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ART & ARCHITECTURE: The Art - Belgium and Holland

[65] - The art of Holland in the nineteenth century has attained to something of the dignity and importance which it maintained in the seventeenth, though both its methods and its spirit have undergone a capital change, and it is even more sharply distinguished from that of the neighboring nation, the Belgians. Abroad, its influence has extended even across the Atlantic. "There are more followers of Dutch art than there are Dutch artists in Holland," says Mr. Hubert Vos, court painter at The Hague and Acting Royal Commissioner of the Fine Arts at Chicago. "But it was not so until about ten years ago, when half a dozen of the masters at Munich turned their allegiance toward the Dutch school. There were such men as Liebermann, Von Udhe, Kuehl and Lenback, the latter not a copyist but greatly inspired by Rembrandt. Of the French artists, Bonnat and Ribot are distinctly under the Rembrandtesque influence, and so in England is Sir John Millais, and so before them was Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Lawrence. Under the influence of Israels is L'hermitte, the French artist, and - well, I might go on with an interminable list." "So far as the purely artistic qualities are concerned," says a recent biographer of Israels, "it is probable that the highest kind of art, at present being produced by any country as a whole, is to be found in Holland. The Dutch artists, while true to themselves and their condition in life, are true also to their traditions of art ... Not, be it understood, that I claim for l'ecole hollandaise the same diversity of treatment and subject as may be found in fin de siecle France [66] or in Britain at the present time. But as that diversity in these countries is as much a source of weakness as of strength, the Dutch artists are all the more to be commended for the restraint which leads them to paint what they really understand, away from the semi-literary art which in many cases is the bane of modern work."

Both these gentlemen claim too much, nor is Mr. Vos within bounds when he asserts that there are only two great schools of modern art, the French and the Dutch. We have already seen that a high French authority makes these two schools the French and the English. But, to get away from these unsafe generalities, it may be said that the Hollanders have evolved an excellent school of art, strong alike in its love of familiar nature seen in mysterious sympathy with varying phases of human emotion and its technical rendering. That these painters are quite justifiable in painting only "what they really understand" goes without saying, but the limitations of the school as a whole remain limitations. Even the phases of nature with which they sympathize and which they translate so admirably are restricted to what might be called the minor keys - the pomp, the cheerfulness, the noon day splendor, the majestic or the terrible, seldom or never appear. The historical genre, the decorative, the imaginative, even portraiture, appeal to them but little. But in the rendering of tempered sunshine, of the diffused gray light of cloudy days falling on meadow and canal, in the dusky gloom of cottage interiors, or the menace of stormy marines, they are among the best painters in the world. As one of their admirers says - "they are more tone-painters than colorists, but they have the qualities of both in a higher degree than any other school of this time." Following the sober traditions of the national life, perhaps reflecting unconsciously that decline of national power which is said to be contemporaneous with the most brilliant periods of national art, they do not find much cause for rejoicing - there are no longer any Jan Steens or Franz Hals amongst them.

The most prominent figure in this contemporary school is Josef Israels of The Hague, born at Groningen in the north of Holland in 1827. He has been considered the father of the most distinctive phase of the national art of his day; a certain subdued intensity of pathos rendered with sympathy and [67] without affectation. At forty years of age he received a third class medal at the Paris International Exposition of that year and the cross of the Legion of Honor; at the Exposition of 1878, a first class medal and the grade of Officier of the Legion of Honor, and at that of 1889, the only Grand Prix awarded in his nation. These honors are the more remarkable considering his Jewish race, the instances being but rare in which one of this people has attained the highest distinction in this art. To Chicago he has sent five canvases, important examples all of them, and one of them - the "ALONE IN THE WORLD," or the "Plus Rien" of the Paris Salons - large in size and repeating a theme which is eminently characteristic. In the darkening cottage interior a solitary mourner sits with his back to the bed on which the wife, or the mother, has just breather her last; in his attitude, in the fading light and in the simple and poor interior the artist has expressed much of that utter hopelessness which attends the deathbed of the poor. In the large "Fisherwoman at Zandvoort" this sombreness of color is not entirely free from the suspicion of muddiness of tone, for in some of his later work the veteran has shown somewhat too much of a tendency to rely upon his formulas. Israels, with Anton Mauve who died in 1888, and the brothers Maris constituted probably the leaders of the school. By Jacob Maris of The Hague there are five paintings in oil and a watercolor; by William Maris of Voorburg, five oils and two watercolors, and by H. W. Mesday of The Hague, Royal Commissioner of Fine Arts to the Exposition and their worthy rival, five oils and three watercolors.

Unlike Israels these are landscape, cattle and marine painters, seldom giving the human figure any but secondary considerations, but ranging through a wide field in translating the moods of Nature. To set down in words the differing themes, the varying effects of light and color, atmospheric values and tones, which pervade these painters' canvases would be but profitless, - a good painting is really indescribably in anything but the extraneous matters, the composition, the story, the names of the colors perhaps, and, in a very limited measure, the method of their application. A cloudy day on the dykes with a herd of cattle feeding in the middle distance has no message that can be set down definitely in print; the painter's interpretation even is taken differently by each spectator - or not read at all by a great many, just as the original scene would not have been comprehended - and the scribe, coming after him, [68] may misread him and consequently mistranslate him as completely as could be desired. The Holland painters are thus particularly not amenable to literary treatment; the briefest descriptions of their works are practically the only available ones. It is this unliterary quality in their pictures, this speaking in unknown tongues, which keeps these galleries the most empty of any in the whole of the Fine Arts Palace at Jackson Park.

Of the exhibit of Jacob Maris, the most striking is the view in Dordrecht with its strong effect of sunlight, and something of the same unusual brilliancy may be found again in the big blue sky of William Maris' "Under the Willows." The two or three cattle pieces of the latter are bathed in more tempered light, - so discreetly tempered, indeed, as to occasionally suggest sought for effects worked out in the studio, but none the less beautiful. H. W. Mesdag finds many of his themes on the famous and much bepainted beach of Scheveningen, mornings on this shore, fishing vessels at anchor, or just departing, or returning, with the accompanying bustle and excitement. In the "In Danger" there is a fine study of a storm' in the "Summer Morning," a misty effect, and in the "Morning on the Shore," a very good sky. The least interesting of these five paintings seems to be the large "At Anchor," in the manner of Clays. Of the four paintings by POGGENBEEK of Amsterdam, we give a reproduction of the beautiful little landscape,"BETWEEN TWO DYKES," - the restful green pasture, spotted in the middle distance with little black and white cows, and topped by a luminous gray sky overhead. Still higher, clearer and more luminous is the bluish-gray cloudy sky that rises over the "PASTURAGE NEAR THE DUNES," of WILLEM ROELOFS of The Hague, and the other two pictures of this artist are equally worthy, the "Mills Near Rotterday" and the study of a canal with its quiet, blue water. J. BOSBOOM, who died some two years ago, is represented here by two of those small studies of corners in church interiors, drowned in Rembrandtesque shadows, to which he devoted so much of his work. Of these [69] the "DUTCH REFORMED CHURCH," Haarlem, is a most learned and admirable painter's study in blacks, grays and pale yellows, and the synagogue interior is almost equally fine.

The figure painters devote themselves to peasants, fishers and such humble folk, but do not follow them to their ale-houses and kermesses, as did their ancestors of the time of Teniers and Hals, no more than they are interested in the plumes and white satins of Terburg and Mieris. BLOMMERS of Scheveningen, for example, finds his material wading, fishing and sailing around this beach, sometimes youthful as in "SHRIMP-FISHERS" dragging their basket through the shallow, yellowish-gray water. His "At Breakfast" and "Washing Day," like this, are large canvases, the latter fine and sunny. Still larger is the group of "ORPHAN GIRLS" singing, by MISS THERESE SCHWARTZE, of Amsterdam, who is recognized as one of the leading portraitists of this school. In this important work she has rendered with such variety of expression and truthfulness the character of these young faces, all absorbed in their avocation, that her strong color scheme - red dresses, black sleeves and white caps - is duly dominated. Of her two portraits, one is of her mother and one that of herself which was seen at the Paris Exposition of 1889. Holding her palette on one hand and with the other shading her eyes and her pince-nex, the painter looks at you frankly and with an alert, intelligent aspect that is quite charming.

MR. HUBERT VOS, the Acting Commissioner of Fine Arts at Chicago, is an important personality, not only because of his rank as a painter but also because of certain dominant qualities that give prominence and authority to his influence and his beliefs. Much of the credit of procuring for the Exposition so valuable a collection as this must be ascribed to him, and his own contribution of six canvases is one of the most important. In London, where he frequently exhibits by the side of the [70] British painters, he is considered to be both capable and versatile, with occasional leanings toward the methods of the impressionists, but the latter manifestation is scarcely visible at Chicago. His interiors, of which there are three or four here, are frequently rendered with something of Israels' mysterious gloom and sometimes - as in the case of the "ANGELUS" reproduced by our full-page plate - with the careful, accurate cataloguing of details in sober light that is so eminently legitimate in a Dutch painter. His largest picture, "A Room in a Brussels Almshouse," is one of those technical stuides so much in vogue at the present day, a long, bare apartment, lit by rectangular windows and properly provided with judiciously spaced and arranged figures - in this case, of old women, very well adapted to this contrast of light and shadow. The spiritual and inner aspect of the life in an almshouse is not here considered; but in the "Pauvre Gens," "The Poor," while the painting is equally good, there is much more imagination. In the dusky cottage interior in which the only light is furnished by a green shaded window, and around the big bed of the family, there hover vague suggestions of trouble and fear. Something of the same quality may be found in the interior of a Breton farmhouse, but in the "Angelus at Volendam" the cataloguing aforesaid is informed and enlightened by a sense of quiet and solemnity that has in it something of the religious. This little village on the Zuyder Zee is, the painter informs, "perhaps the quaintest one can find in Holland - which is saying much . . . The interiors of the houses are well worthy of inspection, each being a museum in itself, with their neat rows of Delft china and solid old furniture, and all in such a splendid state of order and cleanliness. Here may be seen an old grandmother teaching her son's children how to knit in the spare moments after having repaired the fishing-nets, or attended to the humble dinner of potatoes and dried fish. And there - for the inhabitants are, like all fisher folk, deeply religious - you have at the hour of the Angeleus such an old-word picture as I have represented."

In addition to these compositions, Mr. Vos also sends a portrait of the Queen of the Netherlands and the study of the head of a Russian peasant in oils and a pastel. Of the five canvases of GERKE HENKES, of Voorburg, three or four, such as "THE KNITTING SCHOOL" of our illustration, repeat these careful studies of figures and interiors taken from the daily life under the aritist; but in the six paintings by ALBERT NEUHUYS, of The Hague, and in the two by M. van der Maarel of the same capital, [71] one begins to penetrate through the low tones of these Dutch artists to something of the splendor of color. The former even undertakes to render noonday sunshine; and the latter, in his "Flower Woman from Haarlem," to translate the pomp of peonies, chrysanthemums and lilies. To be sure, the flower painter is careful to house his blooms and their soberly-gowned guardian under a low roof, so that they have to burn in tempered splendor, - but a great deal of the splendor is there. The sunlight, also, of Neuhuys' picture falls carefully sifted through the thick foliage of a tree, so that it manifests itself only in spots and splashes on the cottage doorway, the thick grass and the child and goat outside. As a piece of craftsmanship few canvases in the Exposition can surpass this. The "DUTCH WOMAN AND CHILD" of our etching and the "Mother's Delight" are life-size studies; in the "Sober Meal," peasants' interior, the same feeling for color and the same restraint are manifest. Very good sunlight painting also - not dazzling, but strongly suggestive of truth - may be found in the artillery review in the tree-shaded streets of Utrecht, by Hoynck van Papendricht of Amsterdam; and G. H. Breitner, of the same city, paints military studies with a very full and vigorous brush and with evident color enjoyment. The ever-popular cats and kittens, and the still-better rendered luxury of furnishing which surrounds them, of Mme. Henriette Ronner of Brussels, should not be omitted in the tour of these galleries.

The well-known art of Anton Mauve is represented in this selection by four worthy canvases, of which the "Cows Going Home" is the darkest, - the others being full of that charm of the daylight, that pleasant, tempered, grayish luminousness, mellow and pleasant to feel, for which this painter's name almost stands as a synonym. Much of the same quality - and many of the same sheep whose comfortable wooly backs afford so pleasant a resting place for this daylight - may be found in the pictures by F. P. Ter Meulen, of The Hague, whose "SANDY ROAD" is reproduced for these pages. THEOPHILE DE BOCK, also of The Hague, is represented by three excellent canvases, the "BEECH TREES" being likewise illustrated ; of the work of Mrs. S. Mesdag van Houten, Kever, ten Cate and Artz deceased, we have no room to speak. The display of watercolors by the painters of this school is worthy the estimation in which that art is held, and there are a number of etchings - including half-a-dozen by Storn van Gravesande, but no sculpture.

In the Belgian galleries all this is changed. If it can be said that there is far less of good painting than in Holland, it may be added that there is a great deal more of everything else. Story-telling, ingenuity, invention, a little allegory and a little religion, and - in the case of M. Jan Van Beers, at least - plain, every-day vulgarity. Good painting may be found by looking for it, - as in the study of [72] children and a goat playing in the summer sun, by Evariste Carpentier, the "Flemish Farmyard" of Romain Looymans, the good color scheme of Mme. Marie Collart's "Spring of Schavues," the study of a stable interior of Adolphe Jacobs, and that of a sculptor's studio by Jean Guillaume Rosier of Antwerp. The latter picture is the result of many visits by the painter to his friend, Dupon, and is especially clever in the rendering of the tense and vigorous figure of the nude model. It would seen, however, that the latter is very disadvantageously placed with regard to the sculptor's work. More thinly painted, but very intelligently conceived and arranged, is the large canvas of ALBERT DE VRIENDT, given in an etching, and illustrating the legend that playing cards were invented, or first introduced, in the royal court to aid in dispelling the melancholy of Charles VI., the mad king of France. It seems to be certain that they were known in that country before this period. Here the game is represented as dragging on between the jester and the listless monarch, at the feet of the latter being that fair young Burgundian, Odette de Champdivers, in whose companionship the unlucky king found something of that comfort denied him by his rebellious and unfaithful wife, Isabella of Bavaria. Many other canvases may be found that will serve to illustrate the radical divergence of views between this school of painting and that of Holland, - as the figure of the "MOTHER OF SORROWS," by THEOPHILE LYBAERT, much like an indifferent Bouguereau; the somewhat sensuous "SOUVENIR OF ITALY," by LEON HERBO, who has done much better things, and the "GAGE OF LOVE," by GEORGE VON DEN BOS, the very mediaeval damoiselle tying her green scarf so awkwardly on her champion's sword hilt. All these, as typical and illustrative works, will be found reproduced for these pages.

The great VAN BEERS, - the hero of almost as many stories as the distinguished Mr. Whistler, - is much the most prominent artist in the Belgian section. The number of his works, their aggressive quality and the cleverness with which they are executed, produce a striking effect on the visitors. Many of these pictures and generally the best of them, as the portraits of Henri Rochefort and the composer, Peter Benoit and the "Summer Evening," are old and have been many times exhibited before. In the latter, which - like all others - comes from the collection of Mr. Yerkes of Chicago, may be found the best results obtainable from the painter's peculiar qualities, - his malice, his ingenuity, his close observation and his pessimism. As a bilious little painted satire nothing better has been done than this, - the handsome, park-like enclosure shutting out the world, the richly-dressed, dissatisfied mondain kicking her pink-slippered feet, the decorous waiting carriage and attendants [73] and the cheerful rococo statue fluting away so peacefully though he has lost his unnecessary head. None of the portraits seem to be quite as neat and incisive in their characterization as that of Rochefort, though the presentation of "MISS ADA REHAN AS LADY TEAZLE" - reproduced in a full-page photogravure - is certainly very like that clever actress. There are also portraits of Mr. And Mrs. YERKES, and of Mrs. James Brown Potter as the Lady of Lyons. Our reproduction of "CARELESS" is nearly the same thing as the original, the color quality, the painting qualities, counting for not very much in the hard little facture of the work.

As will be remembered, this artist commenced his career with very different methods and aims, and the pictures seen at Chicago illustrate only his later, and what may be considered his decadent period. If one or two of his earlier, larger and more serious works, - the long frieze of the "Funeral of Charles the Good," now in the National Museum at Amsterdam, spotted at regular intervals along its whole length by the black, cowled backs of the kneeling monks, or the unpleasant and strongly dramatic "Death of Jacques Van Artevelde," - could have been also shown, it would have been better. Even in these earlier pictures there was something that looked more like notoriety-seeking than genuine artistic instinct in the sought-for strangeness of composition and arrangement and in the determined archaeology. As for the main characteristic of his work of the last ten or fifteen years it would be difficult to be more offensively untruthful than this, from a recent study of this life and works: - "Van Beers is the aesthetic sensualist of the Parisian beau monde. But if he be a `petty sensualist,' it is always the artistic, graceful, and dainty side of sensualism which he cultivates. As I have said on another occasion, it is for beauty, visual or spiritual, that he looks in whatever he touches or whatever he does; and as the bee abandons the flower, the honey being gone, so our artist seeks fresh beauties the moment he has exploited the old. And herein lies his artistic salvation." It was a much more discriminating critic than this who characterized the typical figure of the French officer conducting the female of his kind down the landing steps in the famous picture of the yacht, "Sirene" as "the tailored ape of a man."

[74] - Forgetting our prejudices in favor of robust painting qualities and fine artistic discrimination in the conception of a theme, we may yet find much in these galleries to interest us. Here is, for example, Verhaert's big canvas concerning the "Will of Christopher Columbus;" the good old conventional "Melancholy" is presented by Leon Vanaise as a girl in black, with some red flowers in a vase to temper her sadness; even more in the popular vein is the cat and baby adrift in a gaily painted cradel in a Dordrecht "INUNDATION," by ERNEST SLINGENEYER of Brussels, reproduced in our illustration, and Evariste Carpentier's convalescent peasant girl congratulated by her friends is another good domestic theme, sure of finding appreciators. All these are among the best in technical execution; there are many others equally ingenious and appropriate but not so well carried out.

The biggest and most dramatic picture in the galleries is the somewhat theatrical "Last Days of Pompeii," by Slingeneyer, - the frantic rush of the terrified population for shelter and safety. There are but very few studies of the nude, the best being Georges-Francois-Paul Fichefet's bather, reclining on the grassy bank. A life-size half-length study of a conventionally scowling "Jealousy," apparently unnecessarily undraped, by Dael, is hung by a doorway in a centre so that it is one of the first objects that strikes the visitor's eye on entering.

The Belgian exhibition of sculpture comprises some four dozen pieces, big and little, none of them very big or important, and many of them busts and bronze statuettes. Four works are contributed by Hipp Le Roy whom we have already seen among the painters, three bronzes and a marble figure of a child holding a cat and a doll in her arms. Of the bronzes, one is a study of a polar bear and one a "Course Folatre," a nude girl running at full stretch. Better work may be found in the decorative bronze statuette of Charles Samuel, which he calls a "Prelude," in the bronze bust and statue of Roman women by Paul De Vigne and in his pretty, petulant marble bust of Psyche. Among the little bronze mediaeval figures, one of the best is Albert Hambresin's fifteenth century herald, trumpeting.

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Last Updated: February 6, 1999