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Promenades of an Impressionist By James Huneker Characters: 10473

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The wonderful Rijks Museum is the representative home of old Dutch art. The Louvre, the Prado, the National Gallery excel it in variety, but the great Rembrandts are in it, and The Syndics and The Night Watch are worth a wilderness of other painters' work. The Night Watch has been removed from the old room, where it used to hang, facing the large Van der Heist, Captain Roelof Bicker's Company. But it is only in temporary quarters; the gallery destined for it is being completed. We were permitted to peep into it. The Night Watch will hang in one gallery, and facing it will be The Syndics, De Stallmeesters. Better lighted than in its old quarters, The Night Watch now shows more clearly the tooth of time. It is muddy and dark in the background, and the cracks of the canvas are ill-concealed by the heavy coating of varnish. If all the faults of this magnificent work are more plainly revealed its excellences are magnified. How there could have been any dispute as to the lighting is incredible. The new catalogue, the appendices of which are brought down to 1908, frankly describes the picture thus:

"The Night Watch, or the Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and of Lieutenant van Ruytenburg. The corps is represented in broad daylight, leaving the Doele of the Arquebusiers. At their head, standing in the foreground about the centre, are the Captain and his Lieutenant conversing. The former wears a dark dress, the latter a yellow costume with a white sash, causing a brilliant effect of light. Near the Captain, also standing out in full light, is a little girl, a dead white cock hanging from her waistband."

Then follow the names of the other personages in this strange scene.

A commonplace happening is transfigured by the magic of a seer into a significant moment arrested in eternity. Rembrandt is a window looking out upon eternity. It was quite like the logical minded Frenchman, Eugène Fromentin, himself an admirable painter, to pick this canvas full of flaws. The composition is, true enough, troubled and confused. The draughtsmanship leaves much to be desired; hands are carelessly painted, the grouping haphazard, without symmetry, the general rhythm full of syncopations, cross accents, and perverse pauses-empty spaces, transitions not accounted for. And yet this painting without personal charm-it is almost impersonal-grips your soul. It is not alone the emotional quality of the paint. There are greater colourists than Rembrandt, who, strictly speaking, worked in monochrome, modelling with light. No, not the paint alone, not the mystery of the envelope, not the magnetic gaze of the many eyes, but all combined makes an assault upon nerves and imagination. You feel that Captain Cocq is a prosaic personage and is much too tall in proportion to the spry little dandy Lieutenant at his side. Invested with some strange attribute by the genius of the painter, this Dutchman becomes the protagonist in a soundless symphony of light and shadow. The waves that emanate from the canvas suffuse your senses but do not soothe or satisfy. The modern nervous intensity, missing absolutely in Hals and his substantial humans, is present in Rembrandt. We say "modern" as a sop to our vanity, but we are the "ancients," and there is no mode of thought, no mood that has not been experienced and expressed by our ancestors. Rembrandt is unlike any other Dutch painter-Hals, Vermeer, Teniers, Van der Heist-what have these in common with the miller's son? But he is as Dutch as any of them. A genius is only attached to his age through his faults, said a wise man. Rembrandt is as universal as Beethoven, a Dutchman by descent, as Bach, a Hungarian by descent, as Michael Angelo and Shakespeare. But we must go to Leonardo da Vinci if we wish to find a brother soul to Rembrandt's.

There is a second child back of that iridescent and enigmatic girl with the dead fowl. And the dog that barks as Jan Van Koort ruffles his drum, what a spectre dog! No, the mystery of The Night Watch is insoluble, because it is the dream of a poet. Its light is morning light, yet it is the mystic light of Rembrandt, never seen on sea or land. In The Syndics, that group of six linen-drapers, Rembrandt shows with what supreme ease he can beat Hals at the game of make-believe actuality. Now, according to the accustomed order of development, The Night Watch should have followed The Syndics. But it preceded it by two decades, and the later work contains far better painting and a sharper presentment of the real. The Night Watch is Rembrandt's Ninth symphony; but composed before his Fifth, The Syndics. One figure in this latter picture has always fascinated us. It is of the man, Volkert Janz, according to Professor J. Six, who stoops over, his hand poised on a book. Rembrandt has seldom painted with more sensitiveness eyes, subtle corners of the mouth, and intimate expression. This syndic is evidently superior to his fellows, solid, sensible Dutch men of affairs.

There is a landscape, purchased in 1900, a stone bridge, lighted by rays darting through heavy storm clouds. It is the Rembrandt of the etchings. Lovely is the portrait of a young lady of rank, though the Elizabeth Bas, in another gallery, w

ill always be the masterpiece in portraiture if for nothing else but the hands. The Jewish Bride is bulky in its enchantments, the phosphorescent gleams of the apparel the chief attraction. The Toilet is heavy Rembrandt; while the anatomical lecture is repulsive. But the disembowelled corpse is more corpse-like than the queerly foreshortened dead body in the picture on anatomy at The Hague. The warrior's head, supposed to be a portrait of his father, is an ancient copy and a capital one. Old dame Elizabeth Bas, with her coif, ruff, and folded hands, holding a handkerchief, is a picture you return to each day of your stay.

Hals at Amsterdam is interesting. There is the so-called portrait of the painter and his wife, two full-length figures; the Jolly Toper, half-length figure, large black hat, in the left hand a glass; and the insolent lute-player, a copy, said to be by Dirck Hals, the original in the possession of Baron Gustave Rothschild at Paris. And a fine copy it is.

The three Vermeers are of his later enamelled period. One is a young woman reading a letter; she is seen in profile, standing near a table, and is dressed in a white skirt and blue loose jacket. The Letter shows us in the centre of a paved room a seated lady, lute in hand. She has been interrupted in her playing by a servant bringing a letter. To the right a tapestry curtain has been looped up to give a view of the scene. The new Vermeer-purchased from the Six gallery in 1908-is now called The Cook; it was formerly known as The Milkmaid. A stoutly built servant is standing behind a table covered with a green cloth, on which are displayed a basket of bread, a jug of Nassau earthenware, and a stone pot into which she is pouring milk from a can. The figure, painted almost full length, stands out against the white wall and is dressed in a lemon-coloured jacket, a red-brown petticoat, a dark-blue apron turned back, and a white cap on the head. The light falls on the scene through a window to the left, above the table.

This masterpiece is in one of the cabinet galleries. It displays more breadth than the Lady Reading a Letter, and its colouring is absolutely magical. The De Hoochs are of prime quality. Greater art is the windmill and moonlit scene of Hobbema, as great a favourite as his Mill, though both must give the precedence to the Alley of Middleharnais in the Royal Academy, London. But where to begin, where to end in this high carnival of over three thousand pictures! The ticketed favourites, starred Baedeker fashion, sometimes lag behind their reputation. The great Van der Helst-and a prime portraitist he is, as may be seen over and over again-is The Company of Captain Bicker, a vast canvas. When you forget Hals and Rembrandt it is not difficult to conjure up admiration for this work. The N. Maes Spinner is very characteristic. Cuyp and Van Goyen are here; the latter's view of Dordrecht is celebrated. So is the Floating Feather of Hondecoester, a finely depicted pelican. The feather is the least part of the picture. Asselijn's angry swan is an excellent companion piece. We wish that we could describe the Jan Steens, the Dous, the Mierises, and other sterling Dutch painters. There is the gallery of Dutch and Flemish primitives about which a volume might be written; their emaciated music appeals. In expressiveness the later men did not excel them. The newest acquisition, not mentioned in the catalogue supplements, is the work of an unknown seventeenth-century master, possibly Spanish, though the figures, background, and accessories are Dutch. Two old men, their heads bowed, sit at table. Across their knees are napkins. The white is from a Spanish palette. A youth attired in dark habiliments, his back turned to the spectators, is pouring out wine or water. The canvas is large, the execution flowing; perhaps it portrays the disciples at Emmaus.

The portraits of Nicholas Hasselaer and his wife Geertruyt van Erp, by Hals, in one of the cabinets, are painted with such consummate artistry that you gasp. The thin paint, every stroke of which sings out, sets you to thinking of John Sargent and how he has caught the trick of brush-work-at a slower tempo. But not even Sargent could have produced the collar and cuffs. A Whistler, a full-length, in another gallery, looks like an unsubstantial wraith by comparison. Two weeks' daily attendance at this excellently planned collection did no more than fix the position of the exhibits in the mind. There is a goodly gathering of such names as Israels, Mesdag, Blommers, and others at the Rijks, but the display of modern Dutch pictures at the Municipal Museum is more representative. The greatest Josef Israels we ever saw in the style is his Jew sitting in the doorway of a house, a most eloquent testimony to Israels' powers of seizing the "race" and the individual. Old David Bles is here, and Blommers, De Bock, Bosboom, Valkenburg, Alma-Tadema, Ary Scheffer-of Dutch descent-Roelofs, Mesdag, Mauve, Jakob Maris, Jongkind, and some of the Frenchmen, Rousseau, Millet, Dupré, and others. The Six gallery is not so accessible as it was some years ago. No doubt its Rembrandts and Vermeers will eventually find their way into the Rijks Museum.

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