Holland (part V)

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In an attempt to circumscribe this nature, so human, which is to say, so ready at all times to recognize itself in all men and to recognize all men in itself, people have gone to the point of trying to make it the expression of the Reformation. They have not realized how far its intoxication in welcoming all things, its sensual generosity, its powerful pity, and that superior unmorality in which Spinoza would have recognized his respect for the rôle which evil and corruption play in the universal organism, were separated from the spirit of the Protestant beliefs. In Holland, as elsewhere, the Reformation was, in its origin, the assertion of the national temperament and a political movement taking the pretext for outburst which the Reformers offered. The Dutch peasant demanded above all that he be allowed to dry up his polder, milk his cows, make his cheese, grind his wheat, and sell his cattle. And Dutch painting expressed, above all, the forces freed by the economic and national insurrection. Considered abstractly and separated from the vital movement of which it is only one aspect, a religion has never created artists and its power of fecundation, precisely, dies when it triumphs. Dutch painting disappeared with the energy of the emancipation, while Protestantism remained alive. If it had a rôle in the genesis of painting in Holland, it was to demonstrate that the religious spirit, of which art is the supreme expression, is everywhere superior to its sectarian forms. In its iconoclasm, Protestantism prevented Dutch art from illustrating the Scriptures for the ornamentation of the temples and the edification of the believers. Dutch art had its revenge in turning toward space and life and in edifying the artists, who are the eternal believers.

If there is, in Dutch painting, a man impregnated with Protestantism, it is Ruysdael. It is also Albert Cuyp, no doubt. But Albert Cuyp, after all, is perhaps just a good Hollander who tried to say about Holland everything that could be said, and thereby forced his language a little. In his work he gathered together the diffused blondness of the landscapes of van Goyen, the sumptuous materiality of the early Rembrandt, and the fineness of color of Terborg; he accompanied Paul Potter to the paddocks, he followed van Ostade and Hondecoeter into the barnyards and the stables, and he went with van der Velde to look at the sea, without gaining from them their mysterious power, or their simplicity, or their intimacy, or their familiar good-nature, or their cordial optimism. A shade of solemnity hovers about when the lords go hunting or supervise their fisheries, when the herds climb a hill crowned with walls in ruin, or when evening falls slowly over his imposing landscapes where animals are lying down. One would say that he prepares for Louis XIV a Holland made aristocratic and ready to turn that king out politely. He is the painter of the rich, and he knows how to act his part. He is even proud of it. Which is what the Reformation leads to when one accepts without regret its social consequences of economic individualism and family egoism, as it leads to Ruysdael when one studies the question of his principles and closely observes the workings of his inner being in order to judge his acts with severity.

For Ruysdael, the man, flees the rich, and fine materials, and the whirl of life, and luxurious repasts. He is always grave, he is often sad, he is sometimes tiresome, and he is the only one who tries to convince, to abstract, and to demonstrate. And what is more, he has character. But one must not forget that he appears at the moment when Holland begins to feel the fatigue of painting. His artist's sensibility warns him that there is a certain diminution, or at all events, disunion, in the energy of the nation. Where did he get those tortured rocks, those furious cascades, and that harsh, lusterless color which one might say was dried by the wind? When he approaches the sea, it is only to look upon the tempest, the waves assaulting the piers, and the sky and water mingling in the spray of the downpour and the breakers. When he crosses the pokier, the daylight is livid among the stripped branches and the trunks twisting above their roots halfway out of the soil. He quivers with the earth when a black cloud passes over the sun. Trees uprooted and shattered by the torrents, herds returning with the storm over trembling wooden bridges, and poor huddled houses; he sees in nature only that which responds to the dramas of consciousness which must have shaken him. The vast world is gray, there are flights of black birds against the big clouds which fill the whole sky. His universe, given over to the tragic elements and wherein man and life are only poor ephemeral things drenched by the rain and beaten by the winds, permits us to divine the secret illness which he does not confess, and beside it the romantic battle pictures of Wouwerman, bathed in clouds of smoke and showing men hanged and walls in ruin, disguise, for the joy of those who delight in fine military painting, the real physiognomy which is being assumed, in the eyes of a powerful man, by the sinister aspects of the road.

As the joy of painting seems to grow with the contemporaries of Ruysdael the nearer they approach the hour when painting is suddenly arrested, the work of this great poet of space forces us, each time that it presents itself, to inquire into his life. And of that we know nothing save that he had but little success and died in the poorhouse. To be sure, he saw the dikes cut, the polder inundated, and the new generation obliged to regain everything from the foreigner and the sea during the prime of his life. But the old springs still have their temper, the peasant and the fisherman have kept their weapons furbished, and among those painters of his time who stay indoors to seize there the harmonies of home life or who fix the image of water and clouds on a square of canvas the size of their two hands, not one experiences that sentiment of melancholy impotence which makes an intellectual drama of each one of his pictures. If Terborg is a little older than Ruysdael, he dies in the same year and, like him, is present at the drama of the great wars. Brekelenkam, Jan Steen, Metsu, Pieter de Hooch, and Vermeer of Delft are about of his age. But Jan Steen, the carefree spirit, never ceases his laughter, and, say what you will, it is without bitterness. The others do not leave their households, which the well-varnished furniture fills with blond light, save to go to look at the round arms of the servant girl who is washing the doorstep from a full pail, or else at the neighbor opposite who is making lace behind the painted inclosure and the little windowpanes set in blue frames. The people have become rich, and well-being has come to the clean little houses where the luxuries of the home are being developed in egoistic fashion. Jan Steen is the only one who has discovered that he has had enough of housekeeping, of letters of love or of business, of living in the intimacy of the family, and of smoking a lonely pipe; he has seen all he wants of plying the distaff at the fireside and rocking the crying baby. He brings home people who drink, sing, break the dishes, and relieve themselves in the corners of the room. And that is not enough, if we are to believe the legend. He turns innkeeper. He helps his strong lads whom the drunkards follow to the cellar staircase, and the young fellows who are in a hurry to get upstairs to the floor above, in setting up the rickety tables where artless gluttony will soon put his customers at their ease. He roars and gets drunk with them, he plays dice and cards with them, he is their friend; before his door he sets up stands for the minstrels who play their bagpipes, beat their drums, and scrape on their fiddles. He does not fail to come in haste when the tooth puller with drawn face and enormous pincers searches the mouth of a poor devil who howls and stamps his feet, to the great delight of the gossips and the children.

This moralist is probably a man of the most vicious life. But he never loses his head, and he sees what the others do not. He is present, as if by chance, at the comedies of married life, and he knows far better than the constable how to pounce on a couple of wenches who are picking the pockets of their customer when he is dead drunk. And the cut-purse and the thimble-rigger interest him infinitely. Never does he become angry, never does he preach; his indulgence is illimitable. It is because he needs it himself, as he well knows. He is their accomplice. His clearness of eye, which delights him, shows his frankness. If he had not lived their life, if he had observed their innocent sports from the outside only, he would note with greater attention and more discreet pleasure the rare play of the tones under the caress of atmosphere; he would be more of a painter than he is, but doubtless less living, as well. All classes and all environments have their own painters in this period, or rather, in all classes, in all types of environment painters are born who never cease to belong thereto, who have no wish to escape from them, and who die after performing their function, like the banker at his counter, the shoemaker in his shop, the butcher in his stall, the miller in his mill, and the fisherman in his boat. And so Holland herself, her villages, and the people of her fairs, the pavements of her cities, their hovels, their shops, their almshouses, the homes of their citizens, their storehouses, the traffic of the canals and the roadsteads, the doubtful resorts of her harbor towns, her solid virtues, her gross vices, and her violent and heavy life of joyous effort in commerce and war, the whole country comes down to us, overflowing with action and enjoyment, economical and prodigal, without a single one of its gestures or one of its minutes being forgotten, dissimulated, or misunderstood. Were it not for Ruysdael, and above all Rembrandt, this would be the least mysterious mirror, but also the most faithful, which man has ever held up before the face of his days.

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