Holland (part VI)

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Only, after Rembrandt, and even with Ruysdael, the painting of Holland lost the conquering force of the generation which issued from the founders. Jan Steen has no longer the truculence of Frans Hals and his pupils, Brouwer, van Ostade, and the first vagabond painters who rolled their candid life through the evil places and the inns where they paid their shot by painting a sign or the portrait of some bully. The painting of Holland knows now that van Tromp and de Ruyter command the winds and the wave; it is happy, it isolates itself, and perhaps it is just that absolute and passive beatitude which tortures Ruysdael. One can foresee that the coldness and the petty, anecdotal spirit of Metsu and the glassy dryness of van Mieris will succeed, all too quickly, the absence of disquietude and the splendid materialism of Vermeer and of Pieter de Hooch.

When these bourgeois painters had discovered silvery grays, and blacks upon dull reds emerging from the penumbra, when they had surprised, in a room filled with blond ash color, the acts of the family seated around a beautiful tablecover, with an inkwell or an open book on the table, or with a workbox or a musical instrument, they could do no more than sit down before silver compote dishes, decorated plates, and crystal glasses. The gold of a lemon, the skin of a roast fowl, the topaz or the ruby of a wine maintained there under their eyes the familiar harmonies which the waxed floors, the satin dresses, the velvet curtains, the earthenware pots, and the copper vases realized in the house. Terborg lent to the bourgeois families, who live in these interiors so charged with their artless egoism, such rare and sober elegance that it seems to emanate from his almost muted symphonies.

One cannot conceive portraits more aristocratic than those signed by this painter of the most materialistic and positive among the peoples of the earth. He is a Titian of the north, less decorative, certainly, and less broad, and loss lyric, but on the other hand carrying the contrary virtues to the highest point of distinction. A small personage is alone, standing in the center of a little picture. Dressed in black, almost always, with rare grays insinuating themselves throughout the whole, living like flesh and blood, precious as a fine pearl, it seems that through the taut structure and the density of the harmonies which he concentrates in that tiny space, he summarizes in his discretion the unexpected image of intellectual Holland. By himself alone he represents the silent and proud reserve of the spirit in exile amid the surrounding coarseness. All Terborg's models, his cavalrymen, and even his prostitutes bear that imprint. And yet, by a singular paradox, all of them, even the lowest and most vulgar, are themselves and at home. The expression is concentrated and fills the forms to their depths; it is distributed with equal attention over busy hands, foreheads bent under shaggy mops of hair, the happy and peaceful faces of the mothers, and the astonished or mischievous faces of the children. The light does not obtrude itself, it is never indiscreet; but it follows lovingly the line of the comb in the red hair, it touches the amused grimace, it shines in the eye of the dog who is being relieved of fleas, it lights up a jewel against a moist skin, and it carries on the mood of gentle excitement which envelops everything and is awakened and maintained by every incident of the homely and continuous drama of the inhabited room, the window which lights it and the commonplace actions which take place there each day. A transparent atmosphere caresses the gilded napes of necks bending under the carefully arranged hair. In the air dazzled with pale gold, the discreet glow of a silvery skirt, of a cherry -colored bodice, of steel-gray breeches, of a boot of tawny leather, or a pearl hung from a blue ribbon and glistening on a blond cheek mingles with the sonority of the harpsichord itself to surround and penetrate with their soft tones the velvety peacefulness of lives unrolling in security and comfort.

Pieter de Hooch prefers to look out through the window whence one perceives the canal, and on the other side of it, the little triangular houses of red brick with their painted shutters. But into the street he carries on the intimacy of the dwellings where buxom young mothers with bare arms wash and comb little girls with long dresses and round pink faces and bushy red hair. He carefully follows the soapy water which streams from the pavement of the dining room, to filter in between the stones of the quay. When he is seated before his door and chats with his neighbors, he has to give a glance through to the back of the open rooms and look on at the household work. At home, he cannot bear to have a single door closed; he watches the laundry and the shining kitchen. Not satisfied with being present at the doctor's visit or watching the child being dressed or listening to the thin song of the spinet, he must follow the light as it roams through the corridors, following from room to room the black and white tiles of the floor, lighting up the coppers, and awakening—with the carpets, the upholstery of the furniture, the half-drawn curtains of the alcove, skirts and doublets—the discreet life of the reds, the grays, the oranges, and the blacks, which it bathes and turns blond, gently and evenly. With him, with Terborg, and with Vermeer, everything lives and speaks; we see that the teapot is warm, that the chair has just been used and the tapestry work has just been left, that the andirons are awaiting the feet which will rest upon them, and that all these things which are kept so clean are yet a little bit worn, and that the wandering shadow takes on the warmth of the hand.

Vermeer reaches the point of painting the radiant silence which emanates from these friendly things, and the very welcome which they extend to you. That woman and that mirror are used to each other; it was also that woman who moved that ball of thread; and if that curtain retains that fold, it is because each time she raises it she touches it in the same place. Those rare pictures hanging on the wall have, with their muffled harmonies, awakened in the pearly amber of the room a few almost imperceptible echoes of the world of misty gold which begins across the threshold; slowly and peacefully they have formed her vision. Everything is heavy with memories of her, of her perfume, of her warmth, of her habits, of her breath. If anyone but she were there, the light entering by that window near which she places herself to read or work would not soften as it passes through the glass, it would not caress so lovingly the hand and the inclining forehead, it would not mingle with the golden strands of the hair. The light itself is a friend of the household. In the glass or the case of a clavichord it sketches the shadow of a familiar profile, it tints the bare wall as it would tint a pure water, and across objects which emerge or grow dim, it carries the mystery of the growth or decline of day.

No one has penetrated farther into the intimacy of matter. As he crystallizes it in his painting, as he permits it to retain its grain, its thickness, its dull inner life, Vermeer has multiplied its qualities through all the limpid brilliance and the warm transparence which it takes on through the sight of the painter whose eyes were probably the clearest that ever have been. There is so deep an agreement between the material and the harmonies which accompany it that they seem to come from within, to be born spontaneously from the mass of objects, like a fruit coloring in proportion as its juice mellows. The color is kneaded into the tissue of things, into that rounded face flushed with its young blood, into that hand resting on that golden bodice; those reds and those blacks are as unfathomable as translucent stones. He did not paint a silk dress, lace, eyes, lips, cheeks, the velvet of a mantle, or the plume of a felt hat without his bearing in mind the cattle in the fields against whose emerald they look like black diamonds. After the rain, everything opaque in the atmosphere of Holland assumes a liquid and luminous depth which Vermeer incorporated with his color as if it were powdered pearls and turquoises, vibrating like the molecules of living organisms. He mingles the turquoise and the pearl with everything, with the soil, with dirty waters, and with old walls. The blues and reds of roofs and shutters, their disturbed reflections in the blue water, and the trees whose dark foliage is blue, form, in the only landscape which we have from him, a miraculous harmony. The milky blue of Delft ware, with which the very paving stones of the city seem to be colored, floats through the picture and is barely affected by the pearly grays and pinks which the light and the clouds temper in a vibration of silver.

Vermeer of Delft summarizes Holland. He has the qualities common to the Dutch, and in him they are gathered into a single sheaf and at a single stroke raised to the highest power. This man, who is the greatest master of the beauty of pigment, is without the least imagination. His desires never go beyond that which his hand can touch. He has accepted life in its totality. He gives it out again. He has interposed nothing between himself and it, he limits himself to restoring to it the maximum of splendor, of intensity, and of concentration, which an ardent and attentive study discovers in it. He and Rembrandt are the opposite poles; for Rembrandt is the only one in his epoch to go against the stream of splendid middle-class materialism which surrounds him, in order to attain, through it and all bathed in its strength, the infinite lands of contemplation.

And yet the painter of Delft, like Terborg, like Pieter de Hooch, like Brekelenkam at times, like that Karel Fabritius so mysterious and so powerful, and who died too young to gain possession of his own nature, felt the genius of the master. Almost all the painters born in Holland contemporary with Rembrandt and after him recognized him as being the only one whose indifference to the approbations and the hatreds of the crowd rendered him capable of understanding it and worthy of dominating it. Only, carried along by his strength, and strong in his very strength, these men fought in their own station and during their own time, sure of acting in accordance with his dictates when they were no longer observing him. They had confidence in themselves. . . The weak men, on the contrary, those who never took their eyes off him—Gerard Don, Ferdinand Bol, Salomon de Koninck, Flinck, and Maes—were devoured by him. Ferdinand Bol carried his golden atmosphere, like an intruder, in among the abundant forms which Rubens, the other king of the north, imposed upon his weakness. Gerard Dou thought that in order to make a home scene, a hand, a shoulder, or a face stand out more strongly from the darkness, he had to wait for night, light a candle or a lamp, and reduce to an amusing or sentimental little story the human and dramatic enchantment to which life, in revealing itself, always transported the old man with the oil-stained handkerchief bound around his forehead as he drew from some dark hovel the splendor and the heat and the fecundity of the sun. The flame of that sun showed Nicolas Maes no more than the anecdote, enveloped in the silent intimacy of Terborg or of Vermeer. The "chiaroscuro" which the old masters of the Netherlands, especially Honthorst, were already trying to borrow from Caravaggio, and in which Rembrandt had seized the law of nature itself—chiaroscuro was emerging once more, with the last artists of Holland, from the actual interchanges of mind, matter, and space, to sink to the level of a school process, to immobilize the world and dissociate its elements. In this period of the death struggle of Dutch painting, following immediately upon the last two defensive wars, the men who abandon their studio and go forth from their houses are the only ones still to express something of their country. They will look again upon the sea from the dike which is being repaired, upon the grassy fields which are being dried up again, and the cities and towns which are building up their brick walls again and restoring their canals. Such are van der Heyden and Gerrit Berck-Heyde, who paint the street, the market, the public square, and the intimacy of the narrow façades behind a curtain of trees. Such are the last painters of the van de Velde dynasty who, after having boarded the warships, after having breathed the smoke of powder and conflagration amid the thunder of the cannon, have seen the big ships of commerce taking the sea again with their pennants flying, and have seen the long waves and the banking of clouds in the breeze that plays through the great spaces of the heavens. Such is Hobbema, who passes his life in the polder, still drowned in places by swamps and encumbered with rotted trunks; he goes forth among the slender trees and along the broken roads, stopping each time that a clearing opens amid a little wood or that a farm sheltered from the west wind by a few thin elms appears beside a pond. He finds again the eternal and monotonous landscape, the muddy and grassy soil, the lightness of the blond mist. Holland consents to abandon painting, but upon condition that the last of her painters record that she has not changed, that she is pursuing her task, that her cattle are increasing, that her mills are still turning. 

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