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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Dutch Masters
By Edmondo De Amicis (1846–1908)
 
From ‘Holland and Its People’

THE DUTCH school of painting has one quality which renders it particularly attractive to us Italians; it is above all others the most different from our own, the very antithesis or the opposite pole of art. The Dutch and Italian schools are the most original, or, as has been said, the only two to which the title rigorously belongs; the others being only daughters or younger sisters, more or less resembling them.  1
  Thus even in painting Holland offers that which is most sought after in travel and in books of travel: the new.  2
  Dutch painting was born with the liberty and independence of Holland. As long as the northern and southern provinces of the Low Countries remained under the Spanish rule and in the Catholic faith, Dutch painters painted like Belgian painters; they studied in Belgium, Germany, and Italy; Heemskerk imitated Michael Angelo, Bloemart followed Correggio, and “Il Moro” copied Titian, not to indicate others: and they were one and all pedantic imitators, who added to the exaggerations of the Italian style a certain German coarseness, the result of which was a bastard style of painting, still inferior to the first, childish, stiff in design, crude in color, and completely wanting in chiaroscuro, but at least not a servile imitation, and becoming, as it were, a faint prelude of the true Dutch art that was to be.  3
  With the war of independence, liberty, reform, and painting also were renewed. With religious traditions fell artistic traditions; the nude nymphs, Madonnas, saints, allegory, mythology, the ideal—all the old edifice fell to pieces. Holland, animated by a new life, felt the need of manifesting and expanding it in a new way; the small country, become all at once glorious and formidable, felt the desire for illustration; the faculties which had been excited and strengthened in the grand undertaking of creating a nation, now that the work was completed, overflowed and ran into new channels. The conditions of the country were favorable to the revival of art. The supreme dangers were conjured away; there was security, prosperity, a splendid future; the heroes had done their duty, and the artists were permitted to come to the front; Holland, after many sacrifices, and much suffering, issued victoriously from the struggle, lifted her face among her people and smiled. And that smile is art.  4
  What that art would necessarily be, might have been guessed even had no monument of it remained. A pacific, laborious, practical people, continually beaten down, to quote a great German poet, to prosaic realities by the occupations of a vulgar burgher life; cultivating its reason at the expense of its imagination; living, consequently, more in clear ideas than in beautiful images; taking refuge from abstractions; never darting its thoughts beyond that nature with which it is in perpetual battle; seeing only that which is, enjoying only that which it can possess, making its happiness consist in the tranquil ease and honest sensuality of a life without violent passions or exorbitant desires;—such a people must have tranquillity also in their art, they must love an art that pleases without startling the mind, which addresses the senses rather than the spirit; an art full of repose, precision, and delicacy, though material like their lives: in one word, a realistic art, in which they can see themselves as they are and as they are content to be.  5
  The artists began by tracing that which they saw before their eyes—the house. The long winters, the persistent rains, the dampness, the variableness of the climate, obliged the Hollander to stay within doors the greater part of the year. He loved his little house, his shell, much better than we love our abodes, for the reason that he had more need of it, and stayed more within it; he provided it with all sorts of conveniences, caressed it, made much of it; he liked to look out from his well-stopped windows at the falling snow and the drenching rain, and to hug himself with the thought, “Rage, tempest, I am warm and safe!” Snug in his shell, his faithful housewife beside him, his children about him, he passed the long autumn and winter evenings in eating much, drinking much, smoking much, and taking his well-earned ease after the cares of the day were over. The Dutch painters represented these houses and this life in little pictures proportionate to the size of the walls on which they were to hang; the bedchambers that make one feel a desire to sleep, the kitchens, the tables set out, the fresh and smiling faces of the house-mothers, the men at their ease around the fire; and with that conscientious realism which never forsakes them, they depict the dozing cat, the yawning dog, the clucking hen, the broom, the vegetables, the scattered pots and pans, the chicken ready for the spit. Thus they represent life in all its scenes, and in every grade of the social scale—the dance, the conversazione, the orgie, the feast, the game; and thus did Terburg, Metzu, Netscher, Dow, Mieris, Steen, Brouwer, and Van Ostade become famous.  6
  After depicting the house, they turned their attention to the country. The stern climate allowed but a brief time for the admiration of nature, but for this very reason Dutch artists admired her all the more; they saluted the spring with a livelier joy, and permitted that fugitive smile of heaven to stamp itself more deeply on their fancy. The country was not beautiful, but it was twice dear because it had been torn from the sea and from the foreign oppressor. The Dutch artist painted it lovingly; he represented it simply, ingenuously, with a sense of intimacy which at that time was not to be found in Italian or Belgian landscape. The flat, monotonous country had, to the Dutch painter’s eyes, a marvelous variety. He caught all the mutations of the sky, and knew the value of the water, with its reflections, its grace and freshness, and its power of illuminating everything. Having no mountains, he took the dikes for background; with no forests, he imparted to a single group of trees all the mystery of a forest; and he animated the whole with beautiful animals and white sails.  7
  The subjects of their pictures are poor enough,—a windmill, a canal, a gray sky; but how they make one think! A few Dutch painters, not content with nature in their own country, came to Italy in search of hills, luminous skies, and famous ruins; and another band of select artists is the result,—Both, Swanevelt, Pynacker, Breenberg, Van Laer, Asselyn. But the palm remains with the landscapists of Holland; with Wynants the painter of morning, with Van der Neer the painter of night, with Ruysdael the painter of melancholy, with Hobbema the illustrator of windmills, cabins, and kitchen gardens, and with others who have restricted themselves to the expression of the enchantment of nature as she is in Holland.  8
  Simultaneously with landscape art was born another kind of painting, especially peculiar to Holland,—animal painting. Animals are the riches of the country; that magnificent race of cattle which has no rival in Europe for fecundity and beauty. The Hollanders, who owe so much to them, treat them, one may say, as part of the population; they wash them, comb them, dress them, and love them dearly. They are to be seen everywhere; they are reflected in all the canals, and dot with points of black and white the immense fields that stretch on every side, giving an air of peace and comfort to every place, and exciting in the spectator’s heart a sentiment of Arcadian gentleness and patriarchal serenity. The Dutch artists studied these animals in all their varieties, in all their habits, and divined, as one may say, their inner life and sentiments, animating the tranquil beauty of the landscape with their forms. Rubens, Luyders, Paul de Vos, and other Belgian painters, had drawn animals with admirable mastery; but all these are surpassed by the Dutch artists Van der Velde, Berghem, Karel du Jardin, and by the prince of animal painters, Paul Potter, whose famous “Bull,” in the gallery of the Hague, deserves to be placed in the Vatican beside the “Transfiguration” by Raphael.  9
  In yet another field are the Dutch painters great,—the sea. The sea, their enemy, their power, and their glory, forever threatening their country, and entering in a hundred ways into their lives and fortunes; that turbulent North Sea, full of sinister color, with a light of infinite melancholy upon it, beating forever upon a desolate coast, must subjugate the imagination of the artist. He passes, indeed, long hours on the shore, contemplating its tremendous beauty, ventures upon its waves to study the effects of tempests, buys a vessel and sails with his wife and family, observing and making notes, follows the fleet into battle and takes part in the fight; and in this way are made marine painters like William Van der Velde the elder and William the younger, like Backhuysen, Dubbels, and Stork.  10
  Another kind of painting was to arise in Holland, as the expression of the character of the people and of republican manners. A people which without greatness had done so many great things, as Michelet says, must have its heroic painters, if we call them so, destined to illustrate men and events. But this school of painting,—precisely because the people were without greatness, or to express it better, without the form of greatness,—modest, inclined to consider all equal before the country, because all had done their duty, abhorring adulation, and the glorification in one only of the virtues and the triumph of many,—this school has to illustrate not a few men who have excelled, and a few extraordinary facts, but all classes of citizenship gathered among the most ordinary and pacific of burgher life. From this come the great pictures which represent five, ten, thirty persons together, arquebusiers, mayors, officers, professors, magistrates, administrators; seated or standing around a table, feasting and conversing; of life size, most faithful likenesses; grave, open faces, expressing that secure serenity of conscience by which may be divined rather than seen the nobleness of a life consecrated to one’s country, the character of that strong, laborious epoch, the masculine virtues of that excellent generation; all this set off by the fine costume of the time, so admirably combining grace and dignity,—those gorgets, those doublets, those black mantles, those silken scarves and ribbons, those arms and banners. In this field stand pre-eminent Van der Helst, Hals, Govaert, Flink, and Bol.  11
  Descending from the consideration of the various kinds of painting, to the special manner by means of which the artist excelled in treatment, one leads all the rest as the distinctive feature of Dutch painting—the light.  12
  The light in Holland, by reason of the particular conditions of its manifestation, could not fail to give rise to a special manner of painting. A pale light, waving with marvelous mobility through an atmosphere impregnated with vapor, 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; and in representing it, the struggle passed into his soul, and instead of representing he created. Then he caused the two elements to contend under his hand; 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. In this field, among many, stand conspicuous Gerard Dow, the author of the famous four-candle picture, and the great magician and sovereign illuminator Rembrandt.  13
  Another marked feature of Dutch painting was to be color. Besides the generally accepted reasons that in a country where there are no mountainous horizons, no varied prospects, no great coup d’œil,—no forms, in short, that lend themselves to design,—the artist’s eye must inevitably be attracted by color; and that this might be peculiarly the case in Holland, where the uncertain light, the fog-veiled atmosphere, confuse and blend the outlines of all objects, so that the eye, unable to fix itself upon the form, flies to color as the principal attribute that nature presents to it,—besides these reasons, there is the fact that in a country so flat, so uniform, and so gray as Holland, there is the same need of color as in southern lands there is need of shade. The Dutch artists did but follow the imperious taste of their countrymen, who painted their houses in vivid colors, as well as their ships, and in some places the trunks of their trees and the palings and fences of their fields and gardens; whose dress was of the gayest, richest hues; who loved tulips and hyacinths even to madness. And thus the Dutch painters were potent colorists, and Rembrandt was their chief.  14
  Realism, natural to the calmness and slowness of the Dutch character, was to give to their art yet another distinctive feature,—finish, which was carried to the very extreme of possibility. It is truly said that the leading quality of the people may be found in their pictures; viz., patience. Everything is represented with the minuteness of a daguerreotype; every vein in the wood of a piece of furniture, every fibre in a leaf, the threads of cloth, the stitches in a patch, every hair upon an animal’s coat, every wrinkle in a man’s face; everything finished with microscopic precision, as if done with a fairy pencil, or at the expense of the painter’s eyes and reason. In reality a defect rather than an excellence, since the office of painting is to represent not what is, but what the eye sees, and the eye does not see everything; but a defect carried to such a pitch of perfection that one admires, and does not find fault. In this respect the most famous prodigies of patience were Dow, Mieris, Potter, and Van der Heist, but more or less all the Dutch painters.  15
  But realism, which gives to Dutch art so original a stamp and such admirable qualities, is yet the root of its most serious defects. The artists, desirous only of representing material truths, gave to their figures no expression save that of their physical sentiments. Grief, love, enthusiasm, and the thousand delicate shades of feeling that have no name, or take a different one with the different causes that give rise to them, they express rarely, or not at all. For them the heart does not beat, the eyes do not weep, the lips do not quiver. One whole side of the human soul, the noblest and highest, is wanting in their pictures. More: in their faithful reproduction of everything, even the ugly, and especially the ugly, they end by exaggerating even that, making defects into deformities and portraits into caricatures; they calumniate the national type; they give a burlesque and graceless aspect to the human countenance. In order to have the proper background for such figures, they are constrained to choose trivial subjects: hence the great number of pictures representing beer-shops, and drinkers with grotesque, stupid faces, in absurd attitudes; ugly women and ridiculous old men; scenes in which one can almost hear the brutal laughter and the obscene words. Looking at these pictures, one would naturally conclude that Holland was inhabited by the ugliest and most ill-mannered people on the earth. We will not speak of greater and worse license. Steen, Potter, and Brouwer, the great Rembrandt himself, have all painted incidents that are scarcely to be mentioned to civilized ears, and certainly should not be looked at. But even setting aside these excesses, in the picture galleries of Holland there is to be found nothing that elevates the mind, or moves it to high and gentle thoughts. You admire, you enjoy, you laugh, you stand pensive for a moment before some canvas; but coming out, you feel that something is lacking to your pleasure, you experience a desire to look upon a handsome countenance, to read inspired verses, and sometimes you catch yourself murmuring, half unconsciously, “O Raphael!”  16
  Finally, there are still two important excellences to be recorded of this school of painting: its variety, and its importance as the expression—the mirror, so to speak—of the country. If we except Rembrandt with his group of followers and imitators, almost all the other artists differ very much from one another; no other school presents so great a number of original masters. The realism of the Dutch painters is born of their common love of nature: but each one has shown in his work a kind of love peculiarly his own; each one has rendered a different impression which he has received from nature; and all, starting from the same point, which was the worship of material truth, have arrived at separate and distinct goals. Their realism, then, inciting them to disdain nothing as food for the pencil, has so acted that Dutch art succeeds in representing Holland more completely than has ever been accomplished by any other school in any other country. It has been truly said that should every other visible witness of the existence of Holland in the seventeenth century—her period of greatness—vanish from the earth, and the pictures remain, in them would be found preserved entire the city, the country, the ports, the ships, the markets, the shops, the costumes, the arms, the linen, the stuffs, the merchandise, the kitchen utensils, the food, the pleasures, the habits, the religious belief and superstitions, the qualities and effects of the people; and all this, which is great praise for literature, is no less praise for her sister art.  17
  But there is one great hiatus in Dutch art, the reason for which can scarcely be found in the pacific and modest disposition of the people. This art, so profoundly national in all other respects, has, with the exception of a few naval battles, completely neglected all the great events of the war of independence, among which the sieges of Leyden and of Haarlem alone would have been enough to inspire a whole legion of painters. A war of almost a century in duration, full of strange and terrible vicissitudes, has not been recorded in one single memorable painting. Art, so varied and so conscientious in its records of the country and its people, has represented no scene of that great tragedy, as William the Silent prophetically named it, which cost the Dutch people, for so long a time, so many different emotions of terror, of pain, of rage, of joy, and of pride!  18
  The splendor of art in Holland is dimmed by that of political greatness. Almost all the great painters were born in the first thirty years of the seventeenth century, or in the last part of the sixteenth; all were dead after the first ten years of the eighteenth, and after them there were no more,—Holland had exhausted her fecundity. Already towards the end of the seventeenth century the national sentiment had grown weaker, taste had corrupted, the inspiration of the painters had declined with the moral energies of the nation. In the eighteenth century, the artists, as if they were tired of nature, went back to mythology, to classicism, to conventionalities; the imagination grew cold, style was impoverished, every spark of the antique genius was extinct. Dutch art still showed to the world the wonderful flowers of Van Huysum, the last great lover of nature, and then folded her tired hands and let the flowers fall upon his tomb.  19
 
 
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