Pioneers of Dutch Art
The World of Vermeer: 1632-1675
New York, 1967, pp. 73-79
These men were pioneers in that branch of Dutch painting that was to be probably the most influential beyond the borders of the country; they were the chief precursors of the great English and French landscapists of the 19th Century. They also made a link with the painters of the Dutch past, the Van Eycks, Brueghel, Bosch, who, though their subjects were often allegorical, had dwelt lovingly in many pictures on the details of their countryside.
That Dutch countryside is oddly striking, it almost demands to be painted, although it has little of the drama of the tropics or of mountainous terrain. In fact, the land has almost no verticals at all but is conspicuously flat the horizon is ever-present, so much so that the Dutch language has four words for horizon. The wind sweeps over the low land. The changeable sky, with its towering clouds reflected in rivers and canals, is more dramatic than the earth. Distance is emphasized not only by perspective but also by increasing haziness and a softening of faraway color. Rarely are contours sharp; often rain and sunshine alternate through the day. Nature itself seems as moody, as subjective, as man.
In their efforts to catch the essence of this ever-changing setting, the new landscapists painted pictures that were different from anything seen before. Nature was portrayed for its own sake rather than as a background to divine or human enterprises, or in an artificial arrangement to convey a literary allusion. The story element, though it was still evident in the earliest work of the period, later vanished completely. These artists painted the portraits, so to speak, of the trees, the rivers and the dunes. And as they did so, they learned to convey emotion not by using symbolic devices but by implying it in myriad subtle ways, through color, tone and composition. Their work mirrored nature, but in the end it also mirrored themselves.
Hendrick Avercamp, who was born in Amsterdam about 1585, loved to paint his country in the winter. He was enchanted by frozen, endless fields in gray winter light with perhaps just a touch of color from a flag on a barn; and by the peasants and townsmen as they engaged in the national winter pastime, skating. The horizons are high up in these paintings, and the foregrounds are filled in with bright-colored figures. In his early work, Avercamp's detailed, anecdotal portrayal of daily life reminds us very strongly of Brueghel the Elder, except that Brueghel's vision often had a moody, almost supernatural cast, while Avercamp's was more cheerful. Later, Avercamp's work became almost monochromatic: the mood, the tonality of the landscape override the local spots of color. At the same time, Avercamp lowered the horizons and made the dramatic Dutch sky, with its flying white and dark clouds, a vital element in the paintings.
Another early landscapist, whose work carried him in a different direction, was Hercules Seghers. It is known that he studied briefly in the same studio with Avercamp in Amsterdam during the early 1600s and later became a member of the St. Luke's Guild in Haarlem. Otherwise, little is known of Seghers' life. He was a somber, melancholy man who lived an isolated existence and whose work was appreciated by almost no one at the time, except Rembrandt. Rembrandt appears to have felt a kinship with Seghers. He owned eight of his paintings, and there is doubtless a relationship between the two artists' color schemes, both made extensive use of gray-greens and dark reddish browns contrasted against bright gold light.
Seghers carried the subjectivization of nature to an extreme which led him beyond the range of most Dutch landscapists: he turned his back on the actual scenes around him and painted landscapes which existed only in his troubled mind. In many of his paintings, and in his beautiful but rare color etchings, rocks rise on the left or on the right, sparsely covered with trees. In the center nothing halts the eye; there is only a far-away distance that in the mysterious and muted light seems the embodiment of all the loneliness in the world.
Jan van Goyen, one of Seghers' fellow members of the Haarlem St. Luke's Guild, was a few years younger and much more in the mainstream of Dutch landscapists. It is interesting to compare him with the two leading French landscapists of the day, Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain. In their impeccably executed paintings, Poussin and Claude (as the latter is known) set a mood by their choice of subject: somber ruins, a bucolic scene of a young man playing a flute, tunic-clad shepherds deciphering the inscription on a tombstone in idyllic, picturesque surroundings. The very concept "'picturesque" was born in these works, and rich country squires in France and England started to model their gardens in accordance with the French painters' romantic settings.
How different was Van Goyen! By the time he reached maturity as an artist--around 1640--Van Goyen had dropped all hints of anecdote, all obvious symbolic association from his paintings. His colors were simple, dominated by yellow and gray-green. His subjects were simple too, peasant huts in the sand dunes, a distant town under a stormy sky, a beach or a view of the sea. These quiet landscape paintings were often built around a river, dune or dike running in a strong diagonal across the picture, dividing the foggy land from a vast sky full of slow-moving clouds. Van Goyen made beautiful use of "aerial perspective." That is, he gradually diminished the intensity of the colors of the sky and land to give a sense of great distance; in fact, some of his work seems at first glance to be almost devoid of color. With this subdued expression he learned to convey emotion and mood in a way that is subtle and indirect, but eloquent.
Of course Holland is not just land and sky. There is also the ever-present sea, a source of wealth and at the same time a constant threat to a dike-rimmed land, a fruitful friend and an unforgiving foe. For Dutchmen the sea has always been part of life itself and Dutch landscape painters have long shared this preoccupation.
The first of many 17th Century artists to concentrated on capturing the sea's varied moods and humors was Simon de Vlieger, born in 1601. De Vlieger is an example of the painter forced into extreme specialization although he was a man of many-sided talent who left some beautiful etchings of animals and forest scenes, he is known primarily for his pictures of beaches, naval battles and storms at sea. Almost every Dutch seascape, from De Vlieger till the end of the era, contains at least one ship, as though it were unthinkable that there should be any stretch of salt water without a Dutch ship on it. In rendering the ships in his scenes, De Vlieger paid such attention to detail that experts still use his paintings to study the tackle and naval armament of that great age of Dutch and British seafaring.
If the landscapists were enchanted by the look of the land and sea, the genre painters were concerned with the people of the land. It should be remembered that in the years described here, painting had only recently abandoned its tradition as an art designed to inspire the onlooker with religious awe. The transition from that point of view to courtly art--art for the greater glory of a ruling prince--was not too drastic. But the step to genre, to the art of the everyday, had been more difficult. The early 17th Century Dutch artists still hesitated to paint unadorned views of daily life--of a woman sewing, or even of just a room, an alley-way or a canal. They still felt that a painting needed more substance, and so they mixed up anecdote and hidden allegory: a sleeping servant girl subtly underlined the wickedness of sloth and a peasants' knife fight in a tavern was an indirect comment on the evils of drink. In this the artists were usually in good taste, and seldom sank to the sentimentality of some 18th and 19th Century genre. And soon, the best of them learned that anecdote was not really necessary to their work. Beauty was to be found everywhere, and it was the painting that counted, not the subject.
Adriaen Brouwer was one of the most intriguing personalities in the early generation of genre painters. He was born in the southern Lowlands about 1605, and he died, deep in debt, in Antwerp at the age of 32. He worked in Haarlem, where he was influenced by Frans Hals, but during most of his short life he was a wanderer, a rollicking free spirit whose intrepid individualism made him the hero of many a legendary escapade. He is said to have once been captured by pirates; he was briefly imprisoned by Spanish soldiers in 1633 for reasons unknown he is believed to have served as a secret diplomat between the Republic and the Spanish governors still ruling the southern Lowlands from Antwerp.
As an artist Brouwer resembled the stereotype painter of more modem times, always penniless, often an outcast. He took pleasure in depicting not the serene domesticity of the burghers but the raw life of the lowly country taverns and smoking dens where peasants got "tobacco drunk" on pipefuls of tobacco doctored (possibly with locally grown hemp) to produce a narcotic effect.
These harsh tableaux, executed with great attention to detail, showed the people almost in caricature and seemed to emphasize their low pleasures and unsavory habits. But the scenes are rendered in soft grays, browns and chiaroscuro, enriched by masterful strokes of subtle coloring. Brouwer's paintings were usually small in dimension--many of them were smaller than a page of this book--but they had great impact on his contemporaries, and they still have impact today. One of these contemporaries was Adriaen van Ostade, who lived all his life in Haarlem, where in 1633 he became a member of the Guild at age 23. His work shows an abundance of peasants' inns and huts, emphasizing their dark interiors in gray, green, light blue and purple tones, with the light usually falling from an invisible source. Men and women are seen smoking and drinking, while often a local fiddler plays all very much in the fashion of Brouwer but with less emphasis on the ugliness and rawness of life.
Unlike Brouwer and Ostade in his choice of subject matter was Gerrard Dou, who lived from 1613 to 1675. With Dou (who was Rembrandt's earliest pupil in Leiden from 1628 until 1631), genre painting reached an almost microscopic refinement. Dou painted gentle views of middle-class domesticity, rather than rowdy low-life scenes. On his small panels, Dou seems to have worked with the finest of brushes. All traces of painting vanish, we are far removed from the exuberant brushstrokes of Frans Hals and the earthy energy of Brouwer. As if to challenge the impossible, Dou had a special liking to painting the very source of his light, the flame of a candle or a lantern. The color is almost transparent, the meticulous rendering of each surface--be it linen, glass, metal or a girl's face--is nearly flawless in its scrupulous reproduction or detail. In Dou the knack of mirroring nature came to smooth perfection and, unlike many of his colleagues, he earned from his work great popularity and a comfortable existence. In the process, however, he sometimes became so preoccupied with matter that the spark of inspiration vanished from his painting.
In the next generation of Dutch genre artists, however, that spark was to become brighter than ever. Genre painting became less boisterous and more subtle, less mechanical and more subjective, until it well-nigh resembled still-life painting; and the genre painters proved once and for all that it is not the nobility or beauty of the subject that makes a good painting---only the way the artist sees and records it. In this respect the Dutch genre artists hewed a path all their own. At the end of that road we shall find Vermeer.