In Honor of Van Dyck
THE ease and frequency with which the European puts aside his work to take a holiday will probably never cease to bewilder the American. But even in countries where every church feast is an excuse for a day’s active idleness, it is not usual for a big bustling town to spare an entire week to play ; it is more unusual still when the sole reason for its excess is to do homage to an artist. We no longer proclaim the greatness of our Cimabues in the public streets. But this is just what Antwerp has been doing. As if it had not quite enough to attend to with its ever increasing commerce, its growing industries, its steady return to its old importance as a seaport, its hordes of American tourists who have helped to bring this about, it has turned itself topsy-turvy, it has made itself into one big playground, in order to celebrate the fact that just three hundred years ago Van Dyck was born there. The tribute of a great exhibition, it is true, was paid to Rembrandt last year in Amsterdam ; but it was a mere incident in a series of celebrations in honor of the Queen’s coronation. This year, at Antwerp, Van Dyck was the one and only excuse for as pretty and protracted a festival as I have ever taken part in ; and I have come away asking myself which is the more extraordinary, — that an artist should figure as a town’s popular hero, or that this town should know how to give so much dignity and gayety to its hero worship.
For really, no matter what the occasion, it is a delight to see Antwerp en fête. The town — in the old quarters, that is, not in the modern bald, ugly, pretentious wilderness that might as well be a bit of Chicago or brand-new Budapest — has never lost its charm, though it is exposed more than most others to the full fury of the tourist. Years ago Thackeray regretted the “ many hundreds of thousands of English ” who visited it, and now he would have to add as many hundreds of thousands of Americans; and yet the beauty, that “ stiff antique splendor ” he described, survives. Nowhere is one readier to accept and forgive the petty persecutions imposed on the sightseer, simply because in the sights themselves one is so amply repaid. In its sudden outbreak of decorations it looked more charming than ever. So far as I saw, only one house — that well-known bricabrac shop at the corner in the Grand’ Place — had hung from its windows tapestries and embroideries recalling the richness and lavishness of the pageants of Van Dyck’s time; the very stuffs, perhaps, that adorned those pageants. But still, much may be done with flags and pennons, with garlands and palm branches, judiciously disposed, and Antwerp wore its modest finery with a gayety that was irresistible. Its most dramatic effect was reserved for the evening, when innumerable lanterns flamed among the withering trees of the Place Verte, and lines of fire blazed along the wide facade of the Hôtel de Ville and from the shadowy, unillumined square in front of the cathedral; the great belfry, reflecting the brilliant light on every side as it rose from out the darkness, towered in the deep blue of the summer night, a golden beacon for all the mariners of the Scheldt. And the first day’s festivity ended in a retraite aux flambeaux, in which the whole town was invited to join, — and did most joyfully. The Fleming is slow by nature : he needed twelve good hours to realize that his holiday had begun; then he threw himself into it with such abandonment, I wondered how he would ever throw himself out again and go back to his every-day work.
But, enchanting as it all was, I am not sure what it had to do with Van Dyck. He belonged essentially to the court; he was an aristocrat by nature, if not by birth ; he would always have sought his reward in the royal approval, never in a popular demonstration. During his lifetime he had no use for the people, and to me it seemed part of the irony of things that now, centuries after his death, that handsome head of his, which he took so much pleasure in painting with all the elegance for which his brush was famed, should be caricatured in countless cheap chromosand cheaper photographs; that his name should be bandied about on signboards, as if he had been a favorite soap or a universal pill; that every little local club or society should display its badge and flaunt its banner because he happened to be a citizen of its town. For days Antwerp was as crowded with parades as the Thames Embankment near Charing Cross on a summer Sunday afternoon. But there was only one in which I could fancy Van Dyck taking the shadow of an interest. This was a street spectacle more in the manner of the pageants of Whitehall. It represented the progress of art through the ages, until the day Van Dyck, according to the loyal people of Antwerp, left no further work for the centuries to do. The art of Egypt and the East, of Greece and Rome, of mediæval Europe and Europe of the Renaissance, even of Flanders when Rubens was its master, but led to the apotheosis of the younger Fleming in a sort of Drury Lane spectacular gilded gorgeousness. One could not criticise the exaggeration at such a moment; and besides, each group, though here and there marred by tawdry detail and theatrical glitter and gaudiness, was admirably composed and arranged,—each the design of an artist, — while the first group of all, the prelude, as it were, was as old as, or older than, Van Dyck. For the way was led by a colossal whale, a little pink-and-white Cupid sitting astride, armed with two hose which he played right and left to clear the road, in such good earnest that, at his approach, rows of umbrellas and parasols opened as if by magic on either side. And after the whale came dolphins only less colossal, and a ship with sails spread, and then a couple of the most adorable giants: the woman with a far-away resemblance to Britannia, the man fierce and bearded, with a terrible eye that rolled from right to left upon the gaping crowd, — first cousins both of the Sire de Gayant of whom Miss Repplier has told us, descendants of the same large Spanish family whose members are still to be met in Granada and Toledo at Corpus Christi, or, at intervals in the summer time, in almost every little Flemish town, French or Belgian. And this entire group, whale and Cupid, dolphins, ship, and giants, just as I watched it yesterday passing the Hôtel de Ville, you may see in an old sixteenth-century print that still hangs on the walls of the Plantin Museum. But the most memorable beauty was the effect of the procession as a whole, when it went winding, a moving line of color, through the narrow gabled streets or across the Grand’ Place, below the tall Guild Halls which have looked down upon all Antwerp’s triumphant processions, and the bells in the belfry were ringing their fantastic melodies overhead as cheerfully as they rang “ whilst the French were pitching their fulgura into Chassé’s citadels. . . . whilst the scaffolds were up and guarded by Alva’s soldiers, and regiments of penitents, blue, black, and gray, poured out of churches and convents, droning their dirges, and marching to the Place of the Hôtel de Ville,” — as cheerfully as they have rung for “ how many days, nights, and years! ” I saw the spectacle a second time on one of the broad new boulevards, but half the picturesqueness had gone with the old background.
These were the entertainments for the people. A more serious side of the festival was for the academicians and delegates who had been sent from every country to add the tribute of their presence. There was the solemn Conference, at which the members of the French Institut in the historic coats with the green palm leaves that make one think of Daudet, and the German academicians in their red velvet robes, and all the other delegates in irreproachable evening dress and many medals, read papers to the greater glory of Van Dyck. There was their amazing procession from the Conference, through the town, to lay wreaths before the statue of Van Dyck, where I saw one poor Englishman so overcome at finding himself in his dress suit at two o’clock in the afternoon that he concealed the mortifying fact from public gaze under a heavy Inverness cloak, though the sun was scorching. There was the banquet in state, with the burgomaster presiding; and surely, not in Van Dyck’s day was there ever a burgomaster of finer presence and more golden speech. And there was, above all, the exhibition of the life work of Van Dyck, to explain why and how far he was worthy of the homage shown him.
As a rule, one is forced to form one’s estimate of an artist by studying his pictures scattered here and there in public museum and private gallery, in church and palace ; or else, according to the ingenious modern scientific method, in a collection of photographs after them. The Prado leaves little to be discovered of the genius of Velasquez ; all Franz Hals is in Haarlem ; a visit to the Ducal Palace and the Scuola di San Rocco, at Venice, gives the clue to the magnificence of the Venetians. But these are the exceptions. In the case of most of the old masters, one must travel from end to end of Europe before one has the chance to understand the manner of their development, or to uppredate the full scope of their powers, the tendency of their influence. Therefore, the collecting of the work of any one of these masters into one gallery is an event of no small importance to artist and student alike. This was felt, last year, when the Rembrandt exhibition was held at Amsterdam, even though one’s pleasure in it was tempered by disappointment. It is felt again this year, now the Van Dyck show has opened at Antwerp, though again there is an element of disappointment, if for quite another reason. Some rubbish crept in among the Rembrandts, and some doubtful canvases; too many masterpieces were missing ; several rooms were badly hung. The Van Dycks have been much more carefully, or successfully, selected. There are masterpieces one would have wished to see included, but these belong mainly to different national galleries, which, naturally, will not risk sending their treasures on tour. The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and of course the Belgian galleries, alone are represented. On the other hand, there is little if any rubbish, and the pictures that excite least admiration are often those most characteristic of certain periods and phases in the art of Van Dyck. The arrangement, too, is admirable. M. Koch, Conservateur of the Musée, deserves all praise. He has bad the advantage of spacious galleries, decorated with a richness and simplicity Van Dyck would have loved, and he has known how to make use of this advantage. The pictures are well placed on the walls, well balanced, well distributed; it is a pleasure to look at them,—not the usual back-breaking business : so that, as one lingers in these delightful rooms, it does not seem easy to say just where lies the reason for one’s feeling of disappointment.
Yet I think I understand. The trouble is that one goes to the exhibition expecting too much; one believes it must add that little more to Van Dyck’s reputation that will place him with the world’s greatest masters. So complete a collection, one of the London critics has just been writing, should settle the question of Van Dyck’s position once and for all. That position was defined by Fromentin long ago. Van Dyck, he declared, stands alone between the painters of the first rank and the painters of the second. But there are times when one is ready to cry out that this is an injustice ; that he should stand really with Rubens, with Rembrandt, with Velasquez. The glamour of his personality, of his conquering career, half blinds us to the truth ; the distinction, the grace, of an occasional portrait, not always the most celebrated, carries one away with enthusiasm. All sense of proportion is easily lost in reading the story of his life, of his triumphs that followed quick one upon the other. His talent asserted itself when he was but a child; his entry into the studio of Rubens from Van Balen’s was the signal for immediate recognition, and orders for church decoration, intrusted to the master’s practical workshop, stipulated that the young Van Dyck should be the chief workman employed. His chance for the journey to Italy came almost at once, and with it, according to legend, for romance, broken hearts marking the stages of his route, and, according to facts, for commissions, the outcome of one being the gay little St. Martin of Saventhem. The stay in Italy modified his style by the intimate study of the Venetians, brought him innumerable sitters, and, no less promptly, fame and fortune, as well as the reputation of il pittore cavalleresco, that was to cling to him. His return to Flanders secured more demands for altarpieces and religious pictures than he could satisfy ; his long visit to England won for him fresh laurels as the favorite of Charles, as the painter of every distinguished man and every great lady in the kingdom, and resulted in his knighthood, in the wealth that enabled him to live like the prince he would assuredly have been had the choice been his, and in his marriage into a noble house. Wherever he went, whatever he did, he was made much of, he was fêted and courted. Kings disputed for the favor of sitting to him, and throughout the length and breadth of England there was scarcely a royal palace, a castle, a manor house, that did not clamor to have one of his portraits on its walls. English painters based their art upon his, and handed down the tradition to the Reynolds and Gainsborough, the Romney and Lawrence and Hoppner, of later generations. It seems impossible, in the face of these facts, not to accept Van Dyck as the incomparable master who silenced the criticism of his contemporaries.
And in his portraits of himself he looks so essentially the artist; in the very pose of his fine head, with the delicate, sensitive features, there is something of the same swagger so convincing in Velasquez as you see him standing by his easel in the picture of the Maids of Honor, or half lost in the crowd of the Lances. Even Van Dyck’s weaknesses and vices are those the world is predisposed to forgive in an artist. Extravagance, luxuriance, dissipation, love of women, are popularly supposed to belong to the artistic temperament, which has been made conveniently responsible for so many indiscretions. Nor was Ids dissipation of the pothouse order. He would have been no boon companion for Franz Hals, despite the story of his visit to the Dutchman’s studio, ending in a drink at the nearest tavern. There was an elegance (I wish the word had not come to suggest Mr. Turveydrop’s “ deportment” or the enthusiasm of the American “young person”) in everything he did as in everything he painted : it is the keynote to his character as to his art. In a word, he had the personal charm that so often atones for the absence of finer and more vigorous qualities.
If he had the good fortune to lend this charm to all his work, there are, as I have said, pictures that make a more legitimate bid for applause. I do not mean only the more famous portraits, the Charles of the Louvre and the Charles of the National Gallery, the royal children at Windsor and the amusing little girl in blue of the Antwerp Musée, and a dozen others. Occasionally, in some smaller, more obscure collection, one comes unexpectedly upon a canvas that proclaims the master. I remember finding just such a picture, last summer, at Frankfort. I was tired. I had been wandering listlessly through the galleries, when of a sudden my eyes were caught and held by a portrait. Nothing could have been simpler. It was one of the half - lengths Van Dyck liked best to paint. The unknown man who posed for it was sitting quietly in his chair, his head resting on one hand. There was character in the face, character in the hands, character in the pose. And there was dignity as well, and color in the rich blacks and grays. The man was alive, not merely an excuse for a beautiful conventional pattern ; he remains in my memory a distinct person, like the unknown old lady by Franz Hals in the gallery at Ghent, or, for that matter, like more than one nameless man or woman by Rembrandt or Velasquez. It is a picture that tempts one to believe the mistake heretofore has been to judge the merit of Van Dyck’s portraits by the importance of the people who sat to him ; that the interest has been in his sitters rather than in his work : that in a collection of his pictures this fact would at once become apparent, settling the question of his position entirely in his favor, and reversing the verdict of Fromentin ; and that the opportunity alone was needed to compel one to form a new and juster estimate of his genius.
Yet this is precisely what one cannot do at Antwerp. Van Dyck gains nothing — on the contrary he loses — when so much of his work is seen together. Take first of all the big religious compositions. To look at one of them in a church, in its proper place, is not to be very much impressed. From documents that have been preserved, it is proved that Van Dyck, like all experienced decorators, considered the conditions under which his altarpiece was to be seen, and painted it that it might tell best under those conditions. Therefore, it is in the church for which it was intended that it should be looked at. When it does not fill effectively the space for which it was designed, one is likely to lay the blame upon the bad light or inharmonious surroundings ; one is confident that it has but to be hung in the good light of a modern gallery to reveal the great qualities which one imagines it must possess. The galleries in the Antwerp Musée could not be better lighted, more admirably arranged. But I do not think any one could study or glance at the Crucifixions and the Descents from the Cross, the Ecstasy of .St. Augustine and the St. Sebastian, so generously lent by Belgian churches and convents, without wishing them back over the altars or in the chapels where they belong. Their faults are here doubly conspicuous. Make every allowance one will for the lack of care taken of them, for the unintelligent restoration to which several have been subjected, and it is still not to be denied that they are unworthy of so famous a painter. They are the work of an accomplished craftsman. Yes, of one who was a master of modeling and drawing, as was to be expected after his training with Rubens; one who understood the laws of composition : one who had command of every technical method and device. But they are theatrical, empty ; the emotion is forced, the incident is expressed in melodramatic rather than tragic terms. The truth is, Van Dyck was not a religious painter. The gayety and worldliness of his life had nothing to do with it. I do not agree with Mr. Ruskin that genius or talent depends upon’ the artist s morals. It is evident that religious subjects did not amuse or appeal to him. His pictures of this kind are only too plainly the veriest potboilers. Even the St. Martin, decidedly the best, — although the saint, in armor, on his prancing steed, has a touch of the distinction and grace of Van Dyck’s knights and cavaliers, — would not, I fear, seem so interesting but for the proverbial devotion of the villagers of Saventhem to their altarpiece, and the tales of their armed defense to protect it against the invader.
Now turn to the portraits which did amuse him, into which he put all that was best in him, all that was strongest. They are as disappointing in their way as the altarpieces. M. Gruiffrey, Van Dyck’s most ardent advocate, was conscious of the same disappointment, if in a minor degree, when he saw but a few grouped together at Munich. He had to invent reasons to account for it. Men of rank, he suggested, would insist on being painted in the stilted pose they thought became their station ; the costume of the day was not picturesque ; the black universally worn made monotony inevitable ; a number of portraits by one man, anyway, should not be hung side by side. These are no reasons. Velasquez spent his life painting people of royal and noble rank; never was a more hideous costume decreed by fashion than the dress of his Infantas ; black was a favorite color at the Spanish court : one is confronted by rows of his portraits at the Prado. There is less beauty, less variety, less splendor, in the gayest, most flamboyant Regent pictures of Franz Hals’ early years than in those two quiet, stately groups of elderly men and women in sombre black which Velasquez painted in his old age. When there is monotony, the fault is not in the subject, but in the artist’s treatment of it. And it is the monotony above all else that strikes one in the vast array of portraits at Antwerp, as it struck M. Guiffrey at Munich. A single pose seems to have answered for Van Dyck’s great ladies, another for his cavaliers; heads are turned at the same angle, eyes follow one in the same direction ; hands are but studio properties, their arrangement — one at the waist, one hanging — but a studio trick. It could be proved without the authority of Jabach that the workshop at Blackfriars had borrowed a hint or two from the workshop of the Place de Meir. Pupils and apprentices drew in the figure on the canvas, a professional model supplied the hands and drapery, the master condescended to give the final touches. Otherwise, how could any painter, the most facile or industrious, have turned out so many hundred portraits in so few years ? And why should he have hesitated if his patrons were more than satisfied? No doubt, like the patrons of Rembrandt, they would have deserted him had he dared to outgrow the methods that first made his reputation, had he ventured to assert his individuality until the end.
But to-day we are not satisfied. Now and then there is a break in the monotony, and we stand before a picture that no pupil touched, or else a pupil to whom we must take off our hat; a picture for which no hack of the studios posed, but the actual man or woman painted. There are several of these fine exceptions at Antwerp, and almost all have come from England. Whatever M. Guiffrey may think, Van Dyck’s most distinguished work was produced during the English period, before illness and dissipation had undermined his health and lessened the cunning of his hand. English owners of masterpieces are marvelously generous. They insured the success of the Rembrandt show last year; this year they have made the glory of the Van Dyck exhibition. Except for England, for Windsor, the collection could not boast the superb portrait of Carew the poet, of Killigrew the actor, so haunting in its picturesque golden perfection. But for England it would not include his portrait of himself in the youthful, languid beauty he had outlived before he left Flanders, hut could not forget; nor the three heads — profile, full face, three quarters — of Charles, on one canvas, that were to serve as model for Bernini; nor the Henrietta Maria presenting the laurel wreath to the King; nor one of the most delicious of the several groups of royal children ; nor too many for me to mention here. Thirtysix examples in all were sent from England, and among them some of the most notable pictures in the collections of the Queen, the Duke of Devonshire, the Duke of Westminster, the Duke of Grafton, Lord Spencer, and Lord Darnley. I do not attempt to describe these fine exceptions, simply because they are too well known. The originals have figured, at different times, in the winter exhibitions of old masters at the Royal Academy, and other exhibitions at home ; the reproductions are everywhere. In them, as in the unknown portrait at Frankfort, Van Dyck is supreme. Curiously, it is his supremacy in a few portraits that makes one resent more keenly his pure conventionalism in the many. And it is not possible to attribute the impression received at Antwerp to the mere chance of a loan exhibition which, in this case, has brought together the least fortunate of his portraits. For the same monotony exists in equal measure in the etchings, in the prints of the iconography, lent from the Royal Print Room in Brussels, and arranged by M. Hymans ; it exists in the full and representative collection of photographs after his pictures, though some of these may Help to demonstrate how many of his masterpieces have necessarily been omitted.
Before all this evidence there is no blinding one’s self to the fact that, great as were the things Van Dyck had it in him to do, he could be content, most of the time, to relapse into commonplace. He evolved a convention, — a very beautiful one, but still only a convention, a formula, — and this he substituted for honest, loving study of nature. To such a device the greatest artist could not stoop if he would. Rembrandt, Velasquez, Titian, might fail, but they were original, individual, true to themselves even in their failures. Van Dyck, more often than not, was true, not to himself, but to his conventions. There are versions of his Charles that can almost hold their own with Velasquez’s Philip ; there are some of his knights and poets and artists that would scarcely be overshadowed by Rembrandt’s Dutch burghers. But by far the larger number of his portraits rise little above the level of Mytens, of Honthorst, of De Keyser. When we see his portraits separately, the quality we call grace, for want of a better name, which is always conspicuous in them, helps us to forget his weakness ; hang a number together, and there is no escape from it. I am convinced that here is the right explanation of the disappointment in wait at Antwerp for the student. The present collection, so far from revealing the artist in a new and more brilliant light, as one hoped it would, confirms Fromentin in appointing him a place between painters of the first rank and painters of the second. I must, however, in justice add that the exhibition is the more interesting for a disappointment that checks impulsive enthusiasm, and sets one to a closer study of Van Dyck and his art.
Elizabeth Robins Pennell.