National Gallery – Later Flemish And German Masters

UNTIL this year there has been a very serious gap in the chain of artistic succession in the London gallery; there was no example of the work of the greatest German of all — Albrecht Durer. No. 1938, however, was purchased for the sum of ten thousand pounds, and there is every reason to believe it to be painted by the master. That it is a portrait of Dürer’s father there is no doubt, for there is an inscription upon it : ” 1497 Albrecht Thurer der Elter and alt 70 ior.” The picture has great vitality, and the colour is warm — the back-ground being almost flame-colour. Dürer’s pupil, Hans Baldung Grun, painted in the first half of the sixteenth century. The Pietà, No. 1427, and the Portrait Bust of a Senator, No. 245, are by him. The treatment of the hair and other details, with their little crisp dabs and wiry lines, are something in Dürer’s style, but none of the real power of the mighty draughtsman descended to this follower.

The rich blue of the background is to be commended ; this colour was one often used by Holbein, and may be seen also in the Portrait of a Young Man, No. 1232, by Aldegrever, who was a careful copyist of Dürer’s methods.

Cranach, a co-worker with Durer, and only a year his junior, is a painter of great delicacy and charm. His work is so smooth that its edges are too hard, and often suggest a figure cut out and laid on the ground ; but his slim women, with their happy little mouths and eyes, are easily endeared to the student of his art. One of his pleasantest creations in portraiture greets us in No. 291, where the self-satisfied little lady in her finery is posing, and awaiting the verdict of the spectator in an ingenuous way. The recently presented Portrait of a Man, No. 1925, is also full of Cranach’s characteristics.

The most important German picture in the National Gallery is of course Holbein’s famous Ambassadors, No. 1314. This interesting double portrait represents Jehan de Dinteville, French Ambassador to England, and Georges de Selve, the Bishop of Lavaur. The picture has the signature, Johannes Holbein pingebat, 1533; the artist was proud of his work, and he was more than justified. There has been much controversy over this picture, some affirming that it represents Count Otto and Henry Philip of the Palatine, at the signing of the Treaty of Nuremberg, and that the various astrological instruments about the apart-ment are arranged so as to indicate their birthdays. But a manuscript discovered of late years, and presented to the National Gallery by Miss Hervey, hangs in an adjoining cabinet, and decides the balance of evidence in pointing to these personages as being Dinteville and the bishop. Georges Selve was afterward ambassador to Venice, while Dinteville was French ambassador to the court of Henry VIII. The arrangement of the figures is most curious ; there is evidently more than meets the eye in this weird composition, with its charts, globes, musical instruments, and books. On the floor is the most mysterious object of all: this long thing, which suggests a defective cuttlefish, has been the subject of conjecture. But these men, standing so peculiarly on the canvas, flanking the accessories, instead of the accessories being secondary in importance, are divided by the emblem of mortality: the long strange article on the floor is an ” anamorphosis,” or human skull thrown out of perspective on purpose. The only way it can be seen correctly is by placing the eye close to the picture at the right, a little below the level of the bishop’s hand, and the skull assumes its true proportions. What exact significance this emblem may have in relation to these men, cannot be easily determined ; but there is a small skull set in the cap of Dinteville which may have some further meaning. In treatment and handling, this picture is almost without a rival in the whole of German art; the harmony of colouring is exquisite, and, were it not for its baffling unconventionality in composition, it would be absolutely satisfactory. As it is, it is far more effective than any perfectly balanced arrangement could be. The light all over the picture is clear and uniform. There is some lack of atmosphere, inseparable from the introduction of minute detail and the close point of view.

Hans Holbein was the greatest exponent, after Dürer, of the German school, living about twenty years later than Durer. He was born in Augsburg, about 1497. He was also the founder of portrait-painting in England, for he sojourned there much of his time, and painted many royal personages. He selected England partly because it was so fair a field, there being then no other great painter of likenesses to compete with. He relinquished his father-land gladly to become the single prosperous court painter in that strange country. He was not so deep nor so spiritual a man as Dürer. His whole life was not spent in England, for he painted many years in Bâle, where he received the freedom of the city in 1520.

The most popular and best-known of Holbein’s works is his celebrated Dance of Death, but his portraits were just as important an innovation in the art of his country as were his engravings. He founded a great Northern school of portrait art. He worked with the ” calm entireness of unaffected realism,” as Ruskin calls it, ” which sacrifices nothing, forgets nothing, and fears nothing.” Holbein was a convivial careless liver; he saved no money, lived lavishly, and dressed well. He died of the plague in London in 1543.

Another fascinating portrait by Holbein in the National Gallery at present, but not the property of the nation, is the portrait of the young Duchess Christina of Milan. It is lent by the Duke of Norfolk; it is most sympathetic and engaging. This was the witty young person whose spirited reply to Henry VIII. has been recorded. When he proposed marriage, she is said to have answered that she would gladly accept had she but ” possessed two heads.” In describing this charming Christina, Hutton, the English envoy, wrote : ” She hath a good countenance, and when she smiles two little dimples appear in each of her cheeks, and one in her chin.”

With war and tumult, the art of Germany died out after the sixteenth century; only occasional men arose after that time to revive the national esthetic tradition. But in Flanders the storm and stress only seemed to add vigour to the Renaissance of arts, and, with the Dutch republic, there arose the powerful later Flemish school, headed by Ru-bens in Antwerp, and by Van Dyck, sustained by the ripened forces of their contemporaries and fol-lowers in the Netherlands.

Rubens was born in 1577; Holbein had died thirty years before, and Titian’s long life had just been ended. Rubens is considered by many excellent judges to be the greatest painter the world had seen up to that time. Other critics find him unsatisfactory and redundant. But whatever one’s personal taste may be, every one must admit his magic skill as a delineator, his enormous productive power, and his ability to make his subjects live, whether they live according to our ideals of beauty or not. Virility is the key-note of his art; and it is captious to let our taste in the selection of models overrule our appreciation of his great technical skill. Byron has alluded to Rubens’s pictures of ” his eternal wives and infernal glare of colour “; Delacroix, more tolerant, speaks of his ” force, vehemence, and éclat,” which with him take the place of grace and charm.” It is not quite fair to judge Rubens by all the pictures which bear his name; many of these are only school pieces, for he had an enormous following of pupils, and many of the paintings which came from this studio are credited to the master, whereas perhaps there is hardly a stroke of his brush upon them.

His pictures in the National Gallery are scattered among the various rooms devoted to the Flemish and Dutch schools. The first which one normally meets is the celebrated Chapeau de Paille, a charming portrait in which the cool shadows all over the face have been the despair of later imitators. This picture, No. 852, shows a plump beauty of the type usually selected by Rubens ; it is a portrait of his wife’s niece. It is often said that it has been falsely named, the hat in question being a felt hat and not a straw one ; but the name has probably grown out of a misreading of the original term. As such hats were known in the Netherlands as Spanish hats, the name was likely to have been Chapeau d’Espagne, which has been heedlessly corrupted into its present form. It is one of the unquestioned paintings entirely by the master himself. Guido Reni remarked that Rubens’s colours must have been mixed with blood, so vital and exuberant is his rendering of flesh. Contrast this with the picture near it, No. 853, the Triumph of Silenus : the flesh in this painting is in the extreme of Rubens’s ” fluid ” quality. There is rush and movement in this composition, but it is far from pleasing. Equally unlovely is the Goddess of Peace, in No. 46, Peace and War; she looks more like the deity of Sloth, with her rolls of fat. This ideal of feminine form is one from which Rubens hardly ever departs. The picture is an allegory ; Peace is surrounded by Wealth, Abundance, and Happiness, while War, Pestilence, and Famine are being repelled by Wisdom, who swoops down upon them from the clouds above.

The Horrors of War, No. 279, is also allegorical, and resembles closely the picture in the Pitti Palace. The same general characteristics and choice of models prevail in all these pictures, and, in the Brazen Serpent, No. 59, they become positively repulsive. The most pleasing of Rubens’s important pictures in London is his Judgment of Paris, No. 194. The figure of Venus and the back of Juno are in better proportion, according to the standards of beauty, than most of his nude women. The shepherd is quite Venetian in treatment and feeling, and the colour, enhanced by the decorative peacock, is beautiful. The large confused ” Rape of the Sabines,” No. 38, is also very typical of his methods, the forms of these court ladies resisting arrest being based upon his usual model of his wife. In speaking of Rubens’s Rape of the Sabines, Mr. R. A. M. Stevenson alludes to ” that flush-tide of the richest colour, which positively seems to boil up in swirling eddies of harmonious form. Its whole surface,” he continues, ” is swept by lines which rush each other on like the rapid successive entrances to an excited stretto, till the violent movement seems to undulate the entire pattern of the picture.”

There are four small Last Judgment pictutures No. 853, in which the hurtling forms of the damned are writhing in all the attitudes of which Rubens makes a specialty. Rubens is almost best when he is not strictly characteristic. Neither the Conversion of St. Bavon, No. 57, nor the Triumph of Julius Caesar, No. 278, are like most of his other works. The former is more like a fine Venetian painting, and the latter quite classic in its restrained architectonic progression. The reason for this is that Rubens was not consulting his own fancy in this procession, but based it upon a cartoon by Mantegna. The Conversion of St. Bavon is a delightful composition, full of fine stalwart figures, the central interest, however, being rather concentrated upon the bishop at the head of the steps than upon St. Bavon, who stands before and below him. It is unconventional in this particular, and is a picture possessing great charm and interest when it is examined closely.

Rubens was so great an artist of landscape, that it is to be regretted that he did not devote more time to the beauties of nature, which he understood so well, than to the portrayal of women, of whom he seems to have had only one impression. His Sunset, No. 157, could hardly be surpassed in its expression of evening calm and glow, with its long shadows and its wonderful comprehension of the halt between daylight and dark. No. 66, which exhibits the Château de Stein, where Rubens him-self lived, is handled with the sympathy of one who loved and appreciated the beauty of his surroundings. The scene is depicted in the autumn, a hunter with his dog being seen in the foreground. The greens and browns in this picture are most happily harmonized, and the distant rolling country breathes the spirit of peace and contentment. There are numerous other pictures by Rubens in the gallery, and also several interesting and powerful drawings; if space permitted, it would be a delight to examine them all in detail. Notice the sweet group of little cherub-angels in the Holy Family, No. 67, and the cool wooded vista in the charming little landscape, No. 948.

Prints are still extant of the house of Rubens in Antwerp. He had contrived for his studio a rotunda, like the Pantheon, where the light all descended from the single opening at the top. This was his museum ; he had here collected vast numbers of books, interspersed with marbles, antiques, intaglios, cameos, and all the rare objects of art which he had brought from Rome. The walls were covered by his pictures and the works of his friends. There is record that the entire studio was sold to the Duke of Buckingham.

The most famous of Rubens’s pupils, Sir Anthony van Dyck, was the son of an Antwerp merchant, born in 1599. When he was only ten years of age, he was a devoted art-student. At nineteen, owing to his precocious talent, he was a master in the Guild of Painters in Antwerp. In 1620 he became Rubens’s assistant, working on many of the master’s pictures ; and in the following year he went to England under the best of auspices, being engaged by King James I. When his term of service was over, he spent much time in Rome and Venice, studying carefully the works of Titian. He also worked in Genoa. In 1632 he visited England again, and became court painter to Charles I. He received a salary of two hundred pounds a year, and the king knighted him.

Van Dyck was essentially a painter of the aristocracy. He never cared for rustic scenes or genre painting, such as the Flemish school often indulged in ; he preferred well-dressed dames and courtiers, and was most successful in his treatment of these subjects. He stands in relation to Flemish art where Velasquez and Titian stand to Spanish and Italian art. When the Civil War commenced, Van Dyck suffered with the rest of the Royalists; he died at Blackfriars in 1641, being buried near the tomb of John of Gaunt in old St. Paul’s. The Italian name for this painter is an expressive one — ” Pittore Cavalieresco.”

In No. 877 one may see the artist’s own portrait, but at an early age. The influence of Rubens is marked here. No. 49 has been supposed to be a portrait of Rubens, and also shows the power of the master’s personality over his scholar in the early stages of his art. Van Dyck was preéminently a portrait-painter, and his greatest work is that of Cornelis van der Gheest, No. 52. Admirable in every line and from every point of view, this likeness is an epoch-making piece of portraiture, It is absolutely lifelike, and is unsurpassed by any portrait by Rubens or Rembrandt. Technically, too, the handling is unrivalled. The most remark-able thing about it is that it was painted when Van Dyck was barely twenty. This artist reached his zenith early, and never advanced beyond such work as is here exhibited.

In Italy, where he travelled while he was still young, Van Dyck became a close student of Titian. His temperament, which was what we denominate ” artistic ” to a high degree, fell readily under the sway of the glowing softness of the Venetian ideal. A general reminiscence of Italian design, notably of Raphael’s cartoons, may be detected in No. 680, the Miraculous Draught of Fishes. A copy of Rubens is the picture of the Emperor Theodosius, who, after the massacre of Thessalonica in 390 A. D., was refused admission to the church by St. Ambrose. The moment selected, in No. 50, is a critical one : the emperor has just come to the very door of the church, and yet cringes, not daring to enter in the face of the stern saint.

The magnificent equestrian portrait of Charles I., which hangs in the National Gallery, No. 1172, was painted while Van Dyck was in London. This striking picture, which so ably displays the love of mastery, together with the weakness of this most pathetic historical figure, was sold among the effects of the king after his execution, and, having hung in Blenheim for a number of years, was finally purchased by the nation in 1885 for an enormous sum.

Of the immediate followers of Rubens, Jordaens is represented in the National Gallery by a recently acquired Portrait of the Baron Waha de Linter, No. 1805. Snyders, too, a contemporary of Rubens, who painted animals and still life, may be noted in No. 1252, a heaping panel of fruit. His skill in touch may be seen here, although it is neither an important nor an interesting example of his work. Jan Fyt may also be studied in a bit of still life, No. 1003, representing dead game, and in a newer picture, No. 1903, hanging near, — rather more significant, as introducing dogs as well as the birds. Another still-life painter, Snyers, has contributed a piece of varied fruit and flowers, No. 1401, while Neeffs, a clever delineator of architectural detail, may be studied in No. 924, rather an interesting interior of a Gothic church. Steenwyck the Younger, too, is here to be seen, with two interiors, Nos. 1443 and 1132, both of which are delightful ; they show promise of those Dutch in-door scenes which are soon to appear.

A very clever follower of Van Dyck was Coques, whose works are not very common, but of whom we have some notable examples in the National Gallery. No. 821, in the room with the Peel collection, is a very excellent specimen. It depicts a large and flourishing family of six children, who, accompanied by their father and mother, are enjoying themselves in a decorous fashion in a stately garden. The smaller children, in their quaint, stiff costumes, are altogether delightful, and the others conventionally acceptable. Coques may be seen to advantage, also, in some similar panels, representing the Five Senses, Nos. 1114 to 1118.

Ryckaert, the one-armed painter, also appears, with a delicate little pastoral Landscape with Satyrs, No. 1353, and No. 954 is a glowing out-of-door picture by Huysmans. Dietrich, the German, is exhibited here at his very best, in the charming picture, Itinerant Musicians, No. 205.

The pleasant little ” walking lady ” by Sir Peter Lely, No. 1016, should be observed, on account of its similarity to the work of Sir Peter’s master, Sir Anthony van Dyck, and a good picture, approaching the ” genre ” style, which was constantly obtaining ground, is No. 203, representing the poor crowding to the gates of a Franciscan convent to receive alms.

David Teniers the Younger was born in 161o, and is the last important Flemish painter, — the only Fleming who attained to a really noted position as a genre-painter, that is, a depicter of the life of the people among whom he lived, — not necessarily, as is sometimes understood, the lower classes. He was wonderfully versatile, and his technique is among the most perfect of any of the Northern painters. Sir Joshua Reynolds, in speaking of his works, said that they were worthy of the closest attention. Teniers possessed great mechanical knowledge of his art. ” His manner of touching,” says Sir Joshua, ” or what we call handling, has perhaps never been equalled; there is in his pictures that exact mixture of softness and sharpness which is difficult to execute.” Examine his delightful domestic interiors, Nos. 155, 158, 242, 805, and 862, and you cannot fail to realize that this is a purer quality of smoothness than has yet appeared except in a few rare instances. He used to be called the Proteus of Painting, on account of his infinite variety. His best pictures are painted in what is known as his ” silver period,” — the middle of his æsthetic career; before 1645 and after 1660 he adopted a more golden tone. These cool blue shades predominate in No. 805, Old Woman Peeling a Pear; the colours are stronger in the delightful Tavern Scene, No. 242, where the players at backgammon are clothed in harmonious shades of brown, gray, yellow, and green. No. 155, the Money Changers, is dark and much heavier in tone.

Of open-air subjects, also, there are plenty here to enable us to judge of Teniers’s treatment of atmosphere. An early but brilliant example is the Fête aux Chaudrons, No. 952, where the wide landscape is dotted with quantities of amusing little figures. Teniers himself appears in a group in the foreground; he may be distinguished by a scarlet mantle. A lovely silvery landscape is the River Scene, No. 861, and No. 817, another landscape, is interesting as representing Teniers’s own stately home, the château at Perck. The little panels of the Four Seasons, Nos. 857, 858, 859, and 86o, are cheerful, jovial figures, each set in the surroundings suitable to his vocation.

Teniers seems to have had a sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde quality in his art; occasionally he paints something so weird and gruesome that this style has won for him a reputation for fantasy almost equal to that of his contemporary who was known as ” Hell-Breughel.” Of this class, he has a grim piece of work in London, No. 863, Dives in Hell. The rich man is being dragged by fiends of hideous grotesqueness down to the depths of the infernal regions.