ON either side of the group of portraits by Jan van Eyck hang two pictures of a very different character. One represents the” Mater Dolorosa” (711), the other an ” Ecce Homo ” (712). These pictures, though of no great importance in themselves, are all we have in the Gallery from the workshop of that interesting artist, Roger de la Pasture, better known as Roger van der Weyden, who, born some ten years later than Jan van Eyck, was destined to wield an influence over Flemish and German art at least equal to that of the van Eycks themselves. A native of the episcopal town of Tournai, he studied for some years under a certain Robert Campin, one of the many Flemish painters of whom we know little but the name, all his works being lost or, at present at anyrate, unidentified. Roger worked for some time in Brussels, where he decorated the Courts of Justice with a series of paintings, which, sad to say, have perished. He spent some years, too, in Louvain. In response perhaps to an invitation from the art-loving Duke of Ferrara, he set off on a journey to Italy, visiting Rome in the year of Jubilee 1450, and lingering among some of the principal Italian cities. A small altar-piece in the gallery at Frankfort points to a visit to Florence, for not only does it bear the lily, the arms of Florence, but of the saints represented Cosmo and Damian were the patrons of the Medici family, and S. John the Baptist the special protector of the city on the Arno. Roger certainly spent some time in Ferrara, where his presence can scarcely have been without influence on the school of painting which was just coming into life there. It is difficult not to feel something of his rather morbid religious spirit re-appearing in the works of Cosimo Tura, notably in his Pietàs in Venice and Vienna. Roger himself went his own way without abating one jot of his typically northern style in favour of southern and Italian ideas. The day had not yet dawned when Flemish art was to succumb to the craze for Italian forms and sentiment, and to lose its sincerity and intrinsic charm by blind and reckless imitation of an alien art all too imperfectly understood.
Roger van der Weyden was of a very different temperament from Jan van Eyck, for while the latter seems to have painted with no further sensation than that of pleasure in the thoroughness and finish of his work, Roger was of a deeply religious nature, and felt the pathos and emotion of every scene he depicted. If Jan shows himself the keen, cool observer, Roger appears as the passionate, creative dramatist. Sometimes, indeed, he was carried away by a very ecstasy of grief, which expressed itself in the sorrow-distorted countenances of his models. Of this characteristic the two panels in the National Gallery afford examples. They are probably free copies by some pupil from a diptych by the master, of which the ” Ecce Homo ” panel is still preserved in the little museum of Varallo, near Novara in North Italy. The companion picture of the ” Mater Dolorosa” has not been traced, and must be reconstructed from the copy here. She is dressed in the grim black and white habit of a Dominican nun, an anachronism offering many parallels. Her face, with its long nose, small, pursed-up mouth, and narrow, tear-stained eyes, is only another evidence of the indifference shown by Flemish artists to facial beauty. The heads are as realistic and typically Flemish as those of Jan, but the emotional treatment recalls something of the deep religious fervour of the old school of Cologne. In the ” Ecce Homo ” the mental and physical sufferings of the Saviour are expressed with poignant sympathy. The gold background flecked with black spots in these two pictures revives the practice of an earlier age. There is another “Ecce Homo” (1083) in the same room, also with a gold background, but by some unknown Flemish painter of feeble capacity.
Roger van der Weyden’s influence on contemporary art was so far-reaching that, though the number of works known to be actually from his own hand is small, there are in nearly every gallery some anonymous or wrongly-named pictures which evidently belong to his school. It is through him that Flemish influence crept into the mystic, somewhat sentimental atmosphere of German painting, infusing it with healthy realism and greater technical skill. Painters seem to have flocked to him from all parts of Germany and the Netherlands, just as in our day young artists gather about some favourite master in Paris. It was his light, flat colouring, with its cool tonality, that German painters borrowed, rather than the rich, deep colour harmonies of the van Eycks. Few of his works remain in his own country. In Germany the Berlin Museum is rich in the possession of three fine triptychs ; while in Munich, besides the interesting ” Adoration of the Magi,” in which Philip of Burgundy and Charles the Bold play the parts of two of the worshipping kings, the portrait of the painter himself is preserved under the guise of S. Luke, who, according to the old legend, is represented painting a picture of the Virgin. The composition of this beautiful panel, where the Virgin and S. Luke sit facing each other under a kind of loggia overlooking a river, was evidently inspired by Jan van Eyck’s ” Madonna with Chancellor Rollin ” in the Louvre. The impressive ” Descent from the Cross,” now in the Prado, was painted during the artist’s sojourn in Louvain for a church in the town, and is well known from numerous contemporary copies. It is indeed a matter of regret that the National Gallery possesses no example of this great artist, whose influence is so pronounced in the works of his contemporaries and successors.
We find in every gallery, and the National Gallery is no exception, a number of pictures which can be assigned to no particular master, though it is generally easy to trace in them certain likenesses in execution or detail to the works of some known artist. Thus a group of pictures in Room IV., which in many respects resemble Roger van der Weyden’s works, used to be labelled as by him or his mythical son. But this is far too haphazard a method to satisfy the exact and scientific connoisseurship of to-day. Modern criticism has come to the rescue of many of these picture orphans, bringing together brothers and sisters, and in many cases restoring them to, their parents. For just as we find many pictures to which no artist’s name can with certainty be attached, so there are many known artists to whom no existing pictures can be assigned, as we noticed in the case of Robert Campin. To join the nameless pictures to the pictureless names has proved in many instances a fascinating and not impossible task, and by this means the school of Flemish painters is continually enlarging its borders. To take an instance: a number of important works scattered about different galleries have for some time past been recognised as originating from the same hand, and it is evident that their painter was intimately connected with Roger van der Weyden. This anonymous artist has been designated the Maître de Flémalle, from the beautiful full-length panels of the Virgin and S. Veronica, which belonged to the Abbey of Flémalle, near Liège, and have now found their way into the Frankfort Gallery. He is also known as the Master of the Mérode altar-piece, from a triptych, formerly in the Mérode Palace in Brussels, which has lately emigrated, in company with many other masterpieces, to America. It now seems that the accomplished painter of these and several other pictures may be identical with a certain Jacques Daret of Tournai. All that we know of this painter so exactly fits with the pictures grouped round the Flémalle-Mérode artist, that his name may safely be accepted until his authorship be actually disproved. For, after all, absolute certainty seems quite out of reach.
This Jacques Daret was a fellow-pupil of Roger van der Weyden under Robert Campin at Tournai, a fact that entirely accounts for the very strong resemblance between their paintings. Several pictures in the National Gallery are now believed to be the work of this interesting master. The magnificent double portrait of” A Man and his Wife” (653) is perhaps. the most striking. In colour this picture is much deeper than van der Weyden’s works. It reminds us indeed, in its strong flesh tones, warm red head-dress, dark background and draperies, of Jan van Eyck’s deep-toned panels, with which the artist may well have been familiar. What character is expressed on this man’s face, with its short, pointed nose, firm, thin lips, and double chin ! He is certainly one of those who are born to rule. The wrinkles on his forehead and round his thoughtful, deep-set eyes pronounce him a somewhat elderly husband for the dainty little lady who faces him so demurely, yet also with a look of quiet determination. Here at last we have a really attractive Flemish woman. There is something of piquancy in this sweet, thoughtful face, from which the dark eyes look out under heavy lids fringed with long lashes. The retroussé nose and full, well-curved lips complete a very charming personality. The careful arrangement of her spotless plaited linen head-dress, fastened to the hair with small pins, suggests even a touch of coquetry, while the ruby ring on her finger betokens some degree of worldly prosperity. The colour is solidly laid on, and throughout, the vigorous execution of these portraits betrays a master hand.
Undoubtedly the author of this hitherto anonymous panel was an artist of no mean importance. If we turn to the little picture of the ” Death of the Virgin ” (658), ascribed vaguely in the catalogue to the German school, we are assuredly again in the presence of one of his rare and finished paintings, but of a quite different character. It has always been treated as one of the waifs and strays of the gallery, of doubtful nationality and parentage. A home was at last found for it, under the shelter of Martin Schongauer’s name, in the German room (XV.), and its obviously Flemish character was accounted for by the theory of Schongauer’s pupilage under Roger van der Weyden. It has also been recognised as something akin to the work of that rare master, Hugo van der Goes, who is known to have assisted Daret in the elaborate decorations of the city of Bruges on the occasion of Charles the Bold’s wedding with our Margaret of Yorkdecorations which, according to the practice of that artistic age, were entrusted not to greedy contractors but to the best talent available. But to return to Jacques Daret’s picture : we are introduced to the bed-chamber of the Virgin Mary, who, surrounded by the twelve faithful apostles, is breathing her last. Her hands are clasped, her brow contracted, the very agony of death is depicted on her face. But above her head, encircled by a halo of tawny golden light, appears a vision of the Deity attended by angels, bearing in their hands the cross, emblem of her sorrow, the lily, type of her purity, and the white shroud, token of her coming death. In the crowded little room all is solicitude and distress. The last offices of the Church are being performed, for here again the artist takes no heed of historical possibility, and while S. John holds the taper, S. Peter, with tears running down his cheeks, prepares to sprinkle the holy water, and at the foot of the bed two disciples make ready the incense, one blowing up the flame with an absurd puffing of the cheeks. In the foreground a dwarfish little man, spectacles on nose, reads the service ; another, crouching in the corner, tells his beads. Certainly the painter has succeeded in expressing strong individuality in the faces of these twelve men, actuated though they be at the moment by one common sentiment. The face of the reader, in particular, is most cleverly characterised. His whole being seems intent on the solemn words he is uttering. The gesture, too, of the man who clasps the foot of the bed is very expressive. And it is impossible not to marvel at the wonderful finish, and minute realism which show us every wrinkle in the faces, every hair almost, though the figures measure only a few inches in height. The colouring is warm and deep-chorded, rich green contrasting with generous crimson and scarlet, set off by the black drapery on the bed and the quiet browns of some of the dresses. The rather cold, purplish flesh tints are as characteristic of Jacques Daret as are dusky bronze tones of Jan van Eyck. The genre-touches, too, the folded towel on the table, the bottle and jug and candlestick, recall more than one of the Flemish interiors which Daret loves to portray. Most delightful of all, however, is the view seen through a window of a sunlit square, flanked by high-gabled houses and a church with steep, blue-slated roof. We may even make out a shop with goods hanging outside, and smoke rising from a chimney on one of the houses. In the middle of the spacious square stands a fountain. From the light and the long shadows cast by the figures we may guess it to be early morning. This painter is always particular to indicate these cast shadows. What a charm lies in such little open-air vistas, framed in by door or window! Like the mirror in Arnolfini’s bed-chamber, they help to give a sense of space and depth, to carry the spectator’s eye and thought to what is outside and beyond the actual subject of the picture.
We feel this even more strongly in the “Christ appearing to His Mother after His Resurrection ” (1086) in the Flemish room (IV.). Here the figures are unattractive, the action unconvincing, and we are glad to escape through the open doorway into the green garden beyond. This picture is believed to be a copy of a lost original by Jacques Daret, and again it illustrates that artist’s connection with Roger van der Weyden, for the composition is clearly modelled on a side panel of Roger’s earliest known picture, a triptych in the Berlin Museum, representing the ” Joys and Sorrows of the Virgin.” Such borrowing was so much the accepted custom among artists of this time, that it would excite neither jealousy nor contempt. It was done openly, and, doubtless, as an ordinary matter of convenience. In a long, narrow room, with beamed roof and tiled floor, Mary, reading by an open window, turns to see Christ standing beside her, His hands upheld as though to force conviction of His actual presence in the flesh by the nail wounds scarred upon them. Through the open doorway we may descry the tomb, with a Roman soldier snoring beside it, and an angel mounting guard, and from the window on the right we can watch the Holy Women approaching with their spices and sweet-scented ointments.
There is another version of this subject in the National Gallery (1280) by some unnamed artist. Here the Virgin is sitting at the foot of a heavily-draped pink bed, and Christ, surrounded by a great concourse of people, seems to be speaking to her. Some barbarian dullard, itching to explain what the artist had already made sufficiently evident, has inserted long lettered scrolls into the mouths of the principal actors, and, of course, the effect of the picture is ruined.
A third picture that may perhaps be associated with Jacques Daret, “The Magdalen reading” (654), is vaguely ascribed in the catalogue to the later school of Roger van der Weyden. It is far too good a picture for a mere school-piece, and now that it is hung in a more prominent position, and a name can be attached to it, it will no doubt attract the attention it deserves. The Magdalen here recalls the wing of an altar-piece by Jacques Daret in Madrid, where, in a room somewhat resembling that in which Christ appears to the Virgin (1086), but more elaborately furnished, S. Barbara sits reading beside a blazing wood fire. Our picture indeed has no such delightful setting, but the attitude of the Magdalen, and the turn of her head, as she intently peruses the illuminated manuscript in her hands, are almost identical with those of S. Barbara. She is dressed, like Arnolfini’s wife, in the costume of the early fifteenth century. Her heavy cloth dress of soft green, caught in at the waist by a deep blue sash, of which one end falling to the ground shows a border of gold fringe, opens over a skirt of rich gold brocade. The effect of the green dress is heightened by contrast with the scarlet cushion on which she is seated and a piece of warm crimson drapery on the left. There is nothing here to pro-claim the penitent Magdalen, unless it be the elegant white jar on the floor, her customary emblem in art. This well – dressed lady, reading so diligently, seems to have little to do- with either the worldly sinner or the grief-stricken convert. But such was the custom of these painters, to clothe the saints and heroes of the past in the features and garb of the present. In this picture our historical interest is less with Mary Magdalen than with the Flemish lady who, four and a half centuries ago, donned her best attire and posed to the artist for his picture of whatever saint or sinner you please. And she is evidently a lady of condition, if we may judge by the refinement and beauty of her hands. It is indeed sad that the original background of this picture has disappeared to give way to a new coat of coarsely-laid dark paint. Possibly this single figure once formed part of a group of saints gathered about the Virgin and Child, as we see them in so many of Memlinc’s pictures, and in Gerard David’s lovely idyl (1432) hanging in this very room. Now forlorn, bereft of her companions, her very milieu altered past recognition, she is still a graceful, interesting figure, reigning supreme in her allotted space of panel.
A very quaint little lady faces us from another corner of this room (1433). Here no saintly masquerading seeks to divert our attention from the purely human side of the story. Indeed, the rather peevish expression scarcely suggests an unusual degree of sanctity. The ideal of feminine beauty and grace has suffered complete transformation since the days when, as in this portrait, the forehead was shaved to the very crown of the head, and the soft curves of the cheeks were set off against the harsh lines of a muslin coif, starched to a board-like stiffness. The high peaked cap of gold and white brocade under the veil gives the head a curious egg-shaped appearance. The painter’s enthusiasm has been aroused by no particular beauty of feature or charm of bearing, and he appears to have rendered with quiet truthfulness the almond-shaped eyes, the pinched little nose, long upper lip and full mouth, of his rather disontented sitter. But he spared no pains in the actual execution of his picture, which is wonderfully delicate and careful. The hands, again, have called out all his skill. They are folded in front of her, in much the same position as those of the wife on the double portrait (653), and the left hand is adorned with four rings, one with a fine ruby set in a plain gold band. The flesh tints are of a rather cold, pinkish tone, with sharp lights, not indeed very beautiful, but the cruel, glaring muslin cap would assuredly kill the most peach-like complexion. The warm crimson stomacher relieves the somewhat cold colouring of the picture, and the effect is quite gay. As for the authorship of this modest little panel, which is too often passed by unnoticed, it has lately been suggested that no less an artist than this same Jacques Daret should be held responsible. A strikingly similar portrait, exhibited at Bruges in 1902, came from the Duke of Anhalt’s collection at Woerlitz, under the ægis of Memlinc’s name ; and certainly the pose and peculiar costume of both panels recall Memlinc’s portraits of Barbara Moreel and her daughter Mary in Brussels and Bruges. By many this was regarded as a work of Roger van der Weyden. The cool colouring and sharp, high lights in our portrait, however, are more distinctive of Daret, and the hands are painted quite in his manner. But it would be a little rash to claim the picture definitely for him.
A word, at least, must be found for an artist, who, though not represented in the National Gallery, is far too important a figure in Flemish art to be slighted. Hugo van der Goes has already been mentioned as one of the artists associated with Jacques Daret in the elaborate decorations for Charles the Bold’s marriage feast. He was then a young man, receiving a small salary, while Daret was already an acknowledged master. Hugo has always been regarded as a one-picture artist ; his magnum opus, the great “Nativity” triptych, now in the Uffizi, used to be the only picture of which we could say with absolute confidence that it was painted by him. Just recently, however, a fine ” Adoration of the Shepherds ” has been bought by the Berlin Museum from a private collection in Madrid, and there is no doubt that this, too, is a work of Hugo’s brush. After the Ghent altar-piece the Uffizi ” Nativity” is the largest picture produced in Flanders in the fifteenth century, yet in its wonderful finish and delicacy it vies with any miniature panel of van Eyck or Roger. It was painted, like the Arnolfini portrait, for an Italian merchant resident in Bruges, one Thomas Portinari, a descendant of that Florentine family to which Dante’s Beatrice belonged. For depth and vigour of colouring, for rugged truth of portraiture and delicate feeling for landscape, this picture may vie with any work of the period. It is easy to recognise in Hugo van der Goes an ardent admirer of Jan van Eyck, though we have no means of proving any direct intercourse between them. He seems to have worked in Bruges and Ghent, but when and where he was born, no one knows. As old age approached, weary of earth and conscious of sin, he retired as a lay brother to a monastery. But his artistic temperament, though hidden beneath the cowl, was not stifled, and occasionally burst forth to startle the decorum of the community, to whom perhaps it was something of a relief when the painter-brother died, full of years, if not of monkish wisdom. The little portrait of a ” Dominican Monk ” (710) in the National Gallery, once ascribed, with little reason, to Hugo van der Goes, is certainly not by him. This grave ecclesiastic, with hands devotionally folded, has perhaps more affinity with Memlinc.
Passing on now to the ” Madonna and Child with an Angel, S. George and the Donor” (686), we find ourselves in the presence of this most attractive and winsome of all the Flemish painters. Hans Memlinc, whose name is for ever associated with Bruges, was not a native of that city, but came from the neighbour-hood of Mainz. Like Hubert van Eyck, he may well have received his early artistic training in the school of Cologne, for indeed its pure traditions seem to inspire his works to the very end of his life. Memlinc has generally been regarded as the pupil of Roger van der Weyden, though there is no evidence, beyond the actual testimony of his paintings, on which to ground this belief. In some instances he has not only borrowed the older master’s composition but actually. copied his figures. If we compare Memlinc’s ” Adoration of the Magi,” in the hospital at Bruges, of which there is an Arundel copy here, with the same subject by Roger van der Weyden in Munich, we find a striking likeness in arrangement and detail. Indeed, S. Joseph and the old king kneeling before the Virgin have been copied with but slight alterations in pose and drapery. But, as it has been suggested, Memlinc may well have seen this picture in Cologne, where it hung in the Church of S. Colomba.
By the time Memlinc came to Bruges, in about 1467, he was already an accomplished painter. For many years a romantic story was told and believed as to his connection with that city. It was related how, after a wandering life, he entered the service of Charles the Bold, and shared in the disaster of Nancy ; how wounded, and with difficulty making his way to Bruges, he fell fainting at the gate of the Hospital of S. John ; how the kindly sisters took him in and nursed him to life again, in return for which charity Memlinc painted the beautiful pictures, still the price-less possessions of the hospital. This legend, like many another that gained credence in the eighteenth century, has been swept away by the more accurate investigation of modern times. Memlinc was no wounded soldier forced to subsist on the charity of others. The archives of Bruges prove him to have been a well-to-do citizen, aiding in a loan raised to pay off the expenses of the war between Maximilian and France, and possessed of house property in the city.
The first glance at this ” Madonna and Child” (686) convinces us that we are in an atmosphere different alike from the matter-of-fact realism of Jan van Eyck and the morbid, religious temper of Roger van der Weyden. Memlinc was indeed a religious painter, but the gloomy and sorrowful sides of religion were not those which appealed to his bright and amiable temperament. He resembled Fra Angelico in his inability to imagine evil or to picture despair, and in the wonderful purity and serenity which breathe from all his pictures. His strong sense of the beautiful carried him safely over those pitfalls of downright ugliness into which Jan van Eyck’s realism sometimes dragged him. Grace of outline, bright and harmonious colour, delicate finish and idyllic sentiment are Memlinc’s special characteristics. Small as this panel is, it serves as a kind of introduction to his more important work, and gives us also an insight into his poetical, perhaps sometimes even sentimental spirit. Unfortunately, the picture has been greatly injured by rubbing, and has lost some of its surface brilliance and gloss, but it still remains, in spite of time and ill-treatment, a charming example of the master. In colour it is bright and clear, as are all Memlinc’s works, which have neither the dusky depth of Jan van Eyck nor his forcible chiaroscuro. The beautiful cherry-red of the Virgin’s drapery, a favourite colour with Memlinc, is repeated in the canopy of her richly-decorated throne, hung with a strip of costly brocade, boldly patterned in black and gold, and in the oriental carpet at her feet. The Virgin, with her high forehead and soft golden hair, is the type of all Memlinc’s Madonnas, not beautiful perhaps according to our ideas, but her gentle grace and tender purity give her a charm which rivals more formal beauty. And Memlinc was the first of the Flemish artists who could paint a real baby, though even he was to be surpassed in this respect by Gerard David. Instead of the hideous, wizened, little old men who pose as babies in Jan van Eyck’s pictures, we have here a true child, still perhaps a little stiff, but with genuine baby wonder and delight expressed on His face, as He turns from the fascinating occupation of crumpling the leaves of His mother’s book to listen to the music played for His amusement by the delightful white-robed angel kneeling at His side. This angel appears in a number of Memlinc’s pictures ; in fact, he was rather in the habit of repeating his figures with but slight variation. It is an altogether fascinating little creation, with its short curly hair and somewhat un-angelic grin of pleasure. The kneeling donor of the picture and his patron S. George, who stands behind him, red – cross banner in hand, are characteristic examples of Memlinc’s inability to depict a really manly man. Of course, the donor is a portrait, though probably, to judge from other instances, much softened and idealised from the reality. As a portrait painter Memlinc had little of the stern realism of Jan van Eyck, who preferred the truth in all its plainness to any deviation, however pleasing. We need scarcely wonder at Memlinc’s popularity in this -branch of art, and in-deed he painted more portraits than any other artist of his century. Perhaps the finest of all is the wonderful presentment of a young man, Martin van Nieuwenhove, in the hospital at Bruges. In our picture the donor’s face is full of reverence and sweetness ; S. George, the valiant slayer of the dragon, is equally mild and effeminate. Indeed, these men seem to have been endowed with the beauty which the Flemish women so often lack. The curious fish-like creature, with gashed throat, at the saint’s feet is, of course, intended to represent the dragon; but how different from the ferocious, fire-breathing terror of the legend ! This mild monster was evidently the very limit of the painter’s imagination of the awful and horrible.
The little landscape in the background is by no means the least charming part of the picture. Indeed, this is often true of Memlinc’s works. He loves to give us glimpses of smiling, sunny meadows under a clear summer sky, blue, winding rivers, and ponds on which swans float majestically, as one sees them to this day on the canals at Bruges. Here the landscape has suffered from retouching, but for all that its bright, clear greens and blues, and the ships on the sea, with their specks of scarlet, give it a delightful gaiety and serenity. The old man walking through the door of the court-yard has on his feet the wooden pattens which in those days were worn in the streets, and are just like those in the Arnolfini portrait. The spirit of this beautiful little lyric is one of calm peace and happiness, entirely different from Roger van der Weyden’s sorrowful, dramatic intensity.
Two small panels here are also ascribed to Memlinc, though with less of certainty. They represent ” S. John the Baptist and S. Lawrence” (747), and must have formed the wings of an altar-piece, of which the centre is now lost. The figures and the draperies are certainly quite in his manner, but not so the landscapes behind them, in which neither the drawing of the trees nor the metallic blue-green colour recall Memlinc’s touch. The saints are of his usual gentle type ; indeed, S. John the Baptist seems to have been repeated with only slight alteration from the altar-piece painted for Sir John Donne, Memlinc’s earliest known work, now at Chatsworth. St Lawrence, in his deacon’s dress of glowing scarlet over a white surplice, enhanced by passages of rich blue, is an attractive youthful figure, shy and timid. He fingers delicately and perhaps reluctantly a small gridiron, symbol of his martyrdom.
The little ” Madonna and Child” (709) has been so remorselessly over-cleaned that in its present condition it is difficult to judge of its original quality. The types are exactly those of the larger picture here (686) ; the same gentle Virgin posed against a brocaded curtain, the Child in the same position as before. But the out-lines are harder, and for all the tender sentiment and warm colour we feel an inferior hand. Memlinc had, of course, many followers and imitators, and no doubt this little panel is by some one of them. The feeble little ” Madonna and Child ” (708), once ascribed to Jan’s sister, Margaret van Eyck, of whom we know nothing as a painter, is probably also by a very weak and timid follower of Memlinc.
Memlinc’s industry must have been equal to his skill, for scarcely a public collection but contains some picture from his hand, be it portrait or altar-piece. To see him at his best and in every phase we must go to Bruges, his adopted city, where in the old Hospital of S. John we find ourselves in a veritable Memlinc Museum. Here in the place of honour hangs the picture which formerly adorned the ‘high altar of the hospital chapel. In composition it closely resembles the Chatsworth picture, painted some ten years earlier. Indeed, it is remarkable how little Memlinc’s style varied throughout his career. The Madonna sits serene and thoughtful among a group of virgin saints, while gleeful angels make music, and the holy Child weds S. Catherine with one hand, and in the other grasps an apple. The two SS. John, as patrons of the hospital, stand sentinel on either side of the throne. Episodes from their lives are depicted in the background, and form the subjects of the wings of the altar-piece. Still more beautiful in colour and charm of expression is the triptych representing the ” Adoration of the Magi,” mentioned before as showing Roger van der Weyden’s influence. This is one of Memlinc’s most attractive works, and a marvel of soft, glowing colour, at which the Arundel copy here but faintly hints. The old king kneels with a gentle and persuasive expression to kiss the Christ child’s feet. And how debonnair the sprightly Ethiopian in his smart brocaded jerkin and long hose ! Some gay sprig of the Burgundian court had doubtless furnished the model for this gallant youth. The pious donor, a brother of the Order of S. John, is far less prominent here than in Jan van Eyck’s pictures. It is some time before we notice him kneeling modestly in the left-hand corner behind the third king. The stubbly-bearded man in a yellow cap looking through the window is generally supposed to represent, the painter himself, but there is no real ground for this belief.
The richest gem of this Bruges treasure-house of art is, however, the wonderful shrine or reliquary of S. Ursula, hallowed within by the bones of the virgin saint and her martyred companions, and immortalised without by Memlinc’s pictured history of their hapless adventures. These little pictures are treated with the refined delicacy of miniature painting, yet with all the breadth and freedom of Memlinc’s larger works. This oblong wooden box is indeed a shrine, not alone of sanctity, but of art. We find here, too, further evidence of the painter’s connection with Cologne”, for in the scenes of which that city forms the background, many of its best-known buildings may be recognised, fore-most among them, of course, the cathedral, topped by the huge crane used in its construction.
Of Memlinc’s largest work, the triptych of the ” Passion” at Lübeck, there is also a small Arundel copy here. The central panel depicts the ” Crucifixion,” the three crosses being raised high aloft above the crowd of spectators. On the wings Memlinc has introduced several scenes from the Passion, repeating with some variations the composition of his great altar-piece at Turin, a picture composed, like his ” Christ the Light of the World” in Munich, of numerous separate incidents brought into unison by the landscape and architectural background. In the Lübeck triptych the actual execution seems to have been carried out in great part by pupils.
Returning to the Flemish Room (IV.), we find a picture of a cadaverous young man in a dull red cap (993). This was for many years supposed to be the portrait of Memlinc by himself, in the dress of the hospital to which tradition had assigned him as a patient, and the sickly appearance helped to bear out the theory. This portrait, however, is neither by nor of Memlinc, and the dress is that of an ordinary Flemish burgher. It is the work of Dirk or Thierry Bouts, a painter whose individuality has only of late years been made clear. Memlinc’s name had become a generic term for Flemish pictures of the latter half of the fifteenth century, and in the pre-scientific era of art criticism was made to cover a multitude of incongruities. It is not really difficult to distinguish between Memlinc and Bouts, for though their works bear a strong family resemblance they differ in one important respect, that, while Memlinc was an idealist inclining to the softer, more charming aspects of nature, Bouts shows himself a thorough-going realist, exercising little selection either in choice of type or subject. His men and women are never of gentle birth, though emperors and courtiers crowd the canvas. His composition is often awkward, and his stories were sometimes best untold. In his famous ” Martyrdom of S. Erasmus ” at Louvain, he has suppressed no detail of the unspeakable tortures to which the mild-eyed saint was subjected in the presence of an apathetic and indifferent audience. Yet for all the gruesome directness of this appeal, the delightful landscape setting, the fine colouring and, strange to say, the quiet peace of the scene, almost persuade us to forget the human horror in enjoyment of the artistic interest.
From the little that is known of Bouts, we gather that he was born in Haarlem, where quite an important school of painting was flourishing in the fifteenth century. It was no doubt from Jan van Eyck, who, as we have seen, spent some time at the Hague, that the painters of the northern provinces learned something of Flemish methods and colouring. Bouts probably received his first training in Haarlem, and by 1448 seems to have settled in Louvain. It was doubtless in Louvain that he came under the influence of Roger van der Weyden, an influence strongly apparent in his paintings. This connection explains, too, the likeness between Bouts and Memlinc, and shows in a striking manner how different may be the effect of the same teaching on two entirely opposite temperaments. Bouts must, of course, have seen the masterpieces of Hubert and Jan van Eyck, and the lifelike portraiture and deep glowing colour of the latter certainly influenced his style. Indeed, his chief work, the ” Last Supper” in the cathedral at Louvain, used to be variously assigned to Memlinc and Jan van Eyck until modern investigation re-established Bouts’s authorship. The type of Christ certainly recalls Memlinc, and the characteristic portrait heads, especially those of the two youths looking through the buttery hatchthe painter’s own sonsremind us of Jan’s portraits. But Bouts’s own peculiar characteristics are shown in the brilliant, rather hard colouring, in the drawing of the figures, and the elaborate display of hands, in the rendering of which he excelled. As a colourist, indeed, Bouts was, after Jan van Eyck, the most forceful of all the early Flemish painters. As draughtsman his deficient knowledge of the human form too often betrayed him, and his figures with their elongated heads and necks, sloping shoulders and weak knees, are easy to recognise. The type is most exaggerated in his two famous pictures of the ” Justice of Otto III.” in the Brussels Museum, where the affected young court gallants, with their long, thin legs, seem more like storks than men.
On the extreme right of the Louvain altar-piece, his figure partly concealed behind a buffet, stands the painter himself. We can scarcely fail to recognise him as the original, only somewhat older, of our National Gallery portrait (943). As this is dated 1462, and the Louvain picture was painted four years later, the theory is tenable, though the painter must have aged rather rapidly. We find his portrait once again in a picture belonging to Lord Penrhyn, where he has copied Roger van der Weyden’s ” S. Luke painting the Virgin” in the Munich Gallery, substituting, however, his own features for those of his master. In colour this small portrait (943) is somewhat greyer and less brilliant than usual with Bouts. The soft, dull claret of the dress and conical cap differs from the bright reds and crimsons he loves to bring together. If it be indeed his own portrait we cannot but admit that he was rather a poor creature, though the clear grey eyes give the face a certain quiet interest. The folded hands are carefully painted quite in the master’s characteristic style. The grey wall forms a harmonious background to the figure, and the treatment is almost atmospheric. Through the open casement a pleasant little landscape is seen, with mountains and a church tower in the distance, and brown hills and trees in front. It is evidently midday, for the shadows of the trees fall straight beneath them.
Another panel here which shows some connection with the Louvain altar-piece, though it can scarcely be by Bouts himself, is the ” Madonna and Child with Saints in a Gothic church ” (774). Peter and Paul, who kneel on either side of the Virgin, have been painted from the same models as two of the apostles in the “Last Supper” at Louvain. Also certain characteristics in the drawing, such as the shape of the hands, the weak modelling of the knees, and the peculiar drooping eyelids, suggest Bouts. Neither Madonna nor Child possesses much charm, and their rigidity and woodenness, and the want of expression in the faces of the two saints, leave the spectator cold, and hint at a lack of inspiration in the artist. Here, also, as in the portrait, the colour is less brilliant than we expect of Bouts, though it displays something of his characteristic hardness. The juxtaposition of the two reds, the Virgin’s scarlet dress, and S. Paul’s bluish crimson mantle, was a favourite trick of his. The picture, which possesses pleasant passages, may perhaps have been painted by a pupil or imitator, who carefully copied his master’s peculiarities. It is by studying such second-rate works that we realise how intense is our pleasure in the really fine examples of the early Flemish school, and how much that pleasure is enhanced by the charm of sentiment which never fails us in a painter like Memlinc.
Bouts was in all probability the painter of another picture here, the ” Entombment” (664), ascribed in the catalogue to his master, Roger van der Weyden. It is not painted in oil on panel in the characteristic Flemish manner, but is executed in the old tempera method, on fine linen. The brownish colour of this faded linen ground has forced itself through the thin painting, and gives the picture, which has been much damaged, a somewhat dingy appearance. The colours, however, are bright in themselves, though flat and opaque. The wide landscape, with a peep between the nearer hills of a wooded plain and some rising ground beyond, suggests a painter peculiarly skilled in landscape and with some knowledge of atmospheric perspective. The most interesting faces in this group of seven mourners are those of S. Joseph of Arimathea, who, with an expression of profound sympathy and tenderness, supports the head of Christ, and Nicodemus, who stands at the foot of the tomb, his head bowed in deep but well-controlled sorrow. The three weeping women on the further side of the tomb, and the sad-faced S. John, who supports the Virgin in his arms, recall van der Weyden’s dramatic presentations of this subject. The long, narrow type of head, and the broken folds of the drapery worn by the kneeling figure in front, also suggest his influence. The perspective of the tomb is far from correct, but even the van Eycks were not faultless in this respect, as we noticed in the fountain in the foreground of the Ghent altar-piece.
Besides the pictures by Dirk Bouts at Louvain and Brussels, there is a fine altar-piece at Munich, of which the centre represents the ” Adoration of the Magi,” that subject beloved alike of Flemish and Florentine painters, and the wings are occupied by S. John the Baptist and S. Christopher. This last panel is quite one of Bouts’s loveliest creations. The giant saint, with the Christ child erect and benign on his shoulders, wades through a blue stream hemmed in by rocky banks. But the glory of the picture is the sunset sky behind, where pink cloudlets float in an expanse of pale yellow, while the distant water mirrors the glow of the heavens.
The school of Haarlem, from which Bouts migrated to Flanders, was already celebrated for skill in landscape. Of its head, Albert van Ouwater, almost no-thing is known beyond his reputation in this branch of painting, and now, unfortunately, he has little but reputation to keep his memory green. The only existing picture that can be ascribed to him with any certainty is a “Raising of Lazarus” in Berlin, and this, strangely enough, has no landscape setting. The scene is laid within a church, and in many respects the composition recalls the very beautiful picture in the National Gallery representing the Exhumation of S. Hubert ” (783). At one time this was supposed to be by Dirk Bouts, but such a theory cannot be sustained. The colouring is too mature and developed for Bouts, warm and pleasant, without his almost enamel-like hardness. Again, it has been suggested that Ouwater himself painted this picture, repeating in it some of the motifs of his ” Lazarus “the church interior, the open tomb, and, above all, the crowd pressing their faces against the bars of the choir screen to catch a glimpse of what is going on. But all these ideas might have been borrowed, and from certain little weaknesses in the drawing, and a defective sense of proportion, it seems more likely that Our picture was the production of some Netherlandish pictor ignotus of the fifteenth century, who was acquainted not only with the works of the Haarlem masters, but must also have known Roger van der Weyden and Jacques Daret.
The legend of S. Hubert has always been popular in art, especially that part of it which concerns his conversion. Being passionately devoted to the chase, he was a-hunting one Good Friday, when the stag suddenly turned round to face him, displaying a crucifix between its horns. This incident has been beautifully treated by Dürer in his wonderful engraving, and by Pisanello in a fascinating little picture in the National Gallery (1436). In consequence of this miraculous adventure, S. Hubert hastened to exchange the rôle of sportsman for that of ecclesiastic, and being. created Bishop of Liege, he founded a cathedral in that city. Here he was buried, but a century later his re-mains were removed to enrich a monastery erected in his name. What was the surprise of the priests and monks, assembled with King Louis the Debonnair to witness the opening of the tomb, when they discovered that the sanctity of S. Hubert’s soul had actually effected the immortality of his body.
Such is the scene our artist has chosen, or indeed we should rather say, has been commissioned to depict, perhaps by the bishop or chapter, or some pious and wealthy citizen of Liége, in honour of their great bishop. The artist may indeed have been a native of this art-loving city, for the spacious Gothic church in which the scene is set has actually been identified as the cathedral of Liége. The pavement in front of the high altar has been removed and the tomb opened, and while a bishop in full canonicals swings a censer at the foot of the grave, two monks, an old and a young, brothers doubt-less of the monastery to which the body is to be translated, lift it reverently from its prison house. Very beautiful is the head of the old monk, softly outlined against the green curtain in front of the altar. More or less of surprise animates the faces of the company as the saint, in mitre and cope, appears before them, looking as though he had died only yesterday, instead of some hundred years ago. Some of them, however, take the miracle stolidly enough. The fat, wicked-looking old bishop on the right assumes a smile of superiority, no doubt implying that it might reasonably be expected a bishop should not share the fate of ordinary mortals. The priest beside him, perhaps his chaplain, looks appealingly at his patron, as though to claim sympathy on so extraordinary an occasion. A clerk behind, with head far too large for his scanty shoulders, turns in amazement to a young court gallant, resplendent in fur-trimmed coat of gold and scarlet brocade. He has followed, perhaps, in the train of King Louis on the opposite side. This personage wears a dress of royal blue, stamped with the gold fleurs-de-lis of France, and carries his crown in his hand. Behind him follow two mischievous little acolytes, grinning with pleasure, a bearded pilgrim, and several others, among them a woman in white linen coif. The priest who holds up the gorgeous embroidered cope of purple and gold of the censer-swinging bishop, looks meekly on with an air of mild curiosity. The young scholar, too, standing near the altar on the right, is gravely impressed. Strangely enough, his features strongly resemble those of Jan van Eyck as he is represented riding among the Just Judges on the Ghent altar-piece. The lady beside him is delightfully demure. Only the crowd outside the pale feel no sense of awe, as, burning with unsatisfied curiosity, they press their faces between the railings and chatter together in unrestrained excitement. Certainly this painter shows a delightful sense of humour and power of reading character. Every one of these faces has been studied from life. His eye for perspective is also distinctly good, and he paints brocade with strong feeling for beauty of texture. This beautiful anonymous picture takes a very high place among the early Flemish paintings in the gallery, and it is to be hoped that some day a clue may be found to its author’s identity. But, whoever be the painter, the picture remains the same to us, and none the less valuable for the mystery of its origin.
Another beautiful unnamed picture is the ” Count of Hainault with his Patron Saint Ambrose” (264), a tall, narrow panel, once, perhaps, part of an altar-piece. It is very soft and delicate in colour, and the richly-jewelled and embroidered vestments have been painted with the utmost care. The mitre on a ledge in the foreground has a wonderful design, worked in gold and pearls over a pink ground, representing the Crucifixion, with the figures of Christ, Mary and S. John woven into the pattern. The count, in the white habit of the Cistercians, kneels in front of S. Ambrose, a rugged bishop in sumptuous cope and mitre, who holds in one hand a scourge, symbol of penitence, and carries in the other a golden cross. The faces are full of character, particularly that of S. Ambrose, with its harsh, irregular features and sad eyes. Here again we must be content, for the present, to leave the question of authorship unanswered,
( 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