Chicago, The Art Institute – Dutch, Flemish and Spanish

THE Art Institute of Chicago at the present writing is the most popular gallery in America, if the number of yearly visitors is the test of popularity. We are proud to make this statement, for the more the people seek out treasures of art the more far-reaching is the influence of things that make for stronger and purer manhood and womanhood.

We will begin our picture tour in this splendid gallery with the “Portrait of Harman Hals” (Fig. 158), by his father, Franz Hals, one of the most wonderful of portrait painters. This likeness of the son and his large number of other paintings are the very best historical records extant to oppose the wild stories about Franz Hals’ excesses in drinking and carousing. Harman shows no sign of being the son of a drunkard; rather there is a pride of bearing that says, “My father is painting this picture.” That Franz Hals was perfectly familiar with taverns and their habitués we saw in “Hille Bobbe” (Fig. 52) and “The Merry Company” (Fig. 67), but we also saw that his steady hand and clear brain were those of one master of himself.

Is the modern spirit anywhere more pronounced than in the manner of treatment in this portrait? Impressionistic? Yes, but combined with the acutest perception of the character of his sitter. Hals’ lightning changes from broad direct strokes, setting forth essentials, to the most careful finish, where at times even a lace pattern is noted, mark him as a marvel in technique. Never, however, does he allow details to mar the general impression or to interfere with the main issue—the character as represented in the heads and hands. Not always, though, does he adhere to individual character, for often it is national character that is brought out in his portraits.

We are particularly interested in this portrait of Harman Hals, for Harman, born in 1611, was the eldest son of the painter, by his first wife, who died when the boy was less than five years old. In a year the artist married again, and this time his wife, Lysbeth Reynier, seemed a more congenial mate. They lived together nearly fifty years and reared a large family of children. A younger son, Franz, was a painter and many times worked on his father’s canvases, much to the confusion of critics today. It is not known definitely what profession’ Harman followed, but that he was a man of parts is very evident from his bearing and expression, as portrayed by his father.

As we turn to the “Portrait of a Girl” (Fig. 159), by Rembrandt, we realize that here is not only a portrait but a picture. Rembrandt, above all artists, painted or etched to give expression to his artistic instincts. He cared not whether his subject were a prince or a beggar; he made a picture good to look at. His marvelous light and shade gleams in the high lights like sunshine and in the shadows like pale moonlight. Rembrandt was a law unto himself ; he followed no rule and allowed no criticism to interfere with the great truths he had to tell. His portraits are of the Dutch people of his own time, yet in them he has given not only national types but types that express humanity.

A deep thinker with broad sympathies, he early learned that the fundamentals in life are few and that those few can be told in strong simple terms. We know not who this girl is; she seems to be at a window casement, a rather curious observer of some scene near at hand; she is capable of giving a just judgment on it, for her attitude is one of unbiased attention. Let us turn again to the Rembrandt paintings in the Metropolitan Museum, New York (see page 121), and to the Boston Art Museum (see page 27), for only by continuous study of the works of this marvelous master can we attempt to understand the full import of his art.

There are exceptionally fine examples in this gallery illustrating the work of the “Little Dutchmen” of Holland. These pictures, one by each master, are of rare value. In the “Music Lesson” (Fig. 160), Ter Borch (1617-1681) never betrayed his aristocratic tendencies more truly. This young woman is not simply a music pupil, but she comes from a wealthy home. The satin dress and fur-bordered jacket are of the finest quality, and well they may be, for the wearer is a lady of quality. This little gem is comparable to the “Officer and Young Woman,” one of the real treasures of the Louvre, Paris (see “What Pictures to See in Europe in One Summer,” Fig. 108). Note the same perfect brush work, the same carefully worked details, yet with no pettiness, the same clear-cut figures melting into their environment as part of a great whole. No color was ever more exquisite or lifelike, yet it is Ter Borch’s own and not one of nature’s own imitators.

His compositions were small, with seldom more than two or three people in them and few accessories. He seems to have specially loved music scenes—perhaps music was one of his own accomplishments. Ter Borch was a traveler and a student of the great masters, particularly Titian, Velasquez and Rembrandt.

Now turn to Ostade’s “Golden Wedding” (Fig. 161). Could anything have more opposite characteristics? The Golden Wedding ! yet golden only in name and in Ostade’s manner of treatment. The celebration is of the people and, from all appearances, is held in the barn or perhaps in a tavern. It is not a scene we would choose for a picture, yet when Ostade shows it to us we marvel at the beauty of it. The soft rich color that Ostade delicately gives to coat and head-dress, bodice and hose gleams and shimmers in its atmospheric covering like the sheen on a pigeon’s breast. The scenes that this artist chooses may not be refined but his work never lacks refinement.

“The Family Concert” (Fig. 162) is one of the few pictures by Jan Steen, where the artist has pictured a home scene and possibly his own home. The boy with the bass viol may be the son who is learning to play on the flute in the picture of the Steen Family (see Fig. 25, “Famous Pictures of Real Boys and Girls”). The man at the window playing on the guitar is the artist himself. The dog is certainly the same little animal in both pictures. Jan Steen was a pupil of Van Ostade but, unlike his master, he had a vein of sarcastic wit that he used without reserve in rather coarse flings at the foibles of his fellows. But with all his boorish tendencies he could not paint a coarse picture. Somehow the skill of his brush bewitched the pigments on his palette, and what was a scene of debauch in the tavern or on the street became on his canvas as delicate as a flower in color and treatment. It could be said of these men of Holland of the seventeenth century, “there were giants on the earth in those days,” for surely they were giants in portraying little things in a big way.

There are fine examples of Ruisdael and Hobbema, the founders of Dutch landscape art, in the museum. The “Castle” (Fig. 163), by Ruisdael, signed by the artist on the face of the rock, may possibly be “Ruisdael Castle,” southeast of Amsterdam, where the artist’s family dwelt until about the beginning of the seventeenth century, when they moved to Haarlem. In Haarlem the family was known as “Ruisdael,” the name of the castle and adjoining hamlet from which they came.

Very little is known of the personal history of Jacob Van Ruisdael, the distinguished landscape artist. The Ruisdael family, with all its branches, was a very large one and many of them bore the same given name and, to add to the confusion, a number followed painting as a profession. The best authorities say, however, that the great Jacob Van Ruisdael was born in 1628 or 1629 in Haarlem. When about twenty years old he was admitted to the Guild of Painters in Haarlem. When scarcely fifty his health was so precarious that he made a will in favor of his sister, provided she would pay their father certain sums due him. Under the greatest discouragement and ill health he continued to produce masterpieces in great numbers—some four hundred and fifty are attributed to him. In 1681 we learn that he was not only ill but in great want, so that his friends assisted in his support and gained ad-mission for him in the almshouse of his native town; but this was not for long. He died in the spring of 1682, 53 or 54 years old. His landscapes are typically Dutch. Says Fromentin of his “Portrait of Holland” : “I will not call it familiar, but intimate, lovable, admirable, faithful and one that never changes.”

In the “Water Mill” (Fig. 164) we see Hobbema in all the glory of his sunshine pictures. The strong shadow tones. of the foreground bring to greater perfection the joy of the light in the distant fields and on the wide expanse of sky, piled with Fleecy clouds. How well the luxuriant trees by the water’s edge hold their own against the warm white background and how cool and inviting is the limpid water that mirrors their stately heads.

Hobbema was probably a pupil of Ruisdael, but he knew nature better and was not afraid to let his brush tell about the trees and the sky and the water. He saw more of the sunshine in nature—possibly he was more optimistic in temperament because not hampered by a weak and sickly body. His paintings, however, found no more favor with his own countrymen than did those of his master, and many of the pictures of both these masters found their way to England. His masterpiece, “The Avenue,” is in the National Gallery, London.

No two men could have been more unlike in their art career than Rembrandt of Holland and Rubens of Flanders. The former, except for a few years of popularity in Amsterdam, was neglected and died forgotten at sixty-three; the latter rode on the top of the wave of fame from the beginning to the end of his career and died at the same age. Both worked the first half of the seventeenth century, Rembrandt in Amsterdam and Rubens in nearly every capital of Europe. Both artists stand to-day as the greatest exponents of Dutch and Flemish art—and among the greatest of the world.

When Rubens painted the “Portrait of Marquis Spinola” (Fig. 165) he put on record the personal appearance of a Spaniard of high military standing. Spinola was born in Genoa (1569) and in early life held a number of local offices in his native town. But by the time he was thirty years old he had, at his own expense, equipped a corps of nine thousand veterans. In 1602 he arrived in the Netherlands against the Dutch and English, and there a year later became the chief commander of the Spanish army. His military career in the Netherlands was one of almost unbroken success ; one of his last achievements was the capture of Breda, a town a few miles southeast of Rotterdam, after a siege of ten months. Velasquez’ great masterpiece, the “Surrender of Breda,” in Madrid, represents Spinola receiving the keys of the city of Breda from Prince Justin of Nassau. If you will compare this picture of the great Spanish commander by Rubens with the one Velasquez painted you will find that both artists have represented a man of power and dignity, sweetened by generous cordiality.

Rubens probably knew Spinola personally, for it was the Spanish general who advised the Archduchess Isabella, the Spanish ruler of the Netherlands, to send Rubens to Spain (see page 26), and when he went thither he no doubt realized that growing ingratitude of the Spanish court toward the Marquis Spinola which finally caused his death. Rubens’ life was so closely connected with the political history of his age that to know one is to understand the other.

As we look at the portrait of “Helena Dubois” (Fig. 166), by Van Dyck, let us review briefly a conversation held between Jabac, a personal friend of the artist (Van Dyck had painted the friend thrice) and a writer of the seventeenth century. Jabac says in substance that he asked Van Dyck about the short time it took him to paint a portrait. Van Dyck re-plied that he had worked hard at first to gain both reputation and speed of execution to help him when he should paint for a living. Jabac gives some further points on Van Dyck’s methods. The painter generally set a certain day and hour for the sitter and never worked a moment over the hour on one portrait, either in rubbing or finishing. When the clock told the hour he arose with a bow, made another appointment of exact day and hour and the sitter was dismissed. The servant entered and prepared fresh brushes and palette, while Van Dyck received another person on appointment. Thus with great rapidity he worked on several portraits in a day. His method was to sketch in the face lightly, put the sitter in a previously thought-out position and then in a quarter of an hour, on gray paper with black and white crayons, he drew the figure and drapery. The drawing was then handed to skilled persons to paint the drapery from the sitter’s own clothes, which Van Dyck had had sent to the studio. After this the master went over the picture lightly and gave it the art and truth which we there admire. Lastly, says the writer, “As for the hands, he had in his employment persons of both sexes who served as models.” And now as we look at “Helena Dubois,” by Van Dyck, after learning something of the personal habits of the artist from one who knew him personally, we can better appreciate the wonderful likeness.

“The Assumption of the Virgin” (Fig. 167), by El Greco, immediately brings to mind his “Nativity, in the Metropolitan Museum, New York (see Fig. 57). El Greco, the Greek, whose real name was Domenikos Theotokopoulos, was a strange product of Greco-Spanish parentage, born in Crete, then a possession of Venice, and influenced by Titian. The Greek inscription on the white paper in the lower right hand corner of the painting pronounces El Greco the author of the picture. He painted it in 1577 for an altar-screen in a convent chapel of Santa Domingo el Viego. It was purchased by the Infanta Don Sebastian Gabriel, whose monogram, with the crown above, is on the back of the canvas. When this owner died, the picture was put on exhibition at the Prado, Madrid, and in 1904 the French firm of Durand-Ruel bought it and in 1906 sold it to the Chicago Art Institute.

El Greco was a mystic and a scholar, versed in all the ancient lore of Eastern mysticism and Greek philosophy. His home, far up the mountainside above old Toledo, welcomed dignitaries of church and state and fair ladies of renown. His portraiture shows a deep psychological insight for motives, but his religious pictures, governed by his strangely sensitive nature, portray the wildest ecstasy and the deepest gloom of the religious frenzy of the Inquisition. That El Greco was a singularly original genius no one will deny, but that his abnormal sense of color–a lurid flash of the blackest shadows that somehow presage defeat in a sort of gleeful manner—leaves an unpleasant impression is equally true.

This unpleasant impression is not true of another original Velentian Spanish artist three hundred years later. Sorolla’s light and color sense—shall we call it abnormal or supernormal—gives the impression of joyous sunlight; color and light are synonymous terms with him. “The Two Sisters” (Fig. 168) seem like creatures of the sunlight, so dazzling that involuntarily our own arm seeks to cover our eyes from the glare. How can we see anything but two glistening forms, with the sun and the water both blinding our vision? Is it imagination or is it a fact that Sorolla has imprisoned in his pigments so much of the glare of the sun that it makes our eyes ache as we look at this picture? To know Sorolla in all his glory we must see him at the Hispanic Society and the Metropolitan Museum, New York City.