Dutch Portrait Painting And The Corporation Groups

PERHAPS no country in the world has so distinct an individuality as Holland. In physical aspects, in political history, and in the character of the people, it is entirely unique. How different was the Dutch temper from that of their neighbours in the southern provinces came out during the long struggle of the Netherlands with Spain, when the seven provinces of the north formed themselves into the Dutch Republic (1579) It was a final victory of their national spirit when the Treaty of 1648 acknowledged them an independent nation, while their sister provinces still remained under the Spanish yoke.

Not all the storm and stress of these eighty years’ warfare could prevail against the steady development of Dutch commercial prosperity. Fighting, farming and fishing all went on simultaneously. The same indomitable courage which wrested victory from Spain was at the same time wresting riches from nature. In the early seventeenth century, no other country in the world had so large a fleet of vessels on the sea, meadows so rich in cattle, or cities so busy with industries. It was this material wealth which provided, not the formative causes, but the favourable conditions for the development of an art, whose foundations had been laid simultaneously with the Flemish, but whose beginnings had been far less promising. Italian influence for awhile hampered both nationalities, but the seventeenth century set them free, the Dutch about a decade behind their neighbours. It was during the golden age of Frederick Henry, whose rule as stadtholder extended from 1625 to 1647, that the Hollandish Renaissance brought Dutch art to the perfect flowering. It now took on a rare beauty of its own, neither German nor Flemish, nor yet Italian, but distinctly Dutch. It was a complete expression of the new-born spirit of national freedom. While the revival of Flemish art, as we have seen, received positive help by the residence of the Spanish regents in the Netherlands, Dutch art owed little or nothing to foreign patronage. And while Flemish art always bore a strong flavour of foreign graftings, Dutch art was distinctly provincial in character.

Naturally the religious convictions of Holland tended to turn the art impulse from old channels into new. The sturdy Dutch Protestants were averse to the church decoration which was prevalent in the Roman Catholic provinces of the southern Netherlands. There was little demand for sacred altar-pieces such as Rubens and Van Dyck were painting for their Flemish patrons. As a result entirely new fields of art were opened up in painting landscape, still life, animals, flowers and the like. In the meantime the first effect was to strengthen the uses of the portrait. Now for the first time, the demand for portrait painting was so great that it was possible for a painter to devote himself exclusively to this one thing. Every well-to-do burgher wished a portrait of himself and his wife, or better still, a group of the whole family. Even more important than such private orders was the call for large groups from corporations. There was no trade or profession which had not its own guild : drapers, wine-merchants, painters, surgeons, and so on through the list. Besides these were the military companies which were most noteworthy organizations. All these bodies took pride in having portrait groups of their members hung in the assembly halls. The fashion extended to all governing boards : the magistrates of the city, the regents of hospitals, almshouses, orphan asylums, and charitable institutions of various kinds. A veritable passion for portrait immortality was in the air. In every public gallery of Holland one sees these corporation groups. They are the most characteristic art product of the period. Often there are whole series of such works as those at Delft, in the Town Hall, and the Hospital; the four by Ravesteyn at The Hague, the five by Elias Pickenoy in Amsterdam, the six by Schooten, at Leyden, and lastly the splendid array of eight, by Frans Hals, in the Town Hall at Haarlem. To describe them all in full would make monotonous reading, yet there is scarcely one which is not interesting as a human document and as a record of national art progress. The figures range from four or five to twenty or thirty, and as the number increases, the compositional qualities weaken. The painter had an almost insoluble problem in adjusting the exigencies of his art to the demands of his patrons. Each individual wanted a conspicuous position and a satisfactory likeness, yet how to attain this when the principles of art composition require the subordination of some elements to others? The sitters were best pleased when placed in stiff rows where all fared alike. The earlier painters contented themselves with this primitive method, and showed what manner of artist they were only in the handling of individual heads. Mierevelt’s Anatomy Lesson (1617) at Delft, is of this class, and in spite of its wooden poses and mechanical arrangement contains two or three really interesting heads. The picture, however, is made un-necessarily revolting by the treatment of the cadaver, which is opened to show the viscera.

The subject of the Anatomy Lesson was one in great favour with surgeons’ guilds, and represented the members gathered about a dissecting-table, ostensibly listening to the professor’s demonstration. It was an attempt to supply a story motive for a portrait group. When we turn from Mierevelt’s picture to Rembrandt’s famous treatment of. the same theme, in the year 1632, we can understand the furore which the latter aroused in Amsterdam. Here is genuine dramatic interest as the colleagues bend eagerly over the subject. If their zeal is slightly exaggerated, not so that of Dr. Tulp, the demonstrator, who speaks with the calm deliberation of the scientist. The fine strong personality preserved in this portrait is a type of that class of men whose scholarship made the Dutch universities so famous in the seventeenth century. All the heads are convincing likenesses, and we may well believe that they were gratifying to the originals. The subject, too, is treated in as good taste as is possible with the unpleasant theme : the muscles of the arm are under discussion. Rembrandt had at this time but recently set up his studio in Amsterdam, having removed thither from his native Leyden, The success of this first important commission augured a brilliant future for the young painter. Happy in his marriage, he now entered upon a busy and fruitful decade of his career.

The military groups were of course the most common of all forms of corporation pictures. To begin with a typical work in the older method, one might take Ravesteyn’s masterpiece at The Hague: The Officers of the Civil Guard leaving the Town Hall, painted in 1616. Here the power of good portrait art makes itself felt under the most adverse conditions. The figures are arranged in two tiers, along a balcony and on the ground floor, and are packed solidly together. But here and there, in the huddled rows of faces, one catches a singularly expressive countenance.

It was a bold and delightful innovation when Frans Hals produced at nearly the same time, his first great corporation picture, The Banquet of St. George Shooting Guild, at Haarlem. The company are seated about the table, engaged in lively conversation. The motive is so simple and natural that one wonders why it had not been commonly used before. There is really good and sufficient reason here for bringing the company together — one, too, which shows the most agreeable side of the participants. The groups into which they fall are united by standing figures, and the coherence of the linear composition is admirably maintained. But though the artist was bold in breaking away from the old custom of rows, he dared not follow his scheme to its logical conclusion. The perspective indicates considerable depth of space, but the figures in the rear are as sharply defined as those in front. ” Values ” are set entirely at defiance. The patrons be-hind the table would have been highly offended to be cast in the shadow by any haze of distance.

It was by this great picture that Frans Hals suddenly sprang from obscurity to fame. How and where he obtained the necessary practice which must have preceded such craftsmanship, we do not know. He had re-moved from Antwerp to Haarlem, the home of his ancestors, at the beginning of the century, but nothing is known of him during the first fifteen years of his residence there. Some work, now lost, must have demonstrated his fitness for so important a commission from the St. George Guild. Be this as it may, he is not again lost sight of till his death at a good old age. His next corporation picture belongs to the year 1627, when he again painted the St. George Guild, and also, for the first time the Shooting Guild of St. Adrian. The banquet motive is again employed, but less formally. The men stand or lounge in knots, and some wear their broad-brimmed hats. To avoid false values, such as the picture of 1616 contained, the figures are massed as much as possible in the foreground, and this produces a somewhat crowded and confused effect. Yet these faults are trifles beside the great portrait work the pictures reveal. One singles out one head after another for special praise. A spirit of good comradeship animates every figure. The passing moment is seized by the artist and crystallized into permanency.

The pictures of 1627 mark the half-way point between the work of 1616 and the masterpiece of 1633, which was a second St. Adrian’s group. To keep all the figures well in the foreground, as his patrons demanded, the painter now massed the men in two distinct groups. Yet what the picture lacks in coordination of parts is amply atoned for in the, harmonious scheme of colour. It is Fromentin who pronounces the final word upon it as showing ” as much taste as Van Dyck, as much skilful execution as Velasquez, with the manifold difficulties of a palette infinitely richer.” This was certainly as near as it was possible for mortal man to solve the insoluble problem of the large Dutch corporation picture.

As one reviews these four wonderful pictures by Hals, certain common features come to mind. The decorative element in each case is furnished by the gaily coloured banners, which are cleverly disposed in oblique lines, to unite groups, and relieve monotonous levels. The ensigns, or standard bearers, are the most conspicuous and picturesque figures of the groups, tricked out with captivating finery, and carrying their standards with a delightful swagger. The commanding officer has of course special prominence, though not always the most commanding personality. He attracts our attention, either by looking directly out of the picture with an air of importance, or by receiving the salute of an ensign. The other characters represent the usual elements of such a company. The argumentative man is here, punctuating his debate with gestures; the tedious story-teller, holding a victim in his toils; the humourist, with his anecdote, and the jolly good fellow, who listens, or laughs, or drinks a toast, as occasion demands.

As if hopeless of again equalling these masterpieces, the next and last military group of Hals shows a decided retrograde. This was the St. George picture of 1639, where the figures are ranged in a monotonous row as in more primitive work. Even so, the hand of Hals is unmistakable in the vigorous heads and expressive countenances.

The effect of the five great military pictures hanging together in the Haarlem gallery is altogether unique. It is like entering a great banquet hall, full of animation. You are met on all sides by the friendly jovial glances of the revellers. It it as if you heard the clinking of glasses, the sound of voices, and the outbursts of laughter. And although the spirit of hilarity prevails, no unseemly conduct offends the taste.

The methods inaugurated by Hals were not allowed to lapse. Bartholomew van der Helst, a painter of Amsterdam, imbibed deeply the spirit of the Haarlem master. He was a generation younger than Hals, and began his career when the latter was at his height. The gallery at Amsterdam contains two large military groups, of 1639 and 1648, strongly reminiscent of his model. The subject of the second is The Banquet of the Civil Guard celebrating the Peace of Westphalia, and the arrangement is borrowed from the 1616 Banquet of the St. George Guild in Haarlem. As in the work of Hals, the values of the figures behind the table are somewhat faulty for the very abundance of life which throbs through the whole canvas. Good cheer reigns supreme : the captain grasps the lieutenant by the hand, as he pledges him. The other men fall to with jest and anecdote. In the center, somewhat apart, sits the magnificent being who fills the office of ensign. The giant throws one leg over the other, steadies the great flag over his shoulder, and complacently meets the gaze of an admiring audience. In his own opinion at least he is the whole show.

In the meantime Rembrandt had contributed to the great military , groups of the period his famous picture of the Night Watch. This was painted in 1642 for the Amsterdam Musketeers, under the captaincy of Frans Banning Cocq. The painter’s object was to make a natural dramatic motive the basis of the work. The guard issues from their assembly-hall in some sudden call to action.

The captain leads the way, giving orders to his lieutenant. The drum beats, the ensign unfurls the standard, the men come out with musket and lance; a dog scampers under foot, and a little girl slips into the crowd. All is confusion and action. In such a scene it would be impossible to give every figure full portrait value. Some of the figures necessarily occupy insignificant positions in the background. This was very humiliating to the Musketeers. They preferred the old-fashioned ways to such startling innovations. They paid their money for good portraits, not for a dramatic composition. Popular sympathy was with the grumblers. The picture was in fact quite beyond the average comprehension. Rembrandt had used the opportunity to work out some problems of chiaroscuro which were struggling in his mind. Absorbed in the wonderful contrasts of light and shadow, he was careless of all else. He produced one of the world’s greatest pictures but he disappointed his patrons. The captain and lieutenant are the only satisfactory portrait figures in the company.

In the following century the picture was removed to the Town Hall, and in order to fit it to a particular place, a strip was cut from each end of the canvas. The result is a crowded effect not belonging to its original condition. In the passing years the accumulation of smoke darkened the colour, until it was supposed to represent a night scene. Hence the incorrect title of the Night Watch. Since the canvas was cleaned in 1889, it is seen clearly as a daylight incident, and the proper title is the Sortie of the Civic Guard. The unpopularity of the picture had a serious effect upon Rembrandt’s professional interests, and brought to an end the first and happiest period of his career.

Beside the large Dutch military compositions the smaller corporation groups of four or five figures make a much more amenable subject of painting. The participants usually gather about a table as if for discussion of business. They represent official governing boards, both of men and women. It is indeed a surprise to find that women took so important a place in these days in the management of hospitals and charity organizations. What sensible and capable characters they were, we see in many of these pictures. They take their duties seriously, conscious of the importance of their trust. Naturally they are women in middle life, or somewhat elderly, the solid matronly figures of the Dutch middle class. Their black dresses, with ample skirts, and their stiff white ruffs and quaint caps make- the material for a sober and dignified colour scheme. There are very interesting examples of such works in Amsterdam and Haarlem by men of secondary importance, like Jacob Backer, Joannes Verspronck, Werner van Valckert, and Direk Santvoort, men whose names are so little known today, yet who contributed a worthy quota to the splendid body of seventeenth-century Dutch art.

A typical male group of this class is Pickenoy’s Regents of the House of Correction, a picture of 1628 in the Amsterdam gallery. The appearance of the beadle with a letter is the excuse for a pause in the proceedings, all four regents looking directly out of the picture. The work is admirably conceived, but it has the stiffness of an immature hand. Comparing with it the Regents of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, by Hals, painted in 1641, we see what the free hand of a consummate technician could make of such a theme. Each face is as animated and expressive as if actually speaking. Over twenty years later Hals painted two more small corporation groups, one of men, and one of women, but his hand had now lost its cunning. The brush once so bold had become incoherent, and there is much pathos in these signs of decadence. It was left to Rembrandt to achieve the perfect corporation picture in the Syndics of the Cloth Guild of 1661. Nearly thirty years had passed since the Night Watch had occasioned so much disappointment, but in this work he vindicated himself in the popular esteem. The picture is a miracle of infusing life into the dry bones of a traditional composition. The Syndics appear to be interrupted by the arrival of a newcomer, and they all look up with a common impulse. Every quality of greatness in a portrait group is here: fine characterization of the individual heads, hands, and pose; unity and flow of line in the linear composition; harmony of rich colour; and a unity of interest, with a single idea dominating the entire group. With this picture then we touch the climax in the development of a form of portrait art which was the peculiar product of the period, a characteristic expression of the Dutch genius.