Vermeer of Delft
Johannes or Jan Vermeer, who is also called Johannes van der Meer of Delft, was born at Delft in 1632. His life was spent continuously in this city until his death in 1675. There are records to show that he studied with one of Rembrandt's pupils, Carel Fabritius, and that he was not only a high official in the local Guild of St. Luke, but highly esteemed in his community. After his death, however, his very existence as a painter of the Dutch School was forgotten, and his pictures, very few of which bear signatures, were attributed to a Vermeer of Haarlem and to another painter of the same name in Utrecht, and to De Hooch and others. The reason for this seems to have been the unaccountable omission of the artist's name in Houbraken's book of Dutch painters. Anyhow, the silence of more than a century and a half was not broken, until the French connoisseur Thoré, who wrote under the nom de plume of "W. Bürger," attracted by the beauty of some of the signed pictures, set on foot an investigation which resulted in the rehabilitation of Vermeer. Since then criticism has disproved some of Bürger's ascriptions, but included other pictures, until now there are thirty assigned with certainty to Vermeer's brush. A few others, shown by the records to have existed, are as yet unidentified; but it is assumed that the total output of his twenty years of activity did not much exceed the number already discovered. It falls far short of the productivity of most of the Dutch painters—a fact which has been explained by the scrupulous care with which Vermeer painted, and the degree of perfection to which he wrought each canvas.
The appreciation of Vermeer's art has increased rapidly during the last twenty-five years, until to-day he is generally ranked as the finest of the artists of genre, and, as a painter, without rival in the Dutch School, while some are disposed to consider him the most accomplished painter in the history of art. These extreme admirers are, as a rule, painters, who find in Vermeer's technique and point of view precisely what they value most highly in painting. For this artist is a modern among moderns. He is not so in the sense that Rembrandt's influence is now being felt. The latter is indirect in its suggestion of a conception of beauty other than the classical, and in its equally indirect suggestion of the expressional value of light and of the symbolic use of form and color. Rembrandt's appeal is rather to the mind; Vermeer's to the eye. He saw the world as the modern painter sees it, enveloped in natural light, and rendered it, as the modern painter tries to render it, by a close discrimination of delicately different values. To produce a harmony he did not introduce an arbitrary tonality, but, following nature's plan, drew all the local colors into a balanced relation by the unifying effects of diffused light. In this respect Vermeer was unique in the Dutch School, and it is because the artist of to-day, if he is alive to the modern spirit, works with the same motive and in the same way, that he prizes Vermeer so highly. If, as one enthusiast remarked to me, "the whole art of painting consists in the right relation of values, and there can be no doubt that it does, then Vermeer is the greatest painter that ever lived."
The value of the criticism, of course, depends upon the acceptance of the major premise, respecting which this individual had no doubt. On the other hand, one may beg to doubt it, without depreciating Vermeer. For it comes dangerously near the position that the whole art of painting consists in its technique; it is an echo, in fact, of that old shibboleth of our youth, "art for art's sake." It lays undue stress on the purely sensuous appeal of painting, upon the "mint and cummin," and neglects the "weightier matter" of possible appeal to the higher faculties of the imagination. Moreover, it overlooks the fact that the method which Vermeer brought to such perfection, and which because of its perfection is so justly admired, is essentially one for small canvases. And it was not until Vermeer settled down to these that he developed his characteristic style.
The earliest of his dated pictures is The Proposal, in the Dresden Gallery, which belongs to the year 1656. The figures are of life size, and the treatment is proportionately broad, almost "rough" as Bode says, who adds: "It does not yet show us Vermeer in his developed individuality." Yet some elements of the latter are already established: the superb plasticity in the modeling of the forms and the frank enjoyment in local colors, the lemon yellow of the girl's jacket forming a splendid spot against the equally brilliant scarlet of the young man's coat. Again, a minor point, an Oriental rug of crimson and yellow and blue design appears here as in later pictures, such as the Girl with Water-Jug of the Metropolitan Museum. But the Dresden masterpiece of the artist's youth—he was only twenty-four—differs from his later work not only in the size of the figures and breadth of brushwork, but also in the treatment of the chiaroscuro. The scene is not illumined with diffused light, but with a stroke of light which gives brilliance to the two principal figures and leaves the subordinate ones in shadow. It is an arrangement, suggestive of the example of Rembrandt, and hints at the fact that the picture was produced while Vermeer was still close to the influence of his teacher, Carel Fabritius.
Another early example, betraying the same influence, is Diana at Her Toilet of the Hague Gallery, which in the 1905 edition of the Catalogue is still assigned to Vermeer of Utrecht, though later criticism accepts it as by the artist of Delft. Closely following in subject a Diana and Her Nymphs, painted by Jacob van Loo in 1648, which is now in the Berlin Gallery, this picture is in the freer, looser method of The Proposal, and even repeats the same colors of red and yellow, though subtilized here to a delicate rose and a kind of snuff color. The light is still partially distributed so as to dapple the figures, and these are painted with a flickering brushstroke that helps to increase the fluttering effect of the light.
Two other examples have been acquired in recent years by the Hague Gallery: an allegorical picture, The New Testament, and Head of a Girl. In both are introduced the cool blue and white that characterize many of Vermeer's later pictures. The subject of the former, which is owned by Dr. Bredius of The Hague, is curiously affected, representing a lady in blue and white silk costume, resting her foot on a globe, as she sits beside a table on which are a crucifix, chalice, and book. On the wall behind her hangs a large picture of Christ upon the cross, attended by Mary and John; and on the left of it is a superb tapestry of orange, blue, and mellow green, while a crystal ball is suspended from the ceiling. In contrast with the glowing warmth of the curtain and the shadowed warmth of the picture on the wall, the lady's figure presents a cool, white-lighted spot. The plastic feeling is strongly pronounced, the brushwork wonderfully limpid and firm, and the tonality extraordinarily fine. For the picture is still a study of tone, in which it differs from the Head of a Girl. For the latter is represented in a clearly diffused light, which is brightest around the head, and illumines in a subtle way the tender flesh-tints of the face, the bluish-white linen head-dress, and the bright full blue of a portion of the gown. The face wears a charming expression of concentration. This picture, indeed, very decidedly forecasts Vermeer's developed individuality, yet Bode places it among his earlier pieces, about 1656. To this period also probably belongs the beautiful Sleeping Girl, recently acquired from the Rudolph Kann Collection by Mr. B. Altman.
To a somewhat later date following close on 1656 Bode assigns the View of Delft, one of the greatest treasures of the Hague Gallery. There is a record of its sale in 1696, together with two other landscapes, one of which has disappeared, while the other is in the Six Collection in Amsterdam. The Hague picture is an unusual example of the artist, not only because it is a landscape, but also because of the warm light that pervades it. From a triangle of rosy yellowish foreground one looks across the quiet sheet of grayish-blue water to the line of houses of reddish-drab and brown bricks, and red and blue and yellow roofs, above which shows a high expanse of sky. The coloring, which again, it is to be observed, includes red and yellow, is brilliantly variegated, yet held in control by the stretches of sky and water. The ensemble is superbly artistic, while as a presentation of a late afternoon scene it could not be surpassed in naturalness. The picture, in fact, stands out among all the landscapes of the seventeenth century as being extraordinarily modern in feeling and manner, and its influence has been very great in the modern development of landscape-painting in Holland.
Another picture of the period immediately following 1656 is The Cook, in the Rijks Museum. She is standing in front of a whitish wall, lighted from a window on the left, pouring milk into a red earthenware pitcher that stands upon the table. The latter hides the lower part of her figure, which is clad in a lemon-colored body, reddish-brown skirt, and deep-blue apron, while a white cap covers her head. Here in these details—cap against light wall, prominent note of blue, the three-quarter length of figure, the cool lighting from a window on the left, lastly, the plasticity of the form—we find the ingredients of Vermeer's later manner; but as yet the brushwork has not the limpid exquisiteness, compressed yet fluent, of his full development. On the contrary, it is broad, inclined to roughness, loose and free, magnificent in the gusto with which it has been applied, and vigorously stimulating in its appeal to sense imagination.
Also in the Rijks Museum is a picture which recalls the fact that De Hooch was a member of the Guild of St. Luke in Delft from 1655 to 1657, and that, while he benefited most by contact with Vermeer, the latter was also somewhat influenced by him. For in this picture, The Letter, Vermeer seems to have experimented, not over-successfully, with De Hooch's device of showing one room beyond another. For an anteroom opens into two others, side by side, in one of which on the black and white marble floor a lady is seated in an amber dress trimmed with ermine. She pauses in her playing of a lute to take a letter from a servant. The picture is exceedingly choice in color and technique, but the composition is a little awkward in its division into two parts—a device, by the way, that recalls De Hooch's The Visit, owned by Mrs. Henry O. Havemeyer, the composition of which is open to a similar criticism.
Again, in the Rijks Museum is Young Woman Reading a Letter. Here in the delicate modeling of the face one observes the exquisite gray tones that distinguish so many of the examples of Vermeer's fully developed style. Also notable is the arrangement of the composition, the girl facing left, her feet hidden by a chair and table, the latter forming a dark spot so as to increase the luminosity on the figure and the wall. It is repeated very closely in The Lady with a Pearl Necklace of the Berlin Gallery, where chair and table occupy the same position, and the girl stands between them with her hands similarly raised, only as she holds the necklace she looks up, instead of down to the table as in the other picture. She wears a canary-colored jacket edged with ermine, that appears again in Mrs. Collis P. Hunting-ton's Lady with Lute. In the Berlin picture it sounds a note of liveliness that is exquisitely sustained in the silvery resonance of the lighted room; the effect of which is induced by the tones of olive in her skirt and the tablecloth, by a deep almost colorless blue drapery over the latter, and a shaft of dull yellow, formed by the velour of the window-curtain. The ensemble, in fact, is one of piquant decision and indescribable delicacy, illustrating Vermeer's faculty of sight imagination, so that he not only renders what he sees, but actually creates.
Between Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan's Lady Writing and The Lace-Maker of the Louvre there is a remarkable companionship of arrangement and feeling. In each case the figure is seated, bending over a table; the jacket is canary-colored, and blue is introduced in the table-cloth of the former picture and in a cushion in the other, while in both the sensitive expression of the head and hands is echoed in the delicate precision of the objects on the table. In both cases the luminosity of the scene is enhanced by a shadowed mass on the left of the foreground. Mr. Morgan's picture in loveliness of color, exquisiteness of handling, and inexpressibly subtle feeling rivals its sister piece of the Louvre.
It is in this element of feeling alone that these two pictures possibly excel the Girl with Water-Jug of the Metropolitan Museum. For the latter's beauty of color, with its deep bell-like note of blue and the resonance of blue, more or less faintly hovering over the cap and kerchief and permeating the atmosphere, is unsurpassable. Perfect also is the handling of this picture, both as to its suggestion of the plastic reality of everything represented and its consummate delicacy of manipulation; while in one particular it surpasses both the others and is in Vermeer's finest possible manner. This is the extraordinary propriety with which each detail of the composition is introduced. Everything has been selected and placed with the choicest discretion; nothing is confused or unexplained, everything is a triumph of incomparable simplicity and exquisite adjustment. Only, I repeat, in feeling; in the expression of the head, arms, and hands is there lacking something of the exquisite finesse of the above two pictures and of certain other examples.
Occasionally, as in The Coquette of the Brunswick Gallery, A Lady at a Spinet, in the National Gallery, and The Music Lesson, owned by Mr. Henry C. Frick, the figures display a consciousness of themselves or of the onlooker; their personality looks out from its own surroundings. On the other hand, it is rather a characteristic of Vermeer as of Terborch, that the people in his pictures seem immersed in themselves. The scene is wrapped in privacy, undisturbed by the suggestion of an outsider. But the most signal instance of a scene, actually arranged, and posed as if to be viewed by others, is the example of The Artist in His Studio, in the Czernin Gallery, Vienna. In color and mingled breadth and delicacy of treatment it is superb; but in place of the artist's usual sincerity of feeling, it is possible to detect a suspicion of affectation.
A signal example of Vermeer's sincerity and, inasmuch as it is a portrait, unique, hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest. It is the Portrait of a Lady. She is heavy-featured and of homely type, rather resembling the woman in the Rijks Museum picture, The Cook. A white cap tightly grasps her head; a broad white collar, fastened with a tuft of gold braid, falls over her black dress, the cuffs of which are of white lawn. She folds her hands at the waist, one of them in a cream kid glove, trimmed with gold braid, the other suspending its fellow, while she holds a black fan. The face is relieved on one side by greenish-black transparent shadows and wears an expression of dull self-oblivion that is almost poignant and gives to the portrait a grave distinction.
In conclusion, it is worthy of note that Vermeer's painting-career of scarcely more than twenty years passed from its experimental stage to a full development from which there was no decline. He did not toward the finish lapse from his finest ideals, like Maes and De Hooch, nor mingle pot-boilers with masterpieces in the manner of Jan Steen. He maintained consistently the artistic integrity of a scrupulously exacting conscience.
Jan Steen was the chameleon of Dutch painting. Besides genre he essayed portraiture and Biblical subjects; alternated between small and large canvases; at one time suggests a recollection of some other artist, by turns Van Ostade, Terborch, Maes, Metsu, Van Mieris, or even Vermeer; at other times is incomparably himself, and still again not infrequently falls below his own standard. He has left more examples than any other genre artist; for dozens mentioned in old catalogues have disappeared, yet still some five hundred survive. He is numerously represented in public and private collections, yet in so many styles and varieties of quality that his artistic personality is apt to seem evasive, while the impression he arouses is by turns one of enthusiasm, indifference, and resentment.
By degrees, however, his personality emerges, as one becomes conscious of a trait that is shared by all his pictures. It is their liveliness of characterization, exhibited not only in the individual figures, but also in the inventiveness of grouping and in the peculiar vivacity with which the spirit of the scene has been rendered. He is of all the genre artists the supreme delineator of Dutch life among the lower middle classes in the Leyden and Haarlem of his day; depicting it, by turns, with something of the large-heartedness of a Shakspere, the wit and satire of a Molière, and the coarseness of a Rabelais. But in every vein, whether of broad survey or trenchant scrutiny, he is human; for the most part genial in his outlook, and always fresh in observation. It is probably because of this that Waagen characterizes him as "next to Rembrandt certainly the greatest genius among the painters of the Dutch School," an opinion which is shared by W. Bürger (Thoré), while Dr. Bredius styles him "the greatest genre painter of the seventeenth century, one of the wittiest delineators of human folly, the character painter par excellence."
The standard, in fact, by which these and other admirers test him, and which must be applied by every one who would reach a just estimate of this many-sided artist, is bigger than that of technique. Steen drew well, but could be slipshod and incorrect in drawing; exhibited an extraordinary gift of improvised and occasionally studied composition, yet could huddle his canvases with a superabundance of material; in one picture would display a fine sense of color, to lose it in another; now would work with a juicy and limpid brushstroke, now in a thin method as dry as brick-dust, and could be indifferent to tonality, while at other times a tonalist of choice distinction. Therefore you cannot measure him as you do a Terborch or a Vermeer, or, indeed, range him for comparison alongside of any of the other genre artists. With them, at their best, the pictorial representation is the chief concern, and they invite you to judge them by their technique. But it is otherwise with Steen. You cannot hold him to so narrow a test, any more than you can Shakspere. Both are technicians who at times throw technique to the winds. You may regret it or resent it; but, to be just, must condone the fact in face of the bigness that looms behind.
The jovial humanity of Steen and the joy that he took in humorous characterization were responsible for the deficiencies he often exhibited as a painter. He would frequently be more interested in the subject than in the technicalities of an artistic problem; which, as we have seen, is precisely the reverse of the attitude that most of the great genre painters came to adopt. They were concerned primarily with the making of a picture; Steen was quite frequently engrossed with the delineation of a phase of life. He was so interested in the story-telling element of the subject that under some circumstances he permitted himself to supersede the pictorial quality of the presentation. This should be frankly recognized in approaching the study of Jan Steen, otherwise by coming upon one or two of his inferior examples we may be led into a hasty depreciation of this great artist.
He belonged to an old respected family of Leyden, where he was born about 1626, his father being a brewer in prosperous circumstances. The son's name is inscribed in the records of the University of Leyden, as having been one of its students in 1646; then we hear of him as a pupil of Nicolaes Knupfer, the painter of genre and of Biblical and mythological subjects. Afterward Steen studied with Jan van Goyen, whose daughter Margaret he married. He was one of the first members of the local Guild of St. Luke, established in 1648. From 1649 to 1654 he lived at The Hague; then returned to Leyden for seven years, during which time he owned a brewery near Delft. From 1661 to 1669 he resided at Haarlem, but in the last year lost his wife and returned to Leyden, where he remained until his death in 1679. In 1672 he had obtained permission from the magistrate of Leyden to maintain a café at his house, and the following year took a second wife, Maria van Egmont, the widow of a local bookseller. Houbraken states that they lived happily together, though their larder was often ill-stocked; but he is not so charitable toward Steen's connection with the liquor trade. This fact, coupled with the jovial character of the artist's pictures and enlivened by hearsay information from a painter, Carel de Moor, led this story-monger into much tittle-tattle about the artist's reckless habits. To-day, by the best authorities, this view of Steen is discredited. It is, however, quite clear that he was often in desperate states; for example, in the February after his first wife's death an apothecary seized his goods and sold his pictures to satisfy a debt of ten florins! But the reason was not idleness, for he was the most prolific painter of his day; it is to be found in the miserable price for which he had to sell his work. No wonder he tried to eke out his finances by keeping a brewery, which, by the way, was a privilege specially granted at that time only to a few families of particular respectability. As to the café, since he had to turn to trade, he naturally adopted the one with which his family had been connected; the disgrace, if there were any, not being his, but the public's, who paid him better for drinks than for his pictures.
So far as the dates on his pictures show, his period of production lasted for twenty-five years, from 1653 to 1678, so that his output averaged more than twenty pictures a year. The best period may probably be reckoned during the years from 1654 to 1669, which covered his second sojourn in Leyden and his visit to Haarlem. His family was growing up around him, and the children from year to year figure in his pictures, and his handsome wife, Margaret, appears as a center of kindliness and comfort, while his own person often adds the note of jollity. To these pleasant times belong the incomparable "family scenes"—A Homely Scene, The Feast of St. Nicholas, and The Happy Family of the Rijks Museum; The Christening Party of the Berlin Gallery; While the Old Ones Sing the Young Ones Pipe of the Hague Gallery; and the Cassel Gallery's Twelfth Night, where Margaret appears for the last time, since the picture was painted in the year of her death.
These and other group-pictures, such as The Prince's Birthday of the Rijks Museum, are works of genius, unique in painting. For they are not constructed according to the methods of the schools, but are the products of a natural gift of seeing and rendering naturally a glimpse of busy life. Yet with a tact that avoids confusion; places everything in its own plane of space with admirable precision and propriety; leaves no intervals of uncertainty or obscurity; but secures to the whole an artistic reasonableness and completeness; and all this with an art that conceals art, and makes the scene appear to be one of complete naturalness. No other artist has ever reconciled nature and art quite so happily; and when one passes from the technical appreciation to a study of the varieties of character, depicted in the personages of all ages from the baby to the grandparents, and notes the mingling of humor and tenderness in the sentiment and the embracing large-heartedness that has inspired the whole, it is to marvel at and rejoice in the uniqueness of Steen's genius.
Then, by way of contrast, mark his treatment of a subject in which only a few persons figure. To myself his series of medical visits presents perhaps the most charming example of this concentrated phase of his art. Witness The Sick Lady of the Rijks Museum, where the young woman sits with her head supported by a pillow, its whiteness against the pallor of her face, while the doctor stands counting her pulse. It is a masterpiece of tender characterization, for here the physician also is gentle and solicitous. However, he is not so in A Doctor Visiting a Sick Young Woman (No. 166) of the Hague Gallery. There he is boorish in appearance and suggests ignorance; in rough contrast to the pathetically fragile little lady, lying in bed and so ruefully gazing at the medicine-glass in the maid's hand. The picture is not dated, but I wonder if it was painted after the artist's rude experience with the apothecary who sold him up for ten florins! Again, in The Doctor's Visit of the National Gallery, the man presents a different trait of behavior. It is not tenderness toward a delicate young thing as in the Amsterdam picture, but respectful solicitude toward an older woman, who, by the way, reminds one of Steen's wife, Margaret. She is dressed in a jacket of old rose, edged with fur, and a silvery-blue skirt, while the doctor wears a suit of black with olive velvet sleeves. In the Amsterdam picture his black costume is relieved by a silk cloak of ashy brown, while the young woman is in pearly-gray satin, trimmed with white fur, a peep of blue slipper appearing from beneath the skirt. In fact, the color of these pictures is exceedingly choice; differing from the richness and liveliness of the family groups; corresponding in its subtle delicacy to the delicate pointedness of the characterization that is not without a certain dry flavor of wit.
It is between these two extremes of generous freedom and highly wrought restraint that the pendulum of Steen's art swings, with such wealth of variety that it is impossible to specialize further. However, a word or two must be said in conclusion about his treatment of Biblical subjects, of which The Marriage at Cana and The Expulsion of Hagar, both in the Dresden Gallery, may be cited as typical examples.
Steen's treatment of Biblical, as of occasional mythological, subjects was purely in the vein of genre; not, however, with any resort to emotional or dramatic appeal, as in the case of Rembrandt. In translating the old scene into the vernacular of Dutch middle-class or low-class life, Steen preserves nothing of its religious significance, or even of its epic dignity. The theme with him becomes simply a vehicle for characterization and possible humor. Thus, in The Marriage at Cana, Christ is standing at the table in the act of blessing a Dutch wedding-party, but all this is in the background. The salient features of the scene are occurring in the foreground, where a fat cellarer hands a glass of wine to a fiddler, and a slattern woman leans against a cask, giving a drink to a boy. In The Expulsion of Hagar, Sarah sits inside the door, "examining" the little Isaac's head; Hagar weeps as Abraham sadly dismisses her: while Ishmael strings his bow, two spaniels are catching fleas, and sheep, cows, and poultry are scattered through the yard. Meanwhile, though the pictures make no appeal to the spiritual imagination, the sensuous imagination may be stimulated by the choiceness of their charm of color. Perhaps, however, if one wishes to epitomize Steen's attitude toward the subjects he took from the Bible and the classics, one may best compare his rendering of The Disciples at Emmaus (Rijks Museum) with Rembrandt's treatment of the same subject in the Louvre. Instead of Christ being the pathetic center of divine illumination, as in the latter picture, Steen has placed Him in the shadow of the background, leaving the room, while the disciples, attended by a serving-woman, are gazing disconsolately at the table, which is garnished with—of all imaginably incongruous things—a lemon.