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


I N the Berlin Gallery are two small examples of Holland Landscape with the Hamlet of Rhenen.  They are by Hercules Seghers, whom Bode points to as the father of seventeenth-century Dutch landscape. Similar in general design, they are distinguished by a fine sweep of almost clear sky, swimming with vapor, from which a level country, dotted with the roofs and church towers of a hamlet and threaded by a stream, stretches in pale-yellow tones, broken up with brownish shadows, to the foreground. The identification of the scene and the assignment of these pictures to Seghers have been made possible by comparison with some etchings of the same artist that modern Dutch research has discovered. By the same means other pictures, including a Landscape  in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, which used to be attributed to Rembrandt, have been restored to Seghers. This one again shows a plain, intersected by a stream, but bounded on the right by the abrupt shoulder of a mountain, whose top is merged in dark cloud, while the rest of the sky is an open expanse of whitish light. In the contrast of this with the dark tones of the ground, weirdly interspersed with fitful gleams, there is an extraordinary impressiveness. It is no wonder that it was mistaken for a Rembrandt; and the interest in Seghers deepens when it is ascertained that Rembrandt himself was strongly influenced during his earlier years in Amsterdam by the older artist. This has been proved by a comparison of certain of the etchings of the two men.

Hercules Seghers, in fact, seems to have been in his own day very much what Michel was to the modern revival of landscape-painting in France. He was a forerunner of the later movement, but unrecognized by the world, while almost the only records that exist of him are documentary evidences of debts. He was born in 1590, probably in Haarlem; worked in Haarlem, Utrecht, and The Hague, but chiefly in Amsterdam, where he died about 1640.

In the few examples of his work that still survive, we can trace the twofold tendency of Dutch landscape: in one direction its note of simple truthfulness to the facts of nature, and in the other the tincture of these facts with a romantic spirit. And, in addition to thus setting the motive, Seghers proclaimed the Dutch artist's fondness for effects of sky, for tonalities of grays and browns, sparingly enlivened with greens.

For the Dutch landscapists were tonalists. With the single exception of Jan Vermeer, who approximated the plein-air  of modern art, they transposed the hues of nature into a scheme of color which is none the less arbitrary and unnatural, although it preserves the values of nature's coloring. In comparison with the naturalistic achievements of the modern artist, who studies nature in her own environment of light and renders her hues as actual light affects them, the Dutch artist was a composer on the theme of nature, but not a naturalist. The same, however, in only a less degree, is true of the Barbizon artists. They, too, were composers of schemes of tonality, so that, students of nature though they were, their landscapes will not compare in naturalness of suggestion with the work of many a modern man who will probably never enjoy their fame. Let me add that I do not mean to imply by this the essential superiority of the modern landscape-painter. That is another question, and only to be decided by each person for himself, according as he selects or does not select naturalistic representation as the standard of his taste. To one who does not the tonal transposition may seem preferable. Both methods, indeed, have their warrant in art.

But I press the distinction because, unless it is recognized, Dutch landscape-painting cannot be properly appreciated. If people approach it, and it is my experience that many do, with modern plein-air  achievements in their eye and basing their judgment upon them, they can only suffer disappointment. The Dutch paintings will seem "old-fashioned," false to nature, and uninspired. On the other hand, once the necessary attitude is assumed of accepting this transposition of color and light phenomena of nature into an equivalent of tonal values, proper appreciation is possible. Then one begins to study the examples partly for the quality of their tonality, partly for the degree in which they embody the character and spirit of the landscape, and partly, and probably chiefly, for the quality of the artist's personality infused into them.


Rembrandt was a master of both landscape motives, able alike to record with truthfulness the physical aspects of a scene or to infuse it with romantic suggestion; and nowhere more remarkably than in his etchings. In these, with a few lines that summarize the salient features of the scene, or with tonal effects of light and shade that elaborate and enrich the facts, he executed plates of pure landscape or of landscape as a setting for the figures. Among his paintings the examples of pure landscape are rare. The beautiful Tobit and the Angel  of the National Gallery may be considered one, as the figures are insignificant, and another, which, however, is a sea-piece, is in the Liechtenstein Gallery (No. 606): water, dotted with a boat and a few distant sails, stretching back to a low horizon, over which spreads a vast open creamy sky, with some finely buoyant clouds. It is as a setting to figures, especially in the Biblical subjects, that Rembrandt's use of landscape may best be studied. Here it serves as an orchestration to the theme, enriching it with sensuous and emotional suggestion, and giving a free range to the artist's romantic and dramatic imagination.

Philips Koninck

Rembrandt's best-known pupil in landscape was Philips Koninck, who was born in Amsterdam, 1619, and died there in 1688, some of his career being spent abroad. The character of his work suggests that he, too, may have been influenced directly by Hercules Seghers, for he affected far-reaching panoramas of flat country, interrupted by occasional low hills and traversed by streams. A fine sky extends above the ground, which is constructed in tones of warm pale yellow, olive green, and reddish brown. Notwithstanding the comparatively large size of the canvases and the extent of the scene included, the latter has been felt so synthetically, as well as comprehensively, that there is no lack of unity. An excellent example is The Dunes,  "The Valley of the Rhine near Arnheim," owned by Sir William van Horne of Montreal. Another memorable example is in the Dresden Gallery, Dutch Landscape,  a view from the dunes looking across the level country. This canvas is scarcely so large, but involves the same sense of bigness. The foreground, which shows some red-roofed cottages amidst the olive greens, is constructed in an ample way; a river occupies the middle distance, and the further plain is dotted with little trees. Overhead is a sky of drabbish gray and rosy cream. The Berlin Museum owns a handsome example with figure and cattle in the foreground, and the Rijks Museum contains two. Here also are to be seen four portraits by Koninck of Joost van den Vondel,  two at the age of seventy-eight and two at eighty-seven; the subject evidently being a friend of the artist, for on the back of one of the pictures is a dedicatory inscription.

The great nursery of Holland landscape was the city of Haarlem. Van Goyen, it is true, belonged to Leyden, while Amsterdam, which produced Seghers and Koninck, in course of time claimed many others. But the majority were citizens of Haarlem or at least spent a portion of their working life in that city. They include Salomon van Ruisdael and his nephew Jacob; Pieter Molyn, Jan Wynants, Allart van Everdingen, and the painters of landscape with animals and figures, Philips Wouwerman, Adriaen van de Velde, and Nicolaes Berchem.

Salomon Van Ruisdael (about 1600-1670), it has been conjectured, may have been a pupil of Van Goyen's because of a similarity between the early work of both, that has lead to their pictures being attributed to each other. But later the similarity disappears, Van Goyen displaying an ampler and more poetic style, while Salomon van Ruisdael continues to be the industrious painter of landscapes that, while admirably faithful to the appearance of nature, are comparatively prosaic in feeling. While he was a member of the Guild of St. Luke in Haarlem and lived there continuously, he visited other cities, for some of his pictures exhibit views of Leyden, Dordrecht, and Nimwegen. The characteristic of his work is a quiet, homely dignity, that, while it gives a pleasant record of the Holland of his day, seldom stirs one to enthusiasm. Perhaps his chief claim to recognition is that he was the teacher of Jacob van Ruisdael.

Pieter Molyn (about 1600-1661) was a successful teacher, who had the capacity to foster the individuality of his pupils. Among these the most famous was Gerard Terborch, who occasionally collaborated with his master by introducing figures into his landscapes. Molyn's own pictures were inclined to be meager in composition, and dryly precise in execution.

Jan Wynants (about 1605-1679), again, was fortunate in having a collaborator, for more than one hundred and fifty of his pictures were enlivened with figures by that skilful and attractive artist, Adriaen van de Velde. They add brilliance and animation to landscapes that in themselves are painstaking but apt to be monotonous.

Allart van Everdingen (1621-1675) is not to be confounded with his brother Caesar, who was a rather indifferent painter of portraits, genre and historical pictures. Allart was a pupil of Pieter Molyn and then worked in Sweden, subsequently spending seven years in Haarlem and the last twenty-two years of his life in Amsterdam. His fame also rests on his connection with Jacob van Ruisdael, who was induced by the success of Everdingen's Swedish landscapes to abandon the direct study of nature and to invent scenes of romantic impressiveness. In the Rijks Museum there is a chance, in Nos. 2078 and 907, to compare side by side the work of these two men. The result, I think, is to discover that, while they may use practically the same material in the same way, Ruisdael gives a character to each object, that makes you feel as if he had penetrated into the heart as well as the marrow of the scene, while Everdingen remains merely a lover and recorder of the picturesque.

Aert Van Der Neer

Van der Neer was born in Gorkum in 1603, and died in poverty at Amsterdam in 1677. In his youth he was steward in the family of the Van Arkels, and at this time only occasionally indulged his love of painting. Later he devoted himself to art, but found few purchasers for his pictures and was continually harassed by creditors, and at one time, like Jan Steen, kept a tavern. He is distinguished particularly for his winter and moonlight scenes, the best of which date from about 1646. They exhibit not only a close study of nature but a poetic feeling, which is deep and sincere and often very impressive. He was a painter of moods, expressing the sentiment usually in delicate tonalities, so delicate, indeed, that his pictures, hidden away in the corners of galleries or confronted with more robust pictures, seem at first monotonous and cold. It is not until, as Bode points out, they are isolated in a good light that their merit becomes apparent. This famous expert also compares the method of Van der Neer's moonlight scenes with that of Rembrandt's interiors. The latter projects a shaft of light into the hollow gloom, while Van der Neer represents a concavity of light, the luminosity of which is heightened by the shadows. His method, in fact, is the exact reverse of Rembrandt's.

Two memorable examples of his moonlight scenes appear in the Berlin Gallery, where one is impressively somber, while the other is dramatically stirred by the yellow and red flare and turbid smoke from a burning house, and figures in movement agitate the foreground. Others are in the National Gallery and in the Imperial Art Museum at Vienna. The example in the latter shows a darkened canal, with a boat, stretching back to a town that broods beneath a sky in which the moon rides at full, surrounded by fleecy clouds.

In the Vienna Gallery also is an example of one of his winter scenes, others appearing in the National Gallery and in the Wallace Collection. In these the artist indulges in a freer and livelier use of color, though the animation of the ground and its group of figures does not interfere with the delicate observation and sensitive feeling that still regulate his treatment of the skies. It is on this that Van der Neer, like all painters of poetic moods, relies chiefly for expression.

In one of Van der Neer's landscapes in the National Gallery, cattle were painted by Cuyp. The reminder may serve at this point of our story for an introduction to the important part played in Holland landscape by those artists who enlivened it with figures and animals.

Landscape with Figures and Animals

The popularity of this branch of painting in the seventeenth century can be explained by its affinity to genre painting. It is but a step from depicting a party of people in an interior to showing them engaged in some sport or occupation in the open air. The same tendency to depict the incidents of Dutch life, or to use such incidents as the theme of a pictorial presentation, appears in both; and some of the artists of this out-of-door genre, Wouwerman, Adriaen van de Velde, Cuyp, and Berchem, reached proficiency that compares favorably with the masterpieces of interior genre. As for the fondness for depicting cattle, we may recollect how Troyon, after visiting Holland, turned from pure landscape to cattle studies, while every observant visitor to that country has enjoyed the spots of rich color which the grazing herds make in the far stretches of green pasture. They form one of the notable features of the Holland landscape, and it would have been surprising if the painters, so intent on the study of their home surroundings, had overlooked it. The signal member of this group of painters is Paul Potter.

Paul Potter

Potter is the prodigy among Dutch artists. At the age of twenty-two he produced a masterpiece that, despite its shortcomings, has compelled the admiration of the world. This is a work of trenchant, even brutal force, while the majority of his work, especially in his later years, wins by its charm of persuasiveness. He is personally known to us through the beautiful portrait by Van der Helst. It was painted in the year of Potter's death, and shows him a man of distinguished mien, with soft auburn hair curling upon his shoulders, and a face that is marked by a high forehead, heavy-lidded eyes, a strong nose, and full, impulsive lips; a face upon which consumption has set the impress of fell refinement.

The son of an obscure painter, Potter was born at Enkhuizen in 1625. From 1646 to 1648 he resided at Delft, where his masterpiece, The Young Bull  of the Hague Gallery, was painted. In 1649 he moved to The Hague and married the daughter of an architect, Adriana Balckeneijnde. In 1652 he moved to Amsterdam and continued to reside there until his death in 1654.

The Young Bull  is an amazing achievement of self-discipline and almost passionate pursuit of truth. It suggests the attitude of the painter to have been that once and for all he would master the creature's appearance. He set himself a great task of prolonged endurance and has carried it through to an extraordinary realization. The character of the beast, as it shows itself to the eye; the incidents of its form and carriage; the glossy pelt with its actual surface of hair, the brilliant eye, the damp nozzle—every detail is of life. Having completed this study, which established for himself the knowledge and skill he had sought and became a model for the instruction of other artists, he filled in the rest of the canvas in a somewhat perfunctory manner. The sky has good quality, but remains a background in the rear of the composition; the intermediate landscape, overspread effectively with a pale light, does not maintain its proper plane. The beasts in the foreground are as hard as wood, the details of the tree niggling, and the figure of the man ill drawn and tamely comprehended. In fact, it is not as a picture that the canvas is remarkable, but for its consummately realistic treatment of the one overpowering detail.

Other large canvases, also products of the artist's extreme youth, are the Bear Hunt  of the Rijks Museum and the Boar Hunt  in the Carstanjen Collection of the Berlin Gallery. They are open to the same general criticism, without the wonderful exception. They are evidences of a young man's exuberant indiscretion, though he was probably induced to it by the high value that clients set upon such pictures. Meanwhile, as early as 1646, that is to say, when he was twenty-one, he was settling down to the smaller pictures, artistically felt and rendered, that mark the end of his career. One of the earliest of these, dated 1648, is the scene of Cattle and Bathers,  in the Hague Gallery; finely composed and full of happy observation of country life, but somewhat hard in texture. Yet the previous year had produced the Horses at the Door of a Cottage  of the Louvre, where the scene is enveloped in the soft half-light of a glowing evening sky. Another beautiful evening scene is Landscape with Cattle  of the National Gallery.

Philips Wouwerman

This charmingly original and versatile artist, whose works abound in public and private collections, was born in Haarlem in 1619 and died there in 1668. He studied landscape with Jan Wynants, but the teacher who set the tenor of his career was Frans Hals. It was from the latter that he derived his skill in handling figures, composing them in groups, placing them in space, and rendering them with fluency and vitality of brushwork; and the principles thus acquired were applied by him also to the treatment of the landscape. On his own part he brought to his work a singularly alert observation, that was happy in hitting upon the fugitive and accidental aspects of a scene, and a fancy that invests his subject with a lyrical grace.

His fecundity was such that it is estimated he left some seven hundred examples, which may be divided into those of his early period, which extended through the forties, and those of his maturity, which belong to the fifties and early sixties. He was brought up during the vicissitudes of the Thirty Years' War, and the impressions of soldiering suggested many of his subjects of cavalry, skirmishing, on the march, or halting at an inn. Elsewhere it is hunting parties, riding parties, gay cavalcades of ladies and gentlemen; then, again, scenes of farming life: the bringing home of hay, watering of horses, scenes in the smithy—an inexhaustible array of incidents in which figure men and women and their friends, the horse and dog. With such unusual productivity it is not strange that some of his pictures suffered by haste of execution. This is especially true of his latest pictures, where the shadows have come through and destroyed the brilliance of the colors. For, though Wouwerman was not a colorist, he was an adept at suggesting the gaiety of color, and his best pictures are bouquets of animated brilliance.

Aelbert Cuyp

Son of a prosperous portrait-painter of Dordrecht, Aelbert Cuyp enjoyed ample means, married a widow, rich and well connected, was highly esteemed and held public offices in his own community, and throughout the eighteenth century continued to be prized by collectors as the "Dutch Claude." The result was that he could paint to please himself. It is true that occasionally he was persuaded to paint portraits of his wife's aristocratic connections, some on horseback, but these less characteristic pictures are exceptions. Living far from the centers of artists, he was devoted to country life, making visits occasionally along the Maas to Nimwegen or up the Rhine as far as Bergen, but for the most part indulging his love of nature in the neighborhood around his native city. The happiness of the man and the artist's joy in the life of simple things—his ample means made possible the simple life—are reflected in the sunniness of his landscapes, and in the big, lazy, comfortable kine that graze and bask and chew the cud beside slowly moving waters in the neighborhood of pleasant homesteads, steeped in the warmth of sunshine. "Only in his own home on the lower Maas," writes the modern artist, Jan Veth, himself a native of Dordrecht, "only near Dordrecht, could he find this happy country, where a delicate vapor from the rich marshy lands lies over the meadows, which in the morning and evening hours are covered with a peculiar golden veil."

His best pictures are in private collections in England and Paris and in the National Gallery, the Wallace Collection, and the galleries of St. Petersburg and Budapest. They number nearly fifty that can be regarded as masterpieces. On the other hand, the pictures by which he is represented in many galleries will disappoint the student who has formed a high expectation of this artist's merit. For he was as unequal in his manner as he was varied in his choice of subjects, which, besides landscape and portraiture, included also genre, still-life, church interiors, and historical paintings.

He was born in Dordrecht in 1620 and died there in 1691. Besides the instruction that he received from his father, he is supposed to have been influenced by Van Goyen, for his early work shows a recollection of the latter's grayish tones.

Adriaen Van De Velde

In the Rijks Museum is a portrait by Adriaen van de Velde that represents himself and his family. In a country spot they have alighted from their carriage, and while a groom attends to the handsome horses, the artist and his young wife, a little child, and a nurse with the baby in her arms are grouped in the road. The artist is of refined and gracious mien, while the spirit of the whole scene breathes prosperity and happiness. The portrait is indicative of his art, of the gracious freshness, joyousness, and sweet tranquillity that characterize his landscapes. For, though he painted some Biblical and historical subjects, his true métier was landscape, with the ingratiating addition of groups of figures and animals. So highly appreciated was his gift of treating these groups that many of the landscape artists of Amsterdam employed him to introduce them into their pictures. Hobbema was among the number, as may be seen in that artist's picture, The Water Mill,  owned by Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan, where the cow and the figures of the man and woman are by Van de Velde.

Born in Amsterdam in 1636, Adriaen belonged to the Van de Velde family of artists, his earliest teacher being his father, the naval painter, Willem the Elder. Then he studied with Jan Wynants at Haarlem and later with Philips Wouwerman. He was also influenced by Potter and Nicolaes Berchem, perhaps gaining from the latter his occasional fondness for the Italianized kind of landscape. But this is mere supposition.

Even Berchem (1620-1683) is only supposed to have visited Italy, because of the character of the subjects he represented. All that is definitely known about him is that he resided in Haarlem and Amsterdam. His treatment, however, of the Italianized landscape, with its goats and cows and peasants, is inferior to the art of Van de Velde. It charms at first by its sunny picturesqueness; but it is discovered by degrees to be a product of routine and mannerism. A studied affectation becomes apparent in the arrangement of the groups, and a monotonous reiteration of the effects of light: some object always placed near the center to catch the chief illumination, while a corresponding formality is repeated again and again in the distribution of the light and shade.

But such mechanics of picture-making never occur in Van de Velde's landscapes. There is always a freshness of vision, characterized, moreover, by delicate observation, that puts him on a par with Wouwerman, though the sentiment of his pictures is his own.

The Naval and Marine Painters

It has already been remarked that the naval and marine pictures are an exception to the general rule that Dutch painting reflects nothing of the war and the turbulence of the times. The headquarters of the craft was naturally the great shipping and commercial center, Amsterdam. Here in the early part of the seventeenth century lived Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom. Born in Haarlem in 1566, he had, previously to his settling down in the Dutch capital, visited France, England, and Italy, while there is good reason to believe that shipwreck had increased his experiences by enforced sojourn on the west coast of Africa. He makes a brave showing in the Rijks Museum with records of Dutch vessels running down Spanish galleys and a sea-fight on the Haarlem Meer, and always his signature appears proudly on a pennon at the masthead of a winning ship.

Simon de Vlieger, a native of Rotterdam, where he was born in 1693, is another painter of stirring sea-fights, though he also represents the peaceful side of shipping; witness A River Scene,  in the Rijks Museum, where a big-sailed merchantman from the Indies lies near some little boats on the wind-flecked water, a picture full of bracing suggestion.

Lieve Verschuier (1630-1686), also a native of Rotterdam, could present with vigorous effect the busy aspect of the harbor, as may be seen at the Rijks Museum in his Charles II Entering Rotterdam, 24 May, 1660.

But the greatest of this stalwart group were Willem van de Velde the Elder, and his son, Willem the Younger. Both were born in Leyden, the former in 1611, the younger in 1633, and, after a period in Amsterdam, settled in England, where the father died in London, 1693, and the son at Greenwich, in 1707. The characteristic of these men is their treatment of the shipping; for with them, as with the others, the shipping and the sky are of more concern than the water. They give the great galleons and bulky Indiamen the personality almost of sentient things: creatures of power and importance, swelling with the pride of consequence.

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