Holland (part II)

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The artists who were born every day and everywhere from the energy of the revolt, behind the shoulders of the dikes whence one sees only the sky, and on the banks of the canals where the sails pass against the hedges, had the desire to paint almost as soon as they opened their eyes. But only to paint. Not to imagine or to demonstrate, not to seek, beyond the life of the senses, for the world of ideas that it contains, but to paint—to fix the shadow of the sails on the water, the shafts of sunlight in the mist, the black and white spots of the cattle in the polder, or the blue nets that dry in the forest of the masts. And when they were called to the large commercial cities, where the middle class, enriched by trade and consolidated by victory, was broadening its ranks, they brought with them, cool and fresh, the harmonies of their sky. Besides, the waterways which ran through the country crossed and recrossed in the cities, amid the houses of brick and glass; the big full-bellied boats discharged upon the narrow docks the flour, the milk, the butter, the fodder, and the flowers which they brought from the fields. And then the west wind, blowing over the lacy gabled roofs, the canals, the short bridges, and the plane trees of Amsterdam, Leyden, Delft, Dortrecht, and Haarlem, carried with it the same great clouds which poured upon the low plains the water with which they are so gorged that most of the mills turn to relieve them of it.

van der Neer - A Frozen River by a Town at Evening

[Missing: Paul Potter - The Wood at the Hague (Berlin)]
The peaceful pride of having won the right to live at their ease urged the solid Dutch middle class to utilize at once and for their profit, that desire for painting which the rising generation was impatiently manifesting. They enjoyed their wealth, and in every way they could. Already they were no longer the rising Holland of the solid black effigies of old Mierevelt, nor even the severe assemblies which Ravesteyn, another painter of brotherhoods, was furnishing at the same period, and still less the attempts which Cornelis Tennissen made under the reign of Spain, a half century earlier. Now, when the civic guards, who were fortifying or reorganizing their companies everywhere, went forth to practice with the arquebuse, they hung their rapiers from silken scarfs, they put great waving plumes on their felt hats, and they unfurled embroidered standards. No mere boastful display was this, but the joy of fortune acquired by the calm strength which they retained amid the greatest perils. They were strong men. War, commerce, orgy—nothing disturbed their innocence. When returning from exercise they ate and drank as one eats and drinks when one is rich, when one leads a powerful life, when one breathes sea air and has walked in the mist that rises from the damp pasture land. A silent complicity was being brought about between them and those charged with painting them. Some, to tell the truth, did not understand them entirely; others too well. They did not pardon Rembrandt when he took it upon himself to take possession of them like a material that one works upon and bends at will to identify it with one's being, to knead it with light and gold and recast it into life as if it were another life that was to be mingled therewith, even though, in its passing, he caused the lightning of the mind to flash forth. When van der Heist dressed them in satin, placed them before him in their magnificence, all in front view, all of equal importance and quite proper despite their beer mugs and their weapons, they were so well satisfied with the painter who reproduced them so faithfully and so splendidly, that we cannot help considering him a little too much like themselves. Frans Hals, on the other hand, gives them just the value which we set upon them, or rather it is through him that we know their value. Never has there been better painting than his, never has the surface of life been expressed with greater simplicity and power, nor has the order of importance of the elements which reveal life to our eyes been more accurately assigned.

Quellin the Elder - The Death of Socrates*
When he had passed the evening in exchanging blows and coarse words with his wife and the night in waiting for his wine to settle, one would have said that on the following day his mind was clearer, his hand firmer, his eye more fit to seize the moving harmonies that entered his studio with the spice-dealers, the moneychangers, the brewers, and the drapers returning from their arquebuse shooting, and with the broad oppositions by which he introduced into painting a source of life so savory that he exhausted it to its depths. This drunkard flooded with fire everything he touched with his brush. Doubtless, between two sittings, he sat down also to the banquet table, amid those red-faced strong fellows with their hair cut in a brush, their short, pointed, blond beards and their upturned mustaches. And when the faces had reached a point where they were round and full, when they reflected the joy of the well-filled stomachs and the easy digestions, sword belts were strapped on again, felt hats were donned, the big silk bows that crossed jacket and doublet were puffed out. Then the blue, orange, and red scarfs, the green plumes, the black cloth, the fluted ruffles of collars and cuffs, the silky undulation of the banners, hung in disorder over the tables or carelessly folded to mingle their colors, everything seemed to receive—through the fists grasping the spear shafts, through the temples swelling under the shadow of the large hats, through the hands pouring red wine and receiving it in crystal glasses—the wave of hot blood which rolled in their arteries.

Rembrandt - The Entombment*
When he was seeking the colored surfaces of the world, Frans Hals painted the ruff of a collarette or the fringe of a scarf with as much delight as he would the radiant smile of a servant girl, the burst of gayety of a blond youth, or the full-blooded face of a civilian officer. But this great virtuoso changed, which is not frequent with virtuosi. It seems that after his sixtieth year a kind of remorse seized him. Was it perhaps that he had become intimate with Descartes of whom, at about that time, he painted the portrait which showed so clearly the restless and obstinate spirit of the philosopher? Was it perhaps that the poverty in which he died in the almshouse and his intercourse with old men and sick men had constrained him to look within himself and in consequence to turn upon the outer world eyes that were more clear sighted? Suddenly one sees his palette, not darkening—it retains all its limpid splendor, its transparence, its frankness—but suppressing all the intermediary notes of the keyboard, bringing to black and white (both infinite in shades, pitch, and sonority) the whole expressive repertory of the colors of nature. Is there more "soul" elsewhere than in his "Regents," or especially in his last picture, the "Lady Regents," which he paints at the age of eighty-four, when he is no longer sure of his hand? All painters know well that the word has no meaning unless one employs it with reference to the quality of painting. But sometimes, it is true, old men learn; they humble themselves, they confess that they have not understood or that they have understood imperfectly; they return to the school of nature, through the door of the heart. Almost all the masters have known that second innocence and have perceived without apprehension that they have felt themselves becoming unskillful once more. Titian presented that great spectacle; we shall meet it again with Rembrandt and also with Velasquez. The surface of the world seems to efface itself from their eyes, and if the spirit of the forms appears to them more clearly, it is not that the spirit departs from the forms; it is that the master has discovered, on the contrary, the constant solidarity of the forms and of the spirit, because the inner logic of life imposes itself on him and because the accidental recedes in the measure that he understands the law. That is what impresses us when we see the last work of him who was, until nearly the end, the most exterior of painters. There is nothing attractive in what he views: an austere room in an almshouse, aged hands, aged faces, and the growing shadows of the days, the end of these lives and of his own; but matter and thought are now no more than a single thing all the more beautiful because when he knows where strength lies his hand weakens.

Rembrandt - A Beggar Warming His Hands over a Chafing Dish*
It was only natural that the painters of Holland, when sixty years old, should paint the portraits of these five or six grave personages, clad in black and white, and assembled around a table. They were aging at the same time as their sitters. Those who had seen war and made war, those who, in their maturity, had engaged freely and without disquietude in military exercises, commerce, and the pleasures of the table and of love, considered it proper, when their skin had lost its freshness and was hardening and becoming gray, to turn to philanthropy and administration. The old merchants and their wives busied themselves with good works. Each age has its pleasures. And Holland is a wise nation which, without difficulty, reconciles good living, the hierarchy of the bodily functions, and the social order that like the others is rooted in the economy and evolution of the country, with the Commandments of the Scriptures. And it is very fortunate that it is so, for this gives to art, which has recounted to us her life, that steadiness, that peace, that powerful tranquility which presents a contrast, so perfect and so instructive to the mind, with the fever and pain concealed in Mediterranean art. All those who, before and after the "Syndics" of Rembrandt and the "Lady Regents" of Hals, painted those solid reunions of figures on which the materialism of commerce and the equanimity of soul, which comes from physical and moral health, had left their mark until the coming of wrinkles and white hair—Verspronck, Thomas de Keyser, Santvoort, Flinck, Elias, Jacob van Loo, and Jan de Bray especially—had so complete a vision of that society that one feels they approved of it, and one understands, when one sees them, that no external shock could have disturbed their harmony with it. Rembrandt apart, they are in no way different from those who posed before them. Social Holland is a magnificent work of art in itself, and one cannot object to her artists' accepting their place in the self-satisfied middle class.

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