The Polder*

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HOLLAND, which borders on Flanders, bears no resemblance to it. From the first, as soon as one approaches the mouths of the Germanic rivers, the aspect of the country changes, the plain descends below the sea-level. Holland devotes itself to stock-raising and agriculture; Flanders to manufacture. And then Flanders remains Catholic and, until the nineteenth century, is subject to foreign government. Holland, from the beginning of the seventeenth century, is Protestant and free. Where Antwerp is swept along amid the attraction of the civilizations of the south, Holland takes possession of herself in a sudden accession of strength which bursts her bonds.

From that moment is to be dated her escape from the despotism of the Renaissance men of the south. The Italians treat their country as a pretext, the artist makes abstractions, he invents, the world solicits him incessantly to find a direction for the appearances which it offers him and to find intellectual value which shall aggrandize the forms whose meaning he desires to generalize and whose sense he desires to follow in order to elevate the race and exalt all its desires. In the wake of the Italians Rubens drags the strength of the north. The Dutch, on the contrary, take their country as their subject. They "paint its portrait." It is the country that they love, because they have suffered in order to gain possession of it and hold it, because it feeds them well, because they have worked to improve it, to clear it up, and to protect it against man and the sea. For ten centuries they struggled to get possession of its mud, to build on it, to set up their towns which will sink into the bog or which an inroad of the sea drowns out in slime and quicksand. Life had been too hard for them, and is now too good for them to seek outside its every-day aspects the education of the mind which it can give to those who live in freedom, in idleness, and in the passionate stimulation of the southern countries—and who are tormented by the needs of an imagination left to itself or whose will power tortures them to restrain its own excesses.

As soon as she had seized her liberty, Holland emerged no more from herself. She does not seem even to have had to struggle to preserve the right to say that which she thought, or rather that which she saw, of herself. She watched herself live. The only thing she did not perceive was the war which she was obliged still to keep up against richer neighbors so that she might be allowed to dry up her polders and found her markets. She was not moved by the spectacle of her heroism; she was not conscious of it. She saw therein a means of winning her right to live as she saw fit, as a busy tradesman, as a careful and clean housewife, loving good food, comfort, domesticated love, fine clothes, and white linen, all of which bore witness to a healthy existence and a self-interested probity. If ever there was a people naturally sociable, of sentiment but slightly complicated, permanently balanced, and which readjusted itself without effort or shock, it is this one. Its greatest man, or rather its one really great man, here appeared like a monster. It certainly made him see that.

Frans Hals - Descartes*
Holland carried on the practice of painting in the way that she fought, in the way that she carried on and still carries on the practice of trade. With her, that function did not correspond as in other places to a frenzy of conquest which announces itself from afar by feverish tremors and leaves behind it fatigue, sadness, and often death. She began suddenly, she stopped suddenly. It is like the joy of a young animal that snorts and skips, and after becoming aware of its health and its vigor, of the suppleness of its muscles and the depth of its lungs, no longer thinks of anything but grazing. When she no longer knew how to paint, she felt no remorse. Her art had manifested a moment of its power, broad, peaceful, positive, and joyous—and that was all. When art no longer manifested it, this power continued; but instead of expressing itself through color and form, it expressed itself through more ships on the sea, more merchandise in the ports, through a greater number of canals, more solid dikes, and more of well-being everywhere.

Frans Hals - The Lady Regents of the Hospital*
These forces, as has often been said, arose from the magnificent effort which Holland had made to tear herself free from the foreigner. When men for forty years have armed themselves every day to earn their bread for the evening and the right to be alive at dawn, when they have gotten up in the night to go through fierce storms of wind and water in order to slip a torch into the portholes of war-vessels, when they have seen the stake set up for them on every public square and a gibbet at every crossroad, they may, if they have not weakened, regard with pride those who will be born of their valor. All the painters of Holland were sons or grandsons of the men who had made the Republic. Mierevelt, the first, is born in 1567 on the eve of the insurrection; the last, Hobbema, in 1638, when Spain is quite vanquished, when the Dutch East-India Company floods the ports with produce, when the Netherlands feel themselves sufficiently strong to control their sea whereby they block the Thames with de Ruyter's vessels and hurl that sea through the broken dikes in front of the soldiers of Louis XIV. Between Mierevelt and Hobbema come Frans Hals, van Goyen, Rembrandt, van Ostade, Albert Cuyp, Ruysdael, Terborg, Pieter de Hooch, Vermeer of Delft, and a hundred others. The Beggars of the sea have hurled the power of their fight into the wombs of the women.

To be sure, in this country where everyone may without effort be a painter if he opens his eyes, some men had done painting previously to the two generations which were born of the conquerors. But their voices were isolated and without echoes. In the Holland that was forming, the few little peasants who had been awakened by chance by the great diffused light which floats from the mouths of the Rhine to the dikes of the Zuider Zee, had gone on foot to Bruges, to Ghent, to Antwerp, or to Brussels where peddlers and traders from the coast had told them that those who made pictures for donors and brotherhoods gained a generous livelihood. In the fifteenth century, if van Ouwater, a pupil of van Eyck, did return to The Hague, Dirk Bouts lived at Louvain, Claus Sluter went as far as Dijon, and Malouel as far as Paris. In the sixteenth century, Cornelissen and Mostaert remained at home, but looked to Antwerp; Pieter Pourbus lived in Bruges. Anton Mor served Spain to the point of acquiring her arid strength, her dry ardor, and her somber and nude character. Lucas of Leyden, even if he did not leave his home, was solicited now by Antwerp, now by Germany, which triumphed completely when Dürer came to see him and when they had exchanged their ideas concerning the manner of cutting into copper and wood. And yet, if there was in Holland, before the war, a genuine Hollander, it certainly was this good engraver of blond landscapes and of the joys of the people in which, at times, the verve of van Ostade is forecast. Had he not died at the age of forty, had he been able to see Pieter Breughel, who had deserted for Antwerp the landscape of Breda over which floats the golden mist from the rivers, we should doubtless have known sooner the face of the Netherlands. But he disappeared at the moment when Italy was becoming the fashion in Flanders, when Jan Scorel was trying to introduce it at Utrecht, when Holland seemed to be accepting Charles V and renouncing the pride of seizing liberty.

van Goyen - A Scene on the Ice near Dordrecht (National Gallery)
The insurrection which put the Netherlands into possession of their independence was so thoroughly significant of their maturity of mind that painting, though scarcely born, made itself completely master of its means. Between the sons of the insurgents and the first Dutch painters who were looking toward Italy and Flanders, there is a half century of silence. Holland has no primitives, even less than Venice. The painters of the brotherhoods are already modern men. Frans Hals, from his first work, is a great painter; he knows all the laws of plastic polyphony, he has freedom, ease, a powerful and direct feeling for the permanent and complex solidarity of form, color, consciousness, and space; and, from his first moment, he is a Hollander. And thenceforward, neither with him nor with any of those who are to appear, will one find a trace of those Italian rhythms with which Rubens and his successors animate the matter of the north. Dutch art is of a single block, remains until its last hour within the material and moral limits of Holland, and, from the beginning to the end, reveals the inner forces brought violently to the light by the revolution. It is the most strongly and uniquely national affirmation that history has to show.

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