Flanders (part III)

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Jordaens himself, so strong and so free, could not escape the overpowering memory of him. But at least he illumined his soul with the flame of Rubens instead of gathering up his bones. He brought even more sun into the flesh of his big women, he caused more blood to flow under their skin, they radiated a greater amorous power, and he discovered in himself, as he watched the passing of the god who opened upon life his two generous hands, rustic poems which he had barely suspected. He saw fauns, their hoofs clotted with mud, sitting in Flemish cottages into which cows and chickens came behind them; he saw the fauns partaking with the peasant of the juice of grapes, and bread rubbed with garlic. He saw more liquid light in the eyes of the girls and more furtive grace in the smile of their mouths. The spirit of the world passed through him in a broad flash.

Jordaens - Three Buskers*
The others divided up the universe of Rubens. Snyders gathered into biblical arks the beasts scattered through the three thousand canvases of the hero. Of the immense spectacle of the world into which Rubens had plunged, the skies, the seas, the nude women, the living woods, the springs and the meadows, the marble palaces and the cottages which he had dissolved in the blood of his veins to spread them forth upon the canvas to the beating of his heart, Snyders retained no more than messes of fish and the pork shops of the streets, the palpitation of the pearly bellies, the glistening tremor of the scales, the slimy motion of the great cylindrical bodies, the thickness of the meats, the warmth of fur and feathers heaped up pellmell, an odor of the sea and of clotted blood floating amid the russets of autumn game, and the blues and greens of seaweed and of ocean depths. Even so it was too much for him. Fyt helped him in his work. Grayer, who also delighted in fish, the sea, and the meat of the butcher shop, closed his eyes timidly so as to leave to them this domain, and thought it his duty to confine himself to equestrian portraits, monarchical triumphs, and pompous theologies against a setting of twisted colonnades and brocaded hangings. The good painter Jacob van Oost left to him the athletic nudes and the muscular melodramas that he might shut himself up in his dying city of Bruges with the enriched middle class who draped themselves in the mantles and the doublets in which Rubens had dressed his princes as they appeared silhouetted against the grandeur of the skies. Van Dyck seized upon hands and faces, despoiled the soldiers of the harness of war in order to get a better view of their ankles and wrists, and dressed the divinities of pagan Flanders in robes of heavy stuff so as to have a more perverse pleasure in undressing them afterward. Where, before, there had been sureness of gesture, ease of power, superb elegance of force in action, there were now prepared gesture, mannered grace, and the faded elegance taught by the servitude and idleness of courts.

van Dyck - Self Portrait with a Sunflower*
The noble had doffed his armor. He had permit led his stronghold to become a pleasure house; he had given over to the king his bridges and roads in exchange for finely embroidered garments. But deep within him there was still the vigor of a cavalier, even though a touch of corruption was visible at the tips of his fingers and in the pallor of his face. From the south to the north van Dyck's gaze roved with easy and careless penetration. In Italy he discovered, in great sad palaces, the grandsons of a violent aristocracy abandoning itself to its morbid decline. The grandsons of a brutal aristocracy, which was giving up its struggle for power against the merchants, brought him to England. In the southern country—nervous faces, marked by the inner storm which can no longer vent itself; in the northern country—pale faces with blond hair, long pale hands resting on the hips as men stand in proud resignation when forced to shut up their idle strength in great parks full of leaves rotted by the mist that rises from the lawns drenched with moisture. On every hand, men standing apart from the torrent of the century, isolated in their pleasures, isolated in their boredom. The master had treated with the great; the pupil was treated by the great. His taste, his easy culture, his elegance as of a musketeer, and his dressmaker's talent rendered him indispensable to them. He employed the strength left him by the artificial life of an artist overpraised by idlers and too much loved by women, to become the painter of society and of fashion, the first in date and of importance. For a proud or delicate head outlined against a great living sky, for a fair hand holding a batiste handkerchief, for a flash of comprehension which one day turned a charming and silly face into the incarnate symbol of the old races devoured by their time (which they imagine themselves to have dominated while in fact they have not even tried to understand it)—he frittered away a talent already weary from playing with doublets, from trying on gloves and then tossing them carelessly aside, from turning lace into foam, from the madcap elegance that made him don his broad-brimmed hat with its waving plume, from pointing out the toes of feet shod in soft leather while his hand rested on a tall cane and he twirled his mustache.

van Dyck - Wife of an Aristocratic Genoese*
Perhaps he did not understand that successes and pleasures sucked his pale blood little by little, and if he suffered, it was because he felt his decline without knowing its causes and without being able to win back his strength. Like all sensitive beings who have become men of pleasure, he is sad. There are more blacks and grays in a single one of his canvases than in all those of Rubens. He never knew the sensual joy which that master lavished everywhere. He never had his broad pagan faith, nor any other to replace it. In his religious pictures, his insinuating and insipid sensualism is the mark of his full consent to be the painter of the Jesuits whom Rubens had served, indeed, when he filled the churches with enchanting virgins, which they ordered from him, but whom he had profoundly combated when he upheld, contrary to their beliefs, the revolutionary force of life and carried it across his century. Van Dyck flattered the convenient devotion of those who no longer believe. Through his religious pictures he consented to play the rôle in Flanders—with more grace and more frequent evasions, it is true—which Bernini was to assume in Italy with noisy grandiloquence, Lesueur in France with insipid sweetness, and Murillo in Spain, with his dubious and unhealthy sensualism. Philippe de Champagne, who was about of his age, was forced, in order to maintain his position against the tendencies of the century, to make a severe and continued effort, and more so because he had received, as van Dyck himself had, the pagan education of the old Flemings and saw on the horizon of his youth the tumultuous passing of Rubens. With one of those sudden breaks of equilibrium which only the great mystics can force upon themselves, he forgot even the joy of painting, which is the whole reason for existence of the masters of his country. He fixed his eyes upon the wooden crucifixes nailed to the bare walls of the Jansenist cloisters. He painted flesh clothed in gray fustian: he covered with cold ashes the kneeling portraits of the martyrs of Christian doubt. Rubens had conquered without a struggle, without even feeling their fetters, because his life swept everything along, the impedimenta of the allegories and the need for dogmatic demonstration which his time imposed upon him. After his death, we undoubtedly enter a century when art will no longer live—or rather, will no longer try to live—save through formulas, pedagogical preoccupations, theories, and moralizing intentions.

Philippe de Champagne - Nuns of Port-Royal*
The century, besides, will take as its field of action another soil than that of Flanders, which scarcely sufficed, after the visit of Hercules, to nourish Jordaens. Van Dyck was unable to live there for more than six years of his maturity. Philippe de Champagne deserted Brussels for Paris. Victorious Holland sapped the life of the Low Countries. When she did not send her painters to Flanders—as, for instance, that strange Brouwer who died at the age of thirty-two after haunting the taverns of Antwerp in order to catch sight, among the shadows, of faces filled with joy, grimacing pain, or comical attention as they appeared suddenly, and who was perhaps brushed by the great invisible pinion which was to lift up Rembrandt—she imposed upon the last Flemish artists her most undeniable faults. David Teniers was seized by her love of anecdote and spread forth motionless dances, silent orgies, and dead kermesses in landscapes, gentle and gray. A tremor as of sorrow, pale and cold, passed over the Flemish soil. Its free spaces, where the mists of the Scheldt and of the North Sea had furnished amber and opal to its artists from van Eyck to Rubens, were to burn out completely. Their last flicker vibrates over the battles staged like quadrilles and the burlesque fortresses which van der Meulen humbly offered to the king of France, and over which a few blue and delicate vapors arise amid the slender trees. Flanders had given enough to the world. Her confused life, heavy and rich, her life swelling with blood and sap, drunk with strength and sweating with its odorous fecundity, had caused its spirit to pass, through Rubens, into the veins of the future. 

Brouwer - The Surgeon*

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