Chapter XI. Amsterdam's Pictures
Dutch art in the palmy days - The Renaissance - A miracle - What
Holland did for painting - The "Night Watch" - Rembrandt's
isolation - Captain Franz Banning Cocq - Elizabeth Bas - The
Staalmeesters - If one might choose one picture - Vermeer
of Delft again - Whistler - "Paternal Advice" - Terburg - The
romantic Frenchmen again - The Dutch painter's ideal - The two
Maris - Old Dutch rooms - The Six Collection - "Six's Bridge"
and the wager - The Fodor Museum.
The superlative excellence of Dutch painting in the seventeenth century has never been explained, and probably never will be. The ordinary story is that on settling down to a period of independence and comparative peace and prosperity after the cessation of the Spanish war, the Dutch people called for good art, and good art came. But that is too simple. That a poet, a statesman or a novelist should be produced in response to a national desire is not inconceivable; for poets, statesmen and novelists find their material in the air, as we say, in the ideas of the moment. They are for the most part products of their time. But the great Dutch painters of the seventeenth century were expressing no real idea. Nor, even supposing they had done so, is it to be understood how the demand for them should yield such a supply of unsurpassed technical power: how a perfectly disciplined hand should be instantly at the public service.
That Holland in an expansive mood of satisfaction at her success should have wished to see groups of her gallant arquebusiers and portraits of her eminent burghers is not to be wondered at, and we can understand that respectable painters of such pictures should arise in some force to supply the need - just as wherever in this country at the present day there are cricketers and actresses, there also are photographers. That painters of ordinary merit should be forthcoming is, as I have said, no wonder: the mystery is that masters of technique whose equal has never been before or since should have arisen in such numbers; that in the space of a few years - between say 1590 and 1635 - should have been born in a country never before given to the cultivation of the arts Rembrandt and Jan Steen, Vermeer and De Hooch, Van der Helst and Gerard Dou, Fabritius and Maes, Ostade and Van Goyen, Potter and Ruisdael, Terburg and Cuyp. That is the staggering thing.
Another curious circumstance is that by 1700 it was practically all over, and Dutch art had become a convention. The gods had gone. Not until very recently has Holland had any but half gods since.
It may of course be urged that Italy had witnessed a somewhat similar phenomenon. But the spiritual stimulus of the Renaissance among the naturally artistic southerners cannot, I think, be compared with the stimulus given by the establishment of prosperity to these cold and material northerners. The making of great Italian art was a gradual process: the Dutch masters sprang forth fully armed at the first word of command. In the preceding generation the Rembrandts had been millers; the Steens brewers; the Dous glaziers; and so forth. But the demand for pictures having sounded, their sons were prepared to be painters of the first magnitude. Why try to explain this amazing event? Let there rather be miracles.
I have said that the great Dutch painters expressed no idea; and yet this is not perfectly true. They expressed no constructive idea, in the way that a poet or statesman does; but all had this in common, that they were informed by the desire to represent things - intimate and local things - as they are. The great Italians had gone to religion and mythology for their subjects: nearer at hand, in Antwerp, Rubens was pursuing, according to his lights, the same tradition. The great Dutchmen were the first painters to bend their genius exclusively to the honour of their own country, its worthies, its excesses, its domestic virtues, its trivial dailiness. Hals and Rembrandt lavished their power on Dutch arquebusiers and governors of hospitals, Dutch burgomasters and physicians; Ostade and Brouwer saw no indignity in painting Dutch sots as well as Dutch sots could be painted; De Hooch introduced miracles of sunlight into Dutch cottages; Maes painted old Dutch housewives, and Metsu young Dutch housewives, to the life; Vermeer and Terburg immortalised Dutch ladies at their spinets; Albert Cuyp toiled to suffuse Dutch meadows and Dutch cows with a golden glow; Jan Steen glorified the humblest Dutch family scenes; Gerard Dou spent whole weeks upon the fingers of a common Dutch hand. In short, art that so long had been at the service only of the Church and the proud, became suddenly, without losing any of its divinity, a fireside friend. That is what Holland did for painting.
It would have been a great enjoyment to me to have made this chapter a companion to the Ryks Museum: to have said a few words about all the pictures which I like best. But had I done so the rest of the book would have had to go, for all my space would have been exhausted. And therefore, as I cannot say all I want to say, I propose to say very little, keeping only to the most importunate pictures. Here and there in this book, particularly in the chapters on Dordrecht, Haarlem, and Leyden's painters, I have already touched on many of them.