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Some Thoughts on Flemish Painting
by Honor Brooke
THE history of art involves the history of the people amongst whom it grew up and flourished, so that in order to have a right comprehension o the works of a nation, we should at least know the leading facts of its history. And not only that, we should also be acquainted with the kind of climate in which the artist dwelt, the kind of scenery familiar to his eye, and the extent of the knowledge of painting which existed at time he lived. It is curious to hear a person standing before some picture belonging to the early part of the 15th century, complain of its bad perspective, the stiffness of the figures, the rigid fall of the drapery, and a thousand other mistakes, which in their estimation renders the work entirely worthless. The same person will gaze with contentment at one of Frith's pictures, for instance, of some royal pageant, for there the perspective is all right, the dresses fall in the accepted mode of the period, the ladies hold their bouquets, the gentlemen bend their heads in the most graceful manner, and the eye (if not the heart) is satisfied!
It is a curious fact that for every other faculty or function, an education is supposed to be required - but for that of an art critic, none is exacted, or thought necessary. The multitude who throng the rooms of the Royal Academy, go, for the most part, with this formulary on their lips. "I know what I like" - and what they like they will find, although it may be the most worthless of the many worthless pictures that are admitted. Still they are content with their bargain, because it suits their particular mind or temper. From any other work which does not appeal directly to that they learn nothing, they see nothing, they cannot go beyond the boundaries of self and personal experience. The truth is, that the value of a work of art is not a matter of supposition or personal opinion at all, but a matter of fact to be ascertained from an application of rules and principles, not the less solid and certain because they are hard to express or explain. There is no more doubt as to what is a good painting or a bad one than there is as to whether a piece of glass be dim or transparent. Recognising this fact, how differently one is placed in regard of the interest we take in certain works of art! We learn to separate what we like as an individual from what we know how to be good, that of course is the perfection of enjoyment; but how often has one to lay aside (it may be a distinct dislike to the subject chosen) in order to do justice to the skill of the artist. For example, we can never know anything of Teniers, if we turn away in disgust from his pictures of the ale house and its brawls. Nor will we ever know anything of the inspiring beauty that dwelt in the famous Madonna of Cimabue, if we turn away from her because her hands are lean and long and her figure stiff and rigid.
These preliminary remarks are meant as an introduction to the subject of the early Flemish painters, about which I have a few thoughts to offer. One is often repelled at first by a want of beauty in their pictures - a want of that ideal of form and expression, which we see everywhere realised in of form and expression, which we see everywhere realised in Italian art. One sees from the first that the Dutch painter has no such ideal, that he was satisfied with the type of countenance which he saw about him; at most he gave to his Madonnas the expression of calm benignity, and beautifully waved the floating hair from off their high pale foreheads; but he could not throw any spiritual meaning into their eyes. The school of Cologne seems, from what relics we possess of it, to have been full of religious sentiment, and a certain ideal appears to have guided its painters. The Flemings, if they had been filled with the same ideas, would have undoubtedly brought their works to greater perfection, and gained the power of touching us with sweeter and more dignified conceptions of human nature. But their tendency to realism, to the exact copy of Nature in its most material forms, blunted their sense of the beautiful; a sense, which in them, pre-eminently needed to be cherished and cultured, since neither their country nor their national type of countenance supplied them with superior examples. It is interesting to place side y side an early Italian painting of some religious subject, and an early Flemish one of the same subject; both are imperfect in drawing, but the first has a tenderness of feeling, and a delicacy and expression in the lines, of which the other is destitute.
What, the, are the merits of the early Flemish School? I hope you will note that I make use of the word Flemish as distinct from Dutch, for of the numerous Dutch painters of the 17th century I am not going to speak, but will confine myself to those who were born in Flanders or intimately connected with it. We would best find out the merits of this School by glancing at some of its painters.
In the early part of the 15th century we find them chiefly at Bruges. This city, which was to the Low Countries what Venice and Pisa were to Italy, had reached the climax of its wealth in the 14th century. Merchants from all parts thronged its quays, princes lived in the beautiful palaces which adorned its streets on fete days no pageants, equalled in splendour those which defiled through their streets. The towering belfry of its town hall, of soaring height and soaring masonry, declares at once the strength and vigor of mind and thought which characterised its inhabitants. Here it was that Flemish Art first opened its eyes. It was here that the brothers Herbert John Van Eyck lived and laboured. So incorporated were they with the city that the younger of them was called John of Bruges. Their paintings are distinguished by two characteristics - brilliancy of colour and perfection of workmanship. If you were to take a magnifying glass you would not discover a fault in the drawing, but rather be astonished at the exquisite finish and minuteness of it. Taking all the parts singly, and as studies from nature, they must be allowed to be as near perfection as the human hand can make them. We may take it as a rule, that unless an early Flemish work be perfect in all its parts it cannot have been painted by John Van Eyck, or by Hubert, his brother. One must attribute this to their extreme conscientiousness, their careful study of things as they are, their wish to do their very best at all times with whatever they had undertaken to do.
But this finish in their work; is it desirable? Ought we to demand it? I should say yes, as long as the finish is for the sake of giving added truth and beauty to the composition. But as soon as we perceive that the finish is for the sake of neatness or additional polish, or to deceive the spectator in mistaking the object in the work for realities in place of being, just very like the realities, the finish and perfectness of it becomes ignoble. Strange to say, one is often more touched by some picture which falls very short of perfection than by one of superior composition. But to aim at imperfection for the sake of its attractiveness is to lower the true ideal of good art; for the artist only works honourably when he does all that is possible to human energy. Only let him feel that to paint a white satin dress, with shadowy folds in which the light seems half imprisoned, and then contrast the sombre uniform of the Black Brunswicker against it - is not all that we look for in a work of art, that is to speak to mankind through the ages.
The other characteristic of the Van Eycks, was their fine colouring. John Van Eyck was the reputed inventor of oil painting. Although this has been disputed, and it has been said that painting in oils was practical before the time of the Van Eycks, still it is certain that John invented a sort of varnish, which was made of some oils, and gave great lustre and gloss to his work. The story runs: That he happened once to expose a painting of his to the sun to dry, but the heat was too strong, and the boards split in sunder. This disgusted him with distemper painting, and made him set about finding out a new method, one that would endure, and the consequence was that he introduced oil painting such as we know it. Certain it is that the brothers, if not exactly inventing oil painting, carried to a greater degree of perfection than it had before reached, and their works acquired a great reputation over Europe. One, Antonello da Messina, an Italian painter, visited the Netherlands in order to make himself master of the new method, and carried the secret of it to Venice.
The commercial intercourse between the two countries favoured artistic emulation. In the island of Murano there dwelt the family of Vivarini, who had carried on the art of painting from generation to generation, and who had associated with them some of the early Flemings. When Antonello arrived at Venice from Flanders, he found Carpaccio working at his nine canvasses of the legend of St. Ursula. Antonello gave to the Venetian School the finish and minuteness which he had learned in the Netherlands, influencing the Bellini, whose works shew traces of his coloring, although they far excel him in other qualities.
The greatest work of the Van Eycks and that on which their fame must eternally rest, is an altar piece, fund in the cathedral church of Ghent, and having for subject "The Worship of the Mystic Lamb," taken from the imagery in the book of the Revelation.
This wonderful picture was the work of many years, Hubert, the elder of the brothers, died before it was completed, and left the larger portion of it to be finished by his younger brother John; of the two, the former was the better painter, his colouring is more profound, and his knowledge of the human figure more perfect; but if he exceeded his brother, it is only as if one compared two brilliant stars together, and found that one was a little brighter than the other! Few men in Italy in his time, none in the Netherlands, outstripped him in his knowledge of the anatomy of the human frame; and had he lived in Venice, in place of Bruges, he would have founded a school of colour - had his pupils been Italians in place of Flemings, art would not have had so brilliant and short lived a career there. Strange to say there were certain elements of art, developed in Flanders and concentrated into the works of the Van Eycks, which were only developed in Italy through a slow process of years, and through a long generation of painters. The pupils of the Van Eycks endeavoured to copy the form of their great master, but they were not inspired by his genius. The tendency to realism which characterised his works became exaggerated in those of his followers, who with immense patience and with infinite labour elaborated a minute and painstaking style without genius or power.
The alter piece at Ghent has been cruelly dismembered; it was divided into compartments according to the manner of the day; at various times these have been taken away, and are now to be met within the museums of Berlin and Brussels. A copy, however, has been made of them and added to their original, so that the picture is apparently intact. When the sacristan first opens the doors and the picture is disclosed, the first impression is one of harmonious and brilliant colouring; there is a delight felt in its depth and richness which one is conscious of, even before one cares to find out what the multitude of figures, hermits, martyrs, virgins, saints, are assembled for. At last one perceives that the central object in the picture is the Lamb; and it is noticeable in this, how differently a painter early in the 15th century felt than we feel; that whereas we require extreme appropriateness n the symbol of so sacred a representation as this, Hubert Van Eyck was content when he placed a lamb, standing on a small altar in the centre of a meadow, and felt that insignificant as the symbol might appear, - it was quite enough to set all the angels hymning above, all the martyrs, who fill the background, to wave their palms in the air, the kneeling angels to swing their censers, and from the right hand and left, a multitude innumerable to press eagerly forward. This crowd of all sorts and conditions of men is painted with wonderful vigour and grace and clearness of touch, the varied expressions in the faces and attitudes is marvellous; many of the people being portraits of persons living at that time. Of the three grand figures enthroned in the uppermost compartment of the work, that of the Virgin is most striking. One might find perhaps elsewhere a more beautiful conception of her face, but nowhere one so pensive and calm in thought. She is seated and reading; on her head is a magnificent crown of jewels, her fair and beautiful hair falls on her shoulders, and over a robe of blue bordered with gold; the graceful way she holds the book, and the fine painting of the hands, would at once hush the critic who would talk of the rude art of the 15th century. Not the least charming part of this work is the way the flowers grow amongst the long grass, a perfect wilderness of violets and buttercups growing passionately too, as if they also were quickened into new life. The triumphant martyrs stand also on undulating ground, all tufted here and there with flowering shrubs in full blossom. I am not attempting to describe this famous picture - beautiful and wonderful as it is, it is not a perfect work of art, it has the faults and ignorances of the day manifest in it, they are seen at once by the careless eye; but there is such power and genius in the conception and carrying out of the work that they are easily overlooked. They are not faults of carelessness, nor wilfull ignorance, but faults arising from the fact that art was still in its youth, and had much to learn from science. For instance, works of the 15th century are characterised by a cutting hardness of outline, which only gradually gave way beneath a more scientific knowledge of atmospheric effect, and a greater facility in the use of perspective. The figures generally stand out firm and clear against the open sky, which is of a pearly or deep blue - the very clearness of the atmosphere gives to objects a distinctness and sharpness of outline which we seldom see approached under our northern skies. When clouds begin to appear on the canvass they are at first arranged in bands along the sky; later on they are swept into great masses which conceal the mountain tops or shroud a flight of angels. We might well think that the Flemings knew all about clouds, and storm, and rain, and so would find such familiar objects very easy to paint! But at this early period in the history of art the idea of painting nature in her various moods had not been thought of - it was always nature in subjection to man, or nature introduced to heighten the religious symbolism of the picture; the brilliant flowers which star the grass, and blossom on the leafy sprays of the shrubs in the picture of Van Eycks are introduced to symbolise the joy of nature in the worship paid to the Saviour.
In the National gallery at London there is a picture of a newly married pair, painted when John Van Eyck was at the height of his greatness [1432 or 1434]. It bears his initials, and is supposed by some to be a portrait of himself and his wife. At first sight one is struck by the exceeding plainness of the faces, especially that of the woman; for she is florid, as any Fleming could well be, with small eyes, and light hair well brushed off her forehead, and concealed beneath a tight fitting cap. The husband wears a broad beaver hat, over shadowing a countenance equally placid and expressionless, and they hold each other's hands in a very stiff and formal way. But who is to expect that every portrait is to be beautiful? That would be an absurdity; but one does expect a good artist to paint beautifully; and here this expectation is entirely fulfilled. Nothing can exceed the delicacy and truth in every part of the work, and the depth and richness of its lines. The figures are stiff, but the painting is wonderful, it shines like a gem, and looks in as perfect preservation as the day it came from Van Eyck's hands. It is worthy of careful study, even although, look s long as you like, you will never grow to like the faces. But in looking at a portrait, the notion of whether one likes the face or not is of very little consequence, and ought to be put aside until one has thought of other things; such as whether the portrait looks as if it really resembled the person it is intended for; whether it is truthful, faithful, and fine in execution; so worked out that the character of the person appears, by the artist having dwelt on such points as were most salient. Looked at in this way we find, at length, that we are interested in other things besides deciding if the face, expression, &c. is to our taste or not. Strange as it may seem, all great artists did not care for beauty in their models. Look at the etchings of Rembrandt, he rather liked ugly people, and yet he was a great artist. He etched his own portrait about thirty times over; he had a picturesque face, and as such he thought it as good a subject as he was likely to find, and his egotism was purely artistic; but what interested him more than beauty was the thoughtful faces of mature and intelligent men.
Another Fleming of rare merit is Hans Memling, his name is associated with the Van Eycks, as an artist of the same school. His master-pieces are found at Bruges in the Hospital of St. John, and in the Academy. Little is known about this painter; there is a pretty story related of him, but unfortunately not credited now. It is that he served under the Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold, and that sick and exhausted by wounds received in the battles of Granson and Nancy, he came to Bruges, and begged admittance into the Hospital of St. John. He was taken in, tended, and nursed there, and in grateful acknowledgment of such good, he painted the story of St. Ursula on the reliquary there which was said to contain one of her arms. However legendary this story may appear, it is certain that the shrine is still kept in the same hospital; the nuns still nurse the sick, the door is still open to the suffering, and the whole place has that quiet tranquil look, which might well attract a wearied man to its gates.
This shrine, its shape like the nave of a gothic church, has three compartments on either side, in each of which a scene from the life of St. Ursula is painted. Memling is here more tender in color than Van Eyck, and the space being smaller to work in, his figures are more graceful and exquisite; indeed nothing could be more beautiful than the finish and charming design of this work. The scene of boat landing at Cologne in the beginning of the journey, and the virgins disembarking, is full of charm; Ursula, clothed in princely purple, her hair braided with pearls, steps on shore, whilst a virgin at her side carries a casket of jewels. In the distance stands the cathedral, uncompleted, as it used to be a few years ago. The return from Rome, and the landing at the same place, only to meet their martyrdom at the hands of the Huns, is the subject of another compartment; for just as the sailors push the boats from the shore, and before all are on board, the heathen archers let fly their arrows amongst the maidens, some of whom cower behind the rigging, or cover their faces with their hands, unable to look at the murder of their companions - all in various attitudes of terror and resignation. St. Ursula is alone unmoved, her figure is touching, through its quaint grace, one hand is put out as if unconsciously to ward off the arrow, while the archer who is very close by, is using unncessary energy to let fly from his bow.
In the same hospital is his "Marriage of St. Catherine," [Probably painted in 1486] which I must mention, for as regards subject and arrangement it is a very typical picture of these early painters. A famous work, very poetical and most impressive in character and full of sumptuous and delicate lines. The Virgin is placed in the centre, an two angels hold a crown with much grace over her head; beside her kneels St. Catherine, on whose finger the beautiful Child places a ring of betrothal; the saint is arrayed as a princess, in a splendid robe of a deep shadowy green colour, which falls round her in rich folds, a light veil falls from her forehead, and over her long auburn hair, and jewels sparkle on her person. Many of my readers will be able to conjure up some of the various different conceptions they may have seen of her in Art, all more or less ethereal and beautiful. But here we have nothing specially saintly or devout, the expression is that of one who is wholly taken up in a matter-of-fact way, with what is going on, without any kind of rapture whatever; divest her of her rich robe, her veil, and her jewels, and she would be nothing but an ordinary Fleming, very excellent but not interesting. But I must make one exception; there is a certain nobility in the forehead and upper part of the head which redeems it from the common place. It is this want of devotional expression which strikes one so much in these early Flemish works, and which separates them from their Italian contemporaries. But we must remember that these artists who attained to so much excellence had none of the classic works of antiquity to guide the, and no great masters to imitate; the path they struck out was wholly original, and was one of intense honesty and fearless industry, without much sentiment or delight in the ideal.
However, standing behind the Virgin is a charming angel, who holds the keyboard of an organ in one hand, and seems to be playing divinely with the other. St. Barbara is here represented s quite a literary character, I have seldom seen a face so absorbed in reading, whilst an angel in a flowing green robe holds her book open before her. I wonder why the Flemish painters so often place books in the hands of their female saints, I remember no instance of it in early Italian art, if a book is there at all it is in the hands of the Evangelists or the doctors of the Church. I am inclined to think that it quite belongs to the northern art.
Another famous artist of the 15th century was Roger van der Weyden. He was the pupil of Van Eyck, and he it was who formed the elegant and graceful style of Memling. He was born in Tournai, early in the 15th century. In 1432 we find him settled in Brussels, with the title of "town painter," but his influence spread into every part of the Netherlands, and far away to the eastward in the various provinces of Southern Germany. He is the first Flemish painter on record who went to Italy, and returned, unaltered, after seeing the masterpieces in Tuscany. We may presume that the old Fleming wandered into the churches at Florence, adorned by Giotto, and Orcagna, and Angelico, but there is no trace the influence of a grander and sweeter style in any of his paintings. These are characterised by an extreme earnestness of feeling, which we cannot help being touched by, the subjects chosen are those which awaken grief and pity, but an excessive realism pervades his work, and whilst we are charmed with the atmosphere which pervades the landscapes in the masterpieces of the Van Eycks, we are struck (in those by Van der Weyden) by the absence of shadow, and the distance being finished with the same extreme care as objects in the foreground. Germany is indebted to him in the person of Albert Durer, for he fashioned his style on that of Martin Schon, a pupil of Vander Weyden. It was through the influence of this master that the realistic tendency of the Van Eycks spread throughout Germany, and schools were set up in Ghent and Brussels. I have mentioned the ancient school of Cologne, and its being characterised by religious sentiment. This school was soon supplanted by the Flemish, which changed its character of religious aspiration into one of grater materialism. At Louvain, one Dietrick Stuerbout became the earliest distinguished historical painter of Holland, and was a notable disciple of Van der Weyden. There are a crowd of other painters, who preserved the nationality of Flemish painting, but it slowly faded into a pale artistic light until the time of Rubens, of whom I say nothing, as he, with is great pupil, Van Dyck, belong to the second period of Flemish art.
Art was well protected in Flanders, particularly after the accession of the House of France to the throne of Burgundy. There were guilds, comprising all those who could handle the brush; and painters were considered the most respectable of all the members of trades. A rivalry existed between the cities as to their works of art, and a strong spirit of steady emulation kept it healthily alive; one might wonder such being the case why we find so little trace of art in the Netherlands; but one only has to remember the foreign despotism to which the country was subjected, the fury of its religious wars, and the havoc of the iconoclasts, to account for it. So that art in Belgium is now chiefly represented by churches and town halls.
I think we shall find a reason for the decline of Flemish painting when it had reached its greatest pinnacle of greatness in Italy - if we consider the tendencies of the two countries. The Flemings followed the tendency to naturalism and the reproducing of the real, and gradually became simple imitators, making their art servile portraiture; whilst on the other hand they perfected the process of coloring to such a degree, that they helped to found the Venetian School. The great Masters of Tuscany and Umbria founded their art on the perfection of form, in seeing the ideal in nature, in instinctively seizing on the fittest thing to paint, and allowing their imagination to shape it. They turned towards the beautiful as naturally as a flower turns ot the sun. If this was not the case with the early Flemish painters, it rose from the material conditions the artist had around him not being beautiful, or from some inherent want in his nature. But in spite of all the progress that Art made (subsequent to the time I have been treating of), we shall not find again anything to rival the purity of color, the clear edge, and serene precision of the touch of the brothers Van Eyck.
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