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Charles H. Caffin

Biblical Subjects and Portraiture

T O the Dutch method of treating Biblical subjects we have already alluded in the case of Rembrandt and Jan Steen. It shows in common the motive of translating the story into the vernacular of Dutch life, accompanied on the part of Rembrandt with strong emotional and dramatic appeal, expressed by means of color and chiaroscuro. It was also Rembrandt's practice to employ models selected from the Ghetto in Amsterdam. Among his followers was a group of men who emulated his treatment of Biblical subjects, while they also distinguished themselves in portraiture. Hence the convenience of considering these two branches of Dutch painting in the same chapter. Moreover, the incongruity between the two is not so great as it may appear at first sight, since the Dutch perpetuated the Flemish tendency, which was also German, of not only personifying the sacred characters by personages of their own day, but of reproducing so faithfully their characterization that the heads were practically portraits.

Among the pupils of Rembrandt who varied portraiture with pictures from the Bible story were, in order of their age, Govert Flinck, Ferdinand Bol, Carel Fabritius, Gerbrandt van den Eeckhout, and Aert de Gelder; while another, who is known solely as a portrait-painter, was Dirck Dircksz Santvoort.

Govert Flinck

This artist (1615-1660) began by being so close an imitator of Rembrandt's method of chiaroscuro that many of his pictures used to be taken for his master's; later, however, when the fashion for Italian art was revived, he abandoned the chiaroscuro and devoted himself to line and form. Indeed, he seems to have been an able opportunist; but to mistake him for Rembrandt suggests a shallow conception of the latter. Flinck's Biblical masterpiece is probably the Isaac Blessing Jacob,  in the Rijks Museum. The patriarch's half-figure, as he sits propped up by pillows, is clad in a splendid crimson robe; the gesture of the arms is full of dignity, and the head crowned with the majestic character of old age. And the aged face of Rebecca is reverently characteristic. The color throughout is rich, and the light and shadow are warm and luminous. It is an effective rendering of a grave incident, but the latter has been seen rather than felt, and certainly not with the depth and poignancy of feeling that Rembrandt would have suggested. Another fine example of Flinck's is in the Dresden Gallery—David Handing the Letter to Uriah.  Crimson again appears in the king's robe, contrasted with which is a large mass of golden yellow with red border, formed by the cloak of a secretary at his side, while Uriah's figure, kept in shadow, is clad in peacock blue and purplish brown. The whole forms a splendid scheme of color, and again the characterization is extremely interesting, especially that of the black-haired and -bearded king, who shows a certain mingling of hardness and nervousness in his face and demeanor. The treatment is seriously conceived, but with rather a faint grasp of the dramatic possibilities involved in the theme.

In the Angel and the Shepherds  of the Louvre there is still less feeling for the scene, except in so far as it offered an opportunity for chiaroscuro. Even the composition is rather perfunctory, the shepherds being huddled on the right, balanced by a cow and sheep on the opposite side of the foreground, while the angel who brings the message of Christ's birth appears above in the center with cherubs. Nor is the chiaroscuro satisfactory, for while there are some nice passages of color in the lighted parts, the shadows are without quality and seem used only as foils to the light, and not as having individual value. More successful in its recollection of the Rembrandt manner, and altogether a picture of considerable charm, is the classical subject, Diana and Endymion,  in the Liechtenstein Gallery, Vienna.

In the Dresden Gallery are two of the old-men studies that this artist frequently painted, while a more important example of his fondness for representing old age is shown in the Art-History Museum, Vienna. This Gray-Bearded Old Man  suggests, like the others, the influence of Rembrandt, but superficially. It has the venerableness of old age, but not the power of expression that makes Rembrandt's treatment of this subject so spiritually compelling.

The Louvre has a charming Portrait of a Little Girl,  in an olive-green dress, holding a spade. In arrangement of costume and choice of color it is quite Rembrandtesque. Again, in the Berlin Gallery is a very pleasing Portrait of a Young Woman.  But it is in the Rijks Museum that the portraiture of Flinck can best be studied, both in corporation pictures and single figures. They vary in quality from the quite impressive bust portrait (No. 931) of M. Johannes Wittenbogaert  (?), with its mellow flesh tints and strong suggestion of character, to the showy but perfunctory Fête of the Civil Guard, Münster, 1648.  In this there is no charm of flesh and little of fabrics. The whole is pompously theatrical, done apparently for "business," with no eye to anything but satisfying the vanity of the subjects.

Ferdinand Bol

Ferdinand Bol (1616-1680) in the beginning of his career reproduced the manner of Rembrandt. His coloring was mellow and enriched by chiaroscuro. Later, about 1650, the chiaroscuro became less pronounced and the color insipid. While he is esteemed chiefly for his portraits, he also treated Biblical subjects, as may be seen by three examples in the Dresden Gallery and two in the Rijks Museum. The most pleasing of the Dresden pictures is Jacob Presented to Pharaoh by Joseph.  There is a very characteristic look of scrutiny in Pharaoh's face, while his jewel-bespangled cloak, with its broad border of white and black fur, affords a fine mass of scintillating color, juxtaposed to the rich creamy costume of Joseph and the crimson of the old man's. The picture, indeed, presents a very handsome color-scheme, though one may discover a certain stiffness and theatricality in the gesture of Joseph's hands. The accompanying picture, Rest of the Holy Family during Its Flight into Egypt,  is over six feet high and suggests a canvas too large for the material introduced, so that one third of it is filled up with supernumerary articles, such as a saddle and a basket of tools. One suspects that the picture may have been intended as a decoration for some wall-space, as the very large example in the Rijks Museum certainly was. For this, Abraham Receiving the Angels  was one of five panels painted for a room in a house at Utrecht, the other four being now in the abbey of Middelburg in Zeeland. A mild reflection of Italian Renaissance feeling is suggested by the comme il faut  disposition of the angels' draperies, but their coloring of golden amber is finely Rembrandtesque; so, too, the glow of the yellowing beech-tree that spires up into the top of the composition, and the plum-gray velvet of Abraham's robe. The picture, in fact, while shallow in its treatment of the incident, is finely decorative. On the other hand, the Salome Dancing before Herod,  a work apparently of Bol's later period, is an absurdly bad picture, bright and flimsy in color and entirely trifling as a study of form.

Of Bol's capacity in portrait-painting a good example is Portrait of a Mathematician,  in the Louvre. He is shown resting one arm on a balustrade, the body, in black with a white collar, being in profile, while the gray-haired head, covered with a black cap, is facing round to the spectator, as he points with a ruler to a geometrical figure on a blackboard. It is a piece of honest characterization, blending vivacity and dignity. In quite a different vein is his portrait of a girl in profile in the Liechtenstein Gallery. She has soft pale blond hair, and the figure is enveloped in that tonality which marks Bol's transition from the Rembrandtesque manner to his later one. The girl with her protruding forehead bears a striking resemblance to a girl, painted by Rembrandt, in Room VI of the same gallery, and a comparison of the two pictures offers an interesting commentary upon the essential difference between the master and one of his most successful pupils.

Among five portraits by Bol in the Munich Pinakothek No. 338 may be specified as particularly handsome. It is that of a man with dark-brown hair and a mustache and imperial of lighter hue, possibly Govert Flinck. He wears a black cap and cloak and leans his arm upon a table. The following number in the catalogue is allotted to a portrait of this man's wife. She is shown as far as the waist, where her hands are folded, the body full front, the head a little to the left. The face is beautifully modeled in clear flesh-tones, surrounded by golden-brown hair in ringlets. Beneath her white stomacher is a dull-red gown with olive sleeves. Thus the color-scheme is Rembrandtesque, with an envelop of warm amber atmosphere, while the serious sympathy with which the characterization has been rendered would not be unworthy of Bol's great master.

Unfortunately, Bol by no means maintained this high standard, as may be seen among the numerous examples of his portraits in the Rijks Museum. They mostly belong to his later period. The best is the earliest one, painted in 1657, representing the Six Governors of the Huiszittenhuis,  seated round a table in black clothes and steeple hats. The heads are well characterized and the flesh-tones luminous; but an air of attitudinizing pervades the assemblage, which has rather the prim, set manner of a photographic group. And much the same feeling is aroused by the Four Governors of the Leper House,  which is considered in Holland his masterpiece. In fact, it is not in the formal arrangement of a corporation picture, but in a single figure, that Bol is seen to best advantage. Yet some of the examples of these in the Rijks Museum, such as the Roelof Meulenaar  and Maria Rey,  are commonplace parodies of Rembrandt's manner, while that of the sculptor Artus Quellinus  is a parody of Van Dyck's elegance. Bol, in fact, was an able assimilator of his master, Rembrandt, and as long as he retained the enthusiasm of his youth, painted creditable and often excellent portraits. Later, however, he drifted into the swim of social decadence, and his work is characterized by affectation, vapidity, and perfunctoriness.

Carel Fabritius

Fabritius (about 1620-1654), after studying with Rembrandt, resided in Delft, where he became, it will be recalled, the teacher of Jan Vermeer. His life was prematurely cut short by the explosion of a powder-magazine, while he was in the act of painting the portrait of Simon Decker, sacristan of the old church at Delft. In consequence, the number of his pictures is small, and some of those which appear under his name in the catalogues are of disputed attribution. He must have had a precocious talent, for the Portrait of Abraham de Notte,  in the Rijks Museum, is dated 1640, when the artist was scarcely twenty. It is a bust portrait in which the black-haired head, set against a light background, is well enveloped in atmosphere, while the features are fluently modeled in warm, luminous tones. It proves him to have been an exceptionally apt pupil of the master, and helps to justify the attribution to him of the other picture in the Rijks Museum, The Decapitation of St. John the Baptist,  a powerful and attractive work. A golden luminosity, rich in quality, pervades the whole canvas. The characterization of the figures is striking. The executioner, a sturdy, brutal figure, with a rubicund, swollen face, showing above his white shirt, holds the head upon a salver, with the absolute unconcern of a butcher serving meat. A corresponding lack of emotion is apparent in the two female figures, daintily dressed and of girlish refinement, Salome's eyes gazing into vacancy with a wistful expression, while Herodias, looking but little older, gazes at the head with a slight air of curiosity. The conception of these women is early Italian rather than what one would associate with Dutch of the seventeenth century, and recalls the expression of Mantegna's Judith with the Head of Holofernes.  They suggest a sexless abstraction, moved by no active impulse, yet hauntingly fascinating in its young passionlessness. In the Berlin Gallery a Study of a Man Praying  is attributed to Fabritius, while in the Munich Pinakothek are two portraits of young men associated with his name. The bust portrait, No. 344, is definitely assigned to him, while the half-length, No. 345, once attributed to him, is now assigned to Rembrandt. It represents a young man with long hair parted in the center, who, holding a sheaf of paper and a pen, seems to have paused in his writing and is looking up and out of the picture with an expression of rapt meditation. In its different way it is akin to the expression of the Salome  in the other picture. That so gravely fine a picture should have passed for a Fabritius suggests the character of the estimation which hangs about the memory of this artist, who did not live to fulfil the promise of his youth. Moreover, what is known and what is conjectured about him suggests the value of his influence upon Jan Vermeer, whose own tendency to give his figures a concentrated absorption may possibly be traced to this source.

Gerbrandt Van Den Eeckhout

Eeckhout (1621-1674), the son of an Amsterdam goldsmith, was the first pupil to enter Rembrandt's studio and one of his closest imitators. For example, in The Woman Taken in Adultery  of the Rijks Museum, the face of the lonely figure of Christ is the center of light amid the coruscation of rich coloring formed by the costumes of the scribes and Pharisees, while a quieter note of dignity appears in the fine green and plum draperies of the kneeling woman. The color is sonorous, yet its echo does not penetrate to the depths of the surroundings, the shadows of which are inclined to be opaque and unexplorable. Better in this respect, that its shadows are more luminous, is the Christ with the Doctors  of the Munich Pinakothek. Here the strongest light centers on the head of an old rabbi, so as to bring out the color of his turban and beard while leaving his face in shadow; a device which makes the little face of the Child Christ, though it is clearly illuminated, seem by comparison pathetically insignificant. Meanwhile the light touches here and there the other figures in the group and penetrates their environment of shadow. It is worth while to compare this picture with the series of Biblical subjects by Rembrandt in the same museum, particularly the Adoration of the Shepherds.  In the Berlin Gallery Eeckhout is represented by Raising of Jairus's Daughter  and a Presentation of Christ in the Temple.  These pictures, particularly the latter, are wonderfully reminiscent of Rembrandt, finely composed in masses of light and shade and sumptuous in color. In a third example, Mercury and Argus,  Eeckhout has treated this mythological subject with some charm. The young nude figure of Mercury, with a blue drapery over his knees, as he sits playing his pipe, is a charming white spot against the warm ruddiness of the rocky landscape, where beside a white and red cow the brown nude form of Argus is stretched, as if in sleep. Farther back in shadow are the sheep and goats. The feeling of the picture is pleasant; but its suggestion is inclined to be rather superficial.

Of this artist's portraits there is an example in the Brunswick Gallery and one excellent specimen in the National Gallery. This is The Wine Contract,  in which the four governors of the Wine Guild of Amsterdam, dressed in black, are seated at a table, examining a contract.

Aert de Gelder

De Gelder was a pupil of Rembrandt's old age. He himself was not born until 1645, and, it is supposed, was little over fifteen when, after studying with Hoogstraten in their native city, Dordrecht, he went to Amsterdam. Then he returned to Dordrecht and resided there until his death in 1727. He is thus one of the latest of the artists of the period we are considering. An early work, dated 1671, directly inspired by Rembrandt, is in the Dresden Gallery. The Presentation of Christ in the Temple  is a reproduction in color of Rembrandt's well-known etching of this subject, worked out in red and brown and olive green, enveloped in a dull, warm glow, which, however, has more of mannerism than of suggestion to the imagination. The accompanying example in this gallery, An Important Document,  shows a man and woman seated at a table, covered with a red cloth, examining a paper. The coloring is warm, the hands and faces, however, inclining to an unpleasant brickiness of red, while the whole aspect of the scene is lifelike but uninspired. The Dresden Gallery also owns the Portrait of a Halberdier,  a well-painted and fairly interesting study of a stout man, with rosy, glowing face beneath a fur-brimmed hat, whose uniform is of various tones of olive green.

De Gelder is also represented by three portraits in the Rijks Museum and by a Biblical subject, Judah and Thamar,  in the Hague Gallery, but the best example of the latter kind is in the Museum of Art at Budapest. This Esther and Mordecai,  dated 1685, shows the queen, seated at a table before an open book, resplendent in a brocaded and jeweled cloak and a tagged and tufted dress, listening while Mordecai, bending forward with humble admiration, addresses her. The coloring is rich and mellow, and the delineation of character, especially in the case of Mordecai, has considerable suggestion of the spirit of the story.

Dirck Dircksz Santvoort

If it is a fact, as generally supposed, that Santvoort (1610-1680) was one of Rembrandt's pupils, he did not follow the master's use of chiaroscuro, but rather the example of his elaborately detailed portraits. In Santvoort's own case, as he may be studied in the Rijks Museum, this led at first to hardness of modeling, as may be seen in the portrait group of the Dirck Bas Jacobsz Family,  dated 1634, where the stiffness of the composition is increased by the gaze of every face being focused to one point. Still hard, but full of character, is a later portrait, dated 1638, of Four Ladies of the Spinhuis.  The latter was the house of correction, and these guardians and matrons look competent to rule it firmly. More theatrical in arrangement, with hands pointing this way and that, is the Four Governors of the Serge Hall  (1643). Meanwhile, three years earlier, Santvoort painted the single portrait of Frederick Dircksz Alewyn,  which again is harsh in texture and bronze-like in color. On the other hand, the portrait of this man's wife, Agatha Geelvinck,  has a distinct charm. The light falls upon her forehead and soft hair, which is frizzed out with little curls, while the features are modeled with a dainty discretion that recalls a Florentine primitive. Then follow two portraits of children, respectively ten and nine years old, Martinus  and Clara Alewyn.  They are represented as a shepherd and shepherdess, the former in a rose tunic, with a scarf of goldish sheen, quite Rembrandtesque in quality, the latter in a satin dress of the hue of strawberries and cream. She carries a bow and arrow, and is accompanied by lambs, while the boy is attended by a black greyhound. The hands and faces are well modeled and have expression, while the painting throughout is fluent and limpid. The pictures are inclined to sentimentality, which, however, is more easily excused because of the youngness of the children and the painter-like quality of the technique.

Bartholomeus Van Der Helst

From the above followers of Rembrandt, who reflect the manner but so little of the greatness of the master, it is a relief to turn to a portrait-painter who, while he owed something to Rembrandt in the way of chiaroscuro, was an independent personality and one of force. It is Bartholomeus van der Helst, born in Haarlem in 1613, whose life, however, was spent in Amsterdam, where he died in 1670. It is in the Rijks Museum that he is most brilliantly represented, though his single portraits stud the galleries of Europe. Their usual feature is direct and vivid characterization, conveyed without much persuasiveness of manner, but singularly sincere. One example, however, the Portrait of Paul Potter,  is an exception, being both in technique and feeling one of the most persuasive portraits to be met with. It has in it also a suggestion of the feeling for decorative arrangement, which was elaborated on so sumptuous a scale in the corporation pictures of the Rijks Museum.

In the chapter on Hals I alluded to Van der Helst as his inferior in composition and characterization. And the judgment stands, especially when you find yourself at Haarlem in the presence of the superb facility and quality of Hals's genius. None the less, when you face the prodigious output of Van der Helst's talent in the Rijks Museum, you realize that, while he was less efficient as a painter, less gifted with the ease, as it were, of improvisation, in his compositions, he had yet an exuberance of invention and a gusto for characteristic generalization, so amazing that from a distance one may be disposed to question if Hals, after all, was so much greater. At his best he undoubtedly was, having the artist's fine gift of heightening the significance of what he handled, and even in his less memorable work exhibiting more or less of that magical manipulation which is itself an inspiration. Beside him Van der Helst is less the artist than a mighty craftsman, and, when one grows enthusiastic over him, it is not because he has heightened the appeal of his material, but because he realizes so wonderfully the prodigal physical exuberance of his day. This reaches its culmination in his masterpiece, The Banquet of the Civic Guard  (No. 1135). Grouped around the standard-bearer, who is in black velvet with a sash of the same blue silk as the flag, are some two dozen figures, arranged in natural positions, with easy gestures and heads and hands individually characterized. In these particulars and the treatment of the fabrics there is more than mere craftsmanship. The latter has been regulated by a superior order of intellect.

It is here that one seems to discover the essential difference between Van der Helst and Hals. The former is intellectually the bigger man, while Hals's distinction is a superiority of feeling. His work, therefore, has the sensuous charm in which the other's is deficient. When in the light of this you reëxamine Van der Helst's masterpiece, it is to discover that what is lacking in it is the esthetic quality. The composition is not pervaded with atmosphere, in the various planes of which the figures might take on differences of subtle value; and, while there is an arrangement of light and shade, it is used only to assist the modeling of the figures, and with no feeling for heightening the beauty of the color-scheme by the luminosity of the hues. The result is that the scene, for all its assertion of vital force, is lacking in vivacity. The same test, applied to the other corporation pictures and single portraits by this artist in the Rijks Museum, corroborates the conviction that, apart from Rembrandt, Van der Helst was the biggest intellectual force among the portrait-painters of Holland, but that he lacked the esthetic feeling and accordingly the quality of technique which alone make him inferior to Hals.

Thomas de Keyser

Son of an architect and sculptor, Thomas de Keyser was born in Amsterdam, 1596 or 1597, and died there in 1667. His career is divided by a date about 1628. Before this his portraits are similar in character to those of Nicolaes Elias, with which they have been confused. The figures have a hardness and some stiffness, but unmistakable carrying power; the flesh is leathery, dull in color, and expressionless, and the composition either formally arranged in rows, or artlessly strung out in separate items. Thus his earlier portraits present a curious mingling of power and naïveté. They are representative of real people, but are not yet conceived with an artist's eye. Then by 1628 a change begins to appear in De Keyser's work, as it also did a few years later in that of Elias. Atmosphere creeps into his pictures; the flesh becomes more luminous, the composition at once more varied and more unified, and the figures, without losing their character, acquire amenity and dignity. It is said that De Keyser's work influenced the young Rembrandt when he first settled in Amsterdam, and it would seem as if also the older man gradually gained something from the younger.

In the Rijks Museum an example of De Keyser's early style is The Company of Captain Cloeck  (No. 1300). It is true it is dated 1632; but it still exhibits the hard-fleshed, vacantly staring faces, the figures in unimaginative poses and in no atmospheric envelop, and spiritless treatment of the fabrics. But compare The Family Meebeeck Cruywaghen  (No. 1349). Here the group is held together by a pleasing background of trees and house, bathed in a yellow glow. It is the homestead, and the comfort of it is reflected in the charming spontaneousness of feeling in the figures—father, mother, and grandmother, and six happy children. Each is delightfully individualized, and the expression of the whole picture is one of dignity and sweetness. Or for dignity, again, of a very refined order, take the equestrian Portrait of Pieter Schout  (No. 1650). There is here a fine feeling for color, the black horse and its rider's black hat and yellow coat showing grandly against the drab gray of the lofty sky, below which are sand-dunes with light-green verdure. The picture, though scarcely three feet high, has a sense of space and the bigness of a large canvas.

The startling difference between De Keyser's two styles is well exemplified in the Berlin Gallery, where you can compare the hard spread-out arrangement in black dresses of An Old Lady and Her Three Daughters  with the genial dignity of An Old Man and His Two Sons.  An exceedingly interesting Portrait of a Woman  hangs in the Museum of Art in Budapest. About fifty years old, she is seated in an arm-chair almost facing us; in a handsome black silk dress, trimmed with brown fur, with a wide starched ruff and a lawn cap with wings over the ears. Her honest face is modeled in firm planes, and is ruddy with health. This painter-like and admirably human portrait is dated in the year that has been adopted as separating the artist's two periods: namely, 1628.

Among the portrait-painters whose work exhibits the characteristic qualities of Dutch seventeenth-century art are Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt (1567-1641) and Jan Anthonisz van Ravesteyn, both of whom lived at The Hague, where they are well represented in the Mauritshuis; Salomon de Bray (1597-1664), who lived in Haarlem, where he can be seen to best advantage, and Paulus Moreelse (1571-1638), who was born and lived the greater part of his life in Utrecht. To the average student of painting the last named is probably the most interesting. The others are highly esteemed in Holland, though it is pointed out that in the latter part of their lives quality gave way to quantity. Indeed, they were so prolific that one tires of trying to pick good examples out of the mass of mediocrity. In the case of Moreelse, however, it is different. His works, less numerous, have a choiceness of feeling and execution, his portraits of women and children being especially gracious in conception and treatment. Witness, for example, in the Rijks Museum the Maria van Utrecht  and the portrait of a child of some seven years, The Little Princess.  In place of breadth and freedom, these pictures are precise and meticulous in brushwork, the details of the costumes elaborately reproduced, the faces softly modeled with faint greenish-gray shadows. Yet they have character and suggest reality and possess an undeniable charm. Somewhat broader in method is his Portrait of a Young Lady,  in the Budapest Museum. Seen to the waist, she is in black velvet, with cuffs and a deep collar of exquisite point-lace. Her pleasantly thoughtful face is painted with a somewhat dull and heavy brush, yet the expression is that of life, and its charm is increased by the soft hair being worn in large rolls over the ears and confined in a cap, of which only the dainty edges of lace appear. It is a portrait of singularly choice refinement.

To the occasional portraiture of the genre artists Maes, Terborch, and Netscher we have alluded in another chapter.