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From Holland of the Dutch by Demetrius Boulger, 1920.
If Holland were not high up on the roll of fame for her history she would be for her art; and it will always be regarded as a singular instance of national vigour that the centuries during which she took the lead in policy and arms were also her golden age in art. But perhaps the conjunction is less remarkable when we remember that the stirring scenes amid which the first Stadtholders were making and consolidating the independence of the country supplied the battle passages and seascapes transferred from life to the canvases of Wouvermans and Vandenvelde. It was to other and more typically national subjects however that the great artists devoted their attention, pastoral scenes, civic ceremonies, Dutch interiors, Dutch animals, all unmistakably identified with their country and no other. The great qualities of the Dutch character, patience and persistency, were revealed in the absolute accuracy of detail, the close attention to the minute, the sense of proportion, and the harmonious colouring which distinguish the Dutch school from any other.
The Dutch Golden Age of Art
It is unnecessary to dwell on the well-known fact that whereas Italian art dealt with the ideal which implies the sacrifice of truth to the beautiful, Dutch art concentrated its attention on the material and the visible. Leaving Madonnas and Saints for the southern imagination, Dutch painters showed us men and women as they existed, and often in their most unattractive and repellent forms. If we wish to know how the people lived and amused themselves in the seventeenth century we have only to turn to the paintings of Frans Hals and Jan Steen, Van Ostade and Mieris.
But great as were the painters of life, the painters of nature were still greater, and it must be remarked that they had no adventitious help from the only natural objects within their reach. They knew not nature in her romantic guise of forest, flood, and mountain, but in the humdrum aspect of the canal bank, the sparsely wooded landscape and the tree-lined road. Yet these masters included Ruysdael and Hobbema.
One form of nature that could not be surpassed as a model existed at their door, the Sea; and among Dutch marine painters, in addition to the elder Vandenvelde who went into battle to study the realism of naval strife, were Backhuysen, Stork, Dabbels and the younger Vandenvelde. And then we have the painters of animals culminating in the great Paul Potter and his famous Bull, the glory of The Hague Mauritshuis.
But the glory of Dutch art concentrates in the person of Rembrandt, whose genius seems more comprehensive and commanding the more closely it is studied. Holland has known how to keep in due honour and security his two masterpieces the "Arquebusiers" at Amsterdam, and the "Anatomy Lesson" at The Hague. The former is perhaps the most impressive and gorgeous grouping of human figures, and the latter the most significant and awe inspiring study of the human form that were ever placed on canvas.
Rembrandt was nearly as great in his landscapes, witness his Mill; and his portraits are famous above all. Nor should mention of his great contemporary and rival in a sense. Van der Heist, or of Gerard Douw, be omitted, although all we wish to recall before dealing with the more recent period is something of the greatness of the past.
De Amicis has some very just remarks about the distinctive merit of the early Dutch painters, and the special circumstances that created it. First, he says the peculiar light of Holland could not fail to give rise to a special manner of painting. "A pale light," he writes, “waving with marvellous mobility through an atmosphere impregnated with vapour, a nebulous veil continually and abruptly torn, a perpetual struggle between light and shadow; such was the spectacle which attracted the eye of the artist. He began to observe and to reproduce all this agitation of the heavens, this struggle which animates with varied and fantastic life the solitude of nature in Holland. He accumulated darkness that he might split and seam it with all manner of luminous effects and sudden gleams of light; sunbeams darted through the rifts, sunset reflections and the yellow rays of lamp light were blended with delicate manipulation into mysterious shadows and their dim depths were peopled with half seen forms; and thus he created all sorts of contrasts, enigmas, play and effect of strange and unexpected chiaroscuro... And thus the Dutch painters were potent colourists and Rembrandt was their chief."
After the middle of the eighteenth century Dutch art seemed to decline. Peace and prosperity had dulled the artistic senses, but it must be allowed that the condition of society was no longer wholly favourable to the unfettered display of genius. A feeling of uncertainty pervaded the country, the national spirit had declined, and finally the overthrow of the House of Orange and the acceptance of French views and rule cast a blight over the land. Art was derelict and the productive power of the Dutch school exhausted; men spoke of it as of something that had passed away.
But as soon as Holland came by her own again as the sequel of the formation of the kingdom of the Netherlands there was, among other evidences of national vigour, a remarkable revival in the artistic interest and productiveness of the country. A new school of art came into being, not unworthy to be considered as following in the footsteps of the old, and in the last half century it has grown more vigorous, more comprehensive and more world known. A great art critic has written, "Dutch art is now as fresh and varied as in the old days of its glory."
The Maris Brothers
Among these regenerators of the Dutch school the brothers Maris are entitled to a very foremost place. Each had a distinct style although all favoured landscapes. It has always been a characteristic of Dutch painters that they did not confine themselves to one subject as strictly as their fellow-artists in other countries, and thus all the Maris brothers painted portraits, although their best work was done in landscapes.
Jacob Maris, the eldest and probably the best of them, painted nature on a large scale, but he often varied the subject by selecting an animated scene like the beach at Scheveningen, or Sunday afternoon in The Hague Wood. His second brother, Willem, was a landscapist, pure and simple, but he generally introduced into the scene cattle or horses. Both these artists painted very brightly, and they pleased the spectator by leaving little or nothing to his own imagination or intuition. Their popularity was great in their lifetime and is not likely to diminish.
The third brother, Thys Maris, was entirely different, and he was as obscure and individualistic as his brothers were the reverse. His colouring imitated Turner's, and some of his critics went so far as to declare that the subjects treated were quite undiscernable. This characteristic was bad enough in landscapes, but when it came to portraits the result was sometimes fatal to all resemblance with the original, and the patron refused to accept it. But none the less Thys Maris had his own coterie of admirers who proclaimed him the greatest artist in the nineteenth century. In several respects he might be compared to Whistler.
The sea continues to appeal largely to the Dutch imagination and marine painters are many. Israels was more especially the painter of fishing scenes, the boats of Scheveningen providing him with a model close to his door. But the greatest of all Dutch painters of the sea in the nineteenth century was unquestionably Hendrik Willem Mesdag, and he probably has not had a superior since the elder Vandenvelde over two centuries ago.
Although of a totally different style, Voerman is probably the painter whose reputation in the opinion of the Dutch comes next to Mesdag's. He began by painting flowers, but he soon turned to landscape, and in this branch he gained a position second to none. His colouring is very vivid and he aims at producing sharp contrasts by showing storms in the skies over peaceful scenes on earth. Clouds are his chief study, and with them he produces some of his most striking effects. As a painter of flowers Verster has carried on his work, and unlike his predecessor, has remained faithful to his first love. In brilliance of colour, and in minuteness of detail, Verster is unsurpassable.
A New School
Interiors of churches, and still more particularly of houses, have always had a great attraction for the Dutch painter. Here we find men like Blommers, Bosboom and Bles, whose merit is recognised far outside their own country. The best portrait painters are Bisschop, de Jong, and Miss Therese Schwartze. All the artists named work or worked on the traditional lines and may be called for convenience sake "the old school." But art is changing in Holland, and a new impressionist school has been most in evidence during the last twenty years.
Prominent among these is Toorop, who was the first to introduce an Asiatic influence into Dutch art. He is accomplished in every branch of art, and paints in water colour as well as oil. Toorop is not merely a great artist but a great influence in the art world of his country. Onnes and Bauer are perhaps the two most notable of his followers and successors. Bauer also selects oriental subjects, chiefly the interiors of Turkish mosques.
But of all forms of painting, portraiture has been the most in vogue, perhaps for the material reason that it is the surest means of earning an income. Bisschop was the favourite of the last generation, just as Veth, Haverman and Antoon Van Welie are the favourites to-day. There are a remarkable number of lady artists. The late Madame Roozeboom, Madame van Bosse, Miss Bakhuizen, are three of the best known, but new-comers are spoken of every day.
In Holland the artist enjoys special facilities for bringing his work under the notice of the public and for disposing of his paintings. In the first place it is not in any way derogatory for an artist to hold an exhibition himself of his own work, and one of the most celebrated of modern painters used to regularly open his studio at The Hague on Sundays for the purpose. But apart from this, there are frequent local exhibitions in most of the provincial towns, and those of greater importance are held in The Hague and Rotterdam.
The society known as the Pulchri Studio at The Hague exercises some of the functions of the Royal Academy in England, but only members are allowed to exhibit in its hall. Admission to this society can only be obtained by those who can show that they are serious workers, and whose merit is endorsed by the committee of inspection. To be elected a member of the "Pulchri Studio" is therefore not only a great honour, but a great advantage to the young artist, for it testifies that he has merit and is an earnest worker.
Painting is far from being the sole form in which art finds expression among the Dutch. Etching and engraving find many able followers, and some of the most successful painters employ their leisure in silver and other metal work. Wood carving is also in great vogue, and as there is a ready market for such productions, many young artists with more ambitious leanings, commence their career in that branch of artistic activity.
As was explained in the chapter on Education, much of the educational system in the secondary and upper schools is devoted to the object of developing latent artistic talent. The capacity to draw is more widely disseminated among the Dutch than in any other country in Europe, and the study of anatomy and instruction in painting in colours form part of the course in all technical schools, the one condition of admission being that the entrant must have proved, by passing the statutory examination, that he is a competent drawer in black and white.
It seems probable that Holland will suffer from overproduction before long, and that as the prizes in the home market are not very great, the most successful artists will migrate from Holland to Paris or London. A well-known instance was that of the late Sir L. Alma Tadema, and in his day the competition was less keen than now, although it must also be allowed that the prizes were fewer. Already a considerable number of Dutch artists look to their work for foreign patrons as providing a great part of their incomes.
In concluding this chapter it may be mentioned that photography, and especially the higher form of it, known as art photography, is highly developed in Holland. A large quantity of commission work is done for abroad, and owing to the light it is considered that the reproduction comes out with greater distinctness and some finer effects than elsewhere. At any rate, there is quite a legion of photographers, amateur and professional, plying their cameras both for amusement and as a means of livelihood. But the market is over-supplied and in this profession also, the Dutch are beginning to feel the need of more elbow-room. Enough has been said to show that Holland has no intention of relaxing its efforts to be considered one of the chief centres of art culture in Europe.
Boulger, Demetrius. Holland of the Dutch. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1920.
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