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.

The particular shining glory of the Ryks Museum is Rembrandt's "Night Watch," and it is well, I think, to make for that picture at once. The direct approach is down the Gallery of Honour, where one has this wonderful canvas before one all the way, as near life as perhaps any picture ever painted. It is possible at first to be disappointed: expectation perhaps had been running too high; the figure of the lieutenant (in the yellow jerkin) may strike one as a little mean. But do not let this distress you. Settle down on one of the seats and take Rembrandt easily, "as the leaf upon the tree"; settle down on another, and from the new point of view take him easily, "as the grass upon the weir". Look at Van der Helst's fine company of arquebusiers on one of the side walls; look at Franz Hals' company of arquebusiers on the other; then look at Rembrandt again. Every minute his astounding power is winning upon you. Walk again up the Gallery of Honour and turning quickly at the end, see how much light there is in the "Night Watch". Advance upon it slowly.... This is certainly the finest technical triumph of pigment that you have seen. What a glow and greatness.

After a while it becomes evident that Rembrandt was the only man who ought to have painted arquebusiers at all. Van der Heist and Frans Hals are sinking to the level of gifted amateurs. Why did not Rembrandt paint all the pictures? you begin to wonder. And yet the Hals and the Van der Helsts were so good a little while ago.

Hals and Van der Helst are, however, to recover their own again; for the "Night Watch," I am told, is to be moved to a building especially erected for it, where the lighting will be more satisfactory than connoisseurs now consider it. Perhaps it is as well. It is hard to be so near the rose; and there are few pictures in the recesses of the Gallery of Honour which the "Night Watch" does not weaken; some indeed it makes quite foolish.

It is not of course really a night watch at all. Captain Franz Banning Cocq's arquebusiers are leaving their Doelen in broad day; the centralisation of sunlight from a high window led to the mistake, and nothing now will ever change the title.

How little these careless gallant arquebusiers, who paid the painter-man a hundred florins apiece to be included in the picture, can have thought of the destiny of the work! Of Captain Franz Banning Cocq as a soldier we know nothing, but as a sitter he is hardly second to any in the world.

But it is not the "Night Watch" that I recall with the greatest pleasure when I think of the Ryks Rembrandts. It is that wise and serene old lady in the Van der Poll room - Elizabeth Bas - who sits there for all time, unsurpassed among portraits. This picture alone is worth a visit to Holland. I recall also, not with more pleasure than the "Night Watch," but with little less, the superb group of syndics in the Staalmeester room. It is this picture - with the "School of Anatomy" at The Hague - that in particular makes one wish it had been possible for all the Corporation pieces to have been from Rembrandt's brush. It is this picture which deprives even Hals of some of his divinity, and makes Van der Helst a dull dog. If ever a picture of Dutch gentlemen was painted by a Dutch gentleman it is this.

Having seen the "Night Watch" again, it is a good plan to study the Gallery of Honour. To pick out one's favourite picture is here not difficult: it is No. 1501, "The Endless Prayer," by Nicolas Maes, of which I have said something in the chapter on Dordrecht, the painter's birthplace. Its place is very little below that of Elizabeth Bas, by Maes's master.

It is always interesting in a fine gallery to ask oneself which single picture one would choose before all others if such a privilege were offered. The answer if honest is a sure revelation of temperament, for one would select of a certainty a picture satisfying one's prevailing moods rather than a picture of any sensational character. In other words, the picture would have to be good to live with. To choose from thousands of masterpieces one only is a very delicate test.

If the Dutch Government, stimulated to gratitude for the encomiastic character of the present book, were to offer me my choice of the Ryks Museum pictures I should not hesitate a moment. I should take No. 2527 - "Woman Reading a Letter" (damaged), by Vermeer of Delft. You will see a reproduction in black and white on the opposite page; but how wide a gulf between the picture and the process block. The jacket, for example, is the most lovely cool blue imaginable.

This picture, apart from its beauty, is interesting as an illustration of the innovating courage of Vermeer. Who else at that date would have placed the woman's head against a map almost its own colour? Many persons think that such daring began with Whistler. It is, however, Terburg who most often suggests Whistler. Vermeer had, I think, a rarer distinction than Terburg. Vermeer would never have painted such a crowded group (however masterly) as that of Terburg's "Peace of Munster" in our National Gallery; he could not have brought himself so to pack humanity. Among all the Dutch masters I find no such fastidious aristocrat.

He, Vermeer, has another picture at the Ryks - "De brief" (No. 2528) - which technically is wonderful; but the whole effect is artificial and sophisticated, very different from his best transparent mood.

Any mortification, by the way, which I might suffer from the knowledge that No. 2527 can never be mine is allayed by the knowledge, equally certain, that it can never be any one else's. Money is powerless here. To the offer of a Rothschild the Government would return as emphatic a negative as to a request from me.

The room in which is Vermeer's "Reader" contains also Maes's "Spinning Woman" (see page 230), two or three Peter de Hoochs and the best Jan Steen in the Ryks. It is indeed a room to linger in, and to return to, indefinitely. De Hooch's "Store Room" (No. 1248), of which I have already spoken, is in one of the little "Cabinet piece" rooms, which are not too well lighted. Here also one may spend many hours, and then many hours more.

The "Peace of Munster" has been called Terburg's masterpiece: but the girl in his "Paternal Advice," No. 570 at the Ryks, seems to me a finer achievement. The grace and beauty and truth of her pose and the miraculous painting of her dress are unrivalled. Yet judged as a picture it is, I think, dull. The colouring is dingy, time has not dealt kindly with the background; but the figure of the girl is perfect. I give a reproduction opposite page 190. It was this picture, in one of its replicas, that Goethe describes in his Elective Affinities: a description which procured for it the probably inaccurate title "Parental Advice".

We have a fine Terburg in our National Gallery - "The Music Lesson" - and here too is his "Peace of Munster," which certainly was a great feat of painting, but which does not, I think, reproduce his peculiar characteristics and charm. These may be found somewhere between "The Music Lesson" and the portrait next the Vermeer in the smallest of the three Dutch rooms. Even more ingratiating than "The Music Lesson" is "The Toilet" at the Wallace Collection. Terburg might be called a pocket Velasquez - a description of him which will be appreciated at the Ryks Museum in the presence of his tiny and captivating "Helena van der Schalcke," No. 573, one of the gems of the Cabinet pieces (see opposite page 290), and his companion pictures of a man and his wife, each standing by a piece of red furniture - I think Nos. 574 and 575. The execution of the woman's muslin collar is among the most dexterous things in Dutch art.

From the Ryks Museum it is but a little way (past the model Dutch garden) to the Stedelijk Museum, where modern painting may be studied - Israels and Bosboom, Mesdag and James Maris, Breitner and Jan van Beers, Blommers and Weissenbruch.

There is also one room dedicated to paintings of the Barbizon school, and of this I would advise instant search. I rested my eyes here for an hour. A vast scene of cattle by Troyon (who, such is the poverty of the Dutch alphabet, comes out monstrously upon the frame as Troijon); a mysterious valley of trees by Corot; a wave by Courbet; a mere at evening by Daubigny - these are like cool firm hands upon one's forehead.

The statement

    Nothing graceful, wise, or sainted, - 
    That is how the Dutchman painted,

is so sweeping as to be untrue. Indeed it is wholly absurd. The truth simply is that one goes to Dutch art for the celebration of fact without mystery or magic. In other words, Dutch painting is painting without poetry; and it is this absence of poetry which makes the romantic Frenchmen appear to be such exotics when one finds them in Holland, and why it is so pleasant in Holland now and then to taste their quality, as one may at the Stedelijk Museum and in the Mesdag Collection at The Hague.

We must not forget, however, that under the French influence certain modern Dutch painters have been quickened to celebrate the fact with poetry. In a little room adjoining the great French room at the Stedelijk Museum will be found some perfect things by living or very recent artists for whom Corot did not work in vain: a mere by James Maris, with a man in a blue coat sitting in a boat; a marsh under a white sky by Matthew Maris; a village scene by the same exquisite craftsman. These three pictures, but especially the last two, are in their way as notable and beautiful as anything by the great names in Dutch art.

On the ground floor of the Stedelijk Museum is the series of rooms named after the Suasso family which should on no account be missed, but of which no notice is given by the Museum authorities. These rooms are furnished exactly as they would have been by the best Dutch families, their furniture and hangings having been brought from old houses in the Keizersgracht and the Heerengracht. The kitchen is one of the prettiest things in Holland - with its shining brass and copper, its delicate and dainty tiles and its air of cheerful brightness. Some of the carving in the other rooms is superb; the silver, the china, the clocks are all of the choicest. The custodian has a childlike interest in secret drawers and unexpected recesses, which he exhibits with a gusto not habitual in the Dutch cicerone. For the run of these old rooms a guelder is asked; one sees the three rooms on the other side of the entrance hall for twenty-five cents, the church and museum unit of Holland. But they are uninteresting beside the larger suite. They consist of an old Dutch apothecary's shop and laboratory; a madhouse cell; and the bedroom of a Dutch lady who has just presented her lord with an infant. We see the mother in bed, a doctor at her side, and in the foreground a nurse holding the baby. Except that the costumes and accessories are authentic the tableau is in no way superior to an ordinary waxwork.

At the beginning of the last chapter I said that the Keizersgracht and Heerengracht do not divulge their secrets; they present an impassive and inscrutable front, grave and sombre, often black as night, beyond which the foreigner may not penetrate. But by the courtesy of the descendants of Rembrandt's friend Jan Six, in order that pleasure in their collection of the old masters may be shared, No. 511 Heerengracht is shown on the presentation of a visiting card at suitable hours. Here may be seen two more of the rare pictures of Vermeer of Delft - his famous "Milk Woman" and a Dutch facade in the manner of Peter de Hooch, with an added touch of grave delicacy and distinction. Peter de Hooch is himself represented in this little gallery, but the picture is in bad condition. There is also an interesting and uncharacteristically dramatic Nicolas Maes called "The Listener". But the pride of the house is the little group of portraits by Rembrandt.

It was, by the way, at Burgomaster Six's house at Elsbroek that Rembrandt's little etching called "Six's Bridge" was executed. Rembrandt and his friend had just sat down to dinner when it was discovered that there was no mustard. On a servant being sent to buy or borrow some, Rembrandt made a bet that he would complete an etching of the bridge before the man's return. The artist won.

Another little private collection, which has now become a regular resort, with fixed hours, is that known as the Fodor Museum, at No. 609 Keizersgracht; but I do not recommend a visit unless one is absolutely a glutton for paint.