The Franco-Flemish Cycle (part II)

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But it was not the printing press that freed painting. It had emerged from the book before Gutenberg's invention had disseminated books beyond the limit of universities and of convents. The two movements had the same source, and they responded to the same need. Since the people no longer built markets and churches, it was necessary that the soul of the markets and the churches should express itself in books and thus fructify the souls who were to realize its hope. The van Eycks were expected. One is not astonished to find them so sure of themselves, having almost nothing of the primitive about them, and as they would be if they felt behind them a tradition already ancient. Indeed, they were the flowering of Gothic art, whose expression in color had ripened little by little in the pages of the missals.

It was necessary for oil painting to be popularized by those whose mission it was to open those pages and to spread over the multitude the golden fleece which it had gained with so much difficulty. It was by this means that they were able to incorporate with their paint the limpidity, the transparence, the deep and gentle brilliance of the light of the North, the light of clouded skies, of plowed fields with their glow, and of moist forests, the light that does not go out, however pale the sun. The "Pascal Lamb" of van Eyck celebrates at Ghent the triumph of the light almost exactly at the moment when the "Baptism" of Masaccio expresses the ideal of form which appears to him and which is the despair of the Florentines. The robust faith of the Flemings preserved their sensuality from the disquietude of the Italians. They remained men of the Middle Ages, with sound hearts and eyes as full of light as the glass of a cathedral window; it was quite unconsciously, without suffering and without haste, that they led northern Europe into unknown paths.

The van Eycks, who came from the Meuse and thus join Flanders and France to the Gothic Rhineland and to the school of Cologne, did not perceive, any more than did the men of the thirteenth century, any antagonism between the paradise of the senses and the paradise of the inner life. In no way did they stand apart from the merchants of Bruges and from the manufacturers of Ghent. They were worthy men, loving their work, robust in their honesty, and their minds were troubled very little. In covering their canvas they were as conscientious as good weavers, good drapers, and, I was about to say, good dyers. Paradise, for them, was a thing of regular prayer, of faithful attendance at church services, of listening to the priest and respecting him excepting in matters of business, and of painting, of accepting life simply provided it had a good surrounding of dyed cloths and of carved wood, with money in the strong-box, beer in the cellar, and an abundance of linen in the wardrobes. It was also a matter of journeys from city to city, on heavily built horses that walked or trotted and whose pace and docility gave one a chance to fill one's lungs with the odor of the meadows covered with daisies, to ride past the bushes covered with flowers, to delight one's eyes with the colorful sights of green and blue expanses where all the greens and all the blues mingle with each other and follow each other, where all the plowed lands and all the trees and all the horizons together implant in the mind imperishable harmonies which tell us clearly of the bounty of the harvests, of the depth of the soil, and of the weight of the clouds that cross the broad sky. And all this is necessary, because when a bad season comes, when the roads are broken down, when the water that has overflowed from the ditches has drowned out the fields, one can then bring into the big rooms behind the colored glass of the windows a little of the broad splendor of these landscapes; one can break up the box of jewels that nature has furnished us and of it make dyes for furred robes; one can carve furniture decked out with lace made from the wood; and with the money earned by the sale of wool and skins, jewelry of a somewhat barbarous type is bought. In the rich gloom of the household the carpets dull all sounds. Intimacy and sumptuousness are obtained by dark oak, by the tapestry hangings, dull or resplendent, quite often even when only half seen in the weak light; they bring silent crowds into the room with their extreme and heavy richness, they afford depths of peace and comfort into which bad weather can no more enter than the echo of the unhappiness of the poor. In this unbroken luxury, deep red, gold, and blue predominate. But the reds of the robes and the carpets and the tiles are repeated in the glow of the coppers, the glow of the coppers also wanders over the dull mirrors, and so all things respond one to another—the gold and the copper, the reds and the blues—and a meticulous and heavy harmony reigns; it has a quality like that of enamels and of sparkling precious stones.

In this land of Flanders which lived from the manufacture and commerce of dyed cloths, where laces, velvets, and textiles were piled up in the houses of the citizens, where tapestries were hung from all the windows when the ducal processions passed in all the prodigality of their material pomp, it was impossible that the eyes of the painters should not be attracted continually by all these violent, heavy, and full harmonies. When they entered the rooms of the houses, it was as if they were looking into great open chests in which were heaped up, more or less at random, the most magnificent products of the textile industry, forming confused but perfect symphonies because of the splendor of the materials and the relationship among the tones. Of the men and the women who were there, one saw nothing but the hands and the faces, their bodies being covered by thick robes, their heads by dark hoods or by ample white head-dresses that hid the hair, the foreheads, and the necks. The volumes of the bodies and the harmony of the lines were concealed under the folds, the hands and the faces shone forth from the semidarkness and alone detained the eye of the artist with the strongly colored spots which served as a jewel casket. And the picture was composed spontaneously, in a massive block which lodged itself intact in the memory, leaving them neither the desire nor the leisure to choose or to eliminate.

This is what places the Flemings, the van Eycks in particular, as the first among all the painters who have respected the complete aspect of men, adding nothing thereto save their power of penetration. They pursued resemblances with tenacity, the exact material resemblance, even to the direction, the form, and the disposition of the wrinkles, the number of the hairs and the grain of the skin, and it is this material resemblance which, through its exactitude, carries with it the moral resemblance of the individual whose needs and functions have little by little modeled the face. There are faces of merchants, eager and honest; there are faces of women resigned to their task and almost always represented as heavy with the burden of the new life. Often there are great, ugly faces with long noses, broad mouths, bony jaws, and the skin tightly drawn over the skeleton of the face or loose and falling in thick folds. They are heavy with their strength and their calmness, dense, full, material, and so nakedly truthful that one might think them carved out of the mass of the muscles, the nerves, the blood, and the bones. There is never any generalization, but also there is never a lie. Each of these beings is the one who came to seek the painter; each one is intent on living that moment of his life at which the painter found him, without a thought of the past or a thought of the future. But there are so many of these faces, donors and their wives, and nuns with clasped hands, aldermen, magistrates, and members of guilds, that finally the average type is born of the composite that forms in our memories, like the average type of the faces carved in stone by the image maker of Champagne or Picardy. It is a continuation of the Middle Ages; there is the same process of patient accumulation, wherein every element, seen close by, retains its characteristics, and wherein the ensemble, seen from a distance, forms a compact and solid whole, which it is impossible to disintegrate. Besides, their common interests gave to the artists of Flanders a common moral life. They continue to belong to the corporations of the Middle Ages. When the van Eycks arrived at Ghent, a guild of painters had been in existence there for a long time which had no other duties or privileges than those of the guilds of the weavers, the blacksmiths, the dyers, or the brewers.

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