Boston, Museum of Fine Arts – Part 1

LOGICALLY our art tour in America begins with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and as we are searching out, as far as possible, masterpieces in painting, we will go directly to the Spanish room, the third one on the left.

The splendid portrait of Fray Feliz Palavicino, by El Greco (1545?-1614), is of itself sufficient proof of the value of this collection. Fra Feliz himself wrote, in a sonnet to the artist,

“Let nature try : Behold her vanquished and outdone by thee ! Thou rival of Prometheus in thy portraiture.”

What would he have said if his portrait had been painted by Velasquez?

The two paintings by Velasquez (1599-1660) in the room are fine examples of the great master’s art before and after his personal friendship with Rubens and his stay in Italy. While neither Rubens nor Italy greatly influenced the individual characteristics of Velasquez’ art, yet they came just as the young artist was developing into the man of mature judgment. The portrait of “Philip IV” (Fig. 1) is certainly that of a mere youth. To understand the real significance of this likeness in Boston we must recall the beginnings of the unique friendship between Velasquez and the young king of Spain.

Philip III of Spain died in 162I and his son, then in his fifteenth year, succeeded him as Philip IV. Two years later, in 1623, Velasquez, then twenty-four, was invited to Madrid and appointed court painter, with his home in the palace. It is evident from accounts of early biographers of Velasquez that he completed a portrait of the youthful king, Philip IV, August 30, 1623–two years after he had ascended the throne of Spain. That it was regarded as a great success at court is proved by a recorded remark of the Premier Duke who declared, “the king’s portrait had never been painted before. He simply ignored other portraits to the chagrin of the older men. Edwin Stone, B.A., in his work on Velasquez, says, “this first likeness of the monarch …though possibly a full length, was probably nothing more than a bust. . . .” Is it possible that this Boston portrait is a replica of that famous first likeness of the young king, or is it a copy of the portrait of Philip IV in the Altman collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City? (See page 126.) At least we are confident that Philip shows the immaturity of a boy still in his teens. The assumption of royal dignity is apparent in his whole attitude. The hand resting on the sword-hilt has the nervous tension denoting the uncertainty of youth; the pose of the head has none of the assured arrogance of the later portraits, especially that one owned by the Marquis of Lansdowne, London (see Fig. 190, “Pictures and Their Painters”).

When in 1628 Peter Paul Rubens (1577-164o) came to Spain, Philip appointed Velasquez to visit the galleries with the distinguished Flemish artist. We can imagine the delight of Velasquez at having this honor.

How he must have hung on the words of the handsome courtly man, nearly twice his years, whose fame was known in every country. For nine months these two men, destined to stand out as the greatest geniuses of their respective countries, enjoyed a companionship of rare quality.

The picture of “Don Baltazar Carlos and his Dwarf” (Fig. 2) is no doubt one of the first of the numerous portraits Velasquez painted of Philip’s oldest son. Don Carlos was born in 1629, the same year that the artist went to Italy—possibly later in the year. Probably it was a hint from Rubens, about the value of the Italian painters, that suggested to Philip the idea of sending Velasquez away; at least the king provided him with ample funds and the Count Duke, Olivares, also made him a gift of money and gave him letters that admitted him to the very best that Italy had to offer. For nearly two years Velasquez reveled in the museums and copied the works of the great artists. But at the beginning of the year 1631 he received a hint from Olivares that the king was getting a little impatient to have a portrait painted of the young prince, Don Carlos, then in his second year. To paint the first portrait to the heir to the throne of Spain was no small honor ! Velasquez re-turned at once to Madrid.

If the Boston portrait is the earliest of Don Baltazar Carlos, as the museum authorities claim, it is indeed a treasure of great value. The little prince is dressed in a queer mixture of babyhood clothes and a boy’s toy armor. He wears a steel gorget or collar under the white lace turnover and a sash of official order. His right hand rests on a toy sword and his left on a baton. The dark green dress embroidered with gold enhances the clear skin and flaxen baby hair. The poor little dwarf is a pathetic wee figure. It was the custom in Philip’s court to have dwarfs for the amusement of the grown members of the royal house-hold, as well as for the children’s playmates. Velasquez painted some wonderful portraits of these court dwarfs, some of whom were big in intellect and quite superior in wit and wisdom to the poor fools who employed them.

The Dutch paintings in the next room are fine examples of Rembrandt and the Little Masters of Holland. That picture of the bald-headed, wrinkled “Old Man” (Fig. 3), hanging low on the opposite wall, claims us first, for most probably it represents Rembrandt’s father. Emile Michel, the great French critic, says of the portraits of the artist’s father, “Down to the present time their identification has been based merely on hypotheses more or less plausible.” He then proceeds to name no less than nine plates—one plate with three heads on it—most of them signed with Rembrandt’s monogram and dated 1630, and eleven paintings of this period, all from the same model. His description of these pictures certainly coincides with the painting before us. He writes :

“They represent a bald-headed old man with a thin face, long nose, bright eyes, full and rather red eyelids, thin compressed lips, a mustache turned up at the ends, a short beard and a mole on the chin.” As Rembrandt’s father died in Leyden and was buried in St. Peter’s church April 27, 1630, the son could not have been more than twenty-three when he made the various portraits mentioned above. Another very strong proof that these pictures are of Rembrandt’s father is that Emile Michel himself found in the Cassel Gallery a pair of small portraits painted by Gerard Dou, who was a pupil of Rembrandt from 1628 to 1633, and says of them, “One is undoubtedly the artist’s mother and the other is of the same type as the plates and paintings of the man accepted as his father.”

Such guarded statements from Michel, and other careful biographers, are helpful in giving us an insight into the early life of the great master. Probably no artist ever has been enveloped in such a mass of fairy tales regarding his life as Rembrandt; and, after the most exhaustive investigation, no artist’s life is shrouded with greater mystery. The date of his birth even is questioned—we accept July 15, 1606. It is fairly certain that Harmen van Ryn (Herman of the Rhine), his father, was a miller of Leyden, that Rembrandt was the fifth of six children, that he was sent to a Latin school—but did not find Latin to his taste—and that his father insisted that he should study art. After three years of training under home talent he was sent to Amsterdam to study with Lastman, but in six months re-turned to Leyden, in 1624, and for six years the members of his own family were his principal models. At this time he began making those marvelous paintings and etchings of his mother (see Fig. 137, page 204, “Pictures and Their Painters”) that, together with Whistler’s painting of his mother, stand for universal motherhood.

The picture of “Mercury and Danae,” in the same room, Rembrandt painted twenty years later; it is signed and dated 1652. Not often did he choose mythological subjects, and in this painting it is not the story that holds us but the marvelous light, veritable sunlight, that embraces the weeping Danae and encourages the messenger with his gift of gold. Were there ever such luminous shadows ! they fairly quiver with suppressed light waves; in fact, the woman dipping water from the low, round stone basin has caught the golden beams and set them free again.

Acrisius, Danae’s father, warned by an oracle that his daughter’s child would be the cause of his death, shut her up in an inaccessible brazen tower. But the all-powerful Zeus, having seen her beauty, as was his custom, promptly fell in love with her. The brazen walls were of no avail against the seducing power of the gifts of gold Zeus sent to Danae nor could they prevent the birth of the wonderful child Perseus. When Acrisius found that he had been defeated, he caused the mother and child to be sealed in a brazen chest and set adrift on the sea. The chest was found, however, by a fisherman, Dictys, and both Danae and her baby were taken to king Polydectes of Seriphus, where Perseus grew to manhood. Just what episode in the story of Danae Rembrandt refers to is a question.

Rembrandt was a law unto himself; he knew the secrets of the sun and used this magic knowledge to catch his rays and entangle them with the painter’s pigments. Other artists have given marvelous effects of sunlight, but Rembrandt alone defied the sun; he alone has given actual sunshine and sunshine that is never hidden under clouds. Of the six hundred pictures by Rembrandt, more than a sixth are in the United States. We shall note many of them as we visit the various galleries, and thus through his works shall become better acquainted with the great master.

The “Little Masters” of Holland were little only in the size of their paintings. The Dutch people wanted pictures for their homes in the seventeenth century. Holland had thrown off the Spanish yoke ; the church no longer dictated as to the kind of art and commissions for cathedral pictures had ceased. Business guilds and domestic life were now the subjects of paramount importance. The artists went out among the work-a-day people and into the homes and there in the daily occupations found scenes for the little gems that to-day are our great masterpieces.

Look at this “Dutch Interior”. Was there ever a simpler scene or one more delightful? Surely a woman lighting a fire and another woman with a basket, evidently on her way to market, and a little dog impatient to start, is a sight perfectly familiar to us and yet who thought of it as a picture? But when Pieter de Hooch (1630-1677?) shows it to us we feel the charm of the homely scene and exclaim, “How did he transform it?” Then -we begin to realize that he has done it by giving the poetry and beauty of sunlight and color on material objects. It is the home made beautiful through the medium of light and shade and color.

Now look at the picture’ again. The sun, casting a direct ray across the sill of the outer door, floods the remainder of the room with reflected light, bringing out the values of the red curtains at the window, the newel post and the lower stair step; then the diffused light enters the living room and here the red slipper of the woman standing, the flame in the fireplace and the rich stuffs at the window and on the mantel are bright spots of color that brighten and give joy to the scene.

Although de Hooch took most of his subjects from humble life, he was an aristocrat in his manner of painting them. His heart was full of love for the sunshine of life and he radiates that lave from all his works.

Nicolaes Maes (1632-1693), though a pupil of Rembrandt, never lost his own individuality. At first he painted portraits, humoring the people because they wanted likenesses, but in portraiture he was not at his best. He loved the life of the people and the home. In the “Jealous Husband” (Fig. 5) we feel the element of the home, but we do not for one moment forget the people. The husband, standing on the lower stair step with one hand raised as though to grasp a bell rope and the other hand stroking his chin, is the center of interest. We recognize at once that his suspicion is aroused and that the leer in his eyes bodes no good to the couple in the other room. The woman sitting by the window conversing with the man beside her is wholly unconscious of impending trouble. Even without the title Maes has, by the attitude of the man on the stair, made us feel that his suspicions are unjust.

Maes painted comparatively few pictures of everyday life but these few are superb. They give us just those intimate glimpses into the homes and record those incidents of daily life that tell us the character of the people of Holland and show how little human nature changes. Boston has a rare treasure in this little gem.

The genre scenes of the little Dutchman are so full of life episodes that each one is like a bit of neighborhood gossip, and our interest in them makes us party to that gossip. What business have we to pry into the whys and wherefores of this woman parting with her jewels to “The Usurer”? (Fig. 6.) Yet here we are just as keen to peep into the shop and watch the old money-lender and see how he, treats the woman as though we too hated the one and were a friend to the other. We are sure that the woman is rich, for Gabriel Metsu (1630-1667), unlike de Hooch, chose most of his subjects from the well-to-do people; he loved ebony furniture, damask hangings and oriental rugs. The glitter of the gold and silver coins pouted on the rich table cover seems to mock at the woman’s tears. What are tears to the hard cash she has received for her treasures ! See how Metsu has balanced the composition ; the sitting money-lender, with a pair of scales in one hand, raises his head while she lowers hers a trifle and wipes the tears away as she holds out a paper, hand balancing hand. The consummate skill of each actor in the little drama is a master stroke of genius. After all it was what this man and woman were doing that interested Metsu. He liked to surround them with luxurious things but these were kept subordinate to their own individuality:

Never did two peoples, originally of the same stock, show greater differences in development after they were freed from the yoke of a foreign power than the Dutch and the Flemish. The sturdy Dutch people became individual and self-assertive, with an art that represented their characteristics. The pleasure-loving Flemish people, less independent, yielded more readily to the influence of the French on the south and retained their love for the pageantry of feast days and saints’ days, and the church was still the chief patron of the arts.

Now as we turn to the works of Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641), the second greatest artist of Belgium, we are not surprised at the wide divergence in the character of his work from that of Rembrandt and the “Little Masters.” When Fromentin, the famous French art critic and artist, designates Van Dyck at the end of his life as “a Prince of Wales dying upon his accession to the throne who was by no means fitted to reign,” he expresses in a nutshell the exact standing of Van Dyck as an artist—a prince but not a king in his art.

Van Dyck went to England in 1632. He was received at court with great distinction, was knighted by King Charles I, given a pension for life and appointed painter to the king. The picture of “Charles I and Henrietta Maria and their Children,” in the Boston Museum (Fig. 7), is one of Van Dyck’s number-less paintings of the royal family. The older child became Charles II and the little one James II of England. In this work, as in all his pictures of royalty, the artist has given such a “born to rule” air to his figures that he makes them even more royal than they are. He delighted in picturing satin brocades and embroidered velvets of such firm texture as would stand alone in their own strength. Notice especially the hands of the king and queen; they are royal hands, but they are Van Dyck’s royal hands. They seem to bear no intimate relation to the particular person to whom they are attached. We wonder whether if the hands were detached they could find their owner again or if they would fit some other person just as well (see page 257). Queen Henrietta Maria, the daughter of Henry IV and Maria de’ Medici of France, is said to have won the love of the errant prince Charles by a single glance.

Gilbert Stuart’s “Portrait of Washington” (Fig. 8) is a picture we must see. Though other cities claim Stuart originals of Washing-ton, the artist himself says, in a note at the foot of a letter from the President, preserved by his daughter: “In looking over my papers to find one that had a signature of George Washington, I found this, asking me when he should sit for his portrait, which is now owned by Samuel Williams (the Marquis of Lansdowne) of London. I have thought it proper that it should be his, especially as he owns the only original painting I ever made of Washington, except one I own myself. I painted a third, but I rubbed it out. Signed, Gt. Stuart.”

The portrait Stuart owned was sold by the artist’s widow to the Washington Association and, in 1831, was presented to the Boston Athenaeum, hence the name ; it is simply loaned to the Museum.

The Washington portrait for Samuel Williams, referred to in Stuart’s letter, was sent to England and is known as the Lansdowne Washington. It is a full-length figure, though Washington sat for the head only.

Of course Stuart made many replicas of the Athenaeum head (the original artist alone can make a replica), but Washington sat only three times to the great artist. That this portrait was never finished is not surprising, for one of the criticisms often made of Stuart was his careless painting of accessories, to which the artist would reply, “I copy the works of God, and leave the clothes to tailors and mantuamakers.”

The peculiar expression around Washing-ton’s mouth is probably due to his false teeth, or rather bars. In a letter to his dentist of Oct. 12, 1798, he writes : “I find that it is the bar alone both above and below that gives the lips the pouting and swelling appearance —of consequence, if this can be remedied all will be well. . . George Washington.” This letter was written a year before the president’s death and after Stuart painted his portraits. Stuart himself said, in reference to the Athenaeum head, “When I painted him, he had just had a set of false teeth inserted, which accounts for the constrained expression so noticeable about the mouth and lower part of the face.” He probably meant the bars.

The arrangement of Stuart’s palette was simplicity itself, yet his wonderful skill in laying colors has left his canvases nearly as fresh to-day as a century ago. Benjamin West would say to his pupils : “It is no use to steal Stu-art’s colors; if you want to paint as he does, you must steal his eyes.”

Probably Turner’s “Slave Ship” (Fig. 9) caused more criticism pro and con than any other picture ever brought to our shores. Every gradation of opinion was expressed from Ruskin’s extravagant encomium where he says : “I believe, if I were reduced to rest Turner’s immortality upon any single work, I should choose this [the "Slave Ship"] ; the color is absolutely perfect,” to the frank disapproval of our own George Inness, when he says that it is “the most infernal piece of clap-trap ever painted. There is nothing in it. It is not even a fine bouquet of color.” We may not agree that it looks like a “tortoise-shell cat having a fit in a platter of tomatoes,” yet we do feel that Turner needed to use common sense in painting chains and sharks and human beings in the water. The lurid light streaming through the trough of the angry sea intensifies a scene already too horrible. It seems a pity that a man who first revealed to us the sunlight in all its glory should ever play with it until the glory faded and only light remained to uncover ghastly details. However, when William Morris Hunt was asked if he thought the “Slave Ship” was worth ten thousand dollars, he replied,

“Well, I see a good many ten thousands lying around, but only one Slave Ship.”

But what could we expect of a man so erratic as Turner? Listen to Wilkie Collins’ memory of him: “A shabby, red-faced, oldish man—sitting on the top of a flight of steps, astride a box, with his dirty chest of colors, and worn brushes, and a palette of which the uncleanliness was sufficient to shock a Dutch painter.” He was probably trying to “checkmate”—the artist’s own word—some brother artist. Gruff and uncouth he was, yet his sense of humor kept him from being angry when he was the one checkmated. One “varnishing-day,” in the Academy, he found that a Venetian sky by William Jones killed his. Chuck-ling, he said, “I’ll outblue you, Joney,” and he added ultramarine to his own until he deadened the other. But Jones was not to be out-done. When Turner had gone he painted his own sky white, leaving Turner’s outlandishly blue. Turner laughed when he saw it next day and admitted, “Well, Joney, you have done me now.”

No doubt Turner was a miser in life, except for the loving care of his father, but we can forgive him, for, after his death, it was found that his one aim had been to leave an immense fortune to benefit poor artists.