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

The Influence of Hals and Rembrandt

B OTH Hals and Rembrandt, each in his different way, have influenced the art of modern times much in the same way in which they influenced their contemporaries. Hals was and still remains a great exemplar of technical method which may be practically adopted, while Rembrandt, with a technique that defies imitation, has influenced his own times and ours by inspiring principles not only of technique but of motive. The difference is inherent in their characters—Hals the raconteur; Rembrandt the thinker.

Hals, with his masterful gift of summarizing the incidents and accidents of an occasion or a personality, resembles the best examples of the modern journalist and magazine writer; keenly alive to the temper of his own time; reflecting everything vividly, as in a mirror, yet with a discrimination for effects. Rembrandt, on the other hand, so absorbed in his own contemplation as to be an enigma to the man who runs and reads, is yet so passionately human that the place he by degrees makes for himself in the imagination and the heart of those who learn to know him expands and deepens. The difference between them is epitomized in their respective kinds of technique. While Rembrandt is a constructor, Hals is a "follower of surfaces."

This may possibly explain the immediate and direct hold that Hals has exerted upon modern art. The latter has been mainly concerned with imitation, casting around for borrowed motives and for an appropriate method of expressing them. In portraiture especially it has been confronted with the problem of catering to the luxurious and extravagant superficialities of a society largely composed of nouveaux riches.  For such the grave intellectuality of that other example of our day, Velásquez, was inappropriate, but Hals's glib, effective following of surfaces, just the thing. It has authority and style, while its essential commonness of feeling is discreetly veiled by a veneer of aristocratic suggestion, and its evasion of the problems of construction is disguised beneath a handsome showing of virility. His, in fact, was precisely the style that met the demands and suited the temperament of society in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Many, I suppose, will repudiate the notion that Hals was either commonplace or faulty as a constructor of form. He is so much a man of our own time, and in consequence has been so belauded, that to some it may sound like lèse-majesté  to dispute his position in modern estimation. On the other hand, if one tries to get beyond the barrier of approbation with which artists and the public have blocked the free view of Hals in relation to other portrait-painters of his own school, such as Rembrandt or Terborch, or of other schools or periods, the suspicion of his comparative commonness of feeling may grow into a conviction. Whether it does so or not is so purely a question of individual point of view and feeling that it would be futile to try to reason the matter out. I can scarcely explain my own conviction. Perhaps I have hinted at the basis of it in applying to Hals the term a raconteur, and in likening his style to that of a brilliant newspaper man. It is the function of both of these latter to make an immediate appeal, not necessarily flashy but certainly striking, to a mixed gathering of listeners or readers, whose first and sole demand is that the gist of the matter shall be hit off attractively. Each in a greater or less degree is addressing a crowd, and, since the latter's aggregate of mentality and feeling is of a lower order than the mentality and taste of some, at least, of the individuals composing it, the speaker or writer, to prove attractive, must, consciously or unconsciously, adjust his thought and expression to this lower level. Such is the suggestion of Hals and his modern imitators, when their work is compared with that of the great portrait-painters, whose feeling and style are the products of their own high-bred aloofness and self-sustained individuality. The work of the former, by comparison, seems designed to attract, as directly as possible and in a way to make the least demand upon reflection. It skims the surfaces and summarizes the most obvious of their features in the raciest of ways.

On the other hand, it is easier to transmit the conviction that Hals was a follower of surfaces, for one's eyesight here assists one's feeling. Look at one of his portraits and observe the fluent skill with which the several planes of the features are rendered; the finesse with which a glove is fitted to the hand, the folds of a costume are expressed, and even protuberances of the form suggested. It is admirable, marvelous! When painters can achieve such magic, it is no wonder that we have a phrase, "as clever as paint." But compare this portrait with one of Rembrandt's, and the latter's superiority in the matter of solidity and structural strength becomes apparent. The suggestion of form in Hals's is altogether slighter; you will not be convinced of bone and muscle structure beneath the surfaces, and, if you continue the comparison from gallery to gallery or choose to vary it by comparing Hals with Van Eyck, Dürer, Holbein, and the great portrait-painters of the other schools, will hardly fail to be convinced of his inferiority as a constructor.

On the other hand, it was his skill in following the surface that made his influence so valuable to his contemporaries. The sense of structural form cannot be imparted. It is constitutional; a man has it or he has not. But it is possible to teach efficiency in brushwork; and Hals, one of the most brilliant painters who ever lived, set a standard of painter-like craftsmanship that, passed on by his immediate pupils to others, gave to Holland the merit of producing the most efficient school of painters in the world. The most important of his pupils were Terborch, Metsu, Wouwerman, and Adriaen van Ostade, the last named the teacher of Jan Steen. It is a noticeable fact that all these men were genre painters, for even Wouwerman, by a slight straining of the word, can be included, since the individual charm of his landscapes consists in their animated groups of figures, and it was in his treatment of these that he was especially indebted to Hals. In fact, the latter's influence on the men of his own day was directly and most characteristically and emphatically shown, not, as in our day, in portraiture, but in genre; in shaping, refining, and giving new distinction to the tendency for genre pictures that the Hollanders had inherited from the united School of Flanders.

In a previous chapter we have spoken of the encouragement which Hals's example gave to the still-life painting; it was no less effective in encouraging the use of still-life in genre. The motive of the new genre became less that of depicting an incident than of picturing the environment of home life, its accompaniments of furniture and belongings; and these were made contributory to recreating the spirit of the life.

Immediately from this proceeds the second point which the genre painters gained from Hals: namely, an inspiration for the composition of their pictures. It is marked no less by naturalness than propriety, and by an extraordinary feeling of unity. There is an excellent discretion alike in the choice and in the arrangement of details; everything is characteristic and made subservient to the general harmony.

The latter results from the third point enforced by Hals's example: the principle of relativity in the use of values. Color became the basis of the new genre, and color treated from the point of view of tone; hence again the incomparable unity of impression which examples of the best genre artists exhibit. Some mass of local color, either cool or warm in hue, affords a dominant note. To this, by means of contrasts and repetitions, the whole scheme is tuned. The contrasting values of other local colors are opposed to that of the dominant mass, and higher and lower values of all these colors repeated throughout the scheme. The harmony that ensues may be rich and low or high in key and sprightly, but in the finest examples, and they are very numerous, is always characterized by a choice refinement.

This quality is due in no slight measure to the fourth way in which these artists were indebted to Hals, namely, their skill in brushwork. For they learned from him to lay the color on frankly and directly, without fumbling or indecision. They constructed their forms in color, building them up with layers of modulated values, working generally with a small brush, but one that was fully charged with pigment which was floated on to the surface. Thus the color has not only body and substance, but also a limpid transparency, a quality as of liquidized gems. It is this blend of lightness of touch, of purity of pigment, and withal of solid underpainting, that gives breadth and dignity to the delicacy of these harmonies. To assure one's self of this it is but necessary to compare a Vermeer or Terborch with a Netscher. The last is felt at once to have less breadth and dignity, and altogether slighter charm; and an examination of his technique helps to explain the reason. There is less underpainting, and in the minute and dainty passages the pigment has not been floated but stippled over the surface. The result is a comparative tightness of feeling and, in place of limpid transparency, a suggestion rather of thinness and hardness.

The influence exerted by Hals in these four directions—namely, in the treatment of still-life, in composition, in regard for values, and in the habit of skilful brushwork—was supplemented by that of Rembrandt, which dates from 1632, the year in which he moved to Amsterdam. The latter also affected the development of genre, but not in the line of direct suggestion. Rembrandt's technique in its most characteristic aspects was and still remains too personal an expression of his own attitude of mind and of its changes of mood, varying according to the nature of each subject interpreted, to permit of imitation. Rembrandt contributed ideas. He enlarged the scope of genre by the suggestion, on the one hand, of a further range of subject, and, on the other, of a new motive in technique. It was especially the example of his religious pictures that affected the idea of subject, either directly leading other artists to a similar treatment of religious themes or indirectly encouraging them to include some kind of sentiment in the domestic scenes they depicted. Meanwhile, by the example of his own use of chiaroscuro, he encouraged a more subtle study of values, at once more intimate and varied and more expressive.

An admirable epitome of the character of Rembrandt's influence upon his contemporaries is in the old Pinakothek in Munich. In the first place there is a Holy Family,  painted in 1631, the year before he moved from Leyden. It is about six feet high, the figures being life-size; but the conception and treatment of the subject are thoroughly in the way of genre. The picture presents a glimpse of the interior of a Dutch home: the tools hanging on the walls, the face, figure, and costume of the mother, the Child swathed in a shawl, and the familiar accompaniment of the cradle—all are distinctively Dutch in character. The mother, with a pretty gesture of tenderness, is fondling one of the Baby's feet, looking down at it with a gentle smile, while the father bends forward over the cradle in an attitude of reverent solicitude. The whole scene breathes the quiet happiness of domestic life. In its character the picture is essentially a genre subject. At the time it was painted Dou was working in Rembrandt's studio, and to its influence it is not unreasonable to trace at least some of the tendency that Dou exhibited in later years to introduce just such tender and reverential sentiment into his own work, as witness The Young Mother  at the Hague Gallery and The Old Woman Saying Grace  in the Pinakothek in Munich. In fact, The Holy Family  is already characteristic of the sentiment that became infused into genre by the example of Rembrandt.

Intimately connected with this is the example of Rembrandt's technical use of chiaroscuro, used either for the purpose of interpreting sentiment or of simply adding to the interest of the color-scheme. The foretaste of this is given in a series of six pictures of Biblical subjects in the Pinakothek, painted for the Stadtholder, Frederick Henry: two of them, The Descent from the Cross  and The Elevation of the Cross,  in 1633; The Ascension,  1636; The Burial  and The Resurrection,  1639; and The Adoration of the Shepherds,  1646. About three feet high, they approximate to the familiar size of genre, and are distinctly genre in conception and treatment. Moreover, they are arched over at the top, a device that became popular with Dou and other genre painters, who frequently substituted for the formal arch a draped curtain, the result being to set the main part of the scene back, and thus increase the effect of looking into it. This, however, is not merely to suggest more vividly the third dimension. For Rembrandt in these pictures has set the example of concentrating the high light on a few features of the composition, surrounding these with lighted objects of lower value, and finally inclosing all in a ring of shadow, so that one seems to be looking into a circular concavity out of the gloom of which certain objects emerge into view with greater or less distinctness. The device is used by Rembrandt to heighten the dramatic and emotional significance of the composition, and was so applied by some of his followers, notably by Maes, while by others the principle was adopted as a means of giving force, variety, and added charm of mystery to their color-schemes. It became, in fact, one of the most characteristic of the technical methods of Holland genre.

Apropos of this series it is interesting to note, as a side-light on Rembrandt's use of models, that one, The Elevation of the Cross,  contains a striking figure of an Oriental. It was transferred in reduced size from a picture of the same subject painted in the preceding year, 1632, which is now owned by the New York collector Mr. W. K. Vanderbilt. Moreover, the head and bust of this man appear as the subject of another picture, painted in the same year as The Elevation,  which now hangs in the Munich Pinakothek.

To recapitulate, then, in this series of the Old Pinakothek we have a striking example of Rembrandt's motive in the treatment of Biblical subjects, developed during the period from 1633 to 1646 of his greatest popularity in Amsterdam. It involved, as we have seen, the translation of the heroic and grandiloquent style of religious subjects, as practised by the Italians, into the homelier poignancy and intimate personal suggestiveness of meaning that commended themselves to the simple directness and home-love of the Hollanders. It practically converted the religious picture into one of genre; and its example led to a similar treatment of these subjects by other painters, notably Carel Fabritius, Govert Flinck, Ferdinand Bol, and Gerbrandt van den Eeckhout, while to the painters of domestic genre pure and simple it also supplied the motive of sentiment and a new motive of technique.

It is true that sentiment plays a comparatively small part in Holland genre. Dou has been mentioned as following the example of Rembrandt in this respect, and the other prominent instance is Nicolaes Maes, who entered the master's studio in 1648, that is to say, two years after the completion of The Adoration of the Shepherds,  the latest of the Munich series. How far Rembrandt had influenced the bias of Maes's temperament toward sentiment is conjectural, but that he supplied the younger man with a technical principle for its expression is certain. Maes discovered the possibilities of emotional suggestion that existed in the device of heightening the luster of certain parts of the composition by the contrast of veiled and shadowed color elsewhere. With him it does not reach the dramatic force or depth of emotional appeal that the master's use of it involves, but nevertheless becomes the expression of a sentiment that, as Bode remarks, is nearer to the sentiment of Rembrandt than that of any other artist of the school.

On the other hand, by those genre artists of the period who were not given to sentiment, the principle of Rembrandt's chiaroscuro was adopted for the sake of esthetic considerations, founded upon the facts of sight. It may or may not be true that Rembrandt himself derived it from his observation of the light in the dim recesses of his father's mill, but at any rate the artists of genre interiors soon saw its application to their subjects, and were led by it to study with more discrimination the infinite variety of light value. The result was twofold. Their color-schemes grow more subtle and refined, and the tonality becomes impregnated with the suggestion of atmosphere. Thus the example of Rembrandt's chiaroscuro wedded to that of Hals's facile craftsmanship developed the inimitable perfection of technique which characterizes the best works of Holland genre.

It is the latter, one may observe in conclusion, that has most affected the modern revival of painting in Holland. While foreign painters, in portraiture especially, have been disposed to follow the direct example of Frans Hals, the Hollanders themselves, both in landscape and genre, have been influenced by the so-called "little masters," and, in the case of Josef Israels, by Rembrandt himself. And the result of this influence has been to make modern Dutch painters, as a group, the best brush-men of their age.

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