Holland (part III)

View the scanned original illustrations

The close resemblance of these painters to that which they represented enables one to understand why the eyes of those who see in the work of art the image of historical and geographical surroundings should have invoked their testimony. Van Ostade idled in all the villages, he entered all their houses. He is curious about everything. He goes to sit down at the inn, he enters the kitchen, he goes down to the cellar, he explores the barnyard. He peeps through a shutter to watch the children at school. When a fiddler sets the lads and lasses dancing under the plane trees of the square, he hurries to the door and installs himself in the front row. Every time that the dentist or the barber operates, he is there. All inert things—an old vat, an old tub, a broken earthenware pot, books on a shelf, plates, bottles, the pellmell in a studio, a kitchen, a tavern, a forge—are his friends, all of which a ray of the sun from the window, the reflection of a hearth where roast fowls are turning golden in their streaming juice, the sheen from a copper saucepan or from a red-hot iron on the anvil, animate so that they may take part in the affairs, the noise, the silence, the life of the moment. Everything lives, everything has the same right to live and to live unconventionally. People drink, eat, sing, laugh, love, and console themselves in all candor. And if social discipline and the rapidity of intercourse have introduced more restraint into the villages, if their life is less innocent, there is still in the Holland of to-day enough to explain all its artists in the ensemble of their tendencies, and even to describe them in the most minute detail of their realizations. The joyous power of the Dutch temperament in effecting its conquest has declined a little, to be sure, but if the reading of the Bible by the old people is listened to more decorously, it is not more fully obeyed the moment that instinct pierces the crust of hypocritical conventions and the apparent unity of morals. On the feast days of the people and on feast days in the home the same full-blooded health overflows at meals, in gestures, and in speech. The old masters would recognize their race here, and the setting within which its strength expands; for the absolute plain crossed by white sails, the four hundred mills with the red wings that turn around Zaandam, and the space are still there. Van Goyen, for example, is the Low Country itself—a strip cut out from its earth, with a great stretch of sky. That golden spray of water which bathes everything, those great lingering shafts of sunlight on a corner of a pasture outside of which everything plunges into luminous shadow, those skies filled with white clouds which at the same time allow the light to pass through, and, causing the ground to dazzle with liquid and powdery gold, make us wonder, when we have crossed Holland, whether it was van Goyen who revealed them to us or whether it was the flat country which unrolls from the island of Walcheren to Groningen, and from Amsterdam to Breda. In winter, when the canals and the ponds freeze over, if one goes to see the skaters fly and disappear among the bare trees and the houses capped with snow, one finds him there again, and van Ostade also, and van der Meer of Amsterdam, the lover of immense horizons—who have all come, blowing on their fingers and stamping their feet, to try to fix the crossing of the little black silhouettes against the uniform whiteness and the pink and icy sky of glittering afternoons. When one has seen the departure of the heavy vessels bending under their sails, their pennants crackling, w4ien one has seen the movements of the waves and the immensity of gray space in which an uncertain golden glow is born, it is because one has looked at the sea in company with the van der Veldes, from the top of the Scheveningen dunes. One knows Paul Potter without ever having met him if one has strolled along some inclosure where the bulls and the cows wander to nourish their blood and their milk from the ever moist grass and the salty wind from the sea. His painting is steeped in the breath of their lungs, in their silvery slaver, in the sweat that evaporates from them, in the humidity from their nostrils; and their hides take on the dull splendor which he gives to the dust-enveloped plain whose transparence grows dimmer little by little without ever vanishing in the vapors that thicken with the distance. All, even the most humble and the most unknown among these artists, have carried into their painting something of the vast opalescent mist in which the slightest spot of color takes on an admirable value. Holland is drenched with water, water rises from the soil and from the sea, water unites the soil and the sea with the sky which one never perceives save through its impalpable veil, which the gold of the sun, the silver of the dew, and the pale emerald of the waves tinge simultaneously or by turns. Every little drop of vapor is an invisible device for reflecting, breaking, and refracting the light. A vast prism floats and transfigures everything and sheds the glory of the daylight upon everything which, away from here, is shadow and darkness—to things which, everywhere else, one does not see or which one conceals.

Confined to his hut by the gloomy days and the long nights of the bad season, the Dutch peasant finds again, when the ice melts, when the earth moves, and when the first shoots pierce the frost, the ever-living enchantment of the rebirth of the world. In the distance melting into the vapor which rises from ditches and canals, the yellow and green pasture land stretches out and mingles with the cattle that graze in herds or lie down on the ground, with the colts that gallop and the sails of the boats and the wings of the mills, gilded or darkened by rays of light or passages of shadow. At times, when the earth is covered with steam, it remains invisible to the height of the grasses, and the animals and objects seem to float over it. Rain and sunlight merge; the nearness of the sea brings about unexpected slanting illuminations; the water, spread out everywhere, gives its liquid depth to the greens, to the blacks, to the reds, and to the blues which the meadows, the fields of flowers, the herds, and the houses scatter throughout the polder, without their ever ceasing to be at once brilliant and blurred in the shining fog. From afar everything appears like a brilliant spot which an uncertain fringe renders iridescent at its edges and then mingles with the air saturated with watery vapor. Form floats. And when the Hollander tries to fix it in sculpture, he seems still to paint rather than to carve. Quellin the Elder has not the sense of clear-cut profiles and well-defined masses. Space engulfs and melts his decorative sculptures. But seen near by, he is Rubens. The modeling moves within the contour, the softly filled planes flee and undulate under the tremble of the flesh. The blood beats in them, the milk rises in them, the light of Holland spreads over them its iridescent mist which is the milk and the blood of its fat pasture land.

It was but natural that the eyes of those who live amid this feast of moist shadow and sunlight create anew for the repose and continuity of their sight—in dress, ornament, habitation, and all their domestic objects—that concerning which the spontaneous harmonies of space never cease to teach them. They paint everything—the houses, the mills, the inclosures of the gardens and the fields, the pails, the milk boxes, the casks, and the full-bellied boats which go right into the cities to mingle in the black mirror of the canals their red or green reflections with the multicolored tremble of the clouds, the belfries, the brick façades, the windowpanes, and the tiles of the roofs. Along the roads one sees green wagons with orange wheels; blue or green barrels with red hoops are piled up on the barges. The geraniums and begonias with which the windows flower are in earthen pots or painted wooden boxes. When one opens a window or a door painted a turquoise blue, in one of those clean villages where the wind strews the leaves of the plane trees on the flat brick pavement, one catches a glimpse of a room calcimined with yellow or with pure blue. In certain localities they paint even the trees. On their broadcloth suits, or on their velvet skirts, on their neckerchiefs, and on their bodices printed with bright colors, the peasants wear silver belts and the peasant women wear clasps and pins of gold. Around their necks all have coral necklaces in several bands, jet necklaces when they are in mourning. In Friesland their headdress is a silver helmet. The ports are full of brick-red sails and blue fishing nets. Until nightfall all Holland is a liquid painting, and evening itself gives to things a depth of color which one scarcely finds again save on the lagoons of Venice, on the dusty plateaus of Castille, or, in certain spring and autumn twilights, in the atmosphere of Paris. One needs to have seen at The Hague, toward the fall of evening, how the white swans absorb all the dying light under the deep trees which gather the silence around the broad sheets of water.

No comments: