Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Race Characters Expressed in Art
By Hippolyte Adolphe Taine (1828–1893)
From ‘Art in the Netherlands’: Translation of John Durand

LET us consider the common characteristics of the Germanic race, and the differences by which it is opposed to the Latin race. Physically we find a whiter and softer skin, generally speaking; blue eyes, often of a porcelain or pale hue, paler as you approach the north, and sometimes glassy in Holland; hair of a flaxy blond, and with children, almost white. The body is generally large, but thick-set or burly, heavy and inelegant. In a similar manner the features are apt to be irregular; especially in Holland, where they are flabby, with projecting cheek-bones and strongly marked jaws. They lack, in short, sculptural nobleness and delicacy. You will rarely find the features regular, like the numerous pretty faces of Toulouse and Bordeaux, or like the spirited and handsome heads which abound in the vicinity of Rome and Florence. You will much oftener find exaggerated features, incoherent combinations of form and tones, curious fleshy protuberances, so many natural caricatures. Taking them for works of art, living forms testify to a clumsy and fantastic hand through their more incorrect and weaker drawing.  1
  Observe now this body in action, and you will find its animal faculties and necessities of a grosser kind than among the Latins: matter and mass seem to predominate over motion and spirit; it is voracious and even carnivorous. Compare the appetite of an Englishman, or even a Hollander, with that of a Frenchman or an Italian: those among you who have visited the countries can call to mind the public dinner-tables,—and the quantities of food, especially meat, tranquilly swallowed several times a day by a citizen of London, Rotterdam, or Antwerp. In English novels people are always lunching; the most sentimental heroine, at the end of the third volume, having consumed an infinite number of buttered muffins, cups of tea, bits of chicken, and sandwiches. The climate contributes to this: in the fogs of the North, people could not sustain themselves, like a peasant of the Latin race, on a bowl of soup or a piece of bread flavored with garlic, or on a plate of macaroni. For the same reason the German is fond of potent beverages….  2
  Enter, in Amsterdam, one of these little shops, garnished with polished casks, where glass after glass is swallowed of white, yellow, green, and brown brandy, strengthened with pepper and pimento. Place yourself at nine o’clock in the evening in a Brussels brewery, near a dark wooden table, around which the hawkers of crabs, salted rolls, and hard-boiled eggs circulate: observe the people quietly seated there, each one intent on himself; sometimes in couples, but generally silent, smoking, eating, and drinking bumpers of beer, which they now and then warm up with a glass of spirits: you can understand sympathetically the strong sensation of heat and animal plenitude they feel in their speechless solitude, in proportion as superabundant solid and liquid nourishment renews in them the living substance, and as the whole body partakes in the gratification of the satisfied stomach.  3
  One point more of their exterior remains to be shown, which especially strikes people of southern climes, and that is the sluggishness and torpidity of their impressions and movements…. Many a time have I passed before a shop-window to contemplate some rosy, placid, and candid face,—a mediæval madonna making up the fashions. It is the very reverse of this in our land and in Italy, where the grisette’s eyes seem to be gossiping with the chairs for lack of something better, and where a thought, the moment it is born, translates itself into gesture. In Germanic lands the channels of sensation and expression seem to be obstructed: delicacy, impulsiveness, and readiness of action, appear impossible; a southerner has to exclaim at their awkwardness and lack of adroitness….  4
  In brief, the human animal of this race is more passive and more gross than the other. One is tempted to regard him as inferior on comparing him with the Italian or southern Frenchman, so temperate, so quick intellectually, who is naturally apt in expression, in chatting and in pantomime, possessing taste and attaining to elegance; and who without effort, like the Provençals of the twelfth and the Florentines of the fourteenth century, become cultivated, civilized, and accomplished at the first attempt….  5
  This same reason and this same good sense establish and maintain amongst them diverse descriptions of social engagements, and first the conjugal bond. But very lately, a wealthy and noble Hollander named to me several young ladies of his family who had no desire to see the great Exposition, and who remained at home whilst their husbands and brothers visited Paris. A disposition so calm and so sedentary diffuses much happiness throughout domestic life; in the repose of curiosity and of desire, the ascendency of pure ideas is much greater; the constant presence of the same person not being wearisome, the memory of plighted faith, the sentiment of duty and of self-respect, easily prevails against temptations which elsewhere triumph because they are elsewhere more powerful.  6
  I can say as much of other descriptions of association, and especially of the free assemblage. This, practically, is a very difficult thing. To make the machine work regularly without obstruction, those who compose it must have calm nerves and be governed by the end in view. One is expected to be patient in a “meeting,” to allow himself to be contradicted and even vilified, await his turn for speaking, reply with moderation, and submit twenty times in succession to the same argument enlivened with figures and documentary facts. It will not answer to fling aside the newspaper the moment its political interest flags, nor take up politics for the pleasure of discussion and speech-making, nor excite insurrections against officials the moment they become distasteful, which is the fashion in Spain and elsewhere. You yourselves have some knowledge of a country where the government has been overthrown because inactive and because the nation felt ennui. Among Germanic populations, people meet together not to talk but to act: politics is a matter to be wisely managed; they bring to bear on it the spirit of business: speech is simply a means, while the effect, however remote, is the end in view. They subordinate themselves to this end, and are full of deference for the persons who represent it. How unique! Here the governed respect the governing; if the latter prove objectionable they are resisted, but legally and patiently; if institutions prove defective, they are gradually reformed without being disrupted. Germanic countries are the patrimony of free parliamentary rule…. To act in a body, no one person oppressing another, is a wholly Germanic talent, and one which gives them such an empire over matter; through patience and reflection they conform to the laws of physical and human nature, and instead of opposing them profit by them.  7
  If now from action we turn to speculation,—that is to say, to the mode of conceiving and figuring the world,—we shall find the same imprint of this thoughtful and slightly sensualistic genius. The Latins show a decided taste for the external and decorative aspect of things, for a pompous display feeding the senses and vanity, for logical order, outward symmetry, and pleasing arrangement,—in short, for form. The Germanic people, on the contrary, have rather inclined to the inward order of things, to truth itself,—in fact, to the fundamental. Their instinct leads them to avoid being seduced by appearances, to remove mystery, to seize the hidden even when repugnant and sorrowful, and not to eliminate or withhold any detail, even when vulgar and unsightly. Among the many products of this instinct, there are two which place it in full light through the strongly marked contrast in each of form and substance; namely, literature and religion. The literatures of Latin populations are classic, and nearly or remotely allied to Greek poesy, Roman eloquence, the Italian Renaissance, and the age of Louis XIV.; they refine and ennoble, they embellish and prune, they systematize and give proportion. Their latest masterpiece is the drama of Racine, who is the painter of princely ways, court proprieties, social paragons, and cultivated natures; the master of an oratorical style, skillful composition, and literary elegance. The Germanic literatures, on the contrary, are romantic: their primitive source is the ‘Edda’ and the ancient sagas of the north; their greatest masterpiece is the drama of Shakespeare,—that is to say, the crude and complete representation of actual life, with all its atrocious, ignoble, and commonplace details, its sublime and brutal instincts, the entire outgrowth of human character displayed before us, now in a familiar style bordering on the trivial, and now poetic even to lyricism, always independent of rule, incoherent, excessive, but of an incomparable force, and filling our souls with the warm and palpitating passion of which it is the outcry….  8
  This race, thus endowed, has received various imprints, according to the various conditions of its abiding-place. Sow a number of seeds of the same vegetable species in different soils, under various temperatures, and let them germinate, grow, bear fruit and reproduce themselves indefinitely, each on its own soil, and each will adapt itself to its soil, producing several varieties of the same species so much the more distinct as the contrast is greater between the diverse climates. Such is the experience of the Germanic race in the Netherlands. Ten centuries of habitation have done their work: the end of the Middle Ages shows us that in addition to its innate character, there is an acquired character….  9
  The country is an outflow of mighty waters, which, as they reach it, become sluggish and remain stagnant for want of a fall. Dig a hole anywhere and water comes. Examine the landscapes of Van der Neer and you will obtain some idea of the vast sluggish streams, which, on approaching the sea, become a league wide, and lie asleep, wallowing in their beds like some huge, flat, slimy fish, turbid and feebly glimmering with scaly reflections. The plain is oftentimes below their level, and it is only protected by levies of earth. You feel as if some of them were going to give way; a mist is constantly rising from their surfaces, and at night a dense fog envelops all things in a bluish humidity. Follow them down to the sea, and here a second and more violent inundation, arising from the daily tides, completes the work of the first. The northern ocean is hostile to man. Look at the ‘Estacade’ of Ruysdael, and imagine the frequent tempests casting up ruddy waves and monstrous foaming billows on the low, flat band of earth, already half submerged by the enlargement of the rivers….  10
  Here there had to be good sound heads, a capacity to subject sensation to thought, to endure patiently ennui and fatigue, to accept privation and labor in view of a remote end,—in short, a Germanic race; meaning by this, men organized to co-operate together, to toil, to struggle, to begin over and over again and ameliorate unceasingly, to dike streams, to oppose tides, to drain the soil, to turn wind, water, flats, and argillaceous mud to account, to build canals, ships, and mills, to make brick, raise cattle, and organize various manufacturing and commercial enterprises. The difficulty being very great, the mind was absorbed in overcoming it; and turned wholly in this direction, was diverted from other things. To subsist, to obtain shelter, food, and raiment, to protect themselves against cold and damp, to accumulate stores and lay up wealth, left the settlers no time to think of other matters: the mind got to be wholly positive and practical….  11
  Compared with other nations of the same stock, and with a genius no less practical, the denizen of the Netherlands appears better balanced and more capable of being content. We do not see in him the violent passions, the militant disposition, the overstrained will, the bulldog instincts, the sombre and grandiose pride, which three permanent conquests and the secular establishment of political strife have implanted in the English; nor that restless and exaggerated desire for action which a dry atmosphere, sudden changes from heat to cold, a surplus electricity, have implanted in the Americans of the United States. He lives in a moist and equable climate: one which relaxes the nerves and develops the lymphatic temperament, which moderates the insurrections, explosions, and impetuosity of the spirit; soothing the asperities of passion, and diverting the character to the side of sensuality and good-humor….  12
  All circumstances, moral and physical, their geographical and political state, the past and the present, combine to one end,—namely, the development of one faculty and one tendency at the expense of the rest, shrewd management and temperate emotions, a practical understanding and limited desires; they comprehend the amelioration of outward things, and this accomplished they crave no more.  13
  Consider their work: its perfection and lacunæ indicate at once the limits and the power of their intellect. The profound philosophy which is so natural in Germany, and the elevated poetry which flourishes in England, they lack. They fail to overlook material things and positive interests in order to yield to pure speculation, to follow the temerities of logic, to attenuate the delicacy of analysis, and to bury themselves in the depths of abstraction. They ignore that spiritual turmoil, those eruptions of suppressed feeling, which give to style a tragic accent; and that vagabond fancy, those exquisite and sublime reveries, which outside of life’s vulgarities reveal a new universe…. They are epicureans as well as gourmands in the matter of comfortable living; regularly, calmly, without heat or enthusiasm, they glean up every pleasing harmony of savor, sound, color, and form that arises out of their prosperity and abundance, like tulips on a heap of compost. All this produces good sense somewhat limited, and happiness somewhat gross….  14
  Such, in this country, is the human plant; we have now to examine its art, which is the flower. Among all the branches of the Germanic trunk, this plant alone has produced a complete flower; the art which develops so happily and so naturally in the Netherlands proves abortive with the other Germanic nations, for the reason that this glorious privilege emanates from the national character as we have just set it forth.  15
  To comprehend and love painting requires an eye sensitive to forms and to colors, and without education or apprenticeship, one which takes pleasure in the juxtaposition of tones, and is delicate in the matter of optical sensations; the man who would be a painter must be capable of losing himself in viewing the rich consonance of red and green, in watching the diminution of light as it is transformed into darkness, and in detecting the subtle hues of silks and satins, which according to their breaks, recesses, and depths of fold, assume opaline tints, vague luminous gleams, and imperceptible shades of blue. The eye is epicurean like the palate, and painting is an exquisite feast served up to it. For this reason it is that Germany and England have had no great pictorial art. In Germany the too great domination of abstract ideas has left no room for the sensuousness of the eye….  16
  One of the leading merits of this art is the excellence and delicacy of its coloring. This is owing to the education of the eye, which in Flanders and in Holland is peculiar…. Here, as at Venice, nature has made man a colorist. Observe the different aspect of things according as you are in a dry country, like Provence and the neighborhood of Florence, or on a wet plain like the Netherlands. In the dry country the line predominates, and at once attracts attention: the mountains cut sharp against the sky, with their stories of architecture of a grand and noble style; all objects projecting upward in the limpid air in varied prominence. Here the low horizon is without interest, and the contours of objects are softened, blended, and blurred out by the imperceptible vapor with which the atmosphere is always filled; that which predominates is the spot. A cow pasturing, a roof in the centre of a field, a man leaning on a parapet, appear as one tone among other tones. The object emerges: it does not start suddenly out of its surroundings as if punched out; you are struck by its modeling,—that is to say, by the different degrees of advancing luminousness, and the diverse gradations of melting color, which transform its general tint into a relief, and give to the eye a sensation of thickness. You would have to pass many days in this country in order to appreciate the subordination of the line to the spot. A bluish or gray vapor is constantly rising from the canals, the rivers, the sea, and from the saturated soil; a universal haze forms a soft gauze over objects, even in the finest weather. Flying scuds, like thin, half-torn white drapery, float over the meadows night and morning. I have repeatedly stood on the quays of the Scheldt contemplating the broad, pallid, and slightly rippled water, on which float the dark hulks. The river shines; and on its flat surface the hazy light reflects here and there unsteady scintillations. Clouds ascend constantly around the horizon; their pale, leaden hue and their motionless files suggesting an army of spectres,—the spectres of the humid soil, like so many phantoms, always revived and bringing back the eternal showers. Towards the setting sun they become ruddy; while their corpulent masses, trellised all over with gold, remind one of the damascene copes, the brocaded simarres, and the embroidered silks, with which Jordaens and Rubens envelop their bleeding martyrs and their sorrowful Madonnas. Quite low down on the sky the sun seems an enormous blaze subsiding into smoke. On reaching Amsterdam or Ostend the impression again deepens; both sea and sky have no form; the fog and interposed showers leave nothing to remember but colors. The water changes in hue every half-hour—now of a pale wine tinge, now of a chalky whiteness, now yellow like softened mortar, now black like liquid soot, and sometimes of a sombre purple striped with dashes of green. After a few days’ experience you find that in such a nature, only gradations, contrasts, and harmonies—in short, only the value of tones is of any importance….  17
  You have seen the seed, the plant, and the flower. A race with a genius totally opposed to that of the Latin peoples makes for itself, after and alongside of them, its place in the world. Among the numerous nations of this race, one there is in which a special territory and climate develop a particular character predisposing it to art and to a certain phase of art. Painting is born with it, lasts, becomes complete; and the physical milieu surrounding it, like the national genius which founds it, gives to and imposes on its subjects its types and its coloring. We find four distinct periods in the pictorial art of the Netherlands; and through a remarkable coincidence, each corresponds to a distinct historic period. Here, as everywhere, art translates life; the talent and taste of the painter change at the same time, and in the same sense as the habits and sentiments of the public….  18
  The first period of art lasts about a century and a half (1400–1530). It issues from a renaissance; that is to say, from a great development of prosperity, wealth, and intellect. Here, as in Italy, the cities at an early period are flourishing, and almost free…. In these swarming hives an abundance of food and habits of personal activity maintain courage, turbulence, audacity, and even insolence,—all excesses of brutal and boundless energy; these weavers were men, and when we encounter men we may expect soon to encounter the arts….  19
  At the end of the fourteenth century Flanders, with Italy, is the most industrious, the wealthiest, the most flourishing country in Europe….  20
  A Flemish renaissance underneath Christian ideas,—such in effect is the twofold nature of art under Hubert and John Van Eyck, Roger Van der Weyde, Hemling, and Quintin Matsys; and from these two characteristics proceed all the others. On the one hand, artists take interest in actual life; their figures are no longer symbols like the illuminations of ancient missals, nor purified spirits like the Madonnas of the school of Cologne, but living beings and bodies. They attend to anatomy, the perspective is exact, the minutest details are rendered of stuffs, of architecture, of accessories, and of landscape; the relief is strong, and the entire scene stamps itself on the eye and on the mind with extraordinary force and sense of stability; the greatest masters of coming times are not to surpass them in all this, nor even go so far. Nature evidently is now discovered by them. The scales fall from their eyes: they have just mastered, almost in a flash, the proportions, the structure, and the coloring of visible realities; and moreover they delight in them. Consider the superb copes wrought in gold and decked with diamonds, the embroidered silks, the flowered and dazzling diadems, with which they ornament their saints and divine personages, all of which represents the pomp of the Burgundian court. Look at the calm and transparent water, the bright meadows, the red and white flowers, the blooming trees, the sunny distances, of their admirable landscapes. Observe their coloring,—the strongest and richest ever seen,—the pure and full tones side by side in a Persian carpet, and united solely through their harmony, the superb breaks in the folds of purple mantles, the azure recesses of long falling robes, the green draperies like a summer field permeated with sunshine, the display of gold skirts trimmed with black, the strong light which warms and enlivens the whole scene: you have a concert in which each instrument sounds its proper note, and the more true because the more sonorous. They see the world on the bright side and make a holiday of it,—a genuine fête, similar to those of this day, glowing under a more bounteous sunlight; and not a heavenly Jerusalem suffused with supernatural radiance, such as Fra Angelico painted. They copy the real with scrupulous accuracy, and all that is real: the ornaments of armor, the polished glass of a window, the scrolls of a carpet, the hairs of fur, the undraped body of an Adam and an Eve, a canon’s massive, wrinkled, and obese features, a burgomaster’s or soldier’s broad shoulders, projecting chin, and prominent nose, the spindling shanks of a hangman, the overlarge head and diminutive limbs of a child, the costumes and furniture of the age; their entire work being a glorification of this present life. But on the other hand, it is a glorification of Christian belief….  21
  When a great change is effected in human affairs, it brings on by degrees a corresponding change in human conceptions. After the discovery of the Indies and of America, after the invention of printing and the multiplication of books, after the restoration of classic antiquity and the Reformation of Luther, any conception of the world then formed could no longer remain monastic and mystic. The tender and melancholy aspiration of a soul sighing for the celestial kingdom, and humbly subjecting its conduct to the authority of an undisputed Church, gave way to free inquiry nourished on so many fresh conceptions, and disappeared at the admirable spectacle of this real world which man now began to comprehend and to conquer…. While the mind is expanding, the temperature around it becomes modified and establishes the conditions of a new growth…. Society, ideas, and tastes, have undergone a transformation, and there is room for a new art.  22
  Already in the preceding epoch we see premonitory symptoms of the coming change. From Hubert Van Eyck to Quintin Matsys, the grandeur and gravity of religious conceptions have diminished. Nobody now dreams of portraying the whole of Christian faith and doctrine in a single picture; scenes are selected from the Gospel and from history,—Annunciations, shepherd adorations, Last Judgments, martyrdoms, and moral legends. Painting, which is epic in the hands of Hubert Van Eyck, becomes idyllic in those of Hemling, and almost worldly in those of Quintin Matsys. It gets to be pathetic, interesting, and pleasing. The charming saints, the beautiful Herodias, and the little Salome of Quintin Matsys, are richly attired noble dames, and already laic: the artist loves the world as it is and for itself, and does not subordinate it to the representation of the supernatural world; he does not employ it as a means but as an end. Scenes of profane life multiply: he paints townspeople in their shops, money-changers, amorous couples, and the attenuated features and stealthy smiles of a miser. Lucas of Leyden, his contemporary, is an ancestor of the painters whom we call the lesser Flemings: his ‘Presentation of Christ’ and ‘The Magdalen’s Dance’ have nothing religious about them but their titles; the evangelical subject is lost in the accessories: that which the picture truly presents is a rural Flemish festival, or a gathering of Flemings on an open field. Jerome Bosch, of the same period, paints grotesque, infernal scenes. Art, it is clear, falls from heaven to earth; and is no longer to treat divine but human incidents. Artists in other respects lack no process and no preparation: they understand perspective, they know the use of oil, and are masters of modeling and relief; they have studied actual types; they know how to paint dresses, accessories, architecture, and landscape, with wonderful accuracy and finish; their manipulative skill is admirable. One defect only still chains them to hieratic art, which is the immobility of their faces, and the rigid folds of their stuffs. They have but to observe the rapid play of physiognomies and the easy movement of loose drapery, and the renaissance is complete; the breeze of the age is behind them, and already fills their sails. On looking at their portraits, their interiors, and even their sacred personages, as in the ‘Entombment’ of Quintin Matsys, one is tempted to address them thus: “You are alive—one effort more! Come, bestir yourselves! Shake off the Middle Age entirely! Depict the modern man for us as you find him within you and outside of you. Paint him vigorous, healthy, and content with existence. Forget the meagre, ascetic, and pensive spirit, dreaming in the chapels of Hemling. If you choose a religious scene for the motive of your picture, compose it, like the Italians, of active and healthy figures, only let these figures proceed from your national and personal taste. You have a soul of your own, which is Flemish and not Italian: let the flower bloom; judging by the bud it will be a beautiful one.” And indeed when we regard the sculptures of the time, such as the chimney of the Palais de Justice, the tomb of Charles the Bold at Bruges, and the church and monuments of Brou, we see the promise of an original and complete art, less sculptural and less refined than the Italian, but more varied, more expressive, and closer to nature; less subject to rule but nearer to the real; more capable of manifesting spirit and personality, the impulses, the unpremeditated, the diversities, the lights and darks of education, temperament, and age, of the individual; in short, a Germanic art which indicates remote successors to the Van Eycks and remote predecessors of Rubens.  23
  They never appeared; or at all events, they imperfectly fulfilled their task. No nation, it must be noted, lives alone in the world: alongside of the Flemish renaissance there existed the Italian renaissance, and the large tree stifled the small plant. It flourished and grew for a century: the literature, the ideas, and the masterpieces of precocious Italy imposed themselves on sluggish Europe; and the Flemish cities through their commerce, and the Austrian dynasty through its possessions and its Italian affairs, introduced into the North the tastes and models of the new civilization. Towards 1520 the Flemish painters began to borrow from the artists of Florence and Rome. John of Mabuse is the first one who, in 1513, on returning from Italy, introduced the Italian into the old style, and the rest followed. It is so natural in advancing into an unexplored country to take the path already marked out! This path, however, is not made for those who follow it; the long line of Flemish carts is to be delayed and stuck fast in the disproportionate ruts which another set of wheels has worn. There are two traits characteristic of Italian art, both of which run counter to the Flemish imagination. On the one hand, Italian art centres on the natural body: healthy, active, and vigorous,—endowed with every athletic aptitude, that is to say,—naked or semi-draped, frankly pagan, enjoying freely and nobly in full sunshine every limb, instinct, and animal faculty, the same as an ancient Greek in his city or palæstrum; or, as at this very epoch, a Cellini on the Italian streets and highways. Now a Fleming does not easily enter into this conception. He belongs to a cold and humid climate; a man there in a state of nudity shivers. The human form here does not display the fine proportions nor the easy attitudes required by classic art: it is often dumpy or too gross; the white, soft, yielding flesh, easily flushed, requires to be clothed. When the painter returns from Rome and strives to pursue Italian art, his surroundings oppose his education; his sentiment being no longer renewed through his contact with living nature, he is reduced to his souvenirs. Moreover, he is of Germanic race: in other terms, he is organically good in his moral nature, and modest as well: he has difficulty in appreciating the pagan idea of nudity; and still greater difficulty in comprehending the fatal and magnificent idea which governs civilization and stimulates the arts beyond the Alps,—namely, that of the complete and sovereign individual, emancipated from every law, subordinating all else, men and things, to the development of his own nature and the growth of his own faculties.  24

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.