CLOSELY related as are all the early Flemish painters in style and in their treatment of certain oft-repeated subjects, there is nevertheless so much play of individual character and personal taste, that to distinguish one from another is less difficult than might be sup-posed. Yet it was not until the middle of last century that the identity of Gerard David, the painter of two important panels in the National Gallery (1145 and 1432), was re-established by Mr James Weale, to whose researches we are indebted for almost all our knowledge of this most delightful artist.
Like Bouts, David, though a native of the northern provinces, chose to settle in the more prosperous and art-loving south, where the traditions of a flourishing school of religious painting were now firmly established. Gerard David was born at Oudewater in Holland in the second half of the fifteenth century, and may, perhaps, have sought instruction in the school of Haarlem, which, as we have seen, produced Dirk Bouts. There is strong indication in his works of Bouts’s influence, though we have no clue as to the exact nature of their intercourse. It is possible, too, that David travelled to Italy, visiting Florence and Venice, but this again is mere conjecture. So much, however, is known, that in 1484 he settled in Bruges, enrolled himself master painter in one of the town guilds, and married Cornelia Knoop, the daughter of a well-known citizen, herself, too, something of an artist. Now at this moment Memlinc had reached the highest pinnacle of his success ; already famous as the painter of the S. John altar-piece, he was just completing the large picture painted for the Moreel family, now in the Academy at Bruges. And, further, though Jan van Eyck had been dead for over forty years, his native town had doubtless cherished his memory and his pictures. Thus David, who seems to have been of an impressionable nature, came under the united influence of all the greatest Flemish painters, though he certainly owed most to Bouts and Memlinc.
It was the large ” Santa Conversazione of the Madonna and Saints” at Rouen, then attributed to Memlinc, which led Mr Weale to the reconstruction of David as a distinct personality. In this tranquil picture the very spirit of serenity and holiness seems to be embodied. It was painted in 1509, as a present from the artist for the nuns of Sion at Bruges, and must surely have served to them as an ensample of the spiritual atmosphere that should pervade a convent. In colour David has advanced a step beyond the bright, though flat tints of Memlinc and the brilliant gaiety of Dirk Bouts. His colouring is deeper, fuller, more blended than theirs. There is less in him of the primitive, and more than a suggestion of the maturer art of the sixteenth century, when bright spottiness gave way to a more consistent scheme of colouring.
The ” Mystic Marriage of S. Catherine ” in the National Gallery (1432) is not unlike the Rouen picture in composition and in its rich depth of colour. In both, the girlish but dignified Madonna forms the centre of a group of sweet, grave-faced virgin saints. The type is the same throughoutone of pensive seriousness and maiden modesty. The long, fair silken hair, tightly drawn from the high forehead, falls in golden ripples on either side of the face, with its little rounded chin and bright red lips, so characteristic of the painter. Only S. Catherine’s tresses are arranged with something more of elegance in wavy curls beneath her crown, and her robe, as beseems a queen and the bride of Christ, is of sumptuous crimson and gold brocade, lined and bordered with ermine. S. Barbara and S. Mary Magdalen, in rich but more sober-coloured garments, look up gravely from the book they have been studying. The Christ child, who slips the bridal ring upon S. Catherine’s outstretched finger, is one of the most charming of infants. Jan van Eyck, as we saw, had no power of portraying the rounded softness of babyhood. Memlinc’s babes are sweeter and more natural, but even Memlinc cannot compare in this respect with David. There is a quite irresistible charm and beauty about his pictures of the infant Christ. As a rule he clothes the child in a little shirt or close-fitting garment, but here a piece of gauze suffices for covering. The prettily-modelled hands and feet, the fluffy, flaxen hair and the grave sweetness of his expression, are very captivating. How effectively, too, the red coral rosary sets off the fair skin and the rosy lips ! Beside S. Catherine, with folded hands, kneels the donor of the picture, Richard van der Cappelle, an elderly canon of the church, as his furred cassock and white lawn surplice proclaim. The careful rendering of his kind, intelligent face recalls Memlinc’s gentle but vigorous portraiture, in which sternness is always mitigated by mild benevolence. A greyhound lies at his master’s feet, wearing a red collar with the canon’s arms upon the clasp.
All the details of the picture are rendered with dainty precision, which, indeed, their intrinsic beauty more than merits. The jewellery is of particularly elegant design, notably the large circular pendant over the Virgin’s head, S. Catherine’s splendid crown, her gold chain, and brooches set with pearls. S. Barbara, too, wears a circlet of precious stones and a gold coif. Interesting also as an example of the goldsmith’s art, is the staff lying on the ground beside the canon, with its finely-modelled group of the Holy Trinity adored by a monk and a cardinal. It is also of historical interest, having been actually in the possession of the Church of S. Donatian at Bruges, which this picture was to adorn.
The mise-en-scène is a vineyard surrounded by a high wall, beyond which we see some of the quaint, high-roofed buildings of the city, over one of which a stork presides. The Virgin and her company are seated on a kind of terrace, paved with rose-coloured tiles, where, in the centre, between two pillars of dusky red marble, the elaborately draped throne has been erected. It is truly a garden of peace in the very midst of the workaday world, and such it must have seemed to the worthy citizens of Bruges when, leaving for a moment the bustle and bargaining of their busy city, they turned in for a few moments to kneel before the altar of S. Catherine. To us, too, weary of the prose and matter-of-fact spirit that have crept into modern art, this far-off ease and calm, this aloofness from actuality, bring a keen sense of enjoyment and well-being. It is for this, perhaps, that we turn with such delight to the primitive masters, for through them we hear echoes of a world into which too few of us are permitted to enter. In this picture we need feel no surprise at the naïve mixture of mysticism and reality ; the portly canon kneeling beside the bride of Christ, the grey-robed angel picking grapes in the vineyard, the sleek, well-fed greyhound,all these were perfectly consistent and suggested no notion of incongruity in those simpler ages, when the saints were very real personages and the Madonna a near and daily protectress. In the Rouen altar-piece, indeed, the artist has not hesitated to introduce himself and his wife, standing on a level with the lute-playing angels just behind the holy group. David himself has a rather weak face and a sickly look, but his wife, Cornelia, is an attractive figure. Were it not for her prim coif, she might be mistaken for one of the maiden group clustered round the Madonna.
But the National Gallery is rich in the possession of another, and that perhaps the most accomplished, if not the most pleasing of all David’s paintings. This is the famous ” Canon and his Patron Saints, Martin, Bernardine and Donatian” (1145). The rich wooded landscape, the finely-characterised heads, and the magnificence of the vestments and jewels, together with the perfect preservation in which the panel has come down to us, combine to render it one of the most valuable of our early Flemish pictures. The Canon Bernardino de Salviatis, the donor of the picture, was an illegitimate son of a Florentine merchant. He is a more ascetic, certainly a more refined type than Canon Richard of the last picture. In attitude and vestments, however, they are much alike. Both wear the furred cassock and voluminous surplice of plaited lawn, but in the subdued light of the vineyard the canon’s white surplice tones to a bluish shade, while in the full sunlight of this picture the white tends rather to a creamy hue. The hands are folded in both cases and are of much the same shape. Both ecclesiastics have soft hair slightly turning to grey. S. Bernardine of Siena, who in his friar’s frock stands directly behind the canon and between the gorgeously-attired bishops, appears to be the physical as well as the spiritual model of his protégé. He, too, has the refined, somewhat weary features of the ascetic, rather than the astute, wary expression of the prelates, to whom he acts as an admirable foil. Perhaps the canon consented to lend his features to the artist for this figure of his patron saint as well as for his own.
For absolute splendour of colour and design, the red velvet cope worn by S. Martin could hardly be surpassed. This magnificent vestment was actually a gift from the canon to the Church of S. Donatian in Bruges, for which also this panel was painted. Look closely into the wide border, and notice the wonderful delicacy of the gold embroidery and the figures worked upon it. The highest figure, almost concealed behind the large morse, appears to be a hermit, possibly S. Anthony. The next three are representations in miniature of the saints who form the subjects of the picture itself; first, S. Donatian in his bishop’s mitre, holding his staff and his emblem, a wheel surrounded. by tapers ; then S. Bernardine in the simple grey habit bound with the knotted cord which he wears in the picture. He holds a tablet, on which, within a circle of golden rays, the sacred initials I.H.S. are inscribed. Thirdly, appears S. Martin himself, the beggar with whom he divided his cloak crouching at his feet. The remaining two are S. John the Baptist in a camel’s-hair garment carrying a lamb, and S. Mary Magdalen with her jar of ointment. The legend of S. Martin occurs again in the magnificent morse which fastens the cope, and the embroidery on the hood depicts the Adoration of the Magi. With his jewelled mitre and his crozier, surmounted by a wonderfully-wrought Madonna and Child adored by an angel bearing a palm branch, S. Martin is indeed an imposing figure. S. Donatian, the patron saint of the church, is no less magnificent. He has, the air of a fat well-to-do bishop who knows what is due to himself and his office. His splendid cope of black and gold brocade, lined with blue, is adorned with a border of pearls and precious stones, and the morse is decorated with gilt figures of the Virgin and Child attended by two music-making angels under a delicately-carved Gothic canopy. His processional cross of wrought gold and silver and enamel is another beautiful example of fifteenth-century goldsmith’s art, for which Bruges was as famous as for its painting. And behind, in the back-ground, in striking contrast to all this ecclesiastical splendour, yet doubtless in expectation that it may yield some tangible advantage to himself, a picturesque though realistic beggar, with one knee bandaged, limps along the road by the aid of his sturdy staff. His patched blue tunic and tattered hose, the torn boots which do not match, the pouch strapped about his body, all testify to his roving life. This beggar is evidently a study straight from nature, not the mere complement of S. Martin, but of great value in the composition of the picture. He is as lifelike and characteristic as the canon himself, while the three patron saints seem more like lay figures.
Particularly beautiful is the wooded landscape, painted with the consummate skill which characterises David’s backgrounds, and speaks of his origin in the Haarlem school. It has been suggested, however, and with a good deal of authority, that the beautiful landscape backgrounds of David’s earlier pictures were painted not by himself but by the Antwerp landscape painter, Joachim Patinir, to whom we shall have to return. Certain it is that David and Patinir were in Antwerp together, for their names were entered side by side in the register of S. Luke’s Guild as master painters, and that, after David returned home alone to Bruges, he painted no more landscapes. Such co-operation, though far from unusual among painters of his day, is difficult to establish in this case. Surely there is a rare quality in the landscape which forms so pleasant a background to the canon and his patron saints that Patinir, for all his specialising, failed to achieve. It is indeed a most beautiful example of early tree-painting. The deep wood speaks of cool shade, and suggests that in summer time even a beggar’s life may have its compensations. The luxuriant thickness of the foliage, the richness of its colour, the round bluish-green hill on the opposite side of the wood, with a little town embosomed in its slopes, and over all the deep-toned, grey-blue sky we care little who painted them so long as they remain to delight our eyes and whisper to our imagination.
The later history of this picture is interesting as ;showing how entirely the art – loving spirit, which animated citizens and painters in the golden age of Flemish art, passed away. The panel originally formed one of the two shutters of the reredos in the Church of S. Donatian, of which it was, doubtless, a much valued ornament. But towards the close of the eighteenth century the sacristan complained that the continual opening and closing of the shutters broke the wax candles on the altar, and on this pitiful plea the priceless shutters were removed, and sold for some paltry sum. One has thus found its way to our Gallery ; the other, which represented the mother of the donor accompanied by the Baptist, the Magdalen and S. Christina, has disappeared altogether.
After looking closely into the details of the picture, we should do well to stand at some distance from it, to gain an impression of its colour and composition. It is astonishing how cleverly David, like Jan van Eyck before him, combined a miniature-like treatment of detail with breadth and harmony of general effect. The oil medium used by the Flemings was capable, as we have seen, of the very delicacy which delights us in the early Florentine tempera painters, while it lent itself as readily to a breadth of treatment and depth of colour to which tempera could not attain. The day was fast approaching when painters like Titian, Rubens and Velasquez thought first of breadth and general effect, attaining thereby a new realisma realism not of the parts, but of the whole. This is the tendency of to-day, and the miniature-like finish of the early Flemish and Florentine artists finds little place in the modern palace of art. Perhaps the patience and devotion necessary to its attainment are obsolete virtues.
David was not only a painter of altar-pieces and large panel pictures, but was distinguished, like so many of his fellow-artists, as a miniature-painter. In this branch of art his wife, Cornelia, also excelled, and very charming are their delicate little scenes. The Academy of Bruges, rich in David’s work, possesses two miniatures on parchment, a ” Preaching of S. John the Baptist ” and a ” Baptism of Christ” ; delicious little gems, only a few inches high, and marvellously finished. The last-mentioned subject may be seen again in this same Academy, this time treated on a much larger scale. It is the central panel of a triptych ordered by a certain Jean des Trompes. This gentleman, accompanied by his sons and his patron S. John, figures on the inner side of one shutter, and facing him on the other kneels his first wife, Elizabeth, with her namesake of Hungary, while her successor, Marie, is relegated to a less conspicuous place on the reverse of the panel, and can be seen only when the altar-piece is closed. This seclusion, however, she shares with the Madonna and Child, who occupy a like position opposite. Something of Dirk Bouts’s indifference to horror has infected Gerard David in the two great panels, also in the Academy, illustrating the fall of the corrupt judge Sisamnes, which should undoubtedly serve their avowed purpose of pointing a moral to all who administer the law. Here is no such idyllic rendering of the gruesome as we find in Bouts’s martyrdoms, where a smiling landscape relieves the tension. David feels the full force of the tragedy he is relating, and with true dramatic instinct, forces the spectator to share in the terror and agony of the condemned man. Indeed, the scene of the actual execution, for all its cleverness and artistic merit, is almost too painful, and repels, even while it interests. No less than ten years of the artist’s life were expended on these two panels. Well might the painter Heemskerk, a hundred years later, exclaim at this extraordinary thoroughness of fifteenth – century Flemish art : ” However did these men keep them-selves?”
Though the list of David’s authentic works is all too restricted, his influence may be traced in a large number of anonymous paintings in this and other collections. We feel it strongly in two pictures here, the ” Adoration of the Magi ” (1079) and the Deposision from the Cross” (1078). In both, the colouring is pleasant and the composition carefully thought out. There is an entire absence of hard, definite outline in the figures, and a certain softness of treatment very agreeable to the eye. In the ” Adoration of the Magi,” indeed, the soft, hazy rendering of the hair and beards of the two elder kings amounts almost to a manner-ism. Exactly the same treatment is found in a little ” Holy Family,” exhibited at Bruges in 1902, and ascribed by some critics to David himself, where the type of S. Joseph, with the wavy lock falling over the middle of his forehead, recalls that of the first king here. This lock of hair over the forehead occurs in David’s portrait of himself in the Rouen altar-piece, and might easily have been adopted by an imitator. Though there is much in the ” Adoration of the Magi” to remind us of Gerard David, and indeed the word Ouvvater, painted low down in the left-hand corner under the frame, has actually been regarded by some critics as his signature, from Oudewater, his birthplace, it is impossible to ascribe it to the master himself. Neither the colouring nor the somewhat weak modeling is his, and the baby is quite a different type from the pretty child in the ” Marriage of S. Catherine.”
Both the gay-coloured robes and the costly offerings -of the three kings are of the utmost splendour ; indeed, they carry their kingship less in their bearing than in their garments. The artist is specially fond of a beautiful soft purple, a colour often found in works of this period. The second king wears such a cloak over his blue velvet dress. The mantle thrown over his left shoulder is lined with green, the three colours harmonising beautifully. Of the same rich purple is the first king’s curious velvet and furred hat, lying on the ground beside him. He seems to have been wearing his crown of fine gold filigree and precious stones out-side it, as a kind of trimming. The dark-complexioned king is, however, the most gorgeously arrayed, blazing with true oriental splendour in all the colours of the rainbow. Like Memlinc’s dusky king in his ” Adoration,” he is however no real Oriental, but a Flemish model dyed brown. His fine tunic of pink and gold is cut low to display the embroidered shirt beneath, while a green mantle, turned back with blue, falls down to his long yellow boots or leggings, and in his hand he carries a light-blue turban. The delicate architectural setting, though more naturalistic, recalls some of the wonderful towns in Jan van Eyck’s pictures. Outside the ruined court in which the mild-faced Madonna, seated by the edge of a well, receives her illustrious guests, rises a turreted castle, guarding, as it were, the approach to the pleasant little village beyond, where the houses stand in shady gardens. Two boys and a dog may be seen in the quiet street, and a man leaning lazily against his cottage door. The ox and the ass browse in sleepy contentment on the village green.
“The Deposition” (1078) may possibly be by the same anonymous follower of Gerard David. The composition is not original, but is founded upon that of Roger van der Weyden’s exquisite little “Deposition” in the Brussels Museum, which was freely adapted and amplified by later painters. In one of the small side scenes round the ” Mater Dolorosa” in Notre Dame at Bruges, painted by David’s pupil Isanbrant, we find an almost exact repetition of our picture, only reversed. Here are the same somewhat unsuccessful foreshortening of the figure of the dead Christ, the same types of the Virgin and S. John, the same charming Magdalen, so reminiscent of David, stooping to anoint the Saviour’s wounded feet. Her rich green dress gives a pleasant patch of colour, and, indeed, throughout the picture the artist shows a strong feeling for warm, soft colouring. In the landscape background, with its bluish-green slopes and distant buildings, and the peculiar treatment of the foliage, we can hardly fail to be reminded of David’s ” Canon and Patron Saints.”
In the same room we find a ” Repose in Egypt” (720), wrongly ascribed to Jan van Scorel, a much-travelled Dutch artist of the sixteenth century. This rather heavy picture is evidently by the still anonymous painter on whom the somewhat clumsy appellation of Master of the Female Half-Figures has been bestowed. The typical work of this master, who must have been in some way closely connected with the later school of Gerard David, is in the Harrach Palace in Vienna. It represents half-length figures of three young girls in crimson velvet- dresses, cut square at the neck, singing, to the accompaniment of a lute and flute, from a musical score lying before them on a table. One or two other pictures were grouped round this prototype at the Bruges Exhibition, and among them a ” Repose in Egypt,” formerly in the Rath collection in Buda-Pesth, has especial interest for us. The composition is almost identical with that of the picture in the National Gallery, only reversed. The types are the same in both ; the rather plain, red-cloaked Madonna, with wavy hair gathered tightly back, the disproportionately small head of the long, ugly Child reaching for the fruit that the white-bearded S. Joseph offers Him, and the landscape with baronial castles surmounting rocky heights, at whose wooded base cluster, in true feudal fashion, the cottages of the villeins. The same ass grazes in the meadow, the same tree spreads its sheltering branches above the heads of the travellers. In our picture the Holy Family is seated near a fountain, adorned with a little bronze figure of the young John the Baptist holding his cross. This fountain actually exists to-day in Brussels, and seems to confirm the theory of our painter’s education in the school of that city. But nothing can be positively asserted as to his origin, for though recent criticism has endeavoured to fit this small group of pictures to some known name, whether Flemish or French, so far nothing has been finally established.
The small, but very charming “Portrait” (721), also ascribed to Scorel, is obviously connected with this group, though it is far softer in execution than the National Gallery “Repose.” This unknown lady strongly resembles the Virgin of the Buda-Pesth picture, not only in features and rippling hair parted in the middle, but in her dress, cut square across the neck and slashed with white at the shoulder. Moreover, the little wheel-shaped ornament on the bodice is worn by both. If we glance from her to Gerard David’s virgin saints close by (1432), we find the same type of face, broad at the top and tapering down to a small mouth and tiny chin. Perhaps this so-called ” Portrait” is a fragment cut out of a larger picture, for the head is uncomfortably cramped in its frame.
Close by these last hangs a picture of the ” Madonna and Child ” seated in a flowery garden (713), in which we are again reminded of David. This little panel is obviously not by Mostaert, to whom it is ascribed on the frame, but by some pupil or follower of Gerard David, and though in actual quality of painting it falls short of the best, it is a pleasant picture, both in its presentment of the old familiar subject and the sweet expression of playful happiness which pervades it. The Madonna, though overweighted by massive and cumber-some draperies, highly unsuitable for this garden wear, smiles placidly as she watches the Child. Both mother and Child are of David’s type, the former with the long fair hair, soft as spun silk, which the older master loved to paint, the Child pretty and graceful, smiling delightedly at the little orb He is holding. The human element is more pronounced than the sacred, and the Virgin, for all her golden-rayed halo, might be a younger sister to David’s Madonna opposite (1432), unburdened by the honours and responsibility that weigh upon the mother of the Messiah. It is a charming garden to which she has brought her baby, where the ground is thickly carpeted with flowers, and she has only to put out her hand to pluck a sweet-scented nosegay. And how carefully the carnations in the great red flower-pot have been trained, so that not one may straggle untidily through the wooden hoops which confine them ! Beyond the garden fence the meadows stretch away to the tree-clad hills. To reach the farm on the other side of the little stream, in which some ducks float lazily, a plank bridge must be crossed. The cows are now being driven home, for evening approaches ; the sun has already sunk below the horizon, and the gold in the sky fades to a twilight green. Looking closely into the picture, we notice how softly it is painted, the colours melting into each other, and giving more than a suggestion of atmosphere.
Jan Mostaert, to whom this was once ascribed, has been made the scape-goat for many another artist’s performances, and there is no picture that can yet be quite definitely adjudged to him. We know something of his life from old van Mander, who tells us that he came of good family. Like Bouts and Gerard David, he belonged to the Haarlem group of painters, but, unlike them, remained faithful to his native town. It has lately been suggested that a fine portrait of a man in the Brussels Museum should be associated with Mostaert, and some believe the great so-called “d’Oultremont Triptych,” also in Brussels, to be the work of the same hand, though this is hard to accept. But connoisseur-ship is actively engaged in solving the Mostaert problem, and perhaps ere long, he too, like Jacques Daret and Gerard David, will be reinstated with a goodly list of paintings to adorn his name.
Closely connected in style and expression with this Brussels portrait is the beautiful ” S. Giles ” diptych, of which the National Gallery possesses one panel, ” S. Giles with the Wounded Hind ” 1419). The companion picture, representing the “Mass of S .Giles,” once in Lord Dudley’s collection, was exhibited at the Old Masters in 1902. In our picture, the setting is a rocky landscape of great spaciousness and beauty, and the painter has managed to invest it with a true feeling of open-air freshness ; indeed, the effect is of cool, shadowless day-light. The old saint, a greybeard of gentle expression, wearing the habit of a hermit, is seated under a tree, protecting a hind which has been pursued by the royal hunting party, now brought to a sudden standstill. For the arrow intended to kill the animal has transfixed the saint’s right hand, and in deep penitence for this injury, the kingly leader of the party kneels to implore forgiveness. Very rich is his dress of green velvet faced with scarlet and gold brocade, in forcible contrast to the humility of his mien. The ecclesiastic behind him, in surplice of plaited lawn, with red dress and hood of blue, joins his entreaties to those of his patron. It has been suggested that the golden-haired man to the left, in green dress and ample red mantle, may be the painter himself, watching with a quiet aloofness the scene he desires to depict. And in the background the retainers, some on horseback, some dismounted, form a gay group. Prominent among them stands the archer from whose bow the ill-omened arrow was sped, a sturdy fellow in blue and white striped tunic and yellow sleeves. All seem to be eagerly discussing the unusual episode which has brought the chase to so abrupt a conclusion. To the left of the background we see a little town with red-roofed churches and houses, and to the right, low round-topped hills stretch away to the horizon. A tree rising in the centre of the landscape cuts the picture into two equal parts. Very lovely is the little azure pool beneath the rocks on the right. At S. Giles’s feet a profusion of flowers spring up in the grass, purple- irises, a starry blue blossom, and the handsome large-leaved yellow mullein. All these are painted with the beautiful texture and finish characteristic of the period, reminding us of the flowery foreground in the ” Adoration of the Lamb.” The general effect of the picture is light and pleasant ; the strong reds of the dresses contrasting with the cool green of the landscape and the bluish hills in the distance. The colour is laid on solidly, and is very transparent. This is one of the loveliest early Flemish pictures in the collection, and if indeed it may be set down to Jan Mostaert, we possess a fine work of a rare and accomplished painter, who more than upholds the traditional excellence of the Haarlem masters in landscape.
But returning to the school of Bruges, we find in the German Room (XV.) a small picture of the ” Mocking of Christ” (1087), which is now ascribed to the painter of a ” Calvary” in S. Sauveur at Bruges, executed about 1500. In our little picture, the principal subject, the ” Mocking of Christ,” is set against an elaborate architectural background. The hall behind, a curious mixture of Gothic and Renaissance styles, is richly decorated, and the town on the right, with its many roofs, displays the artist’s keen delight in the problems of perspective. Foremost stands the tall, emaciated figure of Christ, bowed in pain and grief, and round Him are gathered a crowd of cruel-faced, mocking Jews. The artist has been at some pains to vary his types, even distinguishing between the different complexions the pallid flesh tints of Christ with grey-green shadows contrasting with the sallow-faced man at His left hand and with the brown, sunburnt official in gay costume behind Him. How cruel and vindictive is the Jew in a light-blue turban who kneels derisively before Him, and in the crowd behind, composed of Jews and soldiers, every face reflects bitter hatred and vulgar incredulity. Some of these repulsive characters play a part also in the Bruges picture. Among the bright-coloured dresses here, the ‘painter has ventured upon a shot pink and yellow, which is thrown up against Christ’s dull grey cloak. After the curious manner of the fifteenth century, two other episodes from the Passion have been introduced in the background ; the Flagellation and the Crowning with Thorns.
The technique of this picture is thorough and careful, but the colouring, though gay, is not harmonious, and the sordid treatment of the subject, without reverence or sympathy, cannot fail to repel. But in this far-off, brilliant period of art, even as to-day, there must have existed hundreds of painters to whom picture-making was a mere trade and means of livelihood. A picture is not necessarily good because it is old ; technical ability and poetic feeling, even in those happier days, were. by no means invariably associated in the painter, and, doubtless, had such a modern phenomenon as an annual exhibition of pictures been known in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the contemporary world would have uttered its yearly plaint of the decline of art. For the average standard of artistic excellence was certainly not that of the great masters of the school, who can be numbered only by their tens, while the name of second and third-rate productions is legion.
Here. in the Flemish Room (IV.) hangs a ” Madonna and Child” (265), which has little but its subject to recommend it. The Madonna is of David’s type, some-what debased, and the smirking Child is not only feeble but unpleasantly ugly. The stiff hands and the hard, clumsy draperies are equally inferior. The motif of blowing bubbles through a straw is, however, unusual, and lends some interest to a poor performance.
Another undistinguished picture is the small portrait of a young man with a very square head and large nose (1063), his hands folded in the favourite attitude suggestive of prayer. More interesting is a. portrait, also anonymous, of a brown-bearded man, set against a bright green background (947). The treatment here is soft, almost woolly the texture of the hair and scanty beard, indeed, recalls Gerard David’s school. The modelling is rather weak, and the hands are by no means brilliantly painted, but, for all its short-comings, this is a pleasant little picture, dating perhaps from the early years of the sixteenth century.
( Originally Published 1904 )
German and Flemish Masters:The German And Flemish Masters In The National GalleryThe Van EycksThe School Of Roger Van Der WeydenGerard David And His FollowersThe German Painters Of The Fifteenth CenturyMatsys And The ItalianisersThe German Painters Of The RenaissanceRubensVan Dyck And The Painters Of Antwerp