The Artistic Genius of Holland: A Panorama of Past and Present
by SACHEVERELL SITWELL
AT THE Rijksmuseum at Amsterdam there is a delightful set of paintings depicting the reception of a Dutch Ambassador, early in the eighteenth century, by the Court of the Sublime Porte. The pictures are charming because of the contrast between the pantomime costumes of the Turks and the portly Dutchmen in their periwigs. Presents were always exchanged on such occasions. Dutch envoys had paid similar visits to the Courts of Kyoto and Peking, and to how many native princes in Java, India, and Ceylon? Among the costly gifts from Holland will have been Dutch atlases; but I have often wondered if it was not a little humiliating for Dutchmen to point to their own little country upon the map. Compared to the dominions of the Turkish Sultan or the Emperor of China, Holland was a little handkerchief spread out upon a lawn. Yet the Dutchmen have had an influence upon the world out of all proportion to their population, not least, as we hope to show, in their architecture and their art.
Let us travel without further ado to Holland and take up temporary headquarters in Amsterdam. An always memorable experience is the first walk in Amsterdam. Nothing, it is true, could be less like walking down Fifth Avenue for the first time. Yet, for an American, is it altogether so unfamiliar? Does it not remind one of the older and quieter parts of Boston? There are houses, whole rows of them in Boston, that are reminiscent of the old houses in Amsterdam. But, most of all, Amsterdam suggests a Sunday walk in London’s Bloomsbury, and particularly in Bedford Square. In Amsterdam there are two sorts of houses: those with the stepped gables, which are older in date, belonging to the late sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, and the big town houses with flat plain fronts and rich interiors. It is these latter which are so like old London houses; and their bucolic descendants in bright coats of red brick and white plaster ceilings have been revived in order to give pleasure to tens of thousands at Williamsburg, Virginia, a “restored" town which most definitely is in AngloDutch style.
The gabled houses of earlier date are typically Dutch, yet they are part of an architecture of wide ramifications spreading from Bruges and Ghent, and from Alsace, all through the Teutonic countries as far as Riga and Danzig on the Baltic, and even as far as Poland. They are merchant or burgher houses, often of timber elsewhere, but always of brick in Holland; and we would expect to discover some of the finest of them in Amsterdam which early in the seventeenth century was the richest town in Europe. This was at a time when the Netherlands were “booming,” after they had won their independence from Spain under William “the Silent,” one of the heroes of Protestant Europe. Asylum was offered to all refugees from political persecution; and the French Huguenots and Spanish and Portuguese Jews who took advantage of this hospitality did much to increase the fortunes of their adopted country.
Dutchmen of this generation were frugal and hard working. There are entire streets of gabled houses in many towns in Holland; but it would be idle to pretend that they are anything but modest in dimension and in decoration. They are the houses of Dutchmen to whom wealth is pouring in from all over the world, but who do not feel safe yet, and who still keep pikes and arquebuses in their houses; who are still saving money, and not spending.
Dutch churches, it may be added, are as plain and solid as their congregations. It would be senseless to deny charm and quaintness to these old Dutch buildings, just as it is an injustice to exaggerate their eminence as works of art. Perhaps the two best arguments in their own favor are the red brick Westerkerk of Amsterdam, by the architect Hendrick de Keyser, than which no building could be more eloquent of the Dutch Reformed Church; and the Meat Market at Haarlem, by Lieven de Key, described as “the quaintest brick and stone building, perhaps even of the entire Northern Renaissance,”but however quaint it is, it is not beautiful.
DESPITE the modesty, or even primness, of their buildings, some leaven of unprecedented force and vigor was swelling the souls of Dutchmen of that generation, enabling them to see the events and details of everyday life with astonishing and transcendental clearness. No reasonable theory will ever be able to explain how or why it was that so many Dutchmen were painters, and all during one, or at the most two, human generations. It is not enough to say that hard-won national independence made them take up their brushes. In seventeenth-century Holland the number of artists was entirely incredible; and down to today, connoisseurs of painting with some pretension to knowledge often have the experience of entering a picture gallery to find some beautiful painting of supreme handling and technical merit by a Dutchman whose name they never remember having heard before.
With meticulous thoroughness the Dutch painters divined each his especial province and made himself at home in it. Hendrik van Avercamp, one of the early and delightful “primitives" of Dutch painting, chose for subject little else than skating scenes, and must have spent many months of each year waiting fur the winter to come round again. Aert van der Neer was the master of moonlight; whereas Van der Heyden rendered every individual brick or stone in his paintings of towns, and yet contrived that his pictures should not be pernickety or fidgety in effect. Did all these Dutch painters sell their pictures? Was it because painting was so well paid a profession that they all took to being painters? The evidence is to the contrary. And if we take the greatest of them — Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Vermeer — it is only to find their careers were lamentable, and that from a material point of view they were ill-advised to become artists. The urge to paint must have been irresistible, and yielded to regardless of the consequences.
There is one delightful true primitive, Geertgen van Sint Jans of Haarlem, contemporary to Memling and much less sophisticated; unless at a hazard we include Dirk Bouts, also born at Haarlem, but who lived and painted in Belgium. There is little, except that both were painters of individuality with their own mannerisms and their own personalities, to distinguish them from Flemish painters.
By some curious chance two much greater artists are seldom given the credit for being of Dutch origin. They are Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel. Bois-le-Duc (’s Hertogenbosch in Dutch) was where Bosch lived, and it is said that half of his work perished when the stained glass windows in the cathedral of that town were destroyed during a siege by the Spanish armies. His few remaining pictures, for he is a rare master, were veiled in obscurity not less opaque than that attaching to El Greco until recent years. Bosch was a fantasist who puts such modern masters of unreality as Paul Klee into the shade, and now his wildest inventions all seem, in the light of recent research, to be reasonable and to have an explanation.
The Brueghels, a family of painters, came from the village of that name, near Breda. Pieter Brueghel in his early years worked over and over again the material, or, it would be more sensible to say, dug the unworked seams, left by his great predecessor, and then developed in directions which no one could have foretold from his immature paintings. Indeed, Brueghel is, with Diirer and with Holbein, one of the great masters of Northern painting, a style which is of nature, in antithesis to the Italian. They are masters of line, not of color, the Italians being, it is fair to say, true painters, in the sense that they could paint upon walls and ceilings. This genius for improvisation is altogether lacking in the more careful masters of the Northern school.
The genius of the Dutchmen was so strong, though, that it broke its own laws. In the person of Frans Hals it produced everything that the robust, carnival habits of the Dutchmen had put into their own lives but from propriety or circumspection had omitted in their paintings. Frans Hals must have had in addition the most amazing eyesight ever given to a painter. Surrounded as we are in our own lives by constant images and groupings of human beings on the screen and in the photographs in daily papers, how are we to conceive of the technical ability of Frans Hals in composing great groups of fifteen or more drunken arquebusiers or members of guilds — the painter, we may be sure, being not less intoxicated than they were themselves! It Is almost beyond comprehension how he could have achieved these paintings; and even if his handling and execution are vulgar we have to marvel at his eyesight and his sleight of hand. But Hals could not paint anything that was not before his eyes, and to expect more of him is to impeach his genius and deny his skill.
Hals is, of course, not an artist at all, in the poetic and dramatic meaning of that word, compared to Rembrandt. But Rembrandt, son of a miller, and grandson of a baker — little better than a peasant — had a soul and a depth of feeling which made him of another metal from the surface brilliance and dash of Hals. If any painter goes deep into the human soul, in the sense in which Beethoven in his last quartets tried to penetrate its mysteries, its vast horizons, and its shortcomings, then Rembrandt is that painter. As a young man he led a life that may remind us of Baudelaire’s few short years of extravagance before his financial ruin. Both loved to surround themselves with fine silks and velvets, to have the company of beautiful women, and drink expensive wines. Marriage to Saskia van Ulenbergh, a young girl from Friesland, twenty-two years old, of good family, with the beautiful Frisian fair hair, may have seemed to Rembrandt to set the seal on his prosperity. It is painful to compare his splendid painting (in the Dresden Gallery) of himself with Saskia on his lap, while fortune smiled upon him, toasting her in a glass of wine, with his self-portraits painted in poverty and old age. Not, even, that Rembrandt lived to be an old man, but he was prematurely aged through misfortune and disillusionment. His art collections had long ago been sold; Saskia was dead; his son Titus proved a sad disappointment; in every way the tides were turned against him. But be was the greatest painter of his century. When Rembrandt was composing on a huge scale there has never been a painter to equal him. He was the great Dutchman, as Dante was the great Italian, or Shakespeare the greatest of Englishmen.
Round the figure of Vermeer, the other giant of Dutch painting, complications have gathered only paralleled by the South Sea Bubble, or the Dutch tulip mania of Vermeer’s own clay. It is difficult to imagine how any serious critic of pictures could have been taken in by his supposed painting of Christ at Emmaus. The mannerisms of the forger Van Meegeren are so quickly recognized: the blank expressions of his faces and their heavy-lidded eyes. In the result Vermeer has to be freed again from the web of false attribution; and it is true that the View of Delft (at The Hague) and his Self-Portrait at his Easel (in Vienna) show so extraordinary a diversity and so varied a genius that it is one of the wonders of nature that they are by the same hand.
Vermeer was little esteemed until late in the last century, though one would have guessed that his would have been the most popular of all paintings in the Victorian Age. Yet his cool colors and the clearness and sanity of his vision were unappreciated, and the public passed him by. But it is only when Vermeer is accepted and taken for granted without discussion that the unbelievable subtlety of his handling, and the building up of his forms which were in themselves masterpieces of arrangement, are once more discovered and acclaimed. Then, the Self-Portrait at his Easel becomes a miracle only equaled by Velazquez’s Las Men in as (in the Prado). It is the whole of Holland in a moment of time, and we begin to forget again the subtle, yet invisible, placing of the mirrors, and the static hysteria wherein nothing moves or stirs.
Of the lesser masters there can never he an end. They are those which strengthen their hold upon us as we grow older. We get to love them for their calm sanity, and perhaps just because they lack both the garishness of the moderns and the facility of the Italians. The interiors of de Hoogh and Metsu: the landscapes of Ruysdael and Hobbema; the church paintings of Pieter Saanredam; the marine painters; the still life and flower painters; there are even masters of brass pots and earthen pans!
And then, in a single generation the genius had gone out of the Dutchmen. There followed what I would call Confucian Holland, when the Dutchmen lived tranquilly, and richly, as though in a chrysalis, or as flies in amber. This hiatus was their eighteenth century, during which they prospered exceedingly from their colonial possessions, and wealth was flowing from the Indies.
It was at this time that the solid brick houses were built along the canal banks; that Leyden and The Hague and Delft and Amsterdam took on their present aspect — that is, if we omit the swarms of bicycles, and the suburbs of modern houses built with the Dutch propensity for comfort and common sense. Dutchmen tend rather to ignore the eighteenth century, because they consider it the aftermath of their time of greatness — the rest and lull after the big effort — when the painters and navigators were dead and buried. The Dutch lived, as we say, like flies in amber till the wars of Napoleon. Then came the rude awakening; and a much worse one when they were invaded and occupied all through the last war, and in the end lost their Indian empire.
Among all the different lands of Europe, Holland has perhaps the deepest individuality after that of Spain. A moment’s walk along the banks of one of her town canals has as much of personality as a day’s motor drive through the hot, burnt tableland of high Castile. The fisherman of Volendam in his baggy black breeches and black fur hat — well, he is as full of character as the spangled, swaggering torero, and no more of an anachronism.
With Vincent van Gogh the Dutch produced one of the greatest of aberrant geniuses of all time, and one genius in a century makes a nation. Van Gogh is for modern Holland what, in his century, Goya was for Spain. There is every reason, therefore, to think the Dutchmen are as full of vitality as ever, and have still their part to play as artists in the modern world.