Having fallen from its former reputation, from the great school of the seventeenth century, where Rembrandt, Jan Steen, Paul Potter, Raveinstein, Frans Hais, van der Helst, Hobbema, Pieter de Hooch, Cuyp, Ostade, van de Velde, Ruysdaë and so many others inherited together, Dutch painting today hardly offers anything of interest to the study. The striking originality, sometimes strange, is no longer present; neither is the naive simplicity, the nature taken from life, the sincere and loyal truth, and the old magicians of colour have also taken their secret with them.
What causes such a decline is a question I cannot address here: I would not have the time or space to do so. But it is perhaps not irrelevant to recall that the apogee of Dutch art coincides precisely with the religious and political emancipation of the country, and that at the same time as great painters Holland saw the emergence of great navigators and great citizens, who have carried its prosperity and its glory so high. At that time, art intervened in a direct way in the things and needs of life; it penetrated them in order to reflect them and, for the good bourgeois of Amsterdam, it was undoubtedly the pleasant, but also the useful, the necessary.
Should we conclude from this that the democratic regime is more favourable than any other to the flowering and development of art? I do not think so. At least, in Florence, in Rome, in France, one would immediately find the arguments of an absolutely opposite doctrine. I simply note a fact, and it is quite certain that in Holland, as democratic principles relaxed, art also weakened in proportion. Moreover, this artistic collapse is not peculiar to the Netherlands; for Rome today is no longer the city of Julius II and Leo X, not by a long shot, nor is Florence the capital of the Medicis.
However, it would be unfair to say that Holland no longer has any artists. I certainly do not think so. And if the strong race of the seventeenth century is now extinct, if art no longer shines in this northern corner of Europe as it did in the time of the Rembrandts and Ruysdaels, there are still ingenious minds, conscientious workers who bear the burden of a glorious past with a zeal worthy of applause.
One such person is Mr. Roelofs.
Mr Roelofs is a fine draughtsman, a correct painter, a judicious observer. He draws the outline of a trunk, attaches branches and roots to it, all with a certainty that proves the very thorough study he has made of the structure and anatomy of the tree. And then he has taste and order. Everything follows and holds together in his paintings. The planes of the terrain follow one another from the edge of the frame to the horizon, through the coppices and the forests. Without neglecting the masses, the author also goes after the details. So that after being struck by the whole, the curious and attentive eye sees characteristic things that it had not distinguished at first. Well, it is precisely in these details that the intimate truth, the lasting truth, that of the masters, of Ruysdaël, of Hobbéma, of our Claude, lies.
Now look at the six paintings that Mr. Roelofs exhibited in the international galleries of the Champ de Mars: if he had put more vibrations in the skies, more trembling in the foliage, more abandon in the work, more charm and unexpectedness in the colour, that unexplained and inexplicable je ne sais quoi which does more for the merit of a work than all the manual perfections, is it not true that the painter would have signed so many accomplished pieces?
If I remember correctly, M. Israëls made his debut in Paris at the Salon of 1861, and his paintings were generally appreciated. In spite of this, he has only appeared at the annual exhibitions at the Palais des Champs-Elysées from time to time and, in any case, without finding the vein of his first success.
Among the paintings that M. Israëls sent to the Universal Exhibition, here are those that deserve to be mentioned above all.
The true support. - A mother is ill; sitting in an armchair, she knits and her child, a baby who walks at most, brings her a stool, not without much effort. - Interior of the orphanage in Kalwyk. - Three little girls sitting at a table in front of a window are busy sewing. - The last breath. - A head of a family has just died; his wife, distraught with grief, throws herself on the dear corpse, and embraces it with her arms, and the grandmother sobs withdrawn in a corner, holding on her knees the orphans who are frightened by such a new spectacle for them.
The manner of M. Israëls is a little smeared, cottony and monotonous; also all his paintings are similar in effect, colouring and execution. One can nevertheless make a serious esteem of them. One finds in them accuracy, ingenuity, a sort of mysterious seduction, a slightly sickly poetry, but usually well suited to the subjects. In a word, the realism is impressive, without affectation of false simplicity, without the pretence of bitterness, it seizes by the truth of the expression and not by the deliberate ugliness of the types, it moves by the naivety, not by the sullenness.
It is no problem to ignore the imitations of Peeter Neefs, which Mr. Bosboom likes to paint, or the pastiches of van der Heyden which Mr. Weissembruck is so fond of producing; but I will probably surprise no one by stating that these gentlemen, despite their care, have not yet surpassed their guides.
Let us leave aside the acid and frozen canvases of Messrs. Koekkoek, and if we stop at the flamboyant frames of Mr. van Schandel, let it be only to admire the astonishing perseverance of this artist, who for about a quarter of a century has been turning and turning incessantly in the same circle, like a squirrel in its cage, badgering, licking the same effect, the same blue moon, the same yellow lantern in the same picture a hundred and a hundred times repeated. And when I say that Mr. Schandel polishes a single composition in perpetuity, am I not mistaken? For, at last, raising the tone of his ordinary ritornello, he has just attempted to climb the high peaks of art. No, vain efforts, wasted effort, consider the Visit of the Shepherds to the Birth of Jesus Christ and the Holy Family in Egypt, the painter has added nothing to this innocent pyrotechnics, for which M. Prudhomme has no interest. Prudhomme does not have enough admiration and enthusiasm.
To all this I prefer the somewhat dry, but good effect painting of Mr. Srortenbeker. In his landscape entitled: Matinée d'automne, we see oxen parked in a meadow. In the background a mill.
The Italian Improviser, in turn, by M.Phlippeau, is not unpleasant. The general colouring is indeed a little heavy; but among these figures surrounding the singer, more than one is recommended by the elegance of the pace, the truth of the expression.
The libretto wrongly attributes the Rembrandt on his way to theatrum anatomicum to Mr Blés. Mr. Bisschop is the author of this painting, which is a little massive, but the effect is full of brilliance and vigour. We saw this frame last year at the Palais des Champs-Elysées. The Interrupted Prayer is also an old acquaintance. In this work it seems as if Mr Bisschop wanted to get closer to the manner of Mr van Hove. And he could have chosen a worse model.
Martinus Kuytenbrouxver exhibited five paintings: The Stag Fight, Stags after the Fight, High-life, Patiens quia fortis, One man's happiness makes another man's misery. However, I will only deal with the first one, as the praises and observations that will be addressed to this work can be applied to the others in more or less the same measure.
The proportions of the Stag Fight are quite large, the animals being represented in natural size and the landscape having importance. The artist was not daunted by the difficult conditions of the task. Every detail is studied with great care. The terrain is solid; the foliage, the grasses, the brambles are boldly treated. The tone of the foliage, the context of the smooth or rough bark, the accent of the silhouettes are happily varied. The backgrounds do not shine with lightness or depth; but the foregrounds are masculine, vigorous, and in the places where one thinks one sees only a work of ardour, the calculation of a painter who is a master of his craft is revealed. Let us also acknowledge that the animals that attack each other, collide, push each other with their heads and their antlers are drawn with full knowledge of the facts.
After this large share of praise I feel very comfortable, I confess, in saying where Mr. Kuytenbrouwer's painting usually falls short.
Earlier I found the backgrounds of the Stag Fight neither deep nor light. My God, without being too severe, could we not address a similar reproach to the work as a whole? Indeed, it is always with a hard, harsh, brutal brush that the artist works. He does not touch the canvas, he crushes it; he bristles his dye with hard and sharp accents. With him there is no softness, no supple, caressing inflections. Now, this is a serious fault and one that is not easy to correct. It would be easier to acquire vigour and firmness, and I fear that the talent, which is very real, of the author of this Deer Fight will be forever spoiled by this heavy execution which weighs so heavily on almost all his paintings.
Mr. Alma Tadema is at the Exhibition with thirteen pictures. None of them is a masterpiece, to be sure; but they are in vogue, and the crowd actively seeks out these canvases which seem to exhume, down to their most trivial details, the costumes and utensils of a thousand years ago and more. This success is therefore mainly a success of curiosity. The flavour, the general taste of antiquity that these paintings give off, is what seduces the public.
As for me, to say my whole thought, several of these paintings, I find them above all strange, bizarre, eccentric, It is well said that it is that the author pushed his investigations in the archaeological fields with a scrupulous conscience. That's right. But if we look closely, we must recognise that this beautiful archaic zeal has often resulted only in childish utensils, in secondary ornaments. And it is not proven that these trinkets were not invented as the needs of the cause dictated. For myself, I would hesitate a long time before admitting them all, looking for example at the Egyptians of the eighteenth dynasty, as an unadulterated legacy of antiquity.
Be that as it may, The Education of Clotilde's Children has merit. The scene takes place in a sort of atrium, a Gallic imitation of a Roman palace. A target made of thick planks is set up along a column, and it is on this target that the children's skill is exercised: they have to hit the target with axes thrown at full speed. Surrounded by men-at-arms and monks, Clotilde supervises the warlike amusements of her sons.
Among the best paintings exhibited by M. Alma-Tadema I shall still mention the Roman Armourer, Lesbie,-the fit of this figure is original and well found,-and Agrippina visiting the ashes of Germanicus.
Here I must consider my task completed. Not that the Dutch pictures have all been reviewed. Out of one hundred and seventy, only about thirty have been discussed. But if I omit to mention the others, please believe that it is not without serious reasons. What do you want? Rather than hurting people's feelings, isn't it sometimes better to keep quiet? Ah, just as well if it had been a question of examining an exhibition of Dutch works from the seventeenth century!
©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée