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mile Verhaeren:

Essays on the
Northern Renaissance

BELGIAN FRANCOPHONE LIBRARY

Donald Flanell Friedman


General Editor
Vol. 21

PETER LANG

New York y Washington, D.C./Baltimore y Bern


Frankfurt y Berlin y Brussels y Vienna y Oxford

mile Verhaeren:
Essays on the
Northern Renaissance
Rembrandt, Rubens,
Grnewald and Others
Translated with an Introduction and Notes by

Albert Alhadeff

PETER LANG

New York y Washington, D.C./Baltimore y Bern


Frankfurt y Berlin y Brussels y Vienna y Oxford

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data


Verhaeren, mile, 18551916, author.
mile Verhaeren: essays on the northern Renaissance: Rembrandt, Rubens,
Grnewald and others / translated with an introduction and notes by Albert Alhadeff.
pages cm (Belgian francophone library; v. 21)
Includes bibliographical references.
1. Painting, RenaissanceEurope, Northern.
I. Alhadeff, Albert, translator, editor of compilation. II. Title.
ND170.V47 759.9492dc23 2012000540
ISBN 978-1-4331-0011-6 (hardcover)
ISBN 978-1-4539-0868-6 (e-book)
ISSN 1074-6757

Bibliographic information published by Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek.


Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the Deutsche
Nationalbibliografie; detailed bibliographic data is available
on the Internet at http://dnb.d-nb.de/.

La publication de cet ouvrage a t encourage par une subvention


accorde par la Fdration Wallonie-Bruxelles.
Cover photo: Archives & Muse de la Littrature, fonds Verhaeren
Author photo on back cover: Adam Milner
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of the Committee on Production Guidelines for Book Longevity
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2012 Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., New York


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Reprint or reproduction, even partially, in all forms such as microfilm,
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Printed in Germany

For Colin Eisler, who first led me to Verhaeren and


awakened my love for the arts of the Northern Renaissance.

Contents
Acknowledgments

ix

Introduction

Part 1

Rembrandt

55

from Rembrandt (Paris: Henri Laurens, 1904)

Netherlandish Art

93

from the Journal des Beaux-Arts et de la Littrature, May 1882

Part 2

Rubens 105
from Pierre-Paul Rubens (Brussels: Librairie Nouvelle dArt et dHistoire), 1910

Rubens and His World 121


from Exposition de Bruxelles: Hommage aux Peintres, Le Sicle de Rubens
(Brussels: m. Rossel, 1910)

Van der Meer 123


from LArt moderne, 4 October 1891

Part 3

Grnewald 129
from La Socit nouvelle, December 1894

The German Gothic

149

from LArt moderne, 15 August, 1886

Part 4

Flemish Painting 155


from the Revue encyclopdique, 24 July, 1897

Hans Memling 165


from Le Monde moderne, July 1899

Pieter Bruegel: Flemish Life 173


from Les Annales, 15 December 1913, 50-60

Acknowledgments

An acknowledgment page is amongst the most courteous and necessary exercises


in an academic publication. It fortunately allows me to thank the many people who
have allowed this project to come into being. Foremost, I must thank my editor,
Donald Friedman, who through the years has unfailingly been a source of encouragement; if ever I lost courage in the translation, Donald was forever there, his support unflagging, ready to praise and encourage, giving me the wherewithal to keep
on with the work, no matter how difficult it seemed at the timeand to translate
Verhaerens evocative prose is and has always been a challenge. With Donald Friedman, I also must thank the many people at Peter Lang Publishing, especially Jackie
Pavlovic, for kindly accepting my interminable delays with the final manuscript. I
also need to thank the University of Colorados Interlibrary Loan staff, without
whose patience and expertise I could not have completed the research necessary for
the introduction to my text. Rembrandt scholars have also come into play, especially
Paul Crenshaw, whose encouragement and kind words are deeply appreciated. I also
need to thank editors who have read my text, namely David Joel, Max Boersma,
Chuck Scillia and Amber Teng. Otherwise, my very special thanks to a friend and
working colleague, Adam Milner, whose organizational skills, as well as his expertise
in the formatting and typesetting of the manuscript has proved to be invaluable and
has rendered the final product as attractive as it is. Finally, I must thank my wife YouJeong Cha for taking care of our two young children, Saan and Joya, while I spent
long hours in the library and in my office. Thank you all so very much.

Matthias Grnewald, Crucifixion (circa 1526), from the so-called


Tauberbischofsheim Altarpiece (Karlsruhe, Kunsthalle).

Introduction

mile Verhaeren (18551916), fin de sicle poet, critic and homme de lettres, was
a tireless advocate of all that was new in the arts at a time when Belgium rivaled
Paris as a centre of the avant garde.1 Attentive and ever curious, Verhaeren was
constantly appraising, assessing, evaluating artists by the hundreds, whether in
Paris or Brussels, Amsterdam or London, Cassel, Munich or Vienna. Paul Aron,
an eminent scholar of the 1890s of Belgium, published in 1997 a two-volume
anthology of Verhaerens writings on art, salon reviews and critiques that runs
for more than a thousand pages.2 As collected by Aron, Verhaerens earliest publications date from 1881only his tragic and untimely death in 1916 foreclosed
his voluminous output. From the vast outreach of his criticismand his reviews
are replete with aperus on Monet, Rodin, Ensor, Meunier, Seurat, Moreau, Khnopff, the Symbolists and les decadents alikethe present anthology selects and
groups those essays in which the poet explores Van Eyck, Memling and the
early Netherlandish painters and the Northern Baroque, writings that have not
been sufficiently scrutinized by the art historical community, although they are
amongst his most powerful and revelatory essays. Focusing on Flemish, Dutch
and German art of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, Verhaerens impassioned
studies on les primitifs are in their rich apperceptions amongst the most instructive
of the period. Yet, these essays, expressive of Verhaerens enduring interests in
the masters of the Early Modern period, have been waylaid by history.3 The present translation attempts to resurrect these all but forgotten works.

mile Verhaeren: Essays on the Northern Renaissance

It is odd, if not curious, that Verhaerens most persuasive and insightful essays on Grnewald, one in 1886 and another in 1894essays as revealing as J.
K. Huysmans oft-quoted panegyrics of 1891 and 1904 on the painter from Isenheimhave not found a place in the Grnewald canon, while those of Huysmans are always cited.4 Verhaerens critiques of Bruegel and Memling, Rubens
and Rembrandtnot to mention his commentaries on Jan van Eyck, Roger Van
der Weyden, Jacob Jordaens, Jan Steen, Ruysdael and othershave all suffered
a similar fate. Neglect has been their lot. The most egregious omission of all,
however, is Verhaerens lengthy 1904 monograph on Rembrandt, a detailed and
nuanced study that reviews the publications that preceded his own on Rembrandt
and explores his musings on the Dutch master,5 insights that go back to the 1880s
and recur in one way or another in his studies of the Early Modern period.
***
mile Verhaerens long and probing essay on Rembrandt van Rijn opens with
a startling image. In the first few introductory sentences, Verhaeren likens the
master from Leiden to a naked and tormented Christ (il apparat nu et tourment),
a hapless being suffering a swarm of ants (autant de fourmis) (Aron 2:820) in the
guise of critics scouring his life and uneven fortunes, images that set the stage for
what is to come, a sympathetic portrait of Rembrandt as an outcast, rebuffed by
his peers and pilloried by history. With the metaphor of intrusive critics vilifying
Rembrandt as ants, Verhaerens conjures a searing picture that tells us as much
about Verhaeren himself as it does about Rembrandt.
For Verhaeren too had suffered the acrimony of querulous critics. At odds
with the establishment, Verhaeren, a poet and critic whose protean pen defined,
with other fecund Belgian writers of his dayMaeterlinck and Rodenbach come
to mindwhat Verhaeren in an essay of 1908 on his beloved Ensor would nostalgically recall as a heroic, seemingly legendary time ([un] temps hroquequasi
lgendaire) (2:873).6 And though years had passed since Verhaeren and his fellow
poets shared the limelight with the likes of Ensor, Minne, Rops and Khnopff, the
years had not effaced the pain he and his cohorts had known, nor effaced the indignities they had suffered at the hands of vociferous critics who never hesitated
to denigrate their work. Belgium in the 1880s and 1890s had not only betrayed
him, it had betrayed his entire generation. Verhaeren knew this, had personally
lived through this betrayal. Thus in a particularly vivid diatribe, Verhaeren attacks
les conservateurs ou directeurs bruxellois, underlining his despair at their philistine ineptitude. Passionately addressing his readers as a lawyer would address his jury

Introduction

summing up his case, Verhaeren, writing for La Nation in 1891and we can see
him gesticulatingcries out,
Ces gens, voyez vous, nont pas lardeur, nont pas la fivre, nont pas la haute joie esthtiques; il leur manque la flamme et la ferveur de leur charge; ils font leur besogne non
pas comme des volontaires, mais comme des soudoys. Ils savent tre convenablement
banals part cela, rien. Ils sont sniles, incurablement. Au fond ils ignorent lart; ils
en parlent, mais ils ne le sentent pas (1:4778).7
Those people, you see, dont have the passion, the fever, the high joy of aesthetics; they
are missing the flame and fervor of their charge; they do their job not like volunteers, but
like mercenaries. They know how to be conveniently banalother than that, nothing.
They are incurably senile. In truth, they ignore art; they give it lip service, but they do
not feel it.

With curators, critics, collectors and public alike ignoring art, giving it lip service when it served their needs, Belgium never embraced the avant-garde. With
its eyes shut towards the future Verhaeren could conclude: La Belgique has long
been hostile aux lettresthis last sentiment expressed not in 1891 with La Nation
as the above, but in 1908 in Verhaerens Ensor.8
But all this was a dj vu, it had happened once before, and it had happened to
his hero from Leiden. For as Belgium was hostile aux lettres and denied its nascent
masters, so Holland in the XVII century distanced itself from Rembrandt. She
neither understood, nor stood by him, nor did she acclaim him ([l]a Hollande au
XVIIe sicle sest loigne de Rembrandt. Elle ne la ni compris, ni soutenu, ni clbr) (2:821).
Likewise for Verhaerens sorry Belgium. For as Holland neither understood nor
celebrated its greatest artist, Belgium neither understood nor celebrated its golden
age.9 Painful as it is, Belgium never favored those halcyon though difficult days during the 1880s and 1890s when Verhaeren and his peers suffered innumerable jeers
from exasperated critics and an infuriated public.10
As Verhaerens lengthy study on Rembrandt reiterates time and again, Rembrandt had to suffer fools gladly. He had to live with the insufferable fact that la foule
(the crowd) preferred the mediocrities of les petits matres nerlandais to his own work.
(Il eut subir les prfrences de la foule pour les mdiocres.) (2:822). The rancor of those early
years was still with him when in 1908only four years after his Rembrandtwith his
study on Ensor, he readily quotes a piece he had written twenty or so years before.
In that essay, written in 1886 for La Jeune Belgique, he likened Belgium to an abbatoir,
a stinking slaughter house where blood ran freely, and where, with smoking entrails
and ripped stomachs, artists and spokesmen for the avant gardelike slaughtered
pigswere suspended on meat hooks, subject to la foule and its excrments de sottise.

mile Verhaeren: Essays on the Northern Renaissance


le cerveau bourgeois se dgorge par toutes ses circonvolutions. Il en jaillit des excrments de sottise. Cela rapelle des oprations dabattoir. Le porc est tu, il est suspendu,
ventre ouvert, des tringles grossires, les boyaux sont jets sur ltal, fumants et flasques
(1:239).11
the bourgeois brain spills in all its circumvolutions. Loads of excremental nonsense
gush from its pores. It recalls the machinations of the slaughterhouse. The pig is killed,
hanging from a filthy hook, stomach slit, guts spilled on a filthy floor, limp and smoking.

That was in 1886 and though thirty or so years had passed since his initial
outburst, Verhaeren, his anger still smoldering, felt compelled to reiterate these
scornful lines in his Ensor, and even embellish them with one last angry outcry: La
btise belge et bourgeoise, cest cela (2:875) (Belgian bourgeois stupidity, thats it). A
telling detail needs to be underlined here, for though Verhaeren is quoting his earlier comments on Ensor, he misquotes himself, a slip of the pen that underscores
his disgust with the establishments intransigence. Thus the 1886 essay ends the
remarks on labattoir with the words la btise belgejust a couple of words, pure
and simple (1:239). But the 1908 version of the same reads differently. Now the
bourgeois is added to the indictment (la btise belge et bourgeoise), adding insult to
injury, so to speak. Time clearly had not dulled Verhaerens vitriol. Belgium had
not favored the avant-garde in the 1880s and 1890s and it still looked askance at
modernity as the 20th century advanced.
Just as Verhaeren had to deal with la btise belge, Rembrandt had to deal with
la btise nerlandaise and, as Verhaeren stresses, it was unforgiving. In page after page of his Rembrandt, Verhaeren makes it clear that average Dutchmen found
little in the painter from Leiden they could admirenot to say, forgive. They did
not like his morals, his zest for life, his spendthrift ways. They did not even like
the way he laughed. Hence Verhaeren: When he laughed, he scandalized all with
his rash folly. No holding back (Quand il riait, il scandalisait par laudace de sa folie.
Aucune retenue) (2:822).
Doutre en outre, le peintre [Rembrandt] traversait les cloisons des conventions et des
prjugs. Il froissait, heurtait, et bouleversait. En tout, il allait jusquau bout (2:822).
Again and again, the painter [Rembrandt] crossed the lines of convention and prejudice.
He offended, clashed with and distressed everyone. In sum, he pushed the envelope to
its limits.

And to illustrate his point, Verhaeren refers us to Rembrandts Ganymede of


1635, where an overfed gamin is peeing with fright as Zeus, in the guise of a
robust eagle, lifts Rembrandts graceless urchin on high. Rembrandts representa-

Introduction

tion was clearly a blasphemous interpretation of what Renaissance masters had


depicted as a beauteous youth raised to Olympian heights by a zealous god enamored with a graceful lads ineffable beauty. Before this graceless lad, however,
the question arises if Verhaeren had Michelangelos infamous Ganymede (1533)
in mind as he spoke of its impudent vice. For without finding fault Verhaeren
underscores the crudity of Rembrandts oil. This was no longer a farce, it was
simply plain impudence (Ceci ntait plus la farce, ctait le vice dans son impudeur la
plus crue) (2:822).12
It is important to note that the same bourgeois conventions Rembrandt so
brazenly flaunted were prized by his peers, even seen as sacrosanct. Verhaeren
understood this and likened Rembrandts situation as an outsider to his own.
Elaborating on the differences between Rembrandt and the bourgeoisie and pitting the former against the latter, Verhaeren writes that whereas Rembrandt favored a spontaneous, wondrously enchanting and heathenish life (une vie spontane, frique et paenne) (2:825), the Dutch petit bourgeois favored moderation,
their norm being neither too much nor too little, that in effect being the ideal
norma tranquil, moderate and sluggish being, a practical and bourgeois personage who when all is said and done stands for the true Dutchman (la norme,
ni trop, ni trop peu, cest lidal mme de cet tre tranquille, modr, lent, pratique et bourgeois
quest au fond tout vrai et authentique Hollandais) (2:822). Thus Verhaerens modest,
quiet and placid bourgeois follow well defined limitations, guidelines that say that
the Dutch are a moderate people, never given to excess, intemperance, dissipation or noise. Again, Verhaeren:
Peu de bruit. Tout est rgulier, compass, fix, prvu. La vie y est tenue comme un papier
commercial: lignes droites et chiffres Ce que ces novateurs rapidement assagis redoutent le plus, cest qu lavenir on drange encore la monotonie compasse et textuelle
de leur existence. Sils admettent la libert dans la pense, ils nadmettent point la libert
dans la conduite. Ils librent les ides, mais enchanent les actes (2:825).
Hardly a sound. All is as it should be, formal, fixed, stiff, pre-arranged. Life is comparable
to a financial document: straight lines and numbers. What the establishment fears the
most is that the future may threaten the monotony of their staid and starched existence.
If they embrace liberty in the abstract, they do not embrace it in fact. They set ideas free,
but enchain their range of action.

But for Rembrandt, a free spirit (at least for Verhaeren), such strictures were
anathema. Unable to accept Rembrandts carefree ways, the Dutch saw him as un
monstre, a monster without a sense of propriety or decorum. Verhaerens quick
summary thus sketches for us a polarized situation, an equation that speaks of
Rembrandt at one end and the Dutch at the othera situation that sets Rem-

mile Verhaeren: Essays on the Northern Renaissance

brandt apart from his peers, that isolates him and renders him as less than Dutch,
a being who exists en marge de lespce (2:824). Lespce was, as Verhaeren understood, one of them, a good bourgeois, the petits matres nerlandais who did not
cause trouble and
peignaient des sujets gracieux et mondains, ou bien instauraient dans leurs toiles la gait
facile, lespiglerie, la grivoiserie, la farce, la fte. Leur humeur tait celle des buveurs
francs, des lurons chauffs, des coureurs de filles. Ils taient bons enfants (2:822).
painted attractive and mundane subjects or filled their paintings with an easy gaiety, a
roguish frolic, smut, farce and merry making. Heavy drinkers, studs after womens skirts.
Gay dogs all

Rembrandt, not being a bon enfant, terrorized them. He seemed, as Verhaeren observed, too extraordinary, too mysterious, too big for them all (Il
apparaissait trop extraordinaire, trop mystrieux, trop grand) (2:822), plaudits meant to
extol the master from Leiden but which assured his singularity. For as Verhaeren
exalted Rembrandts infinite reach, the very height of the pedestal where Verhaeren rested his heroes laurels necessarily distanced him from his countrymen. As
Verhaeren phrased it: He is not what they are; he is what they are not (Il leur est
oppos; il est leur contraire) (2:821). Hence, not favoring what they favored and not
being one of them or being what they were not, Rembrandt was a man apart,
a loner, as Verhaeren draws his portrait. Inimically opposed to all his countrymen fancied, Rembrandt, as Verhaeren defines him, signifies the Other. Flaunting
decorum, Rembrandt is the great outlander: denying the values his peers value,
he accepts what they reject and favors what they spurn. Thus without apologies, Verhaeren forms the following equation, a relatively simple one: either Rembrandt embodies all that is Dutch or he does not. Verhaerens own words say it
most succinctly; Either he, or they, embody Holland (Ou bien cest lui qui exprime
la Hollande, ou bien cest eux) (2:821)and they, for Verhaeren, were the burghers
and their allies, les petits matres. Hence Rembrandts distance from his public!
Verhaerens stark divide, expressly alienating Rembrandt from his Dutch
peers, is unequivocally based on his reading of Hippolyte Tainea mid-nineteenth century social historian whom Verhaeren used as a straw man to concretize the rift he saw between Rembrandt and his public.13 A prolix author of great
persuasion, Taine espoused a view which came to be known as la thorie tainienne
in his Philosophie de lart dans les pays-bas of 1869, arguments that split Europe into
two camps. With Taine relying on racial theories and much talk of le milieu and
climate, Europeans are either Latins (especially those of Italian persuasion) or
Celts (Northerners like the Germans, Dutch and English). Favoring antitheti-

Introduction

cal contrasts, Taine draws the following line, a divide between nationalities, between North and South: as Latins are lively, imaginative and spontaneous, Northernersand Taine emphasizes the Dutchare slow, plodding, and meticulous.
Hence Taines all too easy (but popular) binaries, of which he has much to say
but to let Taine speak for himself:
Il reste montrer dans leurs dehors un dernier trait qui choque particulirement les
mridionaux, je veux dire la lenteur et la lourdeur de leurs impressions et de leurs mouvements. Il semble, quand on leur parle, quils ne comprennent pas. Aux cafs, dans
les wagons, le flegme et limmobilit des traits sont frappants; ils nprouvent pas comme
nous le besoin de se remuer, de causer; ils peuvent rester fixes, pendant des heures entires, en tte--tte avec leur pense our leur pipe. En soire, Amsterdam, des dames
immobiles dans leurs fauteuils, semblaient des statues.14
There remains for us to show one last trait of their demeanor that particularly shocks
southerners, I mean to say their slowness and the ponderousness of their movements.
It seems, that when one speaks to them, they do not understand. In the cafes, and in
the public trams, their sluggish ways and staid features are absolutely striking; unlike us,
they do not feel a need to stir, to talk-a-bit; they can stay still for hours at a time with
their thoughts and their pipes. In the evening, in Amsterdam, the ladies frozen in their
chairs, seemed like statues.

Rembrandt, forever restless, was neither lent nor lourd, a trait that not only
distinguished him from his fellow burghers but encouraged hima point key
in Verhaerens Rembrandtto favor illusions, fantasies so rich and intense that
men who indulged in like excesses were seen as mad and were locked up, put
away (on les traiterait de fous, on les enfermerait) (2:823). Nothing illustrates this better
for Verhaeren than Rembrandts love for Saskia, his first wife. For according to
Verhaeren, Rembrandts love for Saskia knew no bounds: it swept him away, inflamed his zealous ardor, it unleashed, as Verhaeren phrases it, a vibrant and feverishly revived sumptuous life of glorious richness (une vie frissonnante et nouvelle,
une vie de gloire et de richesse, de somptuosit et de fivre) (2:827). And what folly (quelle
folie) (2:826) did he not commit to please his wife, readily agreeing to her every
caprice and fantasy in that champ rouge of feminine desires, as Verhaeren coyly
alludes to Rembrandts helplessness before Saskias enchanting wiles. Clearly, critics in generalfrom Taine to Eugne Fromentin to Charles Blanc and ThorBurger (all whom Verhaeren cites in his Rembrandt)in the nineteenth century
and even earlier disparaged his much publicized purchases15 and, paradoxically,
not only found him to be a spendthrift, they found him to be a miserlegend
says that even as he lay dying, he was still counting his gold.16 What is more, they
also faulted him for mingling with the poor, with destitute women and children

mile Verhaeren: Essays on the Northern Renaissance

and plebians of all sorts, Jews in particular.17 In short, contrary to the prevailing
opinion, Verhaeren found Rembrandts unconventional behavior commendable
and far from disparaging it, he found that it spoke of his singular gifts and his
generous spirit.
Rembrandt was never stymied by conventions. They never hampered him,
for if he had been constrained by them he never would have painted an aberrant canvas like the Night Watch (1642). Never has a work, writes Verhaeren,
appeared so enigmatic and so distressing (La Ronde de nuit, et jamais oeuvre
napparut aussi nigmatique et aussi bouleversante) (2:836). Seemingly defeated by
the works quixotic possibilities, Verhaeren arrives at a most unexpected conclusionnamely, that it is indeed possible that as Rembrandt was at work on the
canvas he did not fully grasp his own intentions. Was he cognizant of his own
actions? Was he painting a dream, a vision that eluded him?
A quelle heure, pour quel motif, dans quel ordre, en quelle ville ces hommes sont-ils runis? Personne na pu jusqu prsent dnouer les milles noeuds de cette nigme. On se
heurte aux conjectures et lon peut se demander si Rembrandt lui-mme a su quel sujet il
traitait. Il est possible quil nait traduit quun rve (2:836).
Just when, why, in what order, and in what city had these men come together? No
one has yet unraveled the myriad knots of this enigma. Conjectures lead us nowhere, and
one can only ask oneself if Rembrandt knew what he was doing. He was possibly only
translating a dream

Might he have dreamt it all18a fanciful conclusion that tells us as much


about Verhaerens readiness to probe unknown and unseen territories as it does
about his understanding of Rembrandt.
Disdain of all matters quotidian, fancy, revery and dreaming are at the heart
of Verhaerens study of Rembrandt. Studying Verhaerens pages, Rembrandts penchant for living in a private sphere of his own, a world beyond the reach of his
peers comes up time and again. Neither les petits peintres nerlandais nor the staid
burghers that denounced him for his fanciful reveries could impose their views
on him. Thus Verhaerens unapologetic references to le rve: [il] se crera une
existence de rve; (2:824) Il vit dans un monde de rve (2:826); le rve intrieur quil
porte en lui (2:832); ([dautres] taient comme lui les prisonniers de leurs rves (2:833) ([he]
shall create [for himself] a life of dreams. He lives in a world of dreams.
the inner dream he carries in him [others] were like him prisoners of their
own dreams) and many more such citations can be found scanning his text.
Verhaerens emphasis on Rembrandt and le rve as praiseworthy, singles him out
from the pack of nineteenth century Rembrandt devotees. Eugne Fromentins

Introduction

many pages on Rembrandt in his Les Matres dautrefois of the mid-1870s,19 for
one, explicitly faults Rembrandt for the very qualities Verhaeren lauded. Thus
where Verhaeren could unabashedly praise Rembrandt for living in the world
of his imagination ([v]ivant naturellement dans le monde de son imagination) (2:833),
Fromentin doused such views with caustic skepticism. True, Fromentin agreed
with Verhaeren that Rembrandt was a unique casehere he echoes Hippolyte
Taine, arguing that on this point, as with all the others, [Rembrandt] sees, thinks
and acts otherwise (sur ce point comme sur tous les autres, [Rembrandt] voit, pense et agit
diffremment).20 But though he readily calls him a gnie he often tempers his praise
with the word bizarre (strange), an adjective that smacks of disapproval if not incomprehension. Reduced to a caricature, Rembrandt, as ce gnie bizarre,21 indulges
in bizarrerie(s)22 and lives dans un milieu de revries bizarres23thus even if Fromentin
concedes that Rembrandt is affected by dreams, those dreams are strange, bizarre.
Verhaerens Rembrandt is free of these admonitions. He would never append
the word bizarre to Rembrandts name. Fromentin clearly saw Rembrandts
singular manners as unacceptable (and we must not forget that Fromentin was
not alone in this, but that this was the prevailing view on Rembrandt when Verhaerens work was published in 1904). Whereas Fromentin viewed Rembrandts
idiosyncratic ways as odd or grotesque, Verhaeren lauded them. Their discussions
of Rembrandts Night Watch, and in particular of the young fleeting personage
clad in a yellow light moving brusquely to one side, highlights their different approaches towards the master from Leiden. Puzzled by this figure who stalks the
canvas, all but an apparition, both Fromentin and Verhaeren wonder who she
might be. What is her role? Why is she there? And why her prominent pride of
place? Verhaeren, in contradistinction to Fromentin, asks these questions with an
empathetic voice. He refers to her fleeting form as a sort of princess dressed
in gold and silk ([une] sorte de princess vtue dor et de soie) (2:836), a naine, or slight
figure who somehow has lost her way into the canvas. But where Verhaeren sees
a princess in golden raiments, a dazzling being clad in mystery, Fromentin sees
a grotesque and shapeless creature who is barely human: This smallish figure,
he writes with disdain, appears to have nothing human. She is bland and almost
shapeless (cette figurine affecte de navoir rien dhumain. Elle est incolore, presque informe),24
and appears to be no taller than a doll seemingly wearing rags (des loques), tatters and trash from the street, a low life creature from the Jews quarters, from
rag-tag knaves and roques, the bohme or the theatre (elle vient de la juiverie, de la
friperie, du thtre ou de la bohme).25 Unattractive and benighted, this petite personne,
wizened and child-like, at home between mens legswho glides one does not
know why between the legs of the guards (qui se glisse on ne sait trop pourquoi entre

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mile Verhaeren: Essays on the Northern Renaissance

les jambes des gardes)26 [the obscene implications of these words say much for Fromentins views]carries about her waist a belt with a dangling white rooster (un
coq blanc) that seems for all the world like a money belt (une escarcelle).27 Her appearance is thus bizarre,28 as bizarre as those supposedly misshapen misers from
la juiverie, Jews whom Rembrandt presumably cosseted.
Verhaerens naine des legends (2:836) belongs to a totally different order. She
speaks of wonder, of fabled lore, of wondrous tales entranced and wide-eyed
children know best, tales that awaken the imagination and appear with fairylike magic as Rembrandts fleeting naine in the forefront of his canvas. Certainly,
whoever and whatever she is, she is not for Verhaeren a misshapen Jewess with a
money belt as Fromentin insinuatesan insinuation that pointedly alludes to the
distaste so many commentators since the 18th century had for Rembrandt, who
they said inexplicably cared for Jews, vile though they be.29
Verhaerens text has none of these deplorable insinuations. Unlike his nineteenth century predecessors, Fromentin surely being one of them, Verhaeren
would not sully his exalted view of Rembrandt by soiling his heros name with
such base tall-tales. But sordid, mean and degrading stories followed Rembrandt
into the days of the Dreyfus affair, when anti-Dreyfusardsespecially douard
Drumontall but equated Dreyfus with Rembrandt. For as Dreyfus, a Jew
whose had stirred endless debate in France and Belgium since late 189430 when
he was accused of treason for selling Frances most treasured military secrets
for money, so Rembrandt had long been accused of selling out his friends and
family for money. Jews, after all, had no compunctions to do whatever it takes to
amass gold, as douard Drumonts vastly popular La France Juive said. Drumonts
two-volume affair of 1886 courses with encyclopedic breadth from one sordid
anti-semitic incident to another, ignoble tales that spread lies and that demean
the end-goal of their noxious attention, unsuspecting and unwary subjects like
Rembrandt.31
Weaving his fabrications with expert chicanery, Drumont wrote that Rembrandt naturally congregated with Jews because of his inordinate miserliness.
Valuing gold above all else, even his canvases, Rembrandt favors yellow because
yellow is the color of gold, says Drumont in a truly inventive burst of anti-Jewish
fantasy. Thus when it comes to defiling Jewsand RembrandtDrumont is
unequivocally hateful: His [Rembrandts] oeuvre has a Jewish color, it is yellow,
a warm and eager yellow that seems to reflect the gold playing upon a forgotten
corner in an old narrow lane from the middle ages (Son oeuvre [Rembrandts] a la
couleur juive, elle est jaune de ce jaune ardent et chaud qui semble comme le reflet de lor jouant
sur une vieille rouelle du moyen ge oublie dans un coin).32 But Drumonts spiteful rheto-

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11

ric does not quite end hereon the contrary. Having dragged ces Juifs de Rembrandt
through forgotten dark alleys, he congregates them outside the synagogue on a
Sabbath, chatting on their various businesses discussing the value of the guilder (causant daffaires au sortir de la synagogue, sentretenant du cours du florin),33 especially incendiary calumniations since all this casual talk revolving around money
and business takes place outside the synagogue and not outside the stockmarket.
All this allows Drumont to conclude: If you want to know about Jews, study
Rembrandt! It is Rembrandt that one must contemplate, study, scrutinize,
search, analyze if one truly wants to see a Jew (Cest Rembrandt quil faut contempler, tudier, scruter, fouiller, analyser si lon veut bien voir le Juif).34 And the Jew we see,
from Drumonts sketch of Rembrandt, is a miser, a man who lives in wretched,
filthy quarters hoarding everything from gold to worthless bibelots:
Rembrandt vcut constamment avec Isral. Son atelier mme, encombr dobjets
dart, vritable capharnaum dtoffes et de bibelots, ressemble ces boutiques de brocanteurs au fond desquelles loeil un moment dsorient finit par distinguer un vieillard
sordide au nez crochu.35
Rembrandt constantly lived with Jews. His atelier bursting with objets darts, a veritable
hodge-podge of fabrics, stuff and trinkets of all sorts, looks like a small second-hand
shop of minor goods where somewhere lost in its recesses one can make-out after awhile,
for ones eye needs to get adjusted to the mess, a sordid old man with a hooked nose.

And so likening Rembrandts atelier to a pawnshop inhabited by a grotesque


old manour imagination sees him wearing rags, in surround of dust and stale
airDrumonts hook-nosed Rembrandt is not unlike most Jews with their nez
recourb, their horrid physiognomy often climaxing with one arm shorter than
the other (un bras plus court que lautre).36 Curiously, Drumont cites the 18th century physiologist Lavater as his source for these outlandish remarks, a source
Fromentin might himself have known as he reduced the girlish woman in Rembrandts Night Watch to a colorless shadow, a figure presque informe qui [na] rien
dhumain37 (a shapeless being who [has] nothing human about her).
How far Verhaerens vision of Rembrandt is from all this!38 Where Drumont
reduces Rembrandt to a greedy, close-fisted miser whose life circles around Jews
and money, Verhaeren sees Rembrandts passion for collecting, for amassing
silks, furs, Oriental costumes, prints from Italy, and much much more, as a means
to transcend the constrictions of life and to transport himself into a rich fantasy
world, a world of wondrous enchantments and fanciful chimeras (de frie et de
chimre) (2:841), as Verhaeren phrases it. Verhaerens coupling wonder, fantasies,
and enchantment with chimeras is at once startling and altogether appropriate.39

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mile Verhaeren: Essays on the Northern Renaissance

In sum, where Rembrandt was roundly faulted for fraternizing with Jews, demeaning himself by associating ever too freely with riff-raff, and in the midst of
his riches living the life of a miser, getting by with a piece of cheese (un morceau
de fromage) and some pickled herring (un hareng sal)40 for a mealit was said,
to cite but one of the many legends all-but-synonymous with his name, that he
lived like a lout with nothing, like a bear (comme un rustre, comme un ours),41 to
quote Blancs 1863 Rembrandt where Blanc is debating the pros and cons of Rembrandts greedinessVerhaeren viewed Rembrandts easy familiarity with Jews as
a means to affirm his hold on ltrange et le surnaturel (the odd and the uncanny).
It encouraged communion with his own visions, and like [a] seer (comme [un]
illumine), he came to grips with le rve intrieur quil porte en lui (2:832) (the inner
dream within him)a rve which others rejected and which assured his isolation,
in fact, his ostracism.
From all this, it is clear that Rembrandt was the butt of much vicious criticism
starting in the eighteenth century and going on through the nineteenth century,
cruel, angry denunciations that demeaned and debased his person. Viewed as
an unsavory rogue by Houbraken, Fromentin, and so many others who devoted
long pages to his art and life, Rembrandt stood out as a scapegrace in the world
of seventeenth century Dutch painting.42 But for Verhaeren at least, Rembrandt
was beyond such public scourging and though defamed by his 19th century critics, they could not endlessly excoriate him because they all acknowledged his
primacy in the world of art. He was, they unanimously concurred, the greatest
painter of his day. In turn, this allowed Verhaeren to arrive at a most unlikely
conclusion: Rembrandt was, in his light, free of restraintsthe restraints that
intimidated his fellow burghers even as they lived by them. Never hemmed in by
conventions, Rembrandt, on the contrary, was a free spirit, a man, as Verhaeren
argued, whose genius transcended time and any given situation: Rembrandt
could have been born anywhere (Rembrandt aurait pu natre nimporte o.) (2:821).
And so, for Verhaeren, Rembrandt was not necessarily Dutch; he could have
been born in a different place, in a different milieua proposition that allows us
to posit the thoughtone, I believe, that was Verhaerens ownthat Rembrandt
could have been a colleague, a fellow artist working with him in Brussels in the
1880s and 1890s. Rembrandt was, for Verhaeren, an artist like himself, an artist who had been besieged by the pharisaic many and who had withstood their
assault. Before these arguments, Verhaerens conclusion is seemingly inevitable:
[Rembrandt] is from nowhere because he is from everywhere ([Rembrandt]
est de nulle part, parce quil est de partout) (2:821)a position congruent with Verhaerens own, one that says Rembrandt not only transcended his own time but

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13

transcended time itself: He is the past, the present, the future (Il est le pass, le
prsent, le futur) (2:824).
Was Verhaeren blinded by his own adulation? Is all this mere hyperbole?
In part, surely. But for Verhaeren to see Rembrandt as a comrade, one who had
known derision as he had known derision, is not that farfetched. Verhaeren had
opened his essay on Rembrandt by declaiming that Holland had abandoned him,
that she neither understood, nor stood by him, nor acclaimed him (Elle ne la
ni compris, ni soutenu, ni clbr) (2:821). How often had this happened to him and
others in Verhaerens Belgium! In Le Milieu belge, an essay written in the fall
of 1896, Verhaeren battered Belgium for its disdain of the arts: one only has to
breathe latmosphere belge for eight days to feel diminished, impaired ([ont se] sentis
diminus et amoindris, rien qu respirer pendant huit jours latmosphre belge).43 Le mileu,
he wrote, which elsewhere enhances life, gives nothing [here], it takes away; it
does not build, it razes all (ne donne rien [ici], il enlve; il ne redresse point, il aplatit).44
His own work had just borne its measure of criticism. La Jeune Belgique, an avant
garde journal that had previously supported him, now denounced him: he is
incapable of logically bridging two thoughts (il est incapable dtablir logiquement
un rapport entre deux ides),45 wrote its editor, Albert Giraud. And, again Giraud:
the French of France, M. Verhaeren has neither studied it nor understood it.
French words go awry in his mouth (le franais de France, M. Verhaeren ne la ni
tudi ni compris. Les mots franais lui tordent la bouche).46 Betrayed, Verhaeren could
only concludea conclusion shared by many Belgian writers and artiststhat
[b]etween the writer and the masses in Belgium there lies not only incompatibility, there lies disdain ([e]ntre la foule belge et lcrivain il y a non seulement incompatibilit;
il y a ddain).47
Then again lvnement Maeterlinck of the early 1890s confirmed what he
must have known all along. One needs to backtrack a moment to sketch the
main events. The young Maeterlinck, a fellow writer from Ghent (which was
Verhaerens home town as well), had just published in quick succession his great
early works, Serres chaudes and La princesse Maleine.48 Verhaeren had enthusiastically
praised them in LArt moderne, but evidently, these reviews fell on deaf-ears. Then,
a year later, Octave Mirbeau, writing for the French daily, Le Figaro, discovered
Maeterlinck anew. That was all that was needed. Mirbeaus lavish praise spun
things aroundwhat had been dormant became the talk of the town, Maeterlinck became an overnight sensation and success now stalked his every move.
Verhaeren was nonplussed. Why did his reviews fall flat and not Mirbeaus? Did
Mirbeau have more cachet than he because the former was French and not Belgian (as was Verhaeren)? Even Mirbeau was embarrassed by the turn of events.

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mile Verhaeren: Essays on the Northern Renaissance

Compelled to scold Belgium for favoring an outsiders words over their own,
Mirbeau acerbically quipped:
Cest dautant plus inconceivable et scandaleux moi, que jaurais d savoir ce que tout
le monde sait cest--dire quil ny a pas de potes en Belgique, quil ny a rien en Belgique, et mme que la Belgique nexiste pas.49
Moreover, its inconceivable and scandalous for me, that I should have known what the
whole world knows that is to say that there are no poets in Belgium, that there is nothing in Belgium, and even that Belgium does not exist.

Hence Mirbaus sardonic conclusion:


Et mieux vaudrait vendre des saumures, surtout si des crivains franais, impolitiques ou
malintentionns, se mettent soutenir cet insoutenable paradoxe quil existe sur le globe
terrestre une Belgique, dans cette Belgique, des Belges, et, parmi ces Belges, des potes,
et des potes de talent!50
And it would be better to sell pickles on the street, especially if French writers, impolitic
or with bad intentions, insist on sustaining the unsustainable paradox that there exists on
this globe a Belgium, and that in this Belgium, Belgians, and amidst these Belgians, poets,
and poets of talent!

And so as officials and public alike would neither see nor believe the advent
of their own countrymen, Verhaerenwho like Maeterlinck had suffered martyrdom at the hands of his peerswould champion a fellow martyr, Rembrandt.
He would defend him from the philistine multitudes, those who had soiled his
reputation and stripped him bare (on la dshabill) (2:820) with their overzealous
critiques laden with preposterous allegations whose sole goal was to immolate his
person as Verhaerens peers had so often immolated his person.51 He would rescue Rembrandt with his book as he would rescue with his pen all the beleaguered
souls who believed in the arts in Belgium. He would advise them allincluding
Rembrandt, if only he were listeningnot to struggle with the masses, nor even
to stand apart from them, but to fuse their soul in humanitys soul (la fusion de son
me dans lme humaine totale), to strive for
[une] existence lyrique o on se chante et o lon se crie par dessus les ttes, par au
del des villes, plus loin que les chos de cette heure de sicle, l bas, au loin, vers linfini.52
a lyrical existence where one sings, and where one screams over others heads, beyond
the cities, farther than the echoes of our own time, over there, afar, towards the infinite.

Striving for linfini, seeking l bas, the milieu recedes onto the horizon. No

Introduction

15

longer will the avant-gardeRembrandt and artists like himself includedbe


intimidated by their milieu, no longer will it have the power to cast them out, to
demean them. On the contrary. Instead of a towering and fearful master who
overpowers them, Rembrandt with (we imagine) Verhaeren at his side, shall overpower it. With their soul at one with the infinite, the milieu no longer matters.
Alors quimporte le milieu; on ne le voit plus53 (And so, the milieu no longer counts;
[out of mind], one longer sees it).
And indeed, as Verhaerens Rembrandt never ceases to argue, Rembrandt did
not see his milieu, he was not overwhelmed by it. How could he bother with
it, when it was not even there? He had gone beyond it, transcended its limits, [au]
dessus [des] ttes, au del des villes. As such, if only figuratively, Rembrandt had left
Amsterdam long ago, and was now navigating sites unknown, stroll[ing] where
dreams prevail (il se promne en des sites de songe) (2:823), forever favoring a life of
sumptuous and imaginary dreams (une existence de rve, une existence fastueuse, imaginaire) (2:824). His milieu, as Verhaerens milieu, was within him: He lives
in a marvelous world borne by his imagination, which for him is his real milieu
[my italics] (Il vit dans un monde suprieur et merveilleux que son imagination porte en elle
et qui devient son vrai milieu lui) (2:823). Thus, as Verhaeren ceaselessly reiterates,
his canvases are always seduced by his dreams, his fantaisie. Wild imaginings
continue to seduce his canvases (Dans ses toiles, la fantaisie la plus entire continue
le sduire) (2:836), a pervasive fantasy, as Verhaeren says, that informs his work,
distinguishes him from his peers and defines him in contrast to his great contemporary, Peter Paul Rubens.
***
With the twoRembrandt and Rubensin his line of sight, as they often were,
Verhaeren again and again labels Rembrandt a visionnaire, a man who lived in a
monde de ferie, while Peter Paul Rubenswho died in 1640 when Rembrandt, at
the apogee of his career, was about to embark on his Night Watchwas a genius
fcond par sa race (2:848), a man whose life was inextricably linked to his milieu,
nurturing its native energies. Viewing Rembrandt and Rubens as dialectical opposites, Verhaeren, with admirable insight, turns from one to the other:
Il [Rubens] est une plante admirable, pousse en un sol riche et favorable et dont les
graines disperses au vent germent o elles tombent. Rembrandt, plante trs rare et solitaire, semble rsorber toute sa force pour slancer plus haut, crotre plus profond, au
risque dtre improductive et strile (2:849).

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mile Verhaeren: Essays on the Northern Renaissance


He [Rubens] is an admirable plant, thriving in rich soil whose seeds, dispersed by the
winds, germinate where they fall. Rembrandt is other: an isolated and most rare plant,
he gathers all his powers to lunge forward, delving deeper, risking unfruitful and unproductive phases.

Verhaeren often coupled Rubens and Rembrandt if only because of their


differences. As pendants informing and complementing one another, lessons
are learned as Verhaeren weighed their singularities. Where Rembrandt, for
Verhaeren, objected to Tainean views on race and the milieu, Rubens affirmed
them; where one was a solitaire, the other was at ease amongst others; and where
one struggled to ward off failure, the other strode effortlessly from glory to
glory. And finally and perhaps most tellingly, Rubens was a gentleman, a refined
connoisseur, while Rembrandt was a ragamuffin, an incorrigible scapegrace.
Verhaeren phrases it thus in his Rubens of 1903 (republished with minor modifications in 1910):54
On connat le Rubens de Munich, o il se reprsente en compagnie de sa premire femme
Isabelle Brant, et lon admire par-dessus tout le Rubens de Windsor, si magnifiquement
coiff de son feutre. Toutefois jamais Rubens ne sest, comme Rembrandt, montr en
habit datelier, vtu dune dfroque et turban dune vague toque graisseuse et sale. Il
[Rubens] se soigne, sattife, semble se complaire se regarder avec un souci de tenue,
sinon de parade.55
We know the Rubens from Munich, where he portrays himself by his first wife Isabella
Brant. And one admires above all the Rubens from Windsor, so magnificently coiffed in
his felt hat. However, unlike Rembrandt, Rubens never presents himself in an ateliers
garb, wearing a frock and turbaned with some sort of dirty greasy rag. He [Rubens]
attends to his person, rigs himself out, apparently delighting in his looks dressing with
care, if not with pomp.

With the differences between the two firmly established, Verhaeren finds
himself exclaiming that Rembrandt was so unlike Rubensand unlike everyone
else, for that matterthat Rembrandt seemed to be from another planet (On
dirait quil arrive dune autre plante) (2:932). Rubens, on the contrary, was of this
earth, the rich, fertile and fecund earth of Flanders, a land peopled with vigorous
men and women. Around the time of Rubenss birth, under the reign of Philip
II, Flanders was awash with blood, but those days were history and did not affect Rubensil ne les voyait pas, as Verhaeren observes of Rubenss insouciance.56
Now, however, Flanders was free of its unforgiving master and finding itself
anew, rejoicing with drink, with frolic. A raucous, coarse and a full-throated rire
flamand (2:932) could be heard throughout the landa vigorous burst of life
bristling with bawdiness that Rubens brush would capture with dazzling lan. Il

Introduction

17

aimait sa race Il en aimait la bonhomie, la gourmandise, lardeur brutale et rouge (2:932)


(He loved his own He loved bonhomie, gourmandize, and blazing, brutal
passions). Thus for Verhaeren, Rubens, hale, hearty and vigorous, (un homme
sain, heureux, [et] fcond) (2:932) mirrored not just his native land, his heritage (sa
race), but stood in stark contrast to Rembrandt, un isol (2:932). These words date
from 1910 but Verhaeren had said the same in 1903albeit with a slight but
telling variation, favoring the word dissonant. Hence Verhaeren in 1903: He
[Rubens] is a genius in tune with his time, while Rembrandt is but a wondrous
dissonant being (Il [Rubens] est un gnie que son sicle explique, tandis que Rembrandt
nest quune merveilleuse dissonance).57
Une merveilleuse dissonance! What a singular phrase, one that complements and
adds dimension to the later, an isol. And yet these well-chosen wordsnouns,
adjectives, articlessuccinctly capture Verhaerens understanding of Rembrandt,
this master who stood apart and who could not and would not join the otherseven Rubens. For where Rembrandt, a dissonant isol, stands apart, Rubens
shares the lustful energies of his robust countrymen: what they have, he has, their
boundless energy is his boundless energy, their joy is his joy and, we may add,
Verhaerens joy. And that joy courses throughout Verhaerens study on Rubens,
beginning with the opening sentence of his short monograph, an encomium not
just to Rubenss oeuvre, but to Verhaerens as well. Loeuvre de ce matre est une ode
formidable la joie (2:931)an ode to joy that overwhelms all in its orbit. And this
joy is not solely a spirited joy, a pensive joy but an instinctive, sensual joy, a
Flemish joy, nave and violent (Et cette joie nest point une joie desprit, une joie raisonne
mais bien une joie dinstinct, une joie sensuelle, une joie de Flamand naf et violent) (2:931).
With rich sounding phrases, resonant with passion, Verhaerens Rubens, a
relatively short text, is embellished throughout with images that not only exalt
Flanders, its soil and its rich and fecund life (eg., La terre riche et belle de la Flandre, ses soleils larges et fcondants) (2:936), but with images that exalt its people and
their counterparts in the Bible. Mary, for one, no longer stands for a maid,
but stands for the women of Flanders where the earth and their spouses are
ceaselessly fertile (ny apparat plus comme une vierge, mais comme un symbole de la
femme de Flandre, o la terre et les pouses sont inlassablement fertiles) (2:936). And the
infant Christ, in Verhaerens Flanders, has all the appeal of a juice laden fruit,
a gorgeous heap of ripe and pulpuous fruit (un bel amas de fruits gras et pulpeux)
(2:936). And even the East from whence the Magi come must be like Flanders,
a land of extravagant plenty and gourmandise (doit tre, comme la Flandre, un
pays repue et gourmande) (2:936). Before such heady images inspired by Rubenss
canvassesthe Louvres Virgin Surrounded by Angels and the Adoration of the Magi

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mile Verhaeren: Essays on the Northern Renaissance

from AntwerpVerhaeren underscores Rubenss uniqueness: he is a painter


who responds only to life, who engenders and exalts it. [S]on art, he writes, sue
la vie (2:936), it secretes life it in all its pungent odors, moist and malodorous as,
I dare say, the acrid smell of a mans underarms dancing or making love in the
hot sun.
Lauding Rubenss pagan nature (sa nature paenne), Verhaeren seemingly
takes us into his confidence:
Mais cest plus encore dans ses priapes et surtout dans ses Cortges de Silne que la
force de sa joie se manifeste. Ici, la violence et la fougue stalent comme des eaux torrentueuses de fleuve, comme une galope furieuse travers les champs de la chair. Le
dieu pais et compact, enfl dombre et de vin (2:93839).
But it is in his priapic renderings and especially in his versions of the Cortges of Silenus
that the full strength of his joy lives. Here violence and lust fill the canvas like a rivers
torrential waters, like a furious gallop across fields of flesh. The god, thick and compact,
aburst with dark passion and wine

Words, phrases and sentences that captureand I dare say as was never
before nor since has been captured in the Rubens literaturethe lustful, empathetic and emphatic energy of Rubenss vision. Readily likening Silenuss bacchic
retinue with the bacchic kermessecountry fests known in Flanders for their lustful abandonVerhaeren notes that depiction of such feasts of the body and of
drink are saved from their vulgarity and low-life by Rubenss own epic ardor,
his youth and bonhomie or, to say the same thing differently, by the epic ardor,
youth and bonhomie of Flanders. Thus we read of the Kermesse at the Louvre:
Tous les vices: gourmandise, ivrognerie, luxure, sont clbrs et chants, en un hymne
si bruyant quon en nglige les paroles, pour nen couter que la formidable musique. Il
ny a ni retenue, ni halte, ni sourdine. Elle clate brutale, avec des coups de cymbales, des
ronflements de cuivre, des bondissements de grosse caisse, mais un tel art prside aux
orages des sons (2:941).
All the vicesgluttony, stupor, lustare sung and celebrated in such a major hymn
that one nelects what is at hand to hear the grand cacophonies of the work. There is no
holding back, neither restraint nor rest. It bursts forth with an angry clash of cymbals,
the peals of brass, the beat of heavy drums, but over this array of turbulent sounds
art presides

And accompanying this grand cacophony is what Verhaeren calls la sarabande


moderne with rustres and maritornes, and their drunken enlacements (2: 941) (this
heady file of rustics and kitchen wenches [and their drunken] wild couplings).
Verhaeren knew all this well and had long celebrated it. Les Flamandes of 1883

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Verhaerens earliest anthology and a paean to Flanderscatapults us into this


passionate world, one which, as Verhaerens own contemporaries acknowledged,
draws with words what Rubens drew with his brush. Rubenss Louvre Kermesse,
with all its ardor, would embrace these inflamed pages with zeal. Thus the searing
carnal entanglements of Les Flamandess Amours Rouges recall the searing entanglements Rubens so readily painted. Here, a lad, his lass at his side, is soon enveloped in carnal caresses (charnelles tendresses). With his mate a feast of flesh, of
youth and of love-making and his maleness rising mightily within him, he
assaults his companion with unbridled passion.
ses dsirs et ses instincts en feu,
Ne faire de son corps quune table dresse,
O son gars mangerait et boirait jusquau jour
La bouche gloutonnante
Tout un festin de chair, de jeunesse et damour!

La voyant dans ses bras frissonner comme une aile,


Sent son orgueil de gars puissant monter en lui.
Ses assauts enfivrs comme un choc de rafales,
Traversent la fureur de leurs accouplements,
Ses spasmes ont des cris plus profonds que des rles,
Son rut bondit sur elle, avec des jappements,
Il voudrait laccabler dans une ardeur plnire,
Et lui broyer les sens, sous des poids de torpeur,
Et ce dbordement de lutte dernire
Devient rage tel point que leur amour fait peur.58

Impassioned rage defines the furor of their coupling (la fureur de leurs accouplements) as his feverish assaults (ses assauts enfivrs) causes them to cry out in
fearful cries: their love-making frightens (leur amour fait peur). But let there be no
misunderstanding: the grinding, unforgiving demands of the body, for Verhaerenand for Verhaerens Rubenserupt [in a] formidable burst of joy(clate
[dans une] formidable principe de joie) (2:941). Joy underlies the unrelenting demands
of the flesh, a glorious abandon that defines Verhaerens understanding of Rubens and that separates his reading of violent encounters of the flesh from his
own peers, men like Verhaerens great exponent of naturalism, Camille Lemonnier (18441913), who, like Verhaeren, had also exalted Flanders and its ribald
kermesse. Lemonniers Un Mle published in 1881 must be seen against Verhaerens
Les Flamandes of a few years later and appositely stands against the latters various
readings of Rubens. Thus where Verhaerens stalwart youth, la bouche gloutonnante,
(mouth drooling and gluttonous for more) avidly and deliriously plunges into his
mate, Lemonniers un mle (a male) suffers Wertherian cries as he tears his own

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mile Verhaeren: Essays on the Northern Renaissance

flesh and pounds his surroundings with a feverish fist yearning, his body aflame,
for the flesh of Germaine, the lass he has seduced.
Lamour intraitable des btes lui enfivrait le sang, comme un mal rpandu par tout son
corps. Il gmissait, enfonait ses ongles dans sa chair pour en touffer les rvoltes et des
cris rauques de douleur et de dsir lui sortaient dentre les dents. Germaine! Germaine!
grondait-il. Ses bras battaient lair, se tendaient dans la nuit, pour la saisir. Il frappait les
abres de ses poings.59
Crude, beastly, and incurable yearnings, feverishly lighted his blood, a vile wound spreading through his body. He trembled and shuddered, dug his nails in his flesh to stifle the
raucous cries of pain and burning desire that fitfully rend their way between his teeth.
Germaine, Germaine! he groaned. His arms flailing about him, reaching out in the
night to seize her. He pounded the trees with his fists.

Pain, raw, brute and fiery pain defines Lemonniers un mle, pain that literally
tears at his flesh and vents its rage with pounding fists, a pain that destroys and
cannot be stilled.60 By contrast, pain is foreign to the Flemish master, it never enters Rubenss world, as Verhaeren understands it. On the contrary, bacchic
abandon, defines Rubenss every stroke, every canvas. La kermesse, for Verhaeren,
thus exalts, bonds, unites and releases men and women from all constraints in
Dionysian fury. He [Rubens] conceived it as violent and sensual (Il [Rubens]
la rvt violente et sensuelle 2: 941), violent because it is sensual, sensual because it is
violent, antipodes that swing back and forth that sets Verhaerens understanding
of Rubens apart from his peers, distancing him, say, from Lemonniers reading
of la kermesse.
As expected, the press found Lemonniers Un Mle immoral, coarse and
vulgar. In response to these attacks, Lemonniers supporters held a banquet in
his honorthe famous banquet Lemonnier of 27 May 1883a key event attended
by 200 guests, with Verhaeren one of the many literati in attendance. But the
establishment did not fault Lemonniers labors without reason. His kermesse was
loud and bawdy: It stunk of beer, of tobacco and lighted pipes (Tout le monde fumait), of spittle splashing dirt floors ([l]es bouches rejetaient les bouffes de tabac des
salives claquaient terre), of sausages, breads and tarts laid out on checkered tablecloths, of men jabbing with their elbows and girls walking arm in arm (des bandes
de filles, bras dessus dessous), of heated exchanges ([o]n se parlait nez a nez)reasons
enough to decry his oeuvre. But, it needs be underlined, that in all this brouhaha,
and seen against Verhaerens Rubens, a key word or sentiment is missing from
Lemonniers effervescent account, a word key to our study, namely that rapturous
noun that denotes exaltation, the word joy. Joy does not find a place in Un
Mle. It is never uttered; it never arises. Joy, the very backbone of Verhaerens

Introduction

21

Rubens is alien to these pages, but not in Hippolyte Taines discussion of Rubenss
Louvre Kermesse.
Preceding Verhaeren by several decades, Taine turned to Rubenss Kermesse
to illustrate the crude and often violent zeal of the men and women of Flanders.
Quant aux superbes brutes de la Kermesse, writes Taine, Rubens sensed the poetry
of a full, copious life, of the flesh shamelessly satiated, of raw joy (la posie
de la grosse vie plantureuse, de la chair satisfaite et dvergonde, de la joie brutale), passionate engagements Taine likens to the crude instincts of horses and bulls
after a long abstinence (les rudes instincts des chevaux et des taureaux, aprs un long
jene)61outbursts of zealous spasms shared by men, women and beastsraw
encounters la Rubenss Kermesse.
But the difference between Verhaerens reading of Rubenss peasants and
of Taines is even more telling than the similarities they bring to La Kermesse.
Verhaerens intentions are transparently clear. Les charnelles tendresses, Verhaeren lauds, speak of joy, of an engagement with life, a surfeit of well-being in all
things living, men and beasts alike! How different, then, this Rubensian vision of
plenitude is from Taines, who attributes Flanderss well-being to its welcoming
climate. Here, under perpetual veils of mist broad, tranquil and lazy bodies of
water form in the even and humid soil a constant lightness (les grands fleuves
tranquilles et paresseux tablis dans le sol plat et humide une fracheur perptuelle).62
With showers sprinkling Flemish fields, Taine concludes: One could say that in
this country, water makes grass, which makes cattle, which makes cheese, which
makes bread and meat, which, together with beer, form its people (On pourrait
dire quen ce pays leau fait lherbe, qui fait le btail, qui fait le fromage, le beurre et la viande,
qui, tous ensemble avec la bire, font lhabitant). In short, with humidity the Flemish
temperament is born ([d]air humide, vous voyez natre le temprament flamand).63 But
neither cheese, nor butter, nor humidity play a part in Verhaerens temprament
flamand rather, what defines Flemish life is its good cheer, the exuberance of
its men and women and their vigorous spirit. And this, Verhaeren believed had
always been so, even during times of great hardship and bloodshedBruegels
work of the 1560s testifies to the accuracy of this remark.
***
Verhaerens thoughts on Pieter Bruegel (15251569) were delivered on the eve of
the Great War in November 1913 for the Annales littraires in a lecture entitled La
Vie flamande.64 Here, the acute horrors soon to engulf his native Belgium are presciently earmarked. Thus he speaks of armed mercenaries smashing doors, killing

22

mile Verhaeren: Essays on the Northern Renaissance

children, slaying the innocent, the hapless running for their lives ils sment le
massacre et le deuil partout (spread[ing] seeds of death and grief at their heels). Yet,
in the midst of this massacrethe discussion centers on Bruegels Le Massacre des
Innocents(The Massacre of the Innocents)life goes on: And as this is happening,
neighbors are consoling neighbors and two dogs are yelping and playing in the
soiled bloody square of the village (Et, pendant ce temps-l, les voisins consolent dj
les voisines, et deux chiens samusent sur la place ensanglante du village) (2:988)images
of disarming candor which in turn mirror a pervasive artlessness Verhaeren sees
in Bruegels work. Thus whether Bruegels paintings highlight death and mayhem
or boisterous country life, distracting bits of wry humor inexplicably weave their
way into the canvass fabric. In Le Portement de la Croix (Christ Bearing the Cross), a
woman with a basket is apparently going to market; or again, Verhaeren notes that
a woman caught in a tussle is being strangled (dautres qui sen prennent une femme et
veulent ltrangler) (2:990) and in the midst of such disingenuous distractions, we
must not forget, is Christ, a heavy cross on his shoulders. Where then is the focus
of the painting, why these competing anecdotes? In turn, these diversions lead
Verhaeren to ask, if only rhetorically, if Christ as the lead figure may be in danger
of being swamped, overrun by all this marginalia: [O]n se demande ce que devient le
Christ au milieu de ce tumulte (2:990). But these bewildering scenes, Verhaeren adds,
often carry in their train a grain of humor, a needed respite from the sore miseries of life, [une] allgre humeur, mme quand le deuil et la ruine le cernent (2:988). Filtered
through the opaque prisms of Bruegels mordant humor, life hobbles on. Humor
then explains their raison dtre, countering Bruegels dour world with a welcome
note of levityat least, so Verhaeren understood it!
How different this all is from Rubens. Le grand Pierre-Paul Rubens would never
demean himself, would never deign to spoil his canvas nor subject his audience
to such distracting episodes.
Le grand Pierre-Paul Rubens tonne et subjuque, il est fastueux et clatant. On songe
quelque conqurant traversant des pays pleins de drapeaux flottants et de faades fleuries;
il sourit ceux qui lacclament, bien quau loin fument encore les incendies et le sang rpandu. Bruegel ne subjugue point, Bruegel ntonne point, il attire, il persuade, il meut,
il convainc. Aucune pompe, aucun talage, aucune grandiloquence (2:990).
Rubens, the great master, stuns and overwhelms us: he is stately as he bursts before us.
A warlord comes to mind, a masterful being en route accompanied by flags flapping in
the wind and faades strewn with flowers; he smiles at the many who chant his name,
while not far away fires are still smoldering and blood flows freely. Bruegel does not overwhelm us, Bruegel stuns no one: he draws us to him, he persuades us, he moves us and
convinces us. Pomp and circumstance is nowhere to be seen, there are no grand gestures.

Introduction

23

What a grand and telling comparison. Verhaerens words awaken images in us


that render Rubens and Bruegel alive, images that one would never find in Fromentin, A.J. Wouters or Jacob Burckhardt. There is Rubens on parade, smiling
with his beautiful brimmed hat, flags flapping in the wind and balconies rich with
flowersthe necessary accoutrements of prestige and worldly splendorsacknowledging the peoples acclaim. Pomp and circumstance is his birthright. It
is his dueeven as villages burn and blood stains the ground on which his white
horse prances. Arguably, in contradistinction to Rubenss panache stands Bruegelplain, without pomp or circumstance, without grandiloquence. Direct and
all-too human, Bruegel remains on the sidelinesat least when Rubens is present. Indeed, as Verhaeren stresses, his low profile asserts his humanity, reminds
us that he knows what we all know, that Bruegel never strays from the familiar,
from le plan humain et familier. Hence Verhaerens conclusion: We admire Rubens,
but we love Bruegel (On admire Rubens, mais on aime Bruegel) (2:990).
The setting that Verhaeren created for Rubens, flags flapping in the wind as
Rubenss imposing person appears on the European stage impressing all with his
achievements, was preceded by at least one earlier bombastic portrait of the great
Fleming by Verhaeren. In a confrence from May 1897, a lecture addressing the
achievements of 15th century Flemish painting and Jan and Hubert van Eyck,65
Verhaeren not only compares Rubens with Van EyckBoth of them love pageantry, display and flesh (Tout les deux aiment le faste, la richesse, la chair)he equates
Rubens with the elements themselves, with thunder and lightening (Il [Rubens] est
bouillonnement, tonnerre et foudre) (2:728). Rubens, for Verhaeren, is life as an elemental force. He loved it passionately in all its aspects:
Il laime grasse, fconde, large; il laime somptueuse et rouge; il laime dans sa pulpe et
son piderme; il laime en ses mouvements allant jusquaux contorsions; il laime telle
quelle, avec ses vulgarits, ses lourdeurs, ses tares; il laime comme un bfreur aime la
belle, saine, odoronte et saignante viande (2:7289).
He loves it [life] fleshy, fecund, full; he loves it sumptuously and passionately; he loves it
in its raw skin; he loves it in its movements, in its contortions. He loves it for its vulgarities, its depravities and louche encounters; he loves it as a greedy glutton savors a rich,
flavorful, bloody piece of meat.

Reading the above passage, with its insistent rhythms, its pounding beat and
revealing phrases, we see Verhaeren shamelessly exposing himself. Who but Verhaeren, who but the author of Les Flamandes would laud Rubenss canvases for
their carnality, as though feasts for a carnivore, fresh meat staining with blood
its eager and gluttonous audience? And who but Verhaeren would dare to laud

24

mile Verhaeren: Essays on the Northern Renaissance

Rubenss weighty nudes for their pulpy flesh, their epidermis? Or praise lifes
vulgarities, ses lourdeurs, ses tares?
Though these iconoclastic images date from the late 1890s, Verhaeren had already expressed similar sentiments in the early 90s. All but equating Rubens with
Falstaff or Pantagruel, Verhaeren has Rubens feasting on his canvases, drinking,
tasting, smelling, shaping his oils with a satyrs ardor, a tongue and lips eager for
flesh. One would think one is attending a sensuous banquet [before Rubens
work], a feast of flowers and flesh (On croirait assister un banquet rouge, un festin
de fleurs et de chairs) (1:486), as Verhaeren expressed it for La Nation.66 Branding
Rubens a miraculeux colosse, a being reveling in the senses, he robs Rubens of his
brushes and arms him with a glass drinking his art in bottomless draughts:
Le miraculeux colosse [Rubens], en quel verre norme il a but son art! Il semble tre
entr en communion avec les choses plus encore par la bouche que par les yeux. On dirait
quil les gotait avant de les peindre. Il est des peintres qui sadressent lodorat, la plupart
la vue. Celui-ci sest adress au palais, la sensualit des lvres et de la langue (1:486).
From what enormous glass has this miraculous colossus [Rubens] drunk his art! He
seems to know things more with his mouth than with his eyes. One would say he tasted
them before he painted them. He is one of those painters who favors smell, most others
favor sight. This one addresses the palate, the sensuousness of lips and tongue.

And this from 1891! Surely one will not find on paper a more personal and
revealing analysis of Rubens oeuvre. What Verhaeren does, and others who have
written on Rubens before and after him have not done (and cannot do), is envelop Rubens in his own fullsome joy, a joy which when all is said and done is
Verhaerens joy as wellwhich ultimately explains how Verhaeren could fathom
Rubens as he does, expose him and deprive him of his privacy. Perhaps only a
poet as Verhaeren can do thatsurely art historians have not!
Battling and conquering all, Rubens is un Hercule, a paladin, a hero. To those
who know his work, he appears superhuman (il apparait surhumain), still another
label that could never apply to Bruegel. Verhaeren in fact likens Bruegel to a gamin
de village (2:992), an easy-going fellow from the countryside who is not especially
ambitious and who just lets the days go by. Elsewhere he says that though Bruegel is really not a rustic, he is and will always remain le gars quil tait la campagne
(2:992) (the rowdy stripling he once was in the countryside). And yet, though
Verhaeren saw Bruegel as a gars or a gamin de village he knew Bruegel was more
worldly than that. For he knew that Bruegel, like Rubens, was acquainted with
the great Italian masters. He had been to Italy and had seen da Vinci, Raphael
and Michelangelo, although their work did not affect his ownor so Verhaeren

Introduction

25

argued. Once back home, Verhaeren writes, he forgot all about them. For their
views never filtered down from his brain to his heart (Cest quaucune de ces ides
ntait descendue de son cerveau dans son coeur) (2:988). What did, however, resonate
deeply within him was Flanders and its village inns, places where one can be oneself without airs or pretensions, where, as Verhaeren writes, whether you are at
a table at the Cheval Blanc or the Trois Rois or the LArbre Bnit (Bruegels favorite
inns), you can be sure that the waitress will bring you a beer topped with a crown
of foam (une couronne dcume) (2:993). That is indeed what life is aboutwhat
Bruegels work was about, for Verhaeren.
Bruegels work may be about a tankard of beer topped with foam, but that
beer is drunk with the cries of a falling Icarus still ringing in ones ears, the
cries of defeat and of ones false arrogance. With men assertive and aggressive,
Bruegel constantly reminds us that we need to reconsider, to acknowledge our
limitsand perhaps thats what Verhaeren meant when he wrote of Bruegels
Icare, that Icarus struggle is with vanity (cest tout lorgueil quil combat) (2:991)
an all encompassing struggle with self-delusion. Problems of ethicsright and
wrongsurely underlie Bruegels work. Ethics, however, single Bruegels work
from other ribald painters, men like Jacob Jordaens (15931678). As Verhaeren
was to write on Jordaens in 1897: Jordaens closes the cycle of ribald and waggish masters that the aged Bruegel started. Between the two one finds Teniers,
Brauwer (160538), Steen (162679), Craesbeke and Van Ostade (161085),
painters of guzzling, swilling, and tippling (Jordaens ferme le cycle des matres ribauds
et gouailleurs quouvrit le vieux Bruegel. Entre eux se placent Teniers, Brauwer, Steen, Craesbeeck, Van Ostade. Ce sont les peintres des godailles normes) (2:729). And Verhaeren is
right: Bruegel may paint a kermesse but he is not like Jordaens, Jan Steen, Teniers
and Brauwer, painters des godailles normes, painters of crass unseemly scenes.
Before Brauwers and Steens guzzling and tippling, Verhaerens Les Flamandes
comes to mind where Verhaeren lauds their lusty bawdiness. Thus his anthology
of 1883 opens with a paean to the old masters, literally Les Vieux Matres (The
Old Masters). Thereciting, amongst others our painters, Teniers, Brauwer and
SteenVerhaeren relives their drunken orgies:
Dans les bouges fumeux o pendent des jambons,
Des boudins bruns, des chandelles et des vessies,
Des grappes de perdrix, des grappes de dindons,

Craesbeke, Brakenburgh, Teniers, Dusart, Brauwer,


Avec Steen, le plus gros, le plus ivrogne, au centre,
Sont runis, menton gluant, gilet ouvert,
De rires plein la bouche et de lard plein le ventre.

26

mile Verhaeren: Essays on the Northern Renaissance

Affols et hurlants, tout sols, dansant en cercles,


Autour des ivres-morts, qui roulent, pieds en lair.

Men cavort, scream, shriek, cry and bellow, as their women, their breasts wet with
sweat, shove their enormous tton(s) in the waiting, gluttonous mouths of their
howling children:
On vomit dans les coins; des enfants gros et sains
Demandent ttr avant quon les endorme,
Et les mres, debout, suant entre les seins,
Bourrent leur nourrisson de leur tton norme.
Tout gloutonne crever, hommes, femmes, petits;

Cest un dchanement dinstincts et dapptits,


De fureurs destomac, de ventre et de dbauche:
Explosion de vie, 67

Explosion(s) de vie, explosions heartily embraced by Verhaerens les vieux matresSteen, Brauwer and others, but not Bruegel whose name Verhaeren signally
omits from his list. Indeed, Bruegels peasants may carouse and enjoy a loud, wet
kiss but they are never rabble-rousers, delighting in the crass detrita Brouwer and
his cohorts favored.
***
Bruegels work, as Verhaeren appreciated, is rooted in verisimilitudea position
that extends to the brothers Van Eyck, as Verhaeren argued in his essay of 1897
on Flemish painting.68 Discussing the Adam and Eve from their Ghent Altarpiece
(1432) or lAgneau mystique (The Mystic Lamb), Verhaeren stresses that a real man
and a real woman must have served as their models, a couple Hubert and Jan
must have encountered in the streets of Ghent (rencontrs dans les rues) (2:725).
There is nothing fanciful about these people; naked, their every hair, their every wrinkle is scrupulously rendered. Quoting Verhaeren: Leur nudit est tudie
daprs nature, pli pli, poil poil (2:725). Van Eyck is respectful of details: he is
precise, even meticulous ([i]l est respectueux du dtail; il est prcis, mticuleux mme)
(2:750)69as Verhaeren referred to Jan van Eyck but a few years later in his 1899
essay on Hans Memling (14351494), one of the great primitifs of the late 1400s
who had settled in Bruges after studying in Brussels with Van der Weyden. Pairing Memlings bourgeois mysticism with Van Eycks earthicism, Verhaeren found

Introduction

27

that Memlings women are almost all virgins. Their bodies? An outer casement
of flesh, nothing more. Their faces?at rest, tranquil ([s]es femmes sont presque
toutes des vierges. Leur corps? Un vtement de chair, rien de plus. Leurs visages? reposs, tranquilles) (2:751), while, contrariwise, the men and women Jan favors embrace life
in all its corporeality.
Il y recueille la sant, la force, lquilibre, la beaut. Il ne comprend lidal quadmirablement
constitu, avec des muscles, de la chair, du sang, de la moelle. Il cre des types de madones auxquels les patriciennes flamandes ou mme les paysannes et les servantes donnent la puissance de leur carnation et la graisse de leurs seins et de leurs joues (2:750).
He exudes beaming health, strength, equilibrium, beauty. He translates ideal forms only
as well constituted bodies, vital muscled entities with glowing flesh and deep marrow. He
fashions Madonnas after well-to-do Flemish patricians, servants or even peasants with
their powerful carriage, full breasts and full cheeks.

Lauding the full breasts and ample carriages of Van Eycks Virgins, Verhaeren
seemingly attributes to Van Eyck what he always attributes to Rubens, but then
he does so only to single out the differences between Van Eyck and Memling,
with the latter favoring ethereal forms and the former a robust, vigorous, earthy
naturalism. Armed with poetic diction, Verhaeren phrases it this way: Loeuvre de
Memling se replie, comme des ailes, sur lme seule (2:750) (Memlings oeuvre folds
back, as beauteous wings, onto its soul); focused on quiet piety and interior life,
Memlings many canvases distance themselves from Van Eycks measured world.
Hence, Verhaeren conclusion: As Memlings figures suggest une fragilit fminine
(2:51), Van Eycks figures are firmly male. Again, to turn to La Peinture flamande:
Le mle qutait Jean Van Eyck concevait la vertu majestueuse et thologale: Memling la
conoit intime, humble, douce. Il substitue au flambeau le cierge (2:727).
The male that was Jan van Eyck viewed virtue in majestic and theological constructs:
Memling views it as intimate, humble, gentle. The taper has given way to the candle.

With Memling a softer, flickering feminine light, and Jan a theologically


harsher light (he is the taper while Memling is the candle in Verhaerens metaphor), Verhaeren, again pairing the two only to highlight their differences, sees
one as lafflux de lymphe succdant lafflux de sang (2:727)([Memling] a shoot of
fluid succeeding [Jan], a rush of blood), palpably strong visual images that declare
that before us is an art historian with a poets sensitivity aware of the vicissitudes
that define Flemish art. Grounded in reality, Jans work has none of Memlings
airy flights. Thus Jans setting for the Arnolfini Wedding is earth-bound, saddled
with the necessary, dull trappings of an intrieur de bourgeois (2:726); likewise, his

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mile Verhaeren: Essays on the Northern Renaissance

Virgin Maryhere Verhaeren does not elaborate furtheris an earthy, solid


Flemish woman (une Flamande solide, grasse) especially when seen against those
familiar scraggly Gothic types (aux habituelles maigreurs gothiques) (2:726).
***
Verhaerens initial thoughts on the gothic take us back to 1886 when on an outing
to Cassel he came upon a canvas by someone he hardly knew, but by someone he
immediately and intuitively knew was an artist of note. The oil that so aroused
him was one by Mathias Grnewald, a wooden panel from the mid-1520s of
Christ on the cross now housed in Karlsruhe. On his return to Belgium, Verhaeren hastily recorded his impressions for LArt moderne,70 the periodical he had
founded with Edmond Picard in the early 80s. With a headline reading En Voyage.
Les Gothiques allemands, Verhaeren opens his essay with a memorable phrase: A
God in three beings, Drer, Holbein, Cranachso German art appears (Un
Dieu en trois personnes: Drer, Holbein et Cranach, tel apparat lart gothique allemand)
(1:250) a list of three with Drer elevated to the highest plane. As Verhaeren
phrases it: all glory falls on his shoulders nothing can detract our admiration
from him (toute la gloire est alle vers ce dernier. et rien ne heurte ladmiration quand elle
monte jusqu lui) (1:252) But Verhaerens experience at Cassel before the Karlsruhe
Crucifixion unnerved him for it suggested that glory should not reside solely
on Drers shoulders. It can fall on others shoulders as well, and why not on
Grnewalds shoulders! In sum, German art needed to be reconsidered. One best
add Grnewalds name to the existing pantheon of German artistsits present
triumvirate would not do.
By 1894, and with almost a decade behind him since his first encounter with
Grnewalds gripping image, Verhaeren felt it was time to pursue the German
master once more. Now, by traveling to Colmar, Basel and other cities, he would
see the Grnewalds that had eluded him on his first journey. And so, with defined
parameters in mind, he would discover Grnewald anew, settle the many questions surrounding his oeuvre and his origins (was he from Oschenburg, Aschenburg or Aschaffenburg?) and, especially, with a stay in Colmar, Alsace, set his
sights on the Antonites panels from the abbey of Isenheim. Then, again, he
would publish his findings for his Belgian audiencea publication which in effect appeared in print in 1894 as Le Peintre Mathias Grnewald, dAschaffenburg. Between these two excursions, that is between his first encounter with the German
master in 1886 and his second trip to Germany in 1894, Verhaeren realized that
controversy steadfastly dogged Grnewalds name: the nature of his canvases,

Introduction

29

what was and was not a Grnewald, even his very existence was in question, the
subject of heated debates. He knew for instance from an oft published text by
Charles Goutzwiller,71 the curator of the many Grnewalds housed in the Muse
de Colmara text, incidentally, he cites in his 1894 article on Grnewaldthat a
Dr. Woltmann from the Imperial University of Strassburg believed, in league with
other eminent professors, that the Isenheim retable, an impressive polyptych of
sizable panels, was not by Grnewald but by Hans Baldung Grien.72 Woltmann
had argued this in 1866. But by 1873, as Goutzwiller recounts, Woltmann reconsidered his earlier attributionnow, Baldung-Grien was no longer a candidate
for the Isenheim panels. Whereas, Grnewalds work had long been linked to oils
from the Cathedral at Halle and panels from the chapel of Saint Anthony in the
Cathedral of Bamberg, Woltmann, according to Goutzwiller, cavalierly dismissed
these arguments, only to reassign the Isenheim altarpiece to a student of Correggio, a German painter who may have studied with the immortel auteur de lAntiope
from Parma. Hence, to Goutzwillers dismay, a German Correggio, un Corrge allemand was, as Woltmann deduced, the author of the Isenheim polyptych.73
All this sounds a bit muddled. But as Verhaeren knew the situation was even
more bewildering, for not only was the majority of Grnewalds oeuvre attributed
to others, but as Verhaeren learned from Goutzwiller, whose text reviews these
matters, the Isenheim panels were in effect not by a German Correggio but by
an artiste italien de lcole du Titien ou de Lonard74 (an Italian artist from the school
of Titian or Leonardo). With a pupil of Leonardo or Titian behind the Isenheim
altarpiece, it seems only right that Goutzwillers would doctor up the Isenheim
Crucifixion in an illustration for his pamphlet, cleanse the bleeding Christ of his
wounds, his putrid sores and purge the sorrowful Christ, so to speak, of all that
was Grnewald.75 And if all this did not leave Verhaeren flummoxed, Goutzwiller
reminds us that the Isenheim polyptych had long been attributed to Albrecht Drerthe last a tentative attribution that went back to 1789. But by 1860and again
in a tome Verhaeren was to cite in his 1894 essay on Grnewalda renowned Belgian historian of Flemish and Dutch painting, Alfred Michiels, published under the
rubric tude sur LAllemagne, renfermant une histoire de la Peinture Allemande a detailed
description of the Isenheim panels, one that asserts that Tout prouve quAlbert
Drer en est lauteur76 (All indications are that Albrecht Drer is their author).
But this last triumphant assignation brought in its wake a certain melancholic note;
Colmar was so far away from any significant metropolis that, as Michiels observed,
would anyone ever see them there? Was oblivion their lot? These works by Drer
have long suffered. No one sees them, no one ever mentions them (Ces pages
dAlbert Drer ont eu du malheur. Personne ne les voit, personne nen dit mot).77

30

mile Verhaeren: Essays on the Northern Renaissance

Verhaeren must have been impressed by Michiels plaint for he quotes and
references it in his publication of 1894. Given the fact that personne ne les voit
(2:628), he would break the mold and journey to Colmar. He would see them
and he would do his utmost to assign them their proper authorship and publicize them as wellhence his essay of 1894. It was high time to clear the slate.
Grnewald deserved better. All these [f]alse attributions Verhaeren wrote,
lead to further false attributions; [all these] well-honed and learned dissertations
laden with footnotes and informed texts followed on each others heels. only
succeed[ed] with contradictory statements. The whole became such a confused mess so quickly that one might have asked if Mathias Grnewald ever
existed (Il y eut confusion sur confusion. Les dissertations habiles et savantes, barres de notes
et de textes se succdrent. pour naboutir quaux affirmations contradictoires. Le tout se
compliqua et sembrouilla si bien et si vite, quon en vnt se demander si Mathias Grnewald
avait mme exist) (2: 628). But Verhaerens hopes to define Grnewald for a wide
public were waylaid by another student of German sixteenth century painting,
Joris Karl Huysmans (1848-1907).78 Huysmans, a novelist of note and long an
art critic on the Parisian art scene, knew Verhaerens workHuysmans regularly
contributed to Verhaerens LArt moderneand he surely had read Verhaerens
Gothiques allemands or an edited reprint of the same in La Vogue, for which he as
well contributed.79 In any case, he shared Verhaerens enthusiasm for the Cassel
Crucifixion and with Verhaerens 1886 essays in mind, Huysmans set out for Cassel
in 1888.80 A few years later, with L-bas, Huysmanss novel of 1891, Grnewalds
name was a known entity to all who had read this most medievalizing talefor
L-bas features a few unforgettable pages on the Cassel Crucifixion, pages redolent
with Huysmanss turgid prose.
Thus what Verhaeren hoped to accomplish, Huysmans did. Verhaeren continued to publish and publish even on Grnewald, but it is Huysmanss name
that is often coupled with Grnewalds. This was further aided by Huysmanss
more extensive publication of 1905, Trois Primitifs, which included a chapter on
Grnewald, Les Grnewald du Muse de Colmar. This somewhat labored essay has
had a long history in Grnewald studies. Reprinted at length in Louis Raus
detailed study of 1920, Mathias Grnewald et le Retable de Colmar, Rau prefaces his
introduction to Huysmans text with the remark that this study is the first essay
to transcribe the Isenheim leaves in a style particularly apt to Grnewald manner (que cette tude est le premier essai de transposition artistique du retable dIsenheim
par un styliste particulirement apte sentir lart de Grnewald)81 [my italics]. That
Verhaerens essay of 1894 does just what Rau assigns to Huysmans publication
of 1905 and that the formers essay precedes the latters by eleven years escapes

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31

Rau. Moreover, Rau, who clearly knows his Huysmans but not his Verhaeren,
can find no better voice to invoke the power of the Karlsruhe Crucifixion than
Huysmanss. Literally abdicating his role to Huysmans, Rau turns to Huysmans
L-bas whose prose faisande, he writes, captures the essence of what the master
from Aschaffenburg had painted. Hence L bass role in Raus study.82 Other
students of Grnewald have followed Raus footsteps. A 1951 publication entitled Grnewald: Le retable dIssenheim, assigns Huysmans as the books sole author,
appropriating excerpts from Huysmans 1905 study to accompany a raft of color
plates.83 Likewise, Eberhard Ruhmers 1958 Phaidon publication on Grnewald
lauds Huysmanss texts for its introduction. Not only does Ruhmer reprint Huysmanss publications on Grnewald in their entirety, but his catalogue entry on the
Karlsruhe Crucifixion mentions Huysmanss visit to Cassel in 1888 but not Verhaerensthe latters is forgotten, despite the fact that Verhaerens visit preceded
Huysmanss by two years.84 More recently Andre Hayums publication of 1989
on the Isenheim altarpiece unequivocally states that the claim[s] of interest that
extended to France and the Netherlands, rests largely on the attention paid to
Grnewald and the Isenheim Altarpiece by Joris-Karl Huysmans85
Verhaeren himself was not as insouciant. His 1894 essay readily acknowledges L-bass immensely influential role disseminating Grnewalds name to
an overarching public. Yet, in spite of his acknowledgments, Verhaeren subtly
but forcefully voiced his doubts on Huysmanss reading of the German master. As Verhaeren phrases it: His [Huysmanss] latest novel L-bas, which dates
from three years ago, celebrates the master from Aschaffenburg [Yet] as I
see it, this French author does not quite understand the German painter, but
no matter (Son dernier roman, L-Bas, qui date dil y a trois ans (1891), clbre le matre dAschaffenburg. mon sens lcrivain franais comprend imparfaitement le peintre
allemand) (2:627). Verhaeren, here, underscores a contradiction, nay, a paradox:
though Huysmans popularized Grnewalds name, Huysmans, Verhaeren argued, does not quite understand the German paintera contentious remark
that invites discussion. Key to Verhaerens criticism is Huysmanss Frenchness,
his lineage.86 That Verhaeren viewed ancestry as an obstacle, one that impairs
Huysmans from truly understand[ing] the German painter, says that Verhaeren
was well aware of Tainean aesthetics, propositions first formulated in the late
1860s by Hippolyte Taine that inextricably linked the arts to a host of intangibles,
namely race, nationality, climate and food. In short, Huysmans as a Frenchman
could not possibly come to grips with a German master, his Latin or Mediterranean roots precluded this from happeningat least, with Tainean complicity,
this was Verhaerens argument. With this said, we are reminded that, Verhaerens

32

mile Verhaeren: Essays on the Northern Renaissance

roots are Northern: he is from Belgium and like the master from Aschaffenburg,
his roots are embedded in the North. As Verhaeren phrases it: [Grnewald is]
without a doubt and from head to foot a Northerner, [hence] beauty as the Latins
understand it is not his strong point (La beaut, telle que les Latins lentendent
ntait point son fait. Il tait septentrional des pieds la tte) (2:631). Only a Northernerand here we (con)fuse Grnewalds sensibilities with Verhaerenswould
liken Christs battered body, green and seeping with blood, to a bundle of
skin and ulcers jumbled together, tossed in a sewer (on dirait un paquet de chairs et
dulcres mls et jets la voirie) (2:634). Hence Verhaerens unspoken but very real
conclusion: He, as a Belgian, occupies the same page as the German painter.
Need we be reminded that as early as 1886, responding to the Cassel Crucifixion,
Verhaeren argued that Belgians like Germans favor a fierceness in their art, an art
farouche, and this is self-evident when one visits certain byways of the country
in Belgium, the Ardennes, in Germany, Swabia (quant on parcourt certains coins de
pays, en Belgique, lArdenne, en Allemagne, la Souabe) (1:252). In sum, if anyone can
read his paintings, he can. And indeed Verhaerens publications of 1886 and
94 say he can.
Frenchmen, given Verhaerens views, have difficulty with Grnewalda
generalization that is not all that far-fetched, as the volume on German art in
the series on the history of painting under Charles Blancs editorship suggests.
Blanc, an eminent voice for all that is French, he was a co-founder of the Gazette
des Beaux Arts, traveled to Colmar with a colleague, Auguste Demmin, to see the
Grnewaldss. Publishing his findings with Demmin in 1875, he warmly lauds
the panel depicting the Nativityrien de plus magistral que la Nativit87but literally dismisses the Crucifixion; with a nod to connoisseurship he flatly states that
the Isenheim polyptych cannot be by Baldung Grien.88 Otherwise, for Blanc and
Demmin, the Crucifixion, the retables center panel and focus, might as well not
exist. Verhaerens response, on the other hand, to the multi-leaved Isenheim altarpiece and especially, to Grnewalds depictions of the Crucifixion at Colmar and
Cassel tacitly faults Blancs Mediterranean aesthetic for its timidity.
Stunned, shaken by experiencing Christs putrid body, whether at Isenheim
or at Cassel, Verhaeren, with piercing insight, reduced Christ and the personages
milling about his person to figures whose source lie deep in the recesses of our
being, unplumbed depths hardly ever explored. With his usual acumen, Verhaeren declares that there is something unsettling about Grnewalds oeuvre, that it
rings, or rather, welcomes angry, fierce notes (Grnewald sonne, ou plutt tocsine
les notes froces) (1:251-2). Fearrudimentary fearguides Grnewalds hand; it
thrives on terror and alarm. His brush, Verhaeren adds, is solely tempted by

Introduction

33

horror and fright and its zeal disappears if it can not express pain and exasperation ([S]on pinceau nest tent que par de lhorreur et de lpouvante, sa verve disparat si elle
ne peut exprimer de la torture et de lexaspration) (1:252). Mary Magdalenes hysterical
abandon, her shrieks before the open sepulcher in the Isenheim predella is
a case in point. Seeing her master in death, writes Verhaeren, she drags herself to the tomb to crash, fall apart and shatter in interminable wild wailings,
overwhelming the scene, Verhaeren adds, with her shrieks, her wild sobs
and uncontrollable spasms (et se trane jusquau tombeau pour se briser et se casser en
gmissements fous et interminables. Vraiment, on entend plus quon ne voit ses sanglots et ses
hurlements autour de ce spulcre ouvert) (2:639).89
Grnewalds figures thus thrive in tenebrous shadows borne from barbarous beliefs ([des] croyances sauvages) (1:250). They live in dark woods, not unlike
brigands, low thieves. These images, trenchant and abrasive, are Verhaerens own
and are the very images Verhaeren used in 1886 to describe his response before the Crucifixion in Cassel. His remarks are worth quoting: His Christs, low
thieves; his Saint Johns, assassins. Their faces are distorted by evil for engagements at night. Even the Virgins, as Grnewald envisions them, are frightful
([S]es Christs, des larrons; ses Saint Jean, des assassins. Leur faces grimacent de mchancet
et leur mains sont taills pour des batailles, la nuit. Mme les Vierges, Grnewald les dessine
terribles) (1:252)fraught images spoken when Grnewald was still an unknown
entity! Rough and unruly beings, Grnewalds holy personages are for the German master sordid brigands, unsavory toughs encountered in abandoned
woods (Ses personnages, ce sont des brigands rencontrs au coin des bois) (1:252). The
Passion, then, as Grnewald envisions it does not transpire on Holy Ground, it
transpires in untrodden copses, dark, forbidding woods, German forests, forests
en Allemagne as he says (2:632). Thus with a poets insight, Verhaeren underscores
not only the differences between his own and Huysmanss approach to the Isenheim master, but with savoir faire favors a factor the author of L-bas never considerednamely, Grnewalds evident penchant for Germanys somber forests,
a pantheism evinced in the masters attraction to tenebrous lairs. Again, quoting
Verhaeren:
lhorizon de lart allemand rgne une fort continuelle que tout artiste germain, ft-il
musicien comme Wagner, pote comme Goethe ou peintre comme Grnewald traverse,
tenant son rve par la main. (2:632)
An endless forest reigns in the mystical horizon of German art that all native artists
cross, their dreams steadfastly at hand, be they musicians like Wagner, poets like Goethe
or painters like Grnewald.

34

mile Verhaeren: Essays on the Northern Renaissance

Grnewald had crossed this forest, or so runs Verhaerens argument. As a German, he would perpetually navigate its woods. The awesome forests of Germany are the true milieu, writes Verhaeren, where German art most resonates
and where Germanys greatest poets find deep draughts of inspiration for their
art (Les forts formidables de la Germanie sont le vrai milieu o respire lart allemand dans
la poitrine de ses plus hauts potes) (2:632) and where, we may add, coupling our voice
to Verhaerens, o respire lart de Grnewald.
La fort and lart allemand are, as Verhaeren would argue, interchangeable; they
fuse, meld, and share in each others molten mysteries. German art thrives like
the forest, embodying the same sensations and eliciting the same thoughts (Lart
allemand existe comme la fort, donnant mme sensation et procurant mmes penses) (2:632).
The forest, thus, for Verhaeren moans a constant lament, its dark corners and
harsh winds harbor sinister and savage crimes, murders, sacrifices and unspeakable horrors:
Cest parce que Grnewald fait tant songer la fort, ses tnbres et sa nuit, et aussi
aux drames sinistres et sauvages qui travers les sicles ont d sy passer: pendaisons,
sacrifices, meurtres et tortures, quon pourrait dfinir ce tant terrible, tant tragique, tant
sauvage artiste, un peintre (2:632-33).
It is because Grnewald leads us to ponder on forests and their tenebrous, deepest
nightsand moreover to the sinister and savage dramas which throughout the centuries
must have taken place in their dark woods: hangings, sacrifices, murders and tortures
that one can define this too terrible, too tragic, too savage artist a painter [original
italics].

Viewing this most savage of artists, his canvases so acidly corrosive that
they burn the eyes (un art corrosif, qui mordait les yeux) (2:636), Verhaeren knew
that a painter of Drers stature stood before him, albeit an artist so very different from the master from Nuremberg. He had sensed this from his first
encounter with Grnewald when he initially stood before the Karlruhe Crucifixion in Cassel. Then, in 1886, he had written with great circumspection: If
he [Grnewald] has less talent and less experience than Drer, he has perhaps
more genius (Sil a moins de talent et dacquis que Drer, il a peut-tre plus de gnie)
[my italics; 1:252].90 But now, in 1894, almost a decade later, having studied the
body of Grnewalds oeuvre, a body of work he had so painstakingly reconstructed, given his forays into Switzerland and his peregrinations throughout
Germany, visiting castles, churches and museums in pursuit of this most peintre
sauvage (savage painter), his previous doubts were cast aside. Thus where he formerly had written, il a peut-tre plus de gnie, he could, quoting (or, rather, misquoting) his initial text on the master from Aschaffenburg unqualifyingly assert

Introduction

35

that Grnewald a plus de gnie (2:627)and thus omitting the adverb peut-tre
(perhaps), a most crucial omission we believe that is hardly inadvertent. Transforming an apologetic possibility into an affirmative declaration, Verhaeren underscores his growing conviction that before him stood the greatest painter of
early sixteenth century Germany. Thus, Verhaeren in 1894: If he [Grnewald]
has less talent and less experience than Drer, he is the greater genius ([S]il
a moins de talent et dacquis que Drer, il a plus de genie). With this said, we may
then ask why this lacuna, why this missing adverb? We can only surmise. But
given Huysmanss role in Grnewald studies, might not Grnewalds omission
of 1894 be directed at Huysmans and his readers who after the publication of
L-bas in 1891, associated the master from Aschaffenburg with Huysmans? By
emphatically placing Grnewald before Drer as early as 1886the result of his
own misquotation in 1894 of his earlier textVerhaeren is suggesting that long
before Huysmans ever publicized Grnewald he, Verhaeren, had carved a place
for Grnewald in the hallowed halls of German art.
Drer, when seen against Grnewald, was more accessible, more measured,
more perfect (plus accessible, plus mesur, plus parfait) (1:252)as Verhaeren said
of the master from Nurenberg. But that was exactly the problem. Drer was plus
or should we say trop parfaittoo perfect! With his preferences laid bare, Verhaeren could confess: We cant say just what it is that draws us to the otheran
excessively personal stance, a Northerners perspective, a desperately morbid sensitive reading (Pourtant, on ne sait quoi dexcessivement personnel, de caractristiquement
teuton, de dsesprment humain nous attire vers lautre) (1:252). Here Verhaerens words
expose his own sense of the futility of life: what drew him to Grnewald was
the latters discouraging, disconsolate, desperate and despairing cry of pain, the
dsesprment humain, a link that bridged the dark forests within him with the dark
forests of German woods.
For Verhaeren then, Christ liesand this insight, we recall, dates from
1886in German forests, lies in Cassel, Colmar or Basel where Grnewalds
great crucifixions lie and lies, I believe in Verhaerens reading of Goethe, surely
in his 1774 Werther, the eponymous hero of his tale of woe. Goethes Sorrows
of Young Werther, an uncanny study in decline and inevitable fall from grace,
closes with a lengthy reading of a cycle of lachrymal poems that deeply affected
Goethes generation, James Macphersons Ossian.91 Here in long passages that
speak of night and storms, we find ourselves in Grnewalds world ruled
by un Dieu sauvage (1:252), a savage God not unlike the unruly currents of Ossians woods:
It is night; I am alone, forlorn on the hill of storms. The wind is heard in the mountain.

36

mile Verhaeren: Essays on the Northern Renaissance


The torrent pours down the rock forlorn on the hills of winds. Rise, moon! from behind thy clouds. Stars of the night arise! Lend me some light Speak to me: I am alone!92

Before these rending lamentations, these cries of suffocation, one can easily
interject Grnewalds personages with their sensations of anguish, of chocking
suffocation, of dreadful fright (sensations dangoisse, dtouffement, de frayeur) (2:632).
Just look at Grnewalds Basel Crucifixiona divine drama, un drame divin, that
takes place at the ends of the earth The sky is pitch black, the colors of the
earth strangely green. Christ is in the throes of death, torn apart, hacked to
pieces, swollen, a pitiable sight. His skin seems covered with holes, punctured
like a sponge, roiling in blood (au bout de la terre, en des tte--tte terribles. Le ciel
est dencre. La terre dune couleur trangement verte. Le Christ meurt dchiquet, bouffi,
lamentable. Sa peau semble troue comme une ponge; elle dgoutte de sang) (2:635). With
these visceral images in mind, we may well wonder if Verhaerens response to
Grnewalds dying Christ is not unique in the literature. With Verhaeren as our
guide, we succumb before Christs rotting flesh, and anxiously turn our gaze away
from the brooding sites and dark skies that harbor Christs fearful sacrifice. Reeling and startled before Verhaerens searing images, we come to understand Verhaerens exacerbated sensitivities. Thus, moved and wracked with fear, we find
ourselves looking at Grnewalds Christsnot just at his Basel Crucifixionas
Verhaeren saw them, bodies full of holes, punctured and spurting blood, quivering and worn like soiled sponges, an awful sight that transport us to dark, unknown reaches, somewhere, someplace at the ends of the earth (au bout de la
terre).93 And where is this last stretch of earth, this place of darkness crossed at
times by lugubrious rays of light? Perhaps Goethes reading of Ossian offers the
answer, for we can conceivably imagine the Magdalene or the Virgin and John
at the foot of the gibbetat Colmar, Basel or Karlsruhegrieving in the lunar,
windswept plains where Werther and Ossian grieved. Arise, winds of autumn,
arise; blow along the heath! streams of the mountain roar! roar, tempests in the
groves of my oaks! walk through broken clouds, O moon!94lamentations that
awaken for us and most likely for Verhaeren images of Christs shattered form in
an unforgiving landscape, the landscape of Grnewalds calvaries.
Nailed to his roughly hewn gibbet, Christ grieves and the whole forest, the
dark German woods with their lugubrious stillness, witnesses his passion (La fort
entire semble avoir servi au supplice) (2:636). This last image, where the forest mutely
attends his agony, is drawn by Verhaeren as he compulsively compares the dead
Christ from the Basel Crucifixion with Holbeins Dead Christ (1522), the latter as
well in Basel. Viewing the two likenesses of Christs scarred body at the Muse de
Ble and overwhelmed by their abused forms, Verhaeren pairs and contrasts the

Introduction

37

two figures, the wreckage of one eliciting the shattered body of the other. Of
Holbeins Dead Christ, Verhaeren writes:
[ il a] toutes les apparences de la misre physique: torse do les os font saillie, pieds livides et exsangues, mains crispes et maigres et comme ratatines dans la mort, bras roidis,
ongles noirs et la tte lamentable et retombante avec des yeux si loin dj du monde et si
bout de la vie, que toute lhumanit souffrante et dolente semblait mourir en eux (2:636).
[he has] all the signs of wretched distress: a torso with jutting bones, feet livid and
bloodless; thin, crisped hands, shriveled and shrunken in death; arms rigid and black
nailsand that bleak head, with eyes already so far gone, life ebbing, that all of suffering
and piteous humanity seems to die in them.

And against this discomfiting image of Christ caged in his awful sepulcher,
Verhaeren sets the crucified Christ from the Basel Crucifixion in his own brutal
milieu where the soil is churned by immemorial forces (un lieu sauvage o le sol
est travaill par les forces immmoriales) (2:636). With Christ on the Cross, set against
an unbearably sad horizon whose dark-ink laden clouds lengthen over the earths
surface (vers linfini dun horizon inpuisablement triste [o les nuages] allonge comme des
barres par au-dessus de la terre) (2:636), Verhaeren asks us to envision his pain:
Si maintenant vous vous reprsenter que par un miracle dart, Grnewald est parvenu
donner chaque voix qui sort de ces milles plaies corporelles un accent de dtresse, que
dans la torsion des pieds, dans laffaissement des membres, dans la dfaite de la tte qui
tombe vaincue sur la poitrine, il a enferm un tel paroxysme de douleur quun homme ne
pourrait le subir et quil faut pour le souffrir un Dieu, vous comprendrez que la conception de notre peintre est autrement haute et grande que celle dHolbein (2:636).
If now you can conceive that by a miracle of art Grnewald had managed to impart
a voice and a cry of distress from each of his numerous bodily soresand from the
twisted feet and exhausted limbs and the defeated head which falls over his collapsed and
vanquished chestembodying an unbearable paroxysm of pain a man could not bear
but only a God could endureyou would understand that the vision of our painter is in
its reach and depth other than that of Holbein.

Indeed, Holbeins Dead Christ pales before Grnewalds vision of Christ on


the cross, for only the master from Aschaffenburg, as Verhaeren intuited, could
envision Christs open wounds as dolorous mouths scream[ing] at death,
running wounds, swarming, scrambling and howling in revelation over the bound
bodies staked to Grnewalds coarsely hacked wooden crosses lost in German
lairs. With these words and much else that Verhaeren says on Grnewald still
ringing in our ears, it is time we reappraise the situation.
Responding to Grnewalds blistering images with his own startling, appall-

38

mile Verhaeren: Essays on the Northern Renaissance

ing and unnerving images, Verhaeren mnemonically awakens for us the Passion
that Christ suffered on the cross. Unlike his nineteenth century predecessors
who wrote on Grnewald (Huysmans excepted), Verhaeren agitates, assaults and
roils his audience, fashioning with words what Grnewald fashioned with paint.
Mimesis of this sort is an exceptionally effective tool, one fraught with revelations and poetic excursions, the response of an uplifting, judicious and acutely
personal reading, one that intuitively probes crucial untapped essences. Time,
we know, has redressed the situation: Grnewald is no longer unsung today.
Acclaimed by all, his place by Drer in the German pantheon is secureonly
Verhaerens study of the master awaits acclaim.95
***
Musing on Grnewald and the desperate state of humanity, its dsesprment, Verhaeren found an unexpected link with another painter who shall understand
as he does the crucifixions and resurrections of Christ, the pains and joys of
the Virgin (qui comprendra comme lui les crucifixions et les rsurrections du Christ,
les douleurs et les joies de la Vierge), someone who, like him, lived apart and who
understood that meaning rises above miseries, agonies, horrors, despair the follies we all know (lidal se dresse au-dessus des misres, des agonies, des horreurs, des
dsespoirs et des folies terrestres)and this other painter, Verhaeren quickly adds, is
Rembrandtje veux dire Rembrandt (2:643). A most unlikely and unexpected pairing, although joining the twoRembrandt and Grnewaldsays much about
why he venerated them, for pain, truth and insight into the human condition are
the basis for their bond. The spiritual bonds that bind these two geniuses is self
evident (La parent dme de ces deux gnies est vidente)self evident because the
two arise from the fathomless depth of the people (sortent du fond, joserais dire de
labme populaire) (2:643), and thus know their untold struggles, miseries and hopes
of redemption.
Pairing Rembrandt and Grnewald is startling indeed. But this most unexpected rapprochement underlines an essential fact of Verhaerens studies of the
early modern periodnamely, that Rembrandt was never far away from Verhaerens thoughts. As early as 1882, in surely his very first disquisition on Flemish
and Dutch art, Verhaeren brands Rembrandt the most superb and the strangest painter the North ever produced (le plus superbe et le plus trange peintre que le
Nord ait produit) (1:44). The word Verhaeren favors here is trange, which may be
translated as strange or unlike others or difficult to define. Add to this
Verhaerens subsequent observationone he makes but a few sentences later:

Introduction

39

Puis Rembrandt droute (1:44). Then Rembrandt rattles us(droute)a decisive


declarative statement that says without mincing words that Rembrandt discomfits
his audience. Disorienting us all, he pursues the unexpected. Rembrandt is a man
we do not know and will not knowand who in turn seems to know that which
we do not know and which most of us, Verhaeren would say, fear to know. La nuit
le tente, Night tempts him, Verhaeren writes with great insight, with its gloom,
its unspoken mysteries, its dreams, its nightmares and it is in its deep embrace
that his figures toss and turn (La nuit le tente avec ses tnbres, ses mystres, ses rves, ses
cauchemars et cest au fond delle quil agite ses personnages) (1:44)words written in 1882
which foretell the 1904 Rembrandt.
La nuit tempts Rembrandt but la nuit tempts Verhaeren as well. For Verhaeren la nuit means an undefined, elusive poetrya definition which he clarified
in 1885 in a moving panegyric on the recently deceased Victor Hugo. There
with the zeal of an inflamed acolyte chanting an incantatory hymn, Verhaeren
introduces a phrase composed of incompatible, antithetically opposed but intertwined qualitieslhorreur sacre (a sacred horror), a phrase he willfully repeats
again and again in his eulogy. As Verhaeren interprets Hugo, lhorreur sacre not
only permeates Hugos writings but defines his very being: Lhorreur sacre ne se recontre que chez les potes suprmes (One only encounters the sacred horror in supreme
poets)poets like Hugo, Goethe, Grnewald and Rembrandt:
Lhorreur sacre habite parmi les tnbres Labme! Lantre! Le gouffre! La nuit enfin
o les mondes les plus lointains, reculant toujours plus profondment, semblent fuir
devant lhorreur des choses et plir devant une nigme fixe et traverser le vide silencieux
des espaces avec tremblement et dfaillance.
Lhorreur sacre ravage enfin lme humaine. Le pote ly a saisie [my italics].96
The sacred horror lives amidst dark shadows The abyss! A cavern! A pit! And finally
the night where the most far away earthly bodies recede forever ever further, seem to
flee the horror of things before a fixed enigma and cross the empty silences of space
with trembling and failure.
The sacred horror ravages the human soul. The poet seizes it [my italics].

Thus la nuit and les tnbres, integral to Grnewald and Rembrandt, draw the
poets deep down into the abyss where dans les vides silences des espaces [thrive] [les]
tnbres,[les] mystre, [les] rves, [les] cauchemars. How different all of this is from Verhaerens reading of Rubens. With the two masters a source of perpetual fascination, Verhaeren saw Rembrandt as the embodiment of night, while Rubens, in
contradistinction, embodied day, le jouras indeed he does in his essay of 1882:
Rubens cest le jour, cest lhomme poussant au beau soleil, cest lhomme grandi et

40

mile Verhaeren: Essays on the Northern Renaissance


sain. Lun vit dans ltrange, lautre [Rembrandt] dans le naturel, lun peint avec le pinceau
lautre semble peindre avec une torche. Lun attire, lautre blouit (1:44).
Rubens is broad daylight, it is man striving towards a full sun, a man in full measure
glowing with vital health. One lives in a strange world, the other in one most natural, one
paints with a brush, the other with a torchlight. One attracts, the other dazzles.

With a blazing torch at hand, Rembrandt illumines the dark deep recesses
of his dreams, les tnbres (or lhorreur sacre). Given this image, Rubens, glorious
as he is, is not Rembrandts equal. Hence Verhaerens conclusion: Lun attire,
lautre blouit.
That Verhaeren came to this conclusion in 1882 impresses us mightily: it
speaks of his arresting observations, his piquant taste for unsettling analogies
and untoward images, breathtaking insights that annoint his studies of the German, Dutch and Flemish masters with the sure hand of an original thinker. And
lastly, and amongst the most startling qualities of his oeuvre, it speaks of his
precocious self-assured critical aplomb. For as the new century came into being
and he found himself reviewing Rubens and Rembrandt once more, his position
did not change: as fixed stars in his firmament, one was day, the other was night,
one was life, vital and bursting, the other a jarring, haunted and haunting specter
or should we just say one was Verhaeren and the other was Verhaeren as well!

NOTES
1

For the frequent exchanges between these two centres of art, see especially Anne Pingeot and
Robert Hoozee, Paris-Bruxelles, Bruxelles-Paris; ralisme, impressionisme; symbolisme, art nouveau. Les
relations artistiques entre la France et la Belgique, 18481914 (Paris: Runion des Muses nationaux,
1997).

Unless otherwise noted, all citations are drawn from Arons two-volume compendium of Verhaerens writings on art. See mile Verhaeren, crits sur lart (18811892) and (18931916), 2
vols. Paul Aron, ed., (Brussels: Labor et Archives et Muse de la littrature, 1997).

For Verhaerens writings on art, see Charles Maingon, mile Verhaeren critique dart (Paris: Nizet,
1984). Maingons study however is all-inclusive, its range covers our period as well as the

Introduction

41

Impressionists and the nineteenth century as a whole. I will not be citing Maingon in this
introduction as his brief remarks are but encapsulations of Verhaerens essays; also see the
short but instructive text by Raymond Pouillard, Verhaeren et la critique dart en 18801885,
in mile Verhaeren, Pote-Dramaturge-Critique: Colloque international organis lUniversit de Cologne
le 28 et le 29 Octobre 1983, ed. Peter-Eckhard Knabe and Raymond Trousson (Brussels:
Editions de lUniversit de Bruxelles, 1984), 12733. Also see, Jean Robaey, Verhaeren et le
Symbolisme (Moderna: Mucchi, 1996). Robaeys critique of Rembrandt, Rubens and Breughel
are especially pertinent for all students of Verhaeren on art.
4

My always needs to be tempered. Huysmans, however, is more often than not cited in
Grnewald publications. See especially Eberhard Ruhmer, Grnewald: The Paintings. Complete
Edition with Two Essays by J.-K. Huysmans (Phaidon: New York, 1958); otherwise he is often cited
in bibliographies such as Georg Scheja, The Isenheim Altarpiece (Harry N. Abrams, Inc: New
York, 1971) and Arthur Burkhard, Matthias Grnewald, Personality and Accomplishment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936); also see footnotes 81, 83 and 85.

See mile Verhaeren, Rembrandt, (Paris: Henri Laurens, 1904), 126. My translation of this publication is based on the transcript as published in Aron. See Aron, crits sur lart, 2: 82056. It is
important to note that large segments of the 1904 publication had previously been published
in 1901; thus, the 1904 text is a much expanded version of the earlier manuscript. However,
the 1901 text, especially its first half, outlines a number of critical observations that find their
way verbatim into the 1904 version. Though Verhaerens Rembrandt was largely written in 1904,
one may conclude then that the 1904 text was in its essentials (but not in its details) written in
1901. For the earlier publication see . Verhaeren, Rembrandt, in Le Monde moderne, JanuaryJune 1901, 161176.

For the original passage see Verhaeren, James Ensor, (Brussels: G. Van Oest, 1908), 15. For the
Ensor text in Aron see Aron, crits sur lart, 2:867917.

Originally published as lArt en Allemagne, in La Nation, 9 and 12 September 1891, where


Verhaeren decries the cold perfunctory indifference of the Belgian bureaucracy in the arts
and compares the latter with Germanys own committed art establishment. For the text as
published in Aron see his, crits sur lart, 1:473478.

Verhaeren, Ensor, 15. Relishing the battle of the 80s and 90s, Verhaeren gladly relives those
times of yore in in his Ensor of 1908. Thus of the avant-garde exhibitions of the day, notably
Les Vingt, we read (1617): Jamais les polmiques dart ne furent aussi vives, aussi ardentes,
aussi impitoyables. On frappait avec des poings sauvages on tait fier dtre partial et froce

42

mile Verhaeren: Essays on the Northern Renaissance


toute rticence devenait trahison, toute justice rendue aux adversaries raison de blme et
de dfiance. For the above lines where Ensors past battles with the public are reviewed see
Aron, Ensor, 2:87374. For additional views on these struggles see Marc Quaghebeur, Verhaeren, critique dEnsor et de Rembrandt, in mile Verhaeren, Pote-Dramaturge-Critique, ed.
Peter-Eckhard Knabe, 107125.

Again, to quote from Verhaerens Ensor, 21: Latmosphre de bataille on la respirait, elle
tait vraiment et bellement violente, exaltante et fivreuse. Also, see Aron, 2:876.

10

Verhaerens futile scorn of the establishment was shared by his cohorts. Of the many voices
lamenting the situation we choose one by Octave Maus, a colleague of Verhaeren and an
ardent spokesman for all that was new in Belgium: Tout ce qui est beau, libre, sincre est
touff par une coterie de pieuvres, qui pompent elles la finance, la considration, la rputation and thus commit irreparable damage to notre pauvre bourgeois de pays Quoting
a missive of 1883 in Jane Block, Les XX and Belgian Avant-Gardism, 18681894 (Ann Arbor,
Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1984), 21.

11

Here on 1:23945 Aron cites Verhaerens Le Salon des XX, from La Jeune Belgique, 5 March
1886: 18288; La Jeune Belgiques review is quoted at length in Ensor, 1820 and in Aron 2:875
76.

12

Sixty years later, Kenneth Clark unknowingly echoes Verhaerens words when he appreciates
the Ganymede for its blasphemy. The painting, writes Clark, is like one of those blasphemies which precede conversion. Kenneth Clark, Rembrandt and the Italian Renaissance (New
York University Press: New York, 1964), 18; for more recent and ever more pungent remarks
on Rembrandts Ganymede where Rembrandt is doing something more here than pissing
on the mythic glamorization of pederasty, see Simon Schama, Rembrandts Eyes (New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), 412.

13

Verhaeren was not the only 19th century critic to question Taines views; J. K. Huysmans, Sar
Pladan and Albert Aurier were just a few of the many theorists and critics who also faulted
Taine. For bibliography and arguments see Carol Armstrong, Odd Man Out, Readings of the
Work and Reputation of Edgar Degas (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2003), 173ff; and Richard
Schiff s Cezanne and the End of Impressionism, A Study of the Theory, Technique, and Critical Evaluation of Modern Art (Chicago: University of Chigaco Press, 1986), 3944.

14

Taine, Philosophie de lart dans les Pays-Bas, 2 vols. (Paris: Librairie Hachette, nd. 1st ed. 186569),
1:23031.

Introduction
15

43

With an antiquarians devotion to detail, Blanc enumerates Rembrandts numerous purchases:


il y avait chez lui [Rembrandt] des porcelaines de la Chine et des Indes, des armes indiennes
et japonaises, des verres de Venice, un bois de lit sculpt par Verhulst, un bouclier orn de
figures par Quintin Matzys, des flacons turcs, des oiseaux empaills, des coraux, des plantes
marines, des mineraux, des hamacs, des calebasses, des peaux de lion, des costumes de couleurs
varies, des ventails orientaux and the list does not end here. Given this sampling (and
Blanc goes with unabated zest detailing the holdings in Rembrandts house) one is unsure
whether Blanc approves or disapproves of Rembrandts profligacy. In any case, Verhaerens text
does not indulge in Blancs seemingly compulsive accounting. Our citation comes from Charles
Blancs, Histoire des peintres de toutes les coles: cole Hollandaise, 2 vols. (Paris: Renouard, 1863), 1:10.

16

For this and many other tales denigrating his character see Alison McQueen, The Rise of the
Cult of Rembrandt, Reinventing an Old Master in Nineteenth-Century France (Amsterdam: Amsterdam
University Press, 2003). McQueen illustrates a canvas from c. 1838 by one Jules-Jean-Baptiste
Dehaussy with the title Last Moments of Rembrandt, He Asks to See his Treasures Once More Before
Dying. Here, as McQueen explains (130), his [Rembrandts] young wife lovingly shows him
the masses of gold coins he had furtively stored below the bedroom floor.

17

For Rembrandts unseemly attraction to Jews, the poor and other outcasts see McQueen, ibid.,
3163.

18

Blanc, like Verhaeren, assigned a raft of questions to Rembrandts Night Watch. Since these
queries could not be resolved he concluded, [a] vrai dire, ce nest l quun rve de nuit. On
dirait que Rembrandt a vu passer en songe des hros quil connaissait, mais dont le souvenir se
peignait son esprit tantt avec prcision, tantt vaguement, comme il arrive pour les figures
qui nous visitent durant le sommeil. Blanc, cole hollandaise, 1:2.

19

One would be hard put to discuss Eugne Fromentins Les matres dautrefois without referencing Meyer Schapiros adroit and perceptive study on Fromentin of 1963. With Schapiros penchant for nuanced psychoanalytic reading, Schapiro sees Fromentins objections to Rembrandt
in light of the formers own personal failings, inadequacies and contradictions as a man and
as an artist. See Eugne Fromentin as Critic in Meyer Schapiro, Theory and Philosophy of Art:
Style, Artist, and Society (New York: George Braziller, 1994); and Eugne Fromentin, Les Matres
dautrefois, Belgique-Hollande (Paris: Nelson, 1876).

20

Fromentin, 310.

21

Ibid.

44

mile Verhaeren: Essays on the Northern Renaissance

22

Ibid., 273.

23

Ibid., 276.

24

Ibid., 290.

25

Ibid.

26

Ibid.

27

Ibid.

28

Fromentin not only speaks of her clat bizarre but, as a phantom of sorts, he concludes
that she is une sorte de phosphorensce extraordinairement bizarre, qui nest pas la lumire
naturelle des choses ibid., 290 and 291. Unfortunately, Schapiros discussion does not specifically cite Fromentins pages on the Night Watch and only argues that Rembrandts great
inner liberty challenged and disturbed him [Fromentin] as did nothing else. And, as it were
to clinch his case, Schapiro adds, Fromentin wrote to his wife: Rembrandt doesnt let me
sleep. Schapiro, Fromentin, in his Theory and Philosophy, 128.

29

See McQueen, 5865.

30

A few years back the Jewish Museum in New York published what may well be the most informative visual account of the Dreyfus affair to date (with essays by Linda Nochlin, Susan Rubin
Suleiman among others). See the exhibition catalogue The Dreyfus Affair, Art, Truth, and Justice
ed. by Norman L. Kleebatt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

31

There are ample studies of anti-semitism and France in the late nineteenth century. For our
purposes we need only cite Michel R. Maurruss essay Popular Anti-Semitism, in the exh.
cat., by Norman L. Kleebattt, The Dreyfus Affair, 5061. Also see douard Drumont, La France
juive, 2 vols., (Paris: Flammarion, 1886).

32

Drumont, 1:20203.

33

Ibid., 1:203.

34

Ibid., 1:202.

Introduction

45

35

Ibid.

36

Ibid., 1:34. Drumonts sketch of a typical Jew is frightening indeed. With his fameux nez
recourb, his flat feet and over-sized ears, his semite repels at first sight.

37

Fromentin, 290.

38

In spite of his friendship with Stephan Zweig, a Jew and his biographer, Verhaeren can be reproached for his own anti-semitism. As has been pointed out, see reference below, Verhaeren
worked closely with Edmond Picard, a rabid anti-semite, and even found praise for one of
Picards many anti-semitic tracts. See Paul Aron, Les crivains belges et le socialisme (18801913),
Lexprience de lart social: dEdmond Picard mile Verhaeren (Brussels: Labor, 1985), 239, n. 146.

39

As any child knows, the world of fairy-tales and fairy-castles opens up uncharted byways
where chimeras and naines lurk in the dense thickets of the imagination. The unknown here,
however, is not a source of fear but on the contrary a source of endless fascination, furtive
tracks, as Verhaerens Rembrandt clearly understood, peopled with rewarding, consoling and
inventive chimeras.

40

Charles Blanc, Rembrandt Van Ryjn, in Histoire des peintres de toutes les coles, 1:16. Blanc draws
this bit of information from Houbrakens 1718 biography of Rembrandt, a study that charges
Rembrandt with vulgar cupidity. Here for instance one can read the following story: [Rembrandt was] so fond of money that his students, noticing this, would occasionally, as a joke,
paint nickels, dimes, quarters etc on the floor [of his studio] or elsewhere where they were
bound to catch his eye, for which he would mistakenly reach, but being embarrassed, never
said anything about it.as cited in Hendrik J. Horn, The Golden Age Revisited, Arnold Houbrakens Great Theatre of Netherlandish Painters and Paintresses, 2 vols. (Amsterdam: Davaco Press,
2000), 1:475.

41
42

Blanc, 1:18.
For a fascinating recent study of Rembrandts relations with Jews see Steven Nadler, Rembrandts Jews (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003); here one also finds a rich bibliography on the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam in Rembrandts day.

43

mile Verhaeren, Le milieu belge, in Le Reveil, October 1896, 137.

44

Ibid., 138.

46

mile Verhaeren: Essays on the Northern Renaissance

45

Albert Giraud, Les Villes tentaculaires: 2m article, in La Jeune Belgique, 16, 18 January, 1896, 28.

46

Ibid.

47

Verhaeren, Le milieu belge, 140. Not hesitating to vent his despair at le milieu belge, Verhaeren adds: Lartiste spuise en colre; la masse se moque de lartiste, le zwanze ou passe en
haussant les paules.

48

For a detailed discussion of Verhaerens abject response to these events, see Albert Alhadeff,
The Great Awaking, le mileu belge, in Arts Magazine, 1980, 55, no. 4: 13236. For Verhaerens
review of Serres chaudes, see mile Verhaeren, Maurice Maeterlinck, in Lart moderne, 9 (21
July, 1889): 22527; for Verhaeren and La Princesse Maleine, see . Verhaeren, La Princesse
Maleine, in Lart moderne, 9 (17 November, 1889): 36163.

49

Octave Mirbeau, Propos belges, Le Figaro, 26 September, 1890; subsequently reprinted as


Ce que vaut la littrature belge, in LArt moderne, 10, no. 39, 5 October, 1890: 315.

50

Ibid.

51

One example will suffice for our purposes. Reviewing Verhaerens language in Les Moines
(1886) we read the following as written by the editor of La Jeune Belgique: Cest un congrs
international de fautes de franais, de vers boiteux, de tournures baroques, dimages fausses,
de mtaphores incomprehnsibles. Cest dans tout son horreur, leffroyable jargon du critique
dart et du pilier du panorama. Cest du Savoyard, de lAuvergnat, de lApache, du Malgache,
du Huron, du Commache, du Patagon. Cest la danse du scalp autour de la grammaire logique
et du bon sens. On dirait des mots qui courent dans des sacs. Albert Giraud, Les Moines,
in La Jeune Belgique, 5, 1886, 308.

52

Verhaeren, Le milieu belge, 142.

53

Ibid.

54

Although Aron, whose pages I translate and cite in this introduction, chose to publish Verhaerens 1910 textRubens (Brussels: Van Oest, 1910)it needs be stressed that Verhaeren wrote
his Rubens in 1903 and not in 1910. For Verhaerens earlier text see, . Verhaeren, Pierre-Paul
Rubens, Le Monde moderne, 1903: 3351. The 1910 text, to reiterate, repeats word for word the
1903 text and only occasionally strays from the earlier manuscript. For Rubens and the 1910
text see Aron, 2:933944.

Introduction
55

47

Pierre-Paul Rubens, Le Monde moderne, 1903, 47. This passage is one of the very few passages from the 1903 text that bears a significant difference from the 1910 text as found
in Aron (see 2:940); for the English translation of the 1910 text see my Rubens in the
texts below.

56

As Verhaeren notes, Rubenss art is free of all the untold miseries that preceded the Flemish renaissance. Si quelques excutions ensanglantaient encore, ci et l, les Flandres, il
ne les voyait pas. (see Aron, 2:932.) This trenchant observation does not appear in the
1903 text.

57

Verhaeren, Pierre-Paul Rubens, 1903, 35.

58

Quoting LAmour Rouge from Les Flamandes in mile Verhaeren Pomes; Les Flamandes, Les
MoinesLes Bords de la Route (Paris: Mercure de France, 1913), 68.

59

To cite Lemonniers Un Mle in Paul Gorceix, La Belgique fin de sicle: Georges Eekhoud, Camille
Lemonnier, Maurice Maeterlinck, Georges Rodenbach, Charles Van Lerberghe, mile Verhaeren (Brussels: ditions Complexe, 1997), 292.

60

Striking passages of corporeal encounters define Lemonniers work. To cite but one such
passage: Il avait des lans damour sauvage. Les baisers quil lui donnait taient douloureux
comme des morsures. Il ouvrait la bouche sur sa chair, les mchoires secoues dun tremblement. ibid., 304.

61

Taine, 1:32. Lemonnier shares the same analogy. Of Germaines encounter with her mate,
Lemonnier writes: Elle aussi avait connu le puissant amour du taureau, in Gorceix, 300.

62

Taine, 1:35.

63

Ibid., 1:36.

64

For La Vie flamande see Aron, 2:987997; the lecture was delivered 21 November 1913 and
published in the Les Annales, 15 December of the same year.

65

The lecture was entitled La Peinture flamande, and was first published in the Revue encyclopdique, 24 July 1897: 61318; see Aron, 2:72331.

66

Published in La Nation 17 October 1891, Verhaerens essay, Les Muses Belge was one of a

48

mile Verhaeren: Essays on the Northern Renaissance


series reviewing the holdings of Belgiums art museums. Our article is devoted to the Muse
dAnvers which Verhaeren especially lauded. For the article in its entirety see Aron, 1:48587.

67

Les Vieux Matres, in Verhaeren Pomes, 710.

68

La Peinture flamande in Aron, 2:72331.

69

See Aron, Hans Memling, 2:749757. Verhaerens Memling was first published in Le Monde
moderne, JulyDecember 1899: 60116.

70

See Verhaerens En Voyage, Les Gothiques allemands, in Aron, 1:25052. As first published in LArt moderne, 15 August, 1886, 25758, the text, albeit circumspectly edited, was
republished in La Vogue, a Parisian avant garde periodical favored by the literati of the day. For
instance, with Laforgue, Verlaine, Charles Morice and others, Rimbauds Saison en Enfer was
published in its 1886 issues. Verhaeren essay on Grnewald joins the publications of these
eminent poets. See, mile Verhaeren, Les Gothiques allemands in La Vogue, 4 October 1886, 2,
no. 11: 395-96.

71

With Le Peintre Mathias Grnewald, dAschaffenburg, in La Socit Nouvelle, Revue internationale, December 1894, 2, no. 10: 661-79, Verhaeren references two sources he had consulted
for his study, one being by Heinrich-Alfred Schmid for the Repertorium fur Kunstwissenschaft, 7,
(n.d); and the other by Charles Goutzwiller, a text we cite below. It is of great interest for us to
know that Heinrich Schmid followed this publication in 1894the year of Verhaerens Mathias Grnewald dAschaffenburgwith a study on Grnewalds Basel Crucifixion for the Basel
Historical Museum where he forewarns his readers that he is about to discuss an artist who
is practically unknown even today, with today being 1894, the year, we reiterate, Verhaeren was to publish his own lengthy study on Grnewald. For our quote see H. A. Schmid,
Matthias Grnewald, Gesammelte Schriften, (Leipzig-Strassburg: Heitz & Co.,1933), 49. For an
overview of Schmids role in Grnewald studies see Andre Hayum, The Isenheim Altarpiece,
Gods Medecine and the Painters Vision (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 120-24. For
Verhaerens 1894 text on Grnewald, see Aron, 2:62643.

72

See, Charles Goutzwiller, Le Muse de Colmar, Martin Schongauer et son cole: Notes sur lart ancien en
Alsace et sur les oeuvres dartistes alsaciens modernes (Colmar: Eugne Barth, 1875), 95.

73

Ibid.

74

Ibid., 98.

Introduction

49

75

Ibid., 79 for the illustration where Christ has been cleansed of his sores.

76

Alfred Michiels, tude sur LAllemagne, renfermant une histoire de la peinture allemande (Paris: W.
Coquebert, 1860), 425. And Michiels goes on: Drer en est lauteur. Le dessin, la composition, la couleur et le chiffre du peintre ne laissent aucun doute cet gard.

77

Ibid., 424.

78

The bibliography on Huysmans as a medievalist is extensive. Here, I only need to cite Elizabeth Emerys J.-K. Huysmans, Medievalist, in Modern Language Studies, (Autumn, 2000), 30,
no. 2: 119-31.

79

Scholars have long known the interaction between Verhaeren and Huysmans, appreciative
letters of reviews and exchange of publications. See, Gustave Vanwelkenhuysen, J.-K. Huysmans et mile Verhaeren. Lettres indites, Bulletin de la Socit J.-K. Huysmans, no. 39, 1960,
107-08, 111.

80

For detailed arguments stating that Huysmans was well aware and even purloined Verhaerens
1886 texts on Grnewald for his 1891 and 1905 studies on Grnewald see, Christian Heck,
Grnewald et le culte des Primitifs septentrionaux chez Huysmans, in Christian Heck et al.,
eds, Huysmans, Une esthtique de la dcadence, Actes du colloque de Ble, Mulhouse et Colmar novembre
1984 (Geneve-Paris: Editions Slatkine, 1987), 274-75. It is necessary here to underline, as
Heck correctly observes, that Huysmans first saw the Isenheim altarpiece in 1903, and did
not publish his response to the Isenheim panels till 1905, that is eleven years after Verhaerens
own detailed discussion of his visit to Colmar to see the Isenheim retable was published in La
Socit nouvelle.

81

Louis Rau, Mathias Grnewald et le retable de Colmar (Nancy-Paris-Strasbourg: Berger-Levrault,


1951), 363-64.

82

Ibid., 273. Acknowledging that [s]eule la prose faisande de Huysmans est capable
dvoquer la putrefaction de cette charogne divine, Rau concludes that L-bas is the text
we must all inevitably turn to for the Cassel Crucifixion: Voici comment le matre crivain
dcrit dans son roman L-Bas leffroyable apparition.

83

J. K. Huysmans, Grnewald, le retable dIssenheim (Paris: Braun & Co., 1951).

84

Ruhmer, Grnewald: The Paintings; for Ruhmers reference to Huysmanss visit to Cassel, see 127.

50
85

mile Verhaeren: Essays on the Northern Renaissance


Hayum, The Isenheim Altarpiece, 120, fn. 10. See also 187 and fn. 52 where we read that the
Belgian writer [Verhaeren] seems actually to have preceded Huysmans in French-speaking
Europe in his consideration of Grnewald. Hayum however reduces Verhaerens intensely
personal and studied response to Grnewalds Cassel Crucifixion (now at Karlsruhe) in Lart
moderne to notes,minimizing a crucial essay for Grnewald studies to a few hastily jotted
recollections,published notes, as Hayum phrases it.

86

Hecks crucial study on Verhaeren, Huysmans and Grnewald quotes at length this very passage but inexplicably deletes Verhaerens reference to Huysmans nationalitya key point
which explains for Verhaeren (as I argue above) why Huysmans does not quite understand
the German painter. See Heck, Grnewald et le culte des Primitifs, 275. As Heck cites or
edits Verhaeren: A mon sens, lcrivain comprend imparfaitement le peintre allemand,
Verhaerens text however is otherwise. Unedited, it reads as follows: A mon sens, lcrivain
franais comprend imparfaitement le peintre allemand [the italics are my own]. Curiously,
Heck barely considers Verhaerens essays of 1886 and 1894 in his important publication on
Verhaeren. His focus, rather, is on Huysmans aversion towards most things German and suggests that his germanophobe sentiments reflte sans doute le climat general des relations
franco-allemandes de lpoque Heck, 280.

87

See Auguste Demmin Matthieu Grnewald, in Charles Blanc, Histoire des peintres de toutes
les coles, cole allemande (Paris: Renouard, 1875), 4. The Histoire text has various co-authors
including Paul Mantz. It was in fact their text that spurred Verhaeren to pursue this latest
journey. Informing his readers, Jy courus au dbarqu, en aot dernier, anxieux de connatre loeuvre de Grnewald que MM. Dennin [sic] et Charles Blanc y avaient rencontre
(2:633). Given Verhaerens response to the Isenheim Crucifixion, Verhaeren found Demmins
study lacking.

88

Ibid., 6.

89

Verhaeren goes on to state that her grief drowns out Christs sorrow: Vraiment on entend
plus quon ne voit ses sanglots et ses hurlements autour de ce spulcre ouvert (2:639). This
graphic description does not in fact describe Mary Magdalenes behavior in the Isenheim predella. Placed by the open sepulcher she grieves, her fingers entwined. Thus what we see is not
what Verhaeren describesat no point does she drag herself to the tomb, that piteous selfflagellation is Verhaerens own invention and not Grnewalds (but it does reveal much about
Verhaeren empathetic reading of the scene and that is of the highest importance).

90

Verhaerens insight needs to be underlined, for in 1886, when it was set down on paper, Drer

Introduction

51

clearly overshadowed Grnewald, then still a relatively unknown personage. The argument
that Grnewald may have plus de gnie than Drer found itself in the French press and was
repeated verbatim in the French Symbolist periodical La Vogue. See mile Verhaeren, Les
Gothiques Allemands, in La Vogue, no. 11, 4 October 1886, 39596.
91

In what was surely one of the greatest hoaxes of the age James Macpherson (173696) discovered, as it were, a cycle of poems by a 3rd century AD Celtic bard, and published them
in the 1760s. Though Macphersons hoax quickly came to light, Goethenot to mention
Napoleon (he was especially taken by its Italian translation)was deeply affected by it as his
Werther testifies.

92

For this and what follows see Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sufferings of Young Werther and
Elective Affinities, ed. by Victor Lange (New York: Continuum, 1990), 10203.

93

Clearly, such intoxicating insights underlie Verhaerens epiphanic response to Grnewalds Crucifixions, inspired aperus that mark the originality of Verhaerens first encounter with the master
from Aschaffenburg and which, to this day, I believe, are unmatched in Grnewald studies.

94

Goethe, The Sufferings of Young Werther, 105.

95

I have not dealt with Verhaerens visits to Mayence and to Frankfurt and other sites as well
as his studies of the available literature on Grnewald (including Sandrart), for that in itself
would call for a lengthy paper on Verhaeren and Grnewald. The reader, however, can peruse
these peregrinations in Arons Grnewald and in my translation of his text. See Aron, especially
2: 633641.

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mile Verhaeren, Victor Hugo: LHorreur sacre, in LArt moderne, 31 May, 1885, 171.

Part 1

Rembrandt

REMBRANDTS PLACE IN DUTCH ART


Those who have recently pondered Rembrandts work have done so with informed, intelligent and scrupulous critiques. They have disclosed the details
of his life year-by-year, joy-by-joy, grief-by-grief, and sorrow-by-sorrow with
great discipline. As a result we know him by these particulars, we are fascinated
by his mania for collecting, we know about his plain manners, his fatherly passions, his affairs, successes, decline, and death. An inventory still extant today
along with documents pertaining to the instruction of his son have encouraged
certain critics to detail the life of this honorable man with the cold precision
of accountants. Their meticulous analyses have obstinately poured like a swarm
of ants over every aspect of his just renown: they have stripped him bare with
an especially unsparing curiosityalthough of course with respectand as of
this moment he stands there naked and tormented like the Christ bound to the
column that they say he painted to console himself from his creditors. He could
well have painted it with his future taskmasters in mind.
Modern sciencepatiently splitting hairs, fussing over trifles with precise
instrumentsrejoices in breaking down into its components such a glorious
and renowned body. Science has tentatively nibbled at it, gnawed at its sides,
but she has not made inroads into its enormous critical mass, which is magnificent, dark and tenebrous. Our task is to approach this critical mass not by

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surveying its outer core but, on the contrary, by probing its interiorthat is
our goal.
Mr. Taines theories on race, time and the milieu would have to be most
subtle and ingenious to modify our views on the genius of Harmensz Rembrandt
van Ryjn, that sad and magnificent painter who haunts, perhaps more despotically than da Vinci, the imagination and the dreams of our own day.
As with all artists of the first order, neither his race, nor his milieu, nor the
timing of his appearance on the world stage sufficiently explains him.
That the Metsus, the Ter Borchs, the Pieter de Hoochs or the Brouwers, the
Steens, the Craesbeecks or the Van Ostades abide by these aesthetic demands, I
concede. They are the voices of their own peaceful land, tidy, sensual, bourgeois.
They emerged at a time of well-being and plenty. Prosperity and glory rewarded
Holland in its secular struggle against nature and against man. These minor masters have all the virtues and faults of their fellow citizens. Their conscience does
not torment them, they do not grapple with broad concepts such as the Bible
proclaims; they have not felt distress and grief grip their flesh; they have not
probed the dark recesses of the human heart. The cries and tears, the horrors
which roll ceaselessly from century to century and whose storms swell the souls
of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacoband affects King Saul and King
David, Assuerus, the apostles and holy women, the Virgin Mary and Christ
hardly worries them.
In their midst, stands Rembrandt, a prodigy! Either he, or they, embody Holland. He is not what they are; he is what they are not. At this point of time in
their countrys history, he and they cannot both represent Holland. The partisans
of Tainian theory are obliged to choose between these two antipodes and their
choice cannot be in doubt.
Rembrandt could have been born anywhere. At any given time, his art would
have been the same. Perhaps he might never have painted the Night Watch. Perhaps we might encounter fewer burgomasters and syndics in his oeuvre. But the
core would have remained the same: he would have painted his own image with
a warm and childish ego, he would have done multiple images of his family, and
finally he would have gathered legends and sacred texts from all over this sad
world, narratives laden with tears and the glow of pain.
He brings alive Dantes oeuvre (XIIIth century), Shakespeares and Michelangelos labors (XVIth century) and at times the prophets. He stands upright
on the awesome summits that dominate events, races and countries. He is from
nowhere, because he is from everywhere.
His story can be easily understood if one takes into account the overwhelm-

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ing spontaneity and unfettered individuality of genius. Certainly no artist fully


escapes his own milieu, but that part of himself which distances him from his
times varies widely, case by case.
Such ardent natures mold their surroundings according to their insights rather than merely receiving its imprint. They give more than they take in. If in later
centuries they seem to translate their age far better than others, it is because they
fashion according to their own lights not that which was, but that which they envisioned in their minds eye. France in the XIX century was far more responsive
to Bonapartes vision than to his deeds.
Holland in the XVIIth century distanced itself from Rembrandt. She neither
understood nor stood by him, nor acclaimed him. Other than a few students and
a few friends, the painter could rely on no one. When they were alive, Mierevelt,
and later on, van der Helst, universally stood for Dutch art, and if today these
portraitists have descended from their summits of glory to a lesser place, it is
because all of Europe recognizes and proclaims Rembrandts ascendancy. But in
his time, he had to suffer the mobs penchant for mediocrity, for he seemed too
extraordinary, too mysterious, too big for them all. The Dutch minor masters either painted attractive and mundane subjects or filled their paintings with an easy
gaiety, a roguish frolic, smut, farce and merry making. Heavy drinkers, studs after
womens skirts. Gay dogs all, they were like children, and if their mores were off
color, they would make light of it with smiles and songs.
They were not beyond extremes. For sure, the Hard Drinker (lIvrognesse) by
Steen was not exactly fit for a severely appointed bourgeois apartment, but after
all what doting Amsterdam burgher has not forgotten his troubles while hiding
from the publics eye, drinking in the recesses of some shady, disreputable house?
The national vice was reflected as in a mirror in the canvasses of painters. One
admonished them in public, but favored them in secret, for their handsome paintings with their pearly tones and attentive and meticulous lines charmed all. A few
amongst them, Pieter de Hooch, Ter Borch, Vermeer de Delft, were marvelous
artists, and those who passionately liked them firmly insisted on their preferences.
Rembrandt, independent and fierce, loomed way above these tamed creatures.
When he laughed, he scandalized all with his folly. Nothing held him in check.
One could in the end excuse Ganymede, but Acteon Surprising Diana and her Nymphs?
This was no longer farce, it was plain impudence.
With the Acteon, as with so many other works, the painter crossed the lines of
convention and prejudice. He offended, clashed and distressed everyone. In sum,
he pushed the envelope to its limits.
In the Acteon, it was the excess of vice; in the Jacob Recognizing the Tunic Stained

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with Josephs Blood, it was the excess of despair; in the Disciples of Emmaus, it was
the excess of the ineffable. The norm was constantly crossed. And there was
still another normneither too much nor too little, that in effect being the ideal
norma tranquil, moderate and sluggish being, a practical and bourgeois personage who when all is said and done stands for the true Dutchman.
Catz, a moralizing poet, understood him. Like those houses built on dikes at
the level ofbut never submerged byhigh tides, his oeuvre does not rise above
the mores and manners of his people. His wisdom smiles upon us, his ideas sane,
his quips sound. Today still, in the councils of figures of authority, of parents
amongst their children, of those governed by those who govern, the axioms he
found based on good sense serve to reinforce the monotony of long speeches or
of sermons. Nowhere in his quatrains and dixains does one find deep thoughts
nor burning flashes of genius; but the tone is casual, the philosophy guarded, the
word informal, with his observations solid and to the point. Like the painters of
manners and jests, Catz stands on the far side of all violence, of all depths, of all
sublimities. He understands little, but that which he uncovers everyone can grasp,
it is solidly grounded and not somewhere up there in the starry firmaments.
Ordinarily one cites untoward events to explain Rembrandts fall from favor
after completing the Night Watch.
The eminent personages that figured in this piece openly blamed the painter
to have taken too many liberties in the conception and layout of his work. They
could barely see themselves in this or that figure. Their placement was by no
means fair, especially since they each had paid one hundred florins to be foregrounded. But these are superficial arguments. If Rembrandt quarreled with his
fellow citizens on questions of art and if quarrels festered till the very end of his
life, it is because there were fundamental differences between them. The Night
Watch was but the pretext and the occasion. Rembrandts genius was the real cause.
This fatal schism between genius and its milieu demonstrates that genius is
not at issue here.
Those with genius are thought to be rebels by others, fierce beings consumed
by truths, truths only they are party to and which their peers hardly suspect.
Most of them live and die like Rembrandt, on the sidelines, not exactly forsaken, trusting only in an elite which they shock at first, but which they then overwhelm and subdue. Without their support, artists like Rembrandt were seen as
mad and were locked up.
The elite that saved Rembrandt was made up of his friends, the burgomaster
Six, the calligrapher Coppenol, the collector Claes Berchem, and his own students.
Rembrandt is a monster (est un monstre), as the masses see him. He lives in

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a lofty and marvelous world borne by his imagination, which for him is his real
milieu. Every waking moment is filled with timeless legends and his thoughts at
any moment dwell in eternity.
He has created profound and maddening constructs, he strolls where dreams
prevail, he dresses his characters in baroque and sumptuous costumes: grand
figures, lordly priests, rabbis and kings loom in his art. He invents, as Shakespeare
has invented, a whole body of fanciful poetry, and he remains, as Shakespeare
has remained, just as human as he can be in spite of his splendidly dissolute
dreams. All those fabulous agencies of dcor, of lights and of toilettes, yes, all
this intoxication that seems to endow him with the frenzy of a seer, does not for
a moment distract him from humanity in its essence. He unites all the contrasts
in a canvas, he fuses the most bloody and raw truths with the most unexpected
and most far-fetched fantasies; he is the past, the present, the future. He is, to
say it plainly, one of those prodigious and rare beings who develop, breathe and
manifest in themselves the idea that poets like to assign to the godsthat, like
them, they are more than human.
For us, the man of genius remains an open problem for future critiques. He
appears on the margins of being.
Perhaps, in time and in especially favorable milieus, by honing in on his true
essence and the welcome aberrations of his thought, he might create a new race.

THE LIFE OF REMBRANDT


If Rembrandts genius frees itself from his milieu and his time, life with its unrelenting everyday demands draws him to her. She envelops and corners him as if
to penetrate him.
During the early stages of ones career, when one is still casting about, life
catches up with one, invades ones person; but from the moment the painter has
found himselfthat is, from the moment he is the Rembrandt we knowhe
shall struggle with her, shall thrust her away as far as possible, shall create before
the most bitter truths, a life of dreams, a beguiling existence, imagined and distracted, that one day he shall have to abandon, bankrupt, vanquished. Such was
the end result of his failure to embrace his milieu.
Rembrandt was born in Leiden, 15 July 1606, near the city ramparts where
an arm of the Rhine crosses the city. His parents? Harmen Gerritzoon (that is

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to say, son of the Gerits) and Neeltgen Willendochter (that is to say, daughter of
Willem). He is their fifth child. Harmen Gerritzoon is a good bourgeois. In the
university milieu in which they live, he desires his son to be a learned man who
with his knowledge serves the city and the republic. Rembrandt rejects such
talk and refuses to apply himself to his studies. At thirteen he enters the atelier
of Jacob van Swanenburgh, a mediocre painter whose name would be unknown
today were it not that Rembrandt named him his first master.
Harmen Gerritzoon is a miller. Thus it is in a mill, in a house buffeted by
wind, rain and sun that the childhood of his son is passed.
A mill has wings, it shakes, trembles and stirs; it turns, quakes, and constantly
alters its appearance, beholden only to space and air; all of infinity crosses it. For
an artist, a mill is an ideal lodging. Within its confines he can study a wide array
of seemingly irreal effects of light, and from the moment he steps forth into the
daylight nature awaits him as if transfigured. Rembrandts first residence thus lies
somewhere on the edge of life. Later, when he elects to live in other cities, his
constant preoccupation will be to relive those earlier ideal days which hark back
to his youth. He will never reach this goal but he will always strive for it.
After his first lessons with Swanenburgh, he leaves for Amsterdam. He enters Lastmans studio as a student in 1623. Although this master, like most of his
Dutch contemporaries, favored Italian art, he worked at odds with his natural
bent. A Northerner, he had been smitten by an alien style and his hybrid oeuvre
grew even weaker as it approached a deceiving grandeur, at least in his eyes.
And yet this style exercised a certain influence on Rembrandt. Perhaps the
asymmetrical disposition of his subjects and the bizarre and exotic accoutrements of his personages were affected by Lastman.
After a final visit to Leiden, Rembrandt settles for good in Amsterdam. He
arrives there in 1630.
A city of sober and vain merchants, this Venice of the North, reaping the
benefits of independence finally acknowledged by Spain, was enjoying an unexpected prosperity. Its ports and docks had grown apace. Houses line the length
of the canals with heavy pediments like ornamented pastries adorned with thick
garlands, and with balls and vases set atop gables; numerous windows face grey
hazy days. The whole denotes wealth. Matrons with starched collars, immobile
behind glass windows, stare at the faades across the way for hours on end, faades that mirror their own. Hardly a sound. All is as it should be, formal, fixed,
stiff, pre-arranged. Life is comparable to a financial document: straight lines and
numbers. Amsterdams citizens are puritans who shed their blood for the Reformation only to flaunt their present good fortune with a cold, haughty, calm pride,

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although also with a deep sense of loss. What the establishment fears the most is
that the future may threaten the monotony of their staid and starched existence.
If they embrace liberty in the abstract, they do not embrace it in fact. They set
ideas free, but enchain their range of action.
It is in this city of staid opinions, of solid conventions and outrageous rules
that Rembrandt strives to create a spontaneous, wondrously enchanting and heathenish life.
In 1634, in the wake of some sort of wonderful happenstance, he marries
he, a millers son of plebian descent, a man whose father has no name, other than
the son of Gerrits, and she a cool patrician, Saskia van Uylenburgh. The latter
counts amongst her predecessors magistrates, writers, pastors and even a painter,
Wybrand de Geest, represented by a handsome piece at the muse de Stuttgart.
Although Saskia had become an orphan when still quite young, one of her six
married sisters took her in. She married when she was twenty-two.
With what joy and passion, with what madness Rembrandt must have received her in his house at Bloemengracht where already a large number of students filled his atelier, testifying to his command of his medium. Festivities and
merry making followed one another in quick succession as one day of feverish joy
followed another. Measure and rule, so inviolable for Amsterdams bourgeois, did
not exist for this closely bonded family of artists led by a nascent genius. A florid
queen, passionate and fully given to love and its triumphs, now inaugurated her
rule in this household, a rule voluntarily accepted by all like a joyous despotism.
One knows Saskia van Uylenburgh. She has taken her place in art like the
Fornarina of Raphael, Helena Fourment of Rubens and Titians own mistress.
One of his earliest portraits (around 1633) is in the muse de Cassel. Here she is
already draped like a princess with her large, dark, red hat surmounted with a
delicate plume, casting a shadow over her forehead, and with her blue robe and
golden threads. This is no banal beauty. Her color is fresh; two small charming
eyes shine through a smooth forehead; a fine, frail smile affords a glimpse of
gleaming teeth.
On his knees with fervor and devotion, he was so attracted to her feminine
wiles he surely granted her every caprice and fantasy. She, at her end, sure of her
power, never questioned her role as wife and mistress, and these two exalted roles
mutually enhanced each other.
A panel from 1635from the muse de Dresdenshows them reveling and
feasting. An imposing Rembrandt holds his slender wife on his knees and raises
high an enormous glass filled with wine and foam. Here they are caught off guard
in the intimacy of their full existence. Rembrandt, in martial dressornate shoul-

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der belt and rapier at his sidelooks like a gallant old fox who is toying with a
young girl. He does not realize that others find his strutting in bad taste. He sees
only that his wife is beautiful and handsomely dressedwith a sumptuous bodice,
a silk shirt, a royal coiffure, necklaces with medallionsand that we should admire
her. He fears neither vulgarity nor ostentation. Only she who stirs his instincts, his
vital strengths and his exceptional nature, shares his most intimate thoughts. He
lives in a world of dreams and joy apart from others; it does not dawn on him that
others find by his mode of living scandalous and they fault him for it.
Later on, in 1636, hell let us see his wife in bed, like Candaule. The Dana
from the Hermitage is none other than Saskia disrobed and naked, as golden rays
from divine legends fall on her warm and glowing skin. What a dazzling feast of
love this is! How supple is her body, delicately and unctuously modeled, borne
of gentle and joyous youth. How roguishly it comes to life, stirred by luminous
caresses, blooming by the titillations of golden shafts of light. This naked body is
there for us to see in all its intimate details. No lies or pretensions. Saskia shall be
for Rembrandt Dana, Artemisia, Bathshebaone by oneand shell embody
the betrothed of Judea and the lordly queens of the Orient. She will embody his
dreams in her person, but even more so and ever more present.
Born of his fancy, this queen needs a palace, and Rembrandt provides this for
her. All that far-away lands offer that is exotic, rare, fairy-like and exorbitant, all the
unheard of and inconceivable things sailing vessels bring to Christian harbors, he
acquires to fill the chambers of his house. His inventory informs us what flaming
golden birds, what marvelous precious stones and scintillating seashells enchant
his eyes. Oh! these earthly gardens which he envisions in his dreams, these far
away places that accord with his own milieu, where the flora blooms, where minerals crystallize and fauna stands exposed. Like Shakespeare with his theatre, he
wrests from his milieu a vibrant and feverishly revived sumptuous life of glorious
richness. He is a being riddled with nostalgia who longs for the paradises of old.
Unfortunately, reality with its brutal side and rough edges is always there, waiting
to crash upon all those who have not taken its weighty presence into account.
From 1638 on, her parents were disturbed by the overriding caprices of
their marriage. They accused him of squandering her inheritance, of ruining
them both with his crazy excesses, with his prodigal ostentatious fineries. They
slapped a legal process on him, and he was not able to carry the day. From this
moment on, he was pursued by a mean and nasty surveillance. He could no longer live his dream as before; from now on his glorious life was over. His joy was
sullied, and with time it was to break apart, as a branch stuffed with fruits snaps
and crashes downward.

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Having given Rembrandt four children, with only six-month old Titus surviving, Saskia dies unexpectedly. The cause of her death remains a mystery. In
her last will and testament, Saskia appoints her husband as her legal heir. He
is to enjoy the usufruct of her estate, and she names him the tutor of her son
without his having to account for his decisions. The cost of raising Titus and an
endowment fund is set aside. The loss struck Rembrandt on the 19th of June
1642. With a man as spontaneous and impressionable, as tender and violent and
extreme as Rembrandt, such an event must have resounded deep within him,
affecting the very core of his being. Undoubtedly he was shaken, although he
recovered quickly. We see him drawing close to his friends, sojourning in the
countryside, visiting the burgomaster Six, painting numerous portraits, sketching
landscapes, managing as best he could. Certainly he begrudged his fate, for his
fanciful dream, like a beautiful chalice, had inadvertently slipped from his grasp.
He had so long disdained reality, and now it was reaping its vengeance, encircling
him, baiting him, breaking and playing havoc with him. One could believe for a
moment that reality would brutally put an end to him.
Soon Rembrandt fuses his pain with his dreams as he had formerly fused his
joy with his dreams. And as always he voices his pain in deeply human terms, in
chocked, despairing sobs or in silence, in sweepingly violent and tear-laden tragic
masterpiecesas if all men shared a like pain and a like grief. But amidst the
debris and ruins of a lost love and life, Rembrandt picks himself up and builds
his paradise anew.
From Saskia, the child Titus remains, and thanks to a devoted servant, Hendrickje Stoffels, a semblance of a household remains. Thats enough for him to
make believe, as formerly, that he is a master of ceremonies, a magician whose
life passes in some sort of luxurious island filled with beauty and splendor. He
faces misery, rude and ever brutal, implacable and snarling lawthose men of
justiceand confronts bankruptcy, and though the blows of creditors knock at
his door, they hardly disturb his vigils or his sleep. He resists to the end, stealing
his art from their grasp, saving it from their cold and calculating rage, and he realizes, in spite of their wrath and their cries, a spirited and illumined life which he
deems to be his mission, his lot on earth.
When he is insolvent, they take away his trusteeship of his son. La Chambre
des Orphelins substitutes, in turn, Jean Verbout, and then Louis Crayers, in his
place. His house in the Juden Breestraat is sold. A series of lawsuits are set in
motion by the new trustees and creditors. Rembrandts mismanagement serves as
the basis for all their claims.
He is harassed, reviled, vilified, his honor in jeopardy. With Titus and Hen-

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drickje, he takes refuge in an inn, living from day to day on credit a few still grant
him. He is as poor as the poorest of the poor; he is the sort of pitiable being
society relentlessly devours and pushes over the abyss if his inner being is not
stronger than theirs. Yet in the midst of this debacle he finds himself again. With
only Titus, Hendrickje and himself as models, he returns to his easel as in those
halcyon days when Saskia was still alive. He transforms Titus into a legendary
page, and the servant girl Henriette into a princess of a fabulous land. Jewelry,
silks, gold, furs, velours, all that he formerly blandished with his prestigious brush
appears anew bathed in a wondrous and ideal light. He paints them all as glorious,
sumptuous beings; he sees himself in turn as prince, lord and king and, in spite
of the awfulness of his life, none of it is apparent in his art. In one of his late
portraits of himself (the one in the Carstanjen collection in Berlin) he appears
wrinkled, aged, ruined for sure, but steeled with pride and obstinate in his ways.
His small eyes firmly fix the spectator and his frank laughter, resonating with
triumph, still animates his toothless mouth.
He died 8 October 1669. Hendrickje Stoffels had preceded him in death in
1663, and Titus in 1668. And so alone, completely alone, he passed away. On the
register for Westerkerk, on the above-cited date, there is mention of his funeral.
His estate consisted solely of his clothes of wool and linen and his working
tools. Death, for him, meant the cessation of work.

THE CHARACTER OF THE MAN


The basis of Rembrandts character is an unconscious and over-arching, monstrous egoism. All high achievers are cut from the same cloth. They only live for
their art, and their art is themselves. They always act with candor, without realizing the astonishment they stir. They mislead those who judge them by their well
meaning and at times admirable gestures; they are magnanimous and serene in
misfortune, but all their acts, however generous, are but expressions of their arrogance. Their virtue, or rather the absence of flaws and vices, stems from their
sovereign indifference for all that does not pertain to them. They raise themselves
to a lofty plane where that which is good or bad stems neither from their effort
nor from their lack of trying. The best of them smile at humanity and try to console it even as they are taken aback by hardships that never affect them, and pass
their days and years unscathed by all that overtakes mankind.

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Rembrandt is a timorous being, un timide. One of his earliest effigies (portrait


of an adolescent, Pierpont Morgan collection) paints an attentive youth with suppressed gestures, a gentle face, an inward gaze. With this portrait, a door opens, a
portal unveiling his being with great candor.
And this timorous being is childlike, puerile, and will remain so in every
circumstance of his life until his death. He artlessly adores himself. With good
or bad luck, with joy or grief, hell always cherish his features, his allure, his bearing. Like a child before a mirror, hell be fascinated by his own laughter and tears
and grimace, and hell paint them all as they are without fearing ridicule. He likes
everything he does and he wants us to know that and to see it. He cannot believe
that others are not interested in what interests him. His joy overflows, ostentatiously calling attention to itself; it shows no restraint, no modesty whatsoever.
And he extends this immoderate self-love to those nearest him, for his family is
himself. In his eyes, they live only because he lives. If they are beautiful, it is as
though he himself is beautiful. His father, his mother, his brother, his sister, his
wife, his children, his servants, his friendsall of them he paints as he would
paint himself, with ineffable joy. He illumines them with his own light, they coexist with him as thet serve his good fortune, drawn to him beyond their own existence. In short, they exist somewhere up there, high, way up high in his dreams.
But by a curious phenomenon, as soon as these beings go their own way
these beings once so meaningful to himtheir loss is neither as profound nor as
affecting as one might think, for he is consumed by a nave and marvelous egoism.
When Saskia, whom he loved so, passed away, Rembrandt soon consoled himself.
It sufficed that another woman cross his thresholdan unassuming maidfor
his pain to vanish and the hole in his dreams that death had wrought to be filled.
And though he bore his afflictions without ever ceasing to work, he would
not allow the judgments of others to crush him. As long as he himself survived,
nothing was irremediably lost. In the depths of his being, fancy (illusion) reigned
a source of renewal he could always turn to. She was both his life and art and
explains his character as well as painting. His penchant for her sheds light on his
apparent contradictions: his laughter when his tears are barely dry; his despair followed by vigorous surges; his loves forever reborn; his facile oversights; his scorn
and his contempt; his delusions of grandeur and his follies. All these wayward
contrasts he fastens in a knot which he holds tight, framing them with the golden
cords of his consuming fancies. He seems complex and contradictory. In truth,
he is logical in spite of himself.
Ingenuousness and candor, gifts of childhood he maintained unsullied, were
a firm shield to preserve him from men and things; indifference and egoism,
which burned in him unabated till the twilight of his life, assured him victory

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even in defeat. Preserving these qualities was essential to his work and thought.
If he had not been so armed, his work would long ago have come to a halt and
the glories which crown his old age would have bypassed him entirely.

HIS OEUVRE
To exalt with measure defines antiquity; to exalt with spirit defines the Christian
realm. A serene sovereignty reigns over the lives of the ancients; by contrast,
from the moment, our own art takes flightin Italy, in Flanders, in France, in
Germanya constant preoccupation with psychological probings is apparent. In
Crivellis oeuvre, and especially in Mantegnas, in the triptychs of Van Eyck, in the
statues of the French cathedrals, in the pages of Drer and of Holbein, this ever
present and grand commitment uniformly dominates all. Rembrandt clings to this
approach and succeeds with more wondrous results than any of his illustrious
predecessors. The divine beauty of antiquity is transformed into searing human
truths. His God, his Virgin, his saints, his Venuses, his Proserpinas, his Dianas,
his Danas, his Ganymedesall partake of the struggles, miseries and ugliness
that afflict us all. These truths are always near, they are ourselves. They testify to
a rush of emotionslook at the Christ in the Pilgrims at Emmausprofound, piteous and aching feelings that constantly resurface and which Rembrandt singularly
enhances. Such probings inform personages as never before in art.
For our study, three well-known canvases, The Anatomy Lesson (1632), The
Night Watch (1642) and The Syndics (1664), illustrate three modes of Rembrandts
art. These distinctions offer the advantage of methodically exploring Rembrandts luxurious total output, but they have their pitfalls, both superficial and
dangerous. Rembrandt never consciously opted for one manner of painting over
another. He never conceded to any outside source other than Lastman; he developed logically, finding inspiration only in himself. One can thus say that either he
has only one mode of seeing, his own, or that there are an endless number so that
we observe his unique progress as fed by extraordinary renewal, from splendor to
splendor, at times from year to year.
He begins by painting in a dry, hard and most detailed manner (the Money
Changer [1627], Saint Paul in His Prison [1627]); the execution is heavy, the color
thick, burned, cooked. But the surprise lies in the mise-en-scne, particularly the
light as it abundantly flows over the details of the canvas. Little by little his need

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to capture things as they are leads him to well crafted, neat and polished canvasses. Harmonies of blue, pale greens, pinkish yellows claim him. Canvases such
as Iscariot Returning for His 30 Pieces of Silver (1628 or 1629), Christ and the Disciples
at Emmaus (1629), shed light on this first phase. Next comes Lastmans influence,
the master from Amsterdam Rembrandt chose to study with. The Presentation in
the Temple (1634) at the muse de la Haye does not have the feel of Rembrandts
own hand. Certainly it rises above his preceding works; the main character is
imperiously highlighted; mysterious colossal planes appear for the first time. But
the whole is polished, docile and timid. Lastman supervised the execution. It is
in the Holy Family (1634) from the muse de Munich that Rembrandts genius finds
its voice. The brush stroke is bold, affirms itself. He stamps the scene with his
own vision.
All these assays, on separate but parallel lanes, inextricably lead him to The
Anatomy Lesson, which at once highlights himself as it does the personages of
his canvas. It was a marvel to behold in spite of its numerous faults: the lack
of attention of several figures who look upon the beholder when they should
be following the demonstration of the professor; the painting is too dry in the
foreground planes, and too slack in the flesh of the cadaver which should be
stiff, faults which prevent us from ranking this grave and powerful work a chef
doeuvre. In fact there are certain portraits fashioned at this time that show
better than the Anatomy Lesson what a keen observer Rembrandt was at the age
of twenty five. In the so-called Hugo Grotius and His Wife (1632 and 1633) from
the muse de Brunswick, in the Marguerite van Bilderbeecq (1633) from the muse de
Francfort, in the Coppenol (1632) from the muse de Casselall these canvases manifest a concern for exactitude, verisimilitude and truth and demonstrate such
solid and probing gifts that one surmises that a major painter, in full control of
his craft even though still in the early stages of his career, is coming into being.
To broaden his manner, to free his drawing, to regale his own eyes by favoring generous and rich colors, to turn to thick and deep impastos, to give himself
fully to lifethese are the challenges he proposes to confront in the immediate
future. He dares to assert his own voice, to come to terms with himself.
He soon conquers his own failings; the little he owes others he assimilates
so well that it becomes his own. From this time on his genius defines his evolution. And now commences his relentless ascent to new heights. The success of
his Anatomy Lesson draws certain personages from Amsterdam to his atelier who
will later abandon him. He does their portraits with a facture that is ever freer
and more colorful. His sitters are Dr. Tulp, the poet Jean Krul, the secretary
of state Maurice Huygens, the burgomaster Pellicorne and his wife Suzanne

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van Collen, the pastor Alenson and his spouse; and lastly Martin Daey and especially his wife, Machteld van Doorn, whose toilette of silk and jewels seems
to have been chosen by Rembrandt himself to voice his own nascent taste for
opulent goldsmithing.
Until now, hes but confirmed his gifts. Hes easily understood; he is above
all a painter. Soon he shall turn into a visionary. He begins to frequent the Jewish
quarters. Unexpectedly, one finds him with rabbis who clarify the mysteries of
the bible for him, confirming the strange and supernatural and whose verses are
endowed with sudden and seemingly illumined interpretations, bringing to life, as
he sees it, the inner dreams within him.
We must define him as a painter of miracles. Everything about him, his mtier, his color, the prodigious light he employs with its lasting effects, predisposes
him for this supreme mission. He is not an especially religious artist, he is not
one for glorious events, nor is he one who paints caprices or favors symbols. He
is one who renders the supernatural natural. Under his brush, prodigious events
become real, truly have happened, so much is his art in league with the human
condition, struggling and profound. He makes it difficult for us to doubt what
he depicts. Living in the world of his imagination with ease, we come to believe
his reveries as easily as we believe the Metsus and the Ter Borchss realities as
they paint a beautiful woman, seated before a table who raises to her lips a fruit
dripping with juice which, but a moment before, she had lifted from a silver or
gilded plate.
Thus oriented towards grandiose effects, he delights in portraying those who
first suggested them to him: rabbis with long beards, arched noses, and deep set
eyes, with an imposing and priestly allure. To enhance and render them ever more
devout, he dresses them up with turbans, richly vested coats, russet palisses, fine
and frail plumes set at times with precious stones. And he paints himself as well
in his canvases, first of all because of his consuming curiosity for his own self,
and also because he sees himself as a vital, rigorous, living force. Thanks to numerous disguises, he casts himself as a prince, a gentleman, a warrior; he views
himself as one with stories and legends; he likes to play the role of an extraordinary and outrageous being, skirting sanity, thus fulfilling his most demanding
needs. His self portraits dating from this period (1630 to 1634) are to be found in
the museums of the Hague, Florence, Cassel, de Brunswick and London.
In 1634, when he joins hands with Saskia van Uylenburgh and inaugurates
with their engagement and marriage a life of joy and folly, he paints her just
as he paints himselfwith the same elegance, the same extravagance, the same
enchantment. What is more, she helps him realize his full potential as an artist,

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a painter of prodigious miracles. In 1634, he sees her as Bethsheba, (the muse de


Madrid) and in 1636 as Artemisia, and Dana. The supernatural intervention of
divine gold raining upon human flesh and illuminating it with splendor elevates
Saskia to the rank of a mythic being. From that time on, Rembrandt possesses a
wife who, in his eyes, was idolized by David or coveted by Jupiter.
The Philosophers (1633) of the Louvre denotes even more than the Dana his
intellectual preoccupations. The legend of Faust and of Flamel must have infinitely pleased him, for he loved to link himself with them. They were, as he was,
imprisoned by their own dreams and starved for the unknown. That is not to say
that he poured over books and sought in esoteric sciences the key to forbidden
Edens. Few books are listed in his inventory. His library was meager. Perhaps all
he needed was to leaf through the New and Old Testaments; it was solely the
love ancient savants had for that which seems boundless that seduced and fired
his imagination. He understood them in his own way, and his art was never far
from theirs.
Then he begins painting the most ordinary subjects: a Butor (1639, muse de
Dresde), Peacocks (1638, collection Cartwright), a Slayed Ox (1655, the muse de Louvre). Although he must certainly have improved upon such humble models, his
goal is to capture their earthiness in all their vulgarity.
Why does he turn so forcefully away from his own vision? The answer is not
difficult to grasp. Through a minute study of tones (reddish browns on reddish
browns, gray on gray, red on red) he wants to acquire what he still lacks: a suppleness of inflection regarding nuances of neighboring colors in order to apply an
entire range of light tones which will suggest infinite bands of light to illuminate
objects and their affects on their neighbors. These canvases of still lives are for
him exercises tempting him to master the difficulties they pose.
Along with these he successfully executes a whole series of works whose
epic or legendary train steadfastly holds him true to his main line of workone
he evokes with the steady hand of a magician. The Angel Raphael Leaving Tobiass
Family from the Louvre dates from 1637. The arrangement is fine, beyond compare. The family of the patriarchthe father on his knees, wife and children as
one in their terror, the dog cowering by his mistresstestify to the miracle before
them, while the healing angel, fierce and menacing, disappears in a straight and
forceful flight towards the upper spheres and rejoins the celestial troops from
whom he had momentarily departed. This extraordinary event, as always with
Rembrandt, is seen in its essence. Nothing is inflated, nothing is excessive, no
gesture astonishes. All is as it should be: we do not doubt for an instant that the
heavens have turned their gaze to earth, that God has yielded to mankind and

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that the adoring old man has been touched by a hand from on high.
The same with the story of SamsonSamson Menacing his Father-in-Law
(1635, muse de Berlin), Samson Thrown Down by the Philistines (1636, Schoenborn
collection), Samsons Wedding Night (1638, galerie de Dresde)the significance of the
legend is rendered with grandeur and sobriety, without any rhetoric, without the
least oratory.
The tragedy of the Gospels necessarily affected Rembrandts art. So much
humanity mingles with so much pain and grandeurso many generous acts
based on disasters, on unheard of goodness, infinite pain, tears, caresses, and despair that mingle with sobsthat nothing less than this passion of God as man
was to furnish to the painter subjects that matched his strength. The Prince of
Orange commissioned this work; Rembrandt achieved it in 1638.
He broke it down into five compositions, estimating their value at 1000 florins each. In an accompanying letter he writes: I trust the taste and the discretion
of the prince who might choose to pay me less if His Highness decides that my
work does not deserve as much.
The work is housed at the Pinacothque in Munich.
Seeing it, one is first struck by its coherence, its profound unity.
One goes from one panel to another, piously, as the faithful in church follow
the Stations of the Cross. Scenes follow scenes, linked as one, enhancing one
another, aligned on the same via dolorosa.
The master, as is his wont, dresses his figures in the most varied costumes.
Lordly figures with turbans and with cloaks are shoulder to shoulder with people
carrying faggots of sticks on their backs as we see in Holland; women dressed as
nuns share space with princesses who seem to come out of a dream. This disdain
for all true local color incites one to envision the scene far from any space we
knowover there, somewhere, in an imagined realm. A sort of sacred flag hangs
from the sepulchral grotto above the lowering of the cross.
The drama is as apparent in the disposition and the lighting of the dcor as
it is in the stance and anguish of the assembled. For Rembrandt, things respond
his touch as well as beings. He imbues the Raising of the Cross, the Lowering of the
Cross, the Resurrection and the Assumption with such splendor and pain that we
think we are witnessing either the end of the world as we know it or the birth of
a new universe.
The Holy Family at the Louvre (1640), whose intimacy and humility emphasize such celestial sweetness, the Sacrifice of Manue (1641) from the galerie de Dresde,
where simplicity bonds with sustained emotion, and the sober and ardent Young
Man in Armor (1635, collection Richard Mortimer in New York) are all works that

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should be seen along with the Passion in Munich. They are contemporary or just
slightly after each other, and all precede the Night Watch which we now analyze.
For several years during this time, civic societies in Amsterdam were accustomed to commission group portraits from their local painters, souvenirs of their
corporate gatherings. The leading members of the guilds bequeathed these portraits to their successors.
Such works mark Dutch painting in general, as though a common school
with a common subject set the tone: as expected, tradition was scrupulously observed with the masters unique vision held in check. Dignitaries were lined up in
tiers with the lead officer in the center, the others at his side according to their
station. At times, depending on the canvas, they posed around a banquet table.
Around 1583, Cornelisz had painted such an oil, The Meal of the Old-Doelen. Five
canvases by Franz Hals assembled the members of the guild of Saint George,
and two well known works by Ravesteyn treated a like subject.
In 1642 the corporation of the arquebusiers of Amsterdam requisitioned
Rembrandt for his talent. The commission was for 1600 florins.
He set to work immediately. One had hoped that he would follow the timehonored modes that defined such paintings destined for a salon or a grand hall
and portray the arquebusiers according to the established hierarchies. Rembrandt
foiled these expectations. He could not conform to such realist conventions. A
painter who favored the uncommon, even if there were fatal consequences, had
to invent a scene where something strange would disrupt the all-too familiar prescriptions of such canvases. And so he painted the oil known as the Night Watch.
Never has a work appeared so enigmatic, so unexpected and so distressing. Just
when, why, in what order, and in what city had these men come together? If there
has been a call to arms, why this holiday light? Why insert this sort of princess
dressed in gold and silk, this dwarfish being from legends of old who draws towards her such unadulterated attention? Why these mirrors hanging from pillars?
No one has yet unraveled the myriad knots of this enigma. Conjectures lead us
nowhere, and one can only ask oneself if Rembrandt knew what he was doing.
He was possibly only translating a dream, filling it with warrior-like personages
for no special reason other than that they were posing for him? Be that as it may,
the scene as it now stands could illustrate a comedy by Shakespeare where fantasy
plays a role in analysing the characters, and even with certain proverbs by Musset.
The Night Watch resulted in Rembrandts disgrace with Amsterdams bourgeois and engaged him in a maze of litigations with the guild. There was not
one dignitary whose hopes and expectation were not frustrated. The head of
the company, captain Banning Cocq, unhappy like all the others, sought out the

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painter van der Helst to paint a good likeness of his person in order to forget
Rembrandts blunders. In the midst of all theses controversies, Saskia dies and
his life turns upside-down. His carefree days of joy and over-flowing confidence
abruptly come to an end, over, shattered forever. With death ever present, a
fearful and frightening reality violently grabbed him by the throat. His art might
well have declined and crashed from the vibrant summits where his vision, till
a moment ago, had held him high. Fortunately, nothing of the kind happened.
More than ever disgusted with everyone but enchanted by the countryside, he
sought for a while the solitude of sylvan fields. He painted nature as would a
visionary: barely do his watercolors depict it as it was. Wild imaginings continue
to seduce his canvases. Just when van Goyen, Salomon Ruysdael and the Simon
de Vlieger endow the Dutch landscape with its richest traits, Rembrandt denies
in his work all that they affirm in theirs. The Storm from the muse de Brunswick
seems like a nightmare that reflects his anxieties at this time. The phosphorescent flash that lights the walls of the city, the dark, thick clouds that convulse
the skies, the chaotic hills that seem to leap over one another and the undefined
and poorly rounded terrainseverything in this canvas defies he truth. The Ruin
from the muse de Cassel is no less strange. Where on earth might such a site exist?
A windmill rises from the depths of a valley by the banks of a river enclosed by
mountains; a turbaned rider passes a kneeling fisherman by the waters edge as
swans make their way towards him; old ships rust near the river bank, and over
there in a radiant light filled with golden rays, a ruin rises forth like an apotheosis.
The dcor is grand and splendid. We wonder what it might express in Rembrandt
eyes, what dormant thoughts whose mysteries he was unearthing?
After working on an admirable likeness, the matron Elisabeth Bas (muse
dAmsterdam), he adds to his renown by painting Saskia anew, summing up the
main lines of her visage with a sure brush (1643, muse de Berlin), and also his
friend, the minister Sylvius (1644, collection Carstanjen).
He adds to this list his own likeness (museums in Cambridge, Leipzig, and
Karlsruhe), and these various and intimate canvases remind him of the past he
once enjoyed. Likewise, regrets and tender remembrances can still be seen in
the Holy Family and in the Crib that Mr. Boughton-Knight owns. But then he
is back on track as major trials tempt him anew. A period of great productivity
opens up before him where each piece, fresh and subject to his renewed energies, is a masterpiece. The Peace of Mnster (1648) brings to a close the Thirty
Years War. Holland grows ever more prosperous and wealthy and all of Europe
acknowledges its power, but Rembrandt is not the sort of painter to celebrate
such success. If his canvas La Concorde du Pays depicts an admirable, picturesque

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moment, where a raft of lances, horses, cavaliers, and defiant swords clash in a
thousand violent and confused struggles, still not one clear or forceful idea asserts itself. But then follows, one after another, a series of wonderful canvases:
Jacob Fainting at the Sight of Josephs Robe, Abraham Receiving the Angels, the Good
Samaritan, and the Pilgrims at Emmaus. The latter two belong to the Louvre and
date from 1648.
In the first of these last two canvases, the scene takes place in the courtyard
of an inn. A rich man tends to a poor, ill man and bestows on him an immeasurable treasure of charity and kindness, addressing his heart more than his wounds.
The gentle melancholy of the settling dusk plays an important part in these lofty,
generous sentiments, for the simplicity of the canvas is made more profound
by this grand interjection of nature. The good Samaritan is transformed into a
symbol: truly, this work proffers a cry of infinite misericordia.
The Pilgrims of Emmaus is even more marvelous. Everything in the setting is
humble and bare. The splendor of the piece, its profound effect, its supernatural
strength resides in the renderings of the two disciples and of the servant, the
head of Christ. Never has a visage of the Lord ever so dazzled a canvas. The
heads of Jesus of Leonardo da Vinci, of Titian, of Rubens, of Raphael or of
Velzquez seem entirely superficial when one compares them with that of Rembrandt, whose infinite humanity lies beyond description, encompassing all the
sweetness of life and all the sorrow of death. His eyes gaze from afar on human
suffering, and his forehead, so clear and unclouded, shines forth in the gloom of
night. One cannot say how it was painted. It seems to exist on its own ethereal
plane. A sense of benign adoration imbues his person, and the disciples venerate his presence with a fearful tenderness. With a slow sweep of his hand, Christ
breaks the bread, looking elsewhere, as if his gesture was but an emblematic
manifestation of a truth that will be understood only with time.
Finally, a work even more astonishing than the preceding two reigns at the
muse de Brunswick, the Christ Appearing Before Mary Magdalene of 1651.
All in black, the Magdalene has taken refuge in a deserted spot, far from the
city at dusk. Jesus appears amidst boulders, as though coming from the far recesses
of the earth. Love counseled this marvel. The penitent drags herself towards him
and attempts to kiss the hem of his mantle, but a sign from Christs hands stops
her. The encounter is all silence. Here is the master bathed in light and the lover in
shadow, with the former in death alluding to life, and the latter in life alluding to
death, and so strong is this double antithetical presence that in truth the work seems
to emanate from beyond human prescription. Its a canvas unlike all others where
the painter with a skein of lines and colors has ensnared a silent and divine reality.

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When Hendrickje Stoffels enters his life, bringing with her before his downfall a few remaining years of joy, one would say, Rembrandt returns to his reveries with vigor. From this servant who consentedin spite of the rigors and the
calls of the pastors from her parishto become and to remain his mistress, he
makes of her a queen of his illusions and of his wildest dreams as he had made
Saskia. His inner vision adorns her, ftes her, celebrates her. In the Louvre portrait (1649?), she is dressed in a golden mantle; jewelry adorns her chest, bracelets hang from her wrists, enormous and precious earrings frame her face. One
would never believe this was a servant. In truth, for Rembrandt she is not and
never was an underling, for she is for him youth, life anew, voluptuousnessher
lips blooming, her skin tones radiant. She comes to him bearing goodness, ardor, respect. He is at the age where men of a certain authority display a renewed
force and pride. It does not matter that Hendrickje is not a classic beauty. He
takes it upon himself to embellish and aggrandize her person with such skill
that she will appear in his canvases as imposing and as beautiful as the most
celebrated women. He sees her with the eyes of an artist who transfigures and
adorns her with all his love. She allows him, as Saskia had, to escape reality and
to exist in his own reality. From this moment on, she will be his Susanna (1654)
of the National gallery and his Bathsheba from the La Caze collection. Oh! what
admirable work these are. The Bather or the London Susanna can seem crude in
body and face, yet the nude is bathed in such a golden light, in such an ardent
atmosphere, that she exists as a one drawn from a fiery legend. The manner in
which Rembrandt treats the nude can be studied here better than elsewhere. Titian, Rubens, Veronese, as passionate as they were for the nude form, sketched
itdare I say itas abstract, a pretext for lines and colors. They fill their canvases with allegories or symbols, part of a larger prodigal display of flowers,
of garlands, of flags. Elsewhere, the nude is but an expression of their own
bewitching voluptuousness.
For Rembrandt the nude is sacred. He never embellishes it, even when he
paints Saksia. It is the stuff of humanity, sorrowful and handsome, pitiful and
grand, gentle and violent. He loves the most downtrodden bodies with all the
passion he has for life itself. He extols them with all the prestige of his talent.
The same can be said for the Bathsheba at the Louvre, for though she proffers
a somewhat fatigued flesh to our gaze, she appears to embody all the splendor of
the Orient as a glory of golden light floods her terrace. Truly, Rembrandts sense
of caring must have been overwhelming to conceive from such mean matter
an apotheosis of beauty. If Steen or Brouwer had painted her, they would have
planted her in one of their cabarets, rolling in her fat, dulled with her unpleas-

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antness, in cynical and obscene disorder. And never would either Ter Borch or
Metsu have used her, even to represent a humble servant who brings on a platter
a few glasses or a few fruits. For Rembrandt, on the contrary, reality exists only
insofar as he can focus on moving, profound, and pathetic truths. This naked and
ardent truth, this bare and grand humanity becomes little by little his supreme
preoccupation as the final dark and empty years of his life sweep over him.
Here is the apogee of his life.
In spite of Hendrickjes care, in spite of the filial devotion of his son, distress, ennui, poverty hems him in ever tighter. His only refuge is himself. Rather
than break him, his pain and his grief exalts him. He lives only for his brushes,
his colors, his palette.
He composes an Anatomy Lesson (1656, muse dAmsterdam) for the second
time. Professor Deyman is shown holding a craniums brainpan as the cadaver
spreads before us in the hideous greens and blues of death, its feet facing the onlooker. The canvas was partially damaged by fire; that which remains is a vestige
of a pathetic but admirable chef doeuvre.
That same year he paints Jacob Blessing Josephs Sons, now at the muse de Cassel. The pain of the patriarch, the stance of his son and daughter-in-law, the two
children, Ephraim and Manasse, come together to bring about a profound sense
of resignation and tenderness. The painters soul is laid bare in this gentle funereal scene. The brush stroke is as direct and as broad as possible. Tones do not
clash but rather meld with nuance, gradually merging and effacing themselves in
a sovereign alliance, maintaining a unity throughout.
The Denial of Saint Peter (1656, the muse de lErmitage) is as tragic as the Jacob.
As with the Christ on the Column of the muse Darmstadt, it is the drama of Rembrandts own life that seems to unfold here. He finds his own suffering in the
pain that embodies all suffering. Christs violent and brutal tormentors are his
tormentors; he likens the pillory where his honor and reputation were nailed to
the column on which the divine flesh and members are bound. All the rage the
canvas displays is implacably his own, and like God he replies with patience and
goodness. Christs visage, which he interprets so often with a telling comprehension of the supernatural, shines here with ever-more sovereignty.
One does not know the circumstances behind the Syndics for the drapers
guild (1661, muse dAmsterdam). It might be said that the canvas is the most perfect
the master fashionedbut it is far from being the best and the most beautiful.
A sort of leveling seems to have worked on his spirit as he was painting it.
All is in order, measured, tranquil. Painters might say that never has one painted
better nor composed better. The brushwork is broad and sure, the tone sober,

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sonorous and full. The strength of the blacks and browns and the ample spread
of the reds of the carpet, far from dulling the work, add to its impeccable aura of
perfection. One would say that it is a canvas fashioned by a master before which
the talent and skills of other masters bow in defeat.
But Rembrandt was never inclined to stand still, even in perfection. He is too
intense for that. It is not enough for him just to place forms and colors on the
canvas with irreproachable judgments. He seizes new and ardent expressions of
life and brings painting to new heights, even as he is on the verge of death.
It is in the inescapable unfolding of these events, his dwelling unknown,
moving from lodging to lodging, from one inn to another, that he paints two
portraits (1660), one of which is housed at the Louvre and the other in Lord
Landsownes collection.
In 1660, with an achievement of the first order, he also paints his friend Six
for the last time. In what seems an impetuously conceived sketch yet is definitive
and complete, he captures his sitter in all his subtle detail with a few controlled,
short, spirited brush strokes, an audacious layering of colors that culminates in
reliefsuch are his supreme gifts in painting! One sees this also in his Saint Matthew at the Louvre, in the Lucrecia of the Borden collection, New York, in the
Return of The Prodigal Son at the Hermitage, and in the Family Portrait at the muse
de Brunswick. The many things of gold he once possessed still haunt him, seduce
and engage him more than ever. We see reflections and illuminations as beautiful as treasures uncovered by torches, the rich spread of layered paints where
his fingers, his palette knife, and even the sleeve of his brush gambol and draw
extravagant reliefs of jewels and fine ornaments. Somewhere, he owns an old
bust of Homer. Its ravaged features, its eyes shut, the drama stamped on its face
of the derelictions which killed the poet according to legend, are well known. A
sudden sympathy is born and here he his painting this blind old man clothed in
broad sweeps of drapery, amply seated in an armchair, seeming to dream of the
future. This recently discovered work belongs to the muse de la Haye. Elsewhere,
in the enigmatically titled The Jewish Bride, we see a young girl wrapped up in all
her innocence, pure and candid, and draped with a beautiful wedding dress as
the man approaches in a fatherly way to speak of love and future child bearing.
His hands, with infinite care, with profound tenderness, touch the youthful chest
hidden under the robe, affecting one of the most real, most chaste and most
beautiful gestures in all of painting. The man and the woman are treated with
a golden luxury, velours and silks that contrast with the intimacy of the scene,
but which shed light on the enchantments and fanciful chimeras that remain in
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Again, with the same sure freedom bordering on a supreme rashness, with
the same grand and reckless vision, he realizes the Saulrecently acquired by
Mr. Brediusand especially Esther, Ahasuerus and Haman, which the queen of
Romania owns. The general layout is executed with authority, the clash of the
silver and precious stones sets the canvas afire, and the interactions of the three
personages are Shakespearian, the colors sumptuous, the drawing as sure as ever.
The scepter emerging from the shadowsas though an abrupt burst of lighteningillumines the scene in its entirety with its prestige. One might say that
under the golden rays of his irascible will, it is Rembrandt who dominates the
three actors of the drama. After this last chef-doeuvre, Rembrandt dies with
pride, his head high.

REMBRANDT AS PRINTMAKER
It is at the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam that one encounters, I believe, the richest collection of etchings signed by Rembrandt and it is there that one can best
understand his oeuvre and working procedures, thanks to the superb and rare
state of his plates.
Before he came on the scene, engraving was above all an academic art. The
Italiansespecially Marcantonio Raimondithe Germansespecially Albrecht
Drerworked their plates according to fixed rules, abiding by a quasi-mechanical method with their etching needles, following one or more well defined and
honored formulas.
Lucas van Leyden, whom Rembrandt admired as a master, does not deviate
from this time-honored manner. He maintains a progressive, graduated juxtaposition of strokes, whether rectilinear or concentric, following the forms of the
objects; he readily embraces the free-play of pure whites placed against deep
blacks; he never doubts the resources of his burin nor of his etching needle; he
works directly and punctually with skill, but without verve or audacity.
Rembrandt revolutionizes the art of engraving with the immediacy and sureness that come with genius. One would say he is the first to explore its possibilities, that no one before him held the engravers needle in their grasp and that
copper plates never disclosed their possibilities to anyone.
From his earliest efforts1628 to 1631he outdoes himself. The portrait
of his mother, and a self portrait as well (known as Rembrandt with Three Mus-

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taches), hints at what is to come. But for Rembrandts prints, printmaking does
not startle us. The burin is set free, biting the metal with keen independence. No
longer are there regular strokes, but an embroilment of hatchingshere forming
cobwebs, there scrawlsall working towards harmonious tones, favoring contrasts or the play of light and deep, dense pools of dark, rather than an ensemble
of lines. The overall effect is exquisite. Lights and darks are alive, audacious in
their violence, but held in check.
Here is Diana at the Bath (1631) where blacks, set near the rear planes of the
plate work with dense and heavy foliage to highlight the body of the goddess
braced in full light. The modeling of the flesh is summarily sketched in, yet one
feels the fullness of the fat swelling the thighs and belly, squeezing the arms and
neck. It is obvious that Diana does not come forth from Olympus, but rather
from a kitchen doorway. But no matter, the work is too beautifully done for it
not to sweep aside all critiques. The Old Man in a Velour Coat (1635) confirms even
more than the Diana at the Bath the fantastic integrity of Rembrandt as an engraver. The sumptuous cloth of the coat is treated with such breadth that neither
Drer nor Lucas van Leyden could have envisioned it. The face of the old man
seen in profile is bathed in the penumbra of the setting, whereas his beard, as if
lost in the light, throws white glints on the lapel. The Portrait of Saskia (in the Diaz
collection) is admirably bleached in a pure, white light. All the hatching marks
furiously set down in the sketch accent her calm, handsome visage.
We cannot linger over all the masterpieces Rembrandt engraved; we can only
stop before the best-known works.
The Resurrection of Lazarus, with its rash and explosive light rejects dark tones
and realizes through its very structure the marvel inherent in its subject, thus
drawing our admiration. Before the cadaver which the earth spills forth as if she
were violated, before this cataclysm which shakes and defeats her, Christ, a calm
and imposing figure before death, seems truly to rule over her sovereignty. All
the unknowns of the drama are felt by those witnessing the event, as evinced
by their arms thrown back in fear, while Christ, ever certain of his divine might,
confronts death as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Sudden shadows
ripping through vivid flashes of light bestow on the scene all its mystery and all
its awesome grandeur.
Joseph Reciting His Dreams and The Death of the Virgin are equally astonishing. In
this last composition, Mary expires on her deathbed in a strange setting framed by
large curtains, attended by a doctor, apostles and holy women. Enigmatic personages elbow each other. A sort of grand rabbi, his forehead crowned by a winding
miter, raises himself at the foot of the bed; a child from a choir holds a staff with

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a cross on high; someone reads before an open book, while the ceiling suddenly
opens before an onrush of angels who float and piously stoop forward to adore.
As with the Resurrection of Lazarus the scene is laden with unknowns.
Yet here, a hushed intimacy finds its way in the magnificence of the moment.
Anguish is surrounded by tender affections and pious care. Impassioned strokes
guide the etching needle which executes a hardly believable and very free facture
in the upper portion of the plate.
When Rembrandt retreats to the countryside after the death of his first wife
and is moved and perhaps consoled by the forests, the meadows and soothing
horizons distract him as do his notations on the effects of the sky and the earth.
Certainly these are but memory tools, quick sketches, marginal incidents in his
oeuvre. These studies after nature, where he focuses for the first time on stark
realities without striving for the plateaus of his enchanted vision, are rich in details, observed and set down with a sure and nervous hand. To cite but a few: The
Windmill, The Scape of Omval, The Bridge of Six, The Canal.
From 1648, he gives us Doctor Faustus, which is a marvel. The renowned sage
stands at his worktable, facing a window. Seen through the glass panes, a figure
seems to pass by whose arm and hand we discern and whose head is replaced
by a banner radiating streams of light where we read amongst others the names
of Christ and Adam. Light inundates the books by Fausts side, the map of the
world and also his anxious and interrogative profile. As with all the masters major
works, this plate is bathed in mystery and it is overwhelmingly marvelous. All who
study it are left uneasy, and like the doctor himself, he who analyses it remains in
the dark.
The print is at once violent and gentle. Shadows live. The vague atmosphere
that envelops the objects evokes ancient alchemical laboratories where truths appear only bathed in flames and in transparent veils of smoke. Rembrandts burin
renders this milieu awesome and fantastic.
Finally, all that is left to consider are his three most-celebrated prints and
a few portraits.
Jesus Healing the Sick, known as the Hundred Guilders Print, is not equal in our
eyes to the other two. Certainly the placement of the figures will do, the lighting
is perfect, the Savior emanates goodness, charity, and transcendent rays of light.
But the plate as a whole does not bear the masters characteristic genius as does
his Christ Before the People and The Calvary, otherwise known as The Three Crosses.
The first of these prints has undergone a number of changes which one can
see at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Rembrandt evidently hesitated from one
composition to the next, working and reworking his placement of figures, stress-

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ing certain essential lines. Aided by the vigor the caryatids impart to the pediments of the temple and the figures that cluster by the windows of the faade, as
well as by the massing of people and soldiers making their way along the flight
of stairs and staircases, he finally settles on Christ, isolates and singles him out
and arrives at a structure that seems to have a life of its own. The courtyard of
the palace where the scene takes place amid a pile of stones is alive and partakes
of the action, as though the men before it were extensions of the architecture.
That which is animate and inanimate meld, leaving us with a rare and profound
quasi-unique experience in art.
But hands down, the most striking of the three plates is The Three Crosses.
The atmosphere exudes the end of time. Shafts of light rip forth from above. In
the glare of this blinding light rise the three supplicants and Christ, the cowering thieves at his side. The Virgins swooning gestures, the ecstatic pose of Saint
John, the kneeling of an armed figure at the foot of the gallows, the coming and
going of soldiers and horses, the many who gather and those who leave, the general tumultall the pain, all the cruelty, all the anguish appear as a vain struggle
before the burst of supernatural light that invades the scene.
It is a unique Calvary, this summit of the moral Christian world that Rembrandt evokes, and he admirably succeeds. He meant to offer onlookers an ensemble with teeming details but one which does not detract from its sovereign
goal. And his bewitching burin worked wonders. With large and strong strokes,
brusque compact shadows and glowing white surfaces are alight on the page,
gracing it with sublime force.
After this series of great works, among which one must also rank the Blind
Tobias (1651) and the Pilgrims at Emmaus (1654), Rembrandts stylus settled on capturing the portraits of numerous friends. He had already engraved prints of Six
and Asselyn and had engraved portraits of himselfoh how many times!and
now he succeeds with two great prints: the Doctor Tholinx and The Goldsmith Lutma
(1656). In the latter we see seated in a high armchair against an impressive expanse
of white and holding a statuette in his handwhich is highlighted by lights and
shadowsthis wily merchant of gold, silver, and stones as he obliquely glances
aside, his sharp and experienced eye knowing immediately the task beforehand.
The work is of a rare perfection. As a print, it represents what the Syndics represents in painting, that stage in the life of the master in which all his faculties come
together to attain a masterly sense of order and sobriety, of forceful equilibrium.
Here we bring to a close the history of the engravings, having focused solely
on the best known. A more extensive study would lead us too far afield to the
detriment of our reflections on his character, on his influence and technique.

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TECHNIQUE, COLOR, COMPOSITION


His manner varies continuously. It does not follow a sequential order but at
times turns back on itself to its starting point, which we thought we had left
behind. One then cannot make sense of it without taking into account his erratic
ways. In the masters earliest works, the facture is spare, finished and diligent.
His brush stroke is hardly visible, it melds with neighboring strokes, expanding
into a sort of glaze, tidy and radiant. This is true for the Presentation in the Temple,
from the Hague, and even the Anatomy Lesson. It is also true for the Holy Family from the Louvre, even if it was fashioned eighteen years after the preceding
two works.
Little by little, the technique grows ever freer and affirms itself. The hand
in its sureness and strength commands the brush. It presses in on the canvas,
closes in on the object and defines it with color, in turn becoming light or heavy,
gentle or rude. The handling is quite apt, but the skillful application is held in
check, for it never dawned on Rembrandt to rely on his virtuosity as the sole
basis for his work. The depth of his feelings and of his vision always saves him
from this attractive but dangerous route. The Night Watch was fashioned thus.
Now follows a time when his facture loosens. Strokes expand and build on one
another. One stroke is all that is needed to model. We can follow his progress,
frank and sure, from one end of the canvas to another. Nothing is set down
without reason, there are no apologies, the piece comes together methodically
and without hesitation.
Labor like this, which never ceases to emend and correct itself, reaches a high
point with the admirable Syndics. Here, all instructs. Nothing is too much, nothing
is missing. A mature and still youthful vigor is at play. The task is done by a master
who owes nothing to anyone, who has taught himself by constant practice all that
he can to acquire perfection in his art.
And then all of a sudden Rembrandts technique takes a different turn yet
again. His sure facture gives way to a seemingly consuming passion as wild and
violent strokes replace the measured and scrupulous touches of his brush. Only
he could get away with such unheard-of practices. Anyone else would have gotten lost in the game. What is more, when he paints the highlights of a garment,
the working of jewels or brusque and sudden bursts of light, his brush becomes
like a jewelers tool, a burin, and he scrapes and searches and models, and does
it so well that the canvas seems to be the product of several hands which have
come together. He is intoxicated by his work, which demands from him efforts
beyond our comprehension. If he were not a genius we might take him for a

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fool, a madman (un fou). He gives his all to these supreme labors. And with such
masterly works behind him he asserts himself as the master of all masters.
His color evolved with his technique. Rough, dry, and ripe at first, his color
softens almost immediately. Working with a yellow base, he concentrates on tonalities of deep blues and greens, but soon he emphasizes tones where browns
and russets ring forth, as in his notorious early pieces. Most of his portraits, including his own and those of Marguerite van Bilderbeecq and of the calligrapher
Coppenol, belong to this manner of coloring. Against a somber setting, strong
and like tones exalt his figures. While sought out portraitists such as Mierevelt
and Ravesteyn cling above all to rendering the local tones of the object, Rembrandt alters them and, so to speak, illumines them with his own fire, responding
to his own vision. He is especially drawn to warm tones, and he covers his work
with them. With his early portraits of Saskia, his palette is rich and full. Never
did it reflect so many colors. Yet, even then, light drew his attention more than an
assortment of tones, no matter how suave. He is not a painter like Rubens, whose
joy consists in unleashing and mastering a whole pack of greens, reds, blues, and
yellows. It is by very different means that Rembrandt arrives at the richest tones.
We will examine them as we study his compositions and his sense of order. For
now, it suffices to demonstrate that after the Night Watch he limits and tones
down the flourishes of his palette. Several of his canvases are reduced to intense
sepias. No longer are they enriched with a full gamut of the prism. Deep, grave
and somber tones solicit his focus and gaze. He likes to juxtapose the browns of
bronzes, the dusky color of pens or bristles, light-filled blacks, inflamed fauves
and russets, and by orchestrating them so artfully he arrives at prodigious effects.
With such practices as these as a working base, he lays needed yellows and golds
and thus attains the numerous masterpieces known as the Disciples of Emmaus,
the Good Samaritan, the Benediction of Jacob, Homer, Saul, Saint Matthew. Velzquez
used grays as the basis for his painting, discreetly highlighting them with pinks
and blues; Rembrandt, by adopting a similar procedure, exalts a few light colors
upon a sketchy and mysterious field.
All the same, we can better understand his technique and his color, once we
study his sense of composition. It is his sense of order that especially legitimizes
his work. Most of the Italians, the Raphaels, the Giulio Romanos, the Guido
Renis, solidly built their works on a quasi-impeccable architecture of lines and
strokes. Their frescoes and their canvases testify to an underlying structure and
no work outdoes theirs in the crossing spaces of temples or halls.
Other painters, especially the Flemish, compose in such a way that it is color
itself that orders and balances their canvases. Rubens is the master of such su-

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perb decors. The reds, the blues, the yellows, the greens, affect each other from
one end to the other of his grand paintings. At times he arranges them as a
bouquet. Flesh bursts forth as roses do, and silk, velours, and satin cloths sing its
praise as might a choir of tulips, dahlias and peonies. The eye is enchanted and
beats back reason as sensuous surfaces overwhelm analysis. But eyes and sensuous surfaces have their own latent line of reasoning from which stems beauty and
luxurious abandon. But Rubenss approach was not Rembrandts.
Neither line nor color guides his compositions; it is uniquely light. He was
the first to single out such untrodden paths for himself. Everything drew him
that way: his temperament, the subjects he treated, the fairy-like world which
was uniquely his, the sudden insights that overwhelmed him once he looked
inside himself.
His task was arduous indeed! Light, as he favored it, was radiant. It was not a
natural light that bathes objects or refracts or animates their profiles, but rather an
ideal light, an enlightened light fed by his fancy. Such a light orders Rembrandts
compositions. In his eyes, wherever light falls, she dominates, controls, and stabilizes the work. Whatever be her focus, be it at the center or at the edge of the
canvas, the works ambiance is modified and affected by her. At times she even
bursts forth from the corporeal body of the figurean example being Christ and
the Disciples at Emmaus from the Louvreor, at times, from a solid objectan
example being the cabalistic inscriptions in the window of Doctor Faustus. Following these various effects, she affects the canvas with a disconcerting asymmetry,
or a most regular and symmetrical disposition. But, wherever she is, she appears
unconstrained, triumphant and prodigious, whether she treads lightly or bears a
heavy hand. She runs from object to object with a rustle of wings ever so gently,
rich in surprises and with infinite, elusive flights. Or otherwise, she bursts forth
violently like lightening and all of the masters genius must be summoned to
keep it from tearing the work apart. In the Resurrection of Lazarus she flashes like
Lazarus himself and identifies with him.
Thanks to her, Rembrandt is able to do as he wants: neither line nor color
would have allowed him to reveal to the world the grand and astonishing universe
within him. She wasshe had to behis chosen method of work. She was,
moreover, the rarest and most extraordinary invention that painting has engendered for the greatest artists.

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REMBRANDTS INFLUENCE
Rembrandt, as we have said, exists outside of the Dutch XVIIth century school.
He does not come to mind when one evokes this period, though he towers over it;
the minor painters, albeit assuredly marvelous lights, the Metsus, the Ter Borchs,
the Steens, stole the limelight. His influence at the time was practically niltheirs
was preponderant. In them one finds all the characteristics that marks one manner from another. He, whose art has endless repercussionsto the point that it is
forever modernwas in his own day but a renowned master surrounded by eager
students. The minor masters, on the other hand, voice the soul of the people.
Ordinarilythough this assuredly does not apply to Rembrandtthe greatest
painters are the most sought after. Such was Rubenss lot.
This last great painter embodies the entire Flemish school of the XVIIth
century. The age Rubens lived in and his milieu shaped him and live anew in him.
His canvases reflect this, not unlike a succession of mirrors. Flanders spurred his
genius, and he in turn spurs it to new expressions of genius similar to his own.
Rembrandt absorbs the talent of his disciples and all are dazzled by his own
unique flame, while around Rubenss glorious flame superior figures emerge: van
Dyck, Jordaens, Corneille de Vos, de Crayer.
Rubens was an elemental force, dependable but not without limits; an elemental force intimately aligned with all the other forces that were shaping his
country. He extends himself; he multiplies himself. He is an admirable plant,
thriving in rich soil whose seeds, dispersed by the winds, germinate where they
fall. Rembrandt is other: an isolated and most rare plant, he gathers all his powers to lunge forward, delve deeper, risking unfruitful and unproductive phases.
When Rubens is working, all the painters of Flanders from the most humble to
the most renowned paint as he does, adopt his methods, follow the ways he inaugurates, and find themselves through finding him. All work in the garden whose
gates Rubens flings open.
And more than that. His overwhelming influence extends so far that it influenced sculpture and architecture as well. Dusquesnoy and von Opstal carried over into their art the teachings he shared with other painters. They shaped
massive and healthy bodies, virile forms pulsating with life like the religious and
mythological dramas he painted; they adopted his handwriting, large and sure,
and like the master they favored color rather than form. All the still and congealed lines of official art come alive in league with the new order he imparts to
things. His bad taste, his love of abundance, redundance and profusion, his need
to display vigor and life are apparent everywhere. The facades of mansions, the

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alters of churches, the ceilings of palaces display his ardent furor and his new
manner of seeinga style we call Jesuit [the Baroque]is born from these passionate writhings. And yet still more. He will send to England as an ambassador
the gifted Antoine van Dyck so that he may carry the seal of Flemish art to the
British Isles. He will go to France to people an entire palace with his figures and
prepare the art of the Largillires and the Rigauds as he awaits the seduction of
Watteau and awaken with strong and harmonious colors the painting of the romantic period of the 19th century.
All of Flanders as well fell under his spell which shaped the entire XVII century and one still feels its presence in the heady decadence of the XVIII century.
When David parches all he touches, old Herreyns still responds to Rubens. In
1830, with the dawn of modernity, the Wappers, the de Bifve and the De Keysers stirred anew Rubenss fame, only to confess their own failings by contrast.
And still today amongst the young Belgian painters, Rubens violent and rich
palette serves all those who seek the past to find inspiration in far away traditions.
Such is the general and local influence of Rubens, while that of Rembrandt
is by far another thing. Only the greatest masters from one age to another recall
Rembrandts manner for his influence denies time and milieu. He who looks for
it today can find it in the work of one of the greatest contemporaries in France,
Carrire.
In the XVII century, Rembrandts reputation hardly went beyond the walls
of a single atelier. Fabritius, Van Gelder, Van Eeckhoudt, and Lievens all drew on
it as they imitate the master. He teaches them his strange, unorthodox approach
to subject matter; they adorn their personages with exotic cast-off garments; they
wrap them up in turbans and weigh them down with glittering jewels; they set
them down in light-filled, unnatural spaces. And as with Rembrandt, they all seem
to paint only miracles and supernatural affects, but in spite of their efforts, their
art, though reflecting his, lacks his commanding sincerity and their efforts seem
factitious and borrowed.
In their hands, the astonishing light Rembrandt uses to underline the profoundly human effect of his work becomes naively picturesque and finds a place
by a roundabout way in the work of talented painters like Grard Dou, in spite of
their commitment to the master. They shine only as cast shadows without their
own singular fire. Except for Fabritius and Van Gelder, one could easily forget
them but for the fact that they once were amongst the select disciples and fervent
admirers who managed to maintain the respect of he who was most disowned.
Rembrandt loved them because he found his love in those who lived with him
and through him; he assisted them with clear and disinterested advice and they

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grew under his care. He made them his companions and his friendship was freely
given, although never arbitrary. When one of them, Fabritius, a very young man,
(who died when 29) was in need of a model for his Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (muse dAmsterdam), the master Rembrandt willingly posed as the executioner.
And here he is, posing for this vile job in this ridiculous rig-out before everyone,
his sleeves rolled up, his shirt collar open, baring the hairs on his chest.

REMBRANDTS LATER REPUTATION


Eternity belongs only to cosmic forces. The most faithful and tender memories
of the most renowned personalities shall pass one day, though just when is unclear. Even those as gods or kings who identify their lives with the existence of
the sun are mired in oblivion as all others are. Neither books nor marbles nor
bronzes conserve things forever. These are lugubrious thoughts to consider, yet
the most renowned canvases shall be consumed within a few centuries due to
their corporeal fragility.
One day, well only know through poor copies Leonardos La Joconde (the
Mona Lisa), Rubens Raising of the Cross, Veroneses The Wedding at Cana, and Rembrandts The Disciples at Emmaus.
Against this ineluctable law, those who live have always taken exception, for
above all, history is a monument to pride. A few amongst the most pensive dream
of putting together a sort of bible of experience and wisdom, even though their
hopes are dashed before lifes consuming vanity.
And yet, in the cult of men of import one discovers bits of truth, bruised
and misunderstood, which are seemingly logical and profitable to a few men
of wisdom.
They say:
The most meaningful gestures, the most beautiful words need to be conserved from one
century to the next so as to enhance their value as treasures of our race in its quest for
perfection. The grandest personages point the way for the others, they stake out history
and pass the torch in the night from one to the other. Art, like science, has gone through
dark and tenebrous times; the most renowned painters and savants must be honored and
deified in order to guide at times, often instruct and always shed joy.

With Rembrandts passing one could have feared that he never would have
found a place amongst the greats who have died.

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Since he did not represent his country, the Dutch condemned him. Contemporary tastes honored the minor masters, favoring portraitists of an inferior order.
A few years after Rembrandts death, Holland choked on a niggardly sort of
painting, merely clever and technically correct. The Van der Werffs, the Mierises,
the Philippe Van Dycks, all the painters of cant and mincing and frivolous effects were in the ascendancy. An insipid and rose twilight engulfed painting. The
French 18th century was the next to fall. Art became charming, precious, adorable.
Certainly Watteau, Chardin, Fragonard are exceptional artists, but how distant from Rembrandt! Where he seeks only naked and profound emotions, a sobbing and wrenching pain, they favor grace and clarity. They moderate his tears,
they veil his distress and lighten his folly. They want life with all its miseries to be
a holiday and beauty to be, above all, a benign smile.
Fortunately during Rembrandts own lifetime, a select elite of amateurs collected his work with a keen eye. They awaited with patience the day of reckoning. Meanwhile his canvases emigrated to England, to Germany, to Russia, to
Sweden. Reserved for them was space on the walls of a chateau, in the chambers
of a rich bourgeois, at times in the recesses of a public edifice, although neither
churches nor temples offered them their hospitality.
But before the glory of his work would become apparent, it had to await
the coming of our age with its unbridled love of the pathetic, of the drama of
life. One had to wait for a time when one began to study anew painting in its essencethat is to say, to seek color harmonies of tones and of values. Finally, one
had to put the art of David aside, which is above all sculptural, or the literary art
of the Romantic period before one was smitten by a master who manifests the
grandeur and depths of their perceptions uniquely through painting. Rembrandt
is one of them, since everything he touches, be it natural or supernatural, finds
expression with whites and blacks, with harmoniously painted forms.
Today his work prevails everywhere and his place is unquestionable. The
Louvre, the National Gallery, the museums in Amsterdam, Munich, Dresden,
Saint Petersburg, and the Hague are ablaze with his work. The Prado of Madrid, the Uffizi, Roman and Venetian collections are not as well represented,
for Rembrandt was never associated with the courts of Europe as were Rubens,
Titian, or Velzquez. Men of eminence never sought his favors, nor did they lavish their praise on his masterly work. From harsh criticism and the prejudices of
established schools of thought, Rembrandts oeuvre has found its place and its
glory through the critical insights of the great painters of the preceding century.
The writings of Fromentin, Charles Blanc, Vosmaer, Brger, Dutuit, and Taine

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must be cited here. And that of scholars like Bode, Bredius, de Roever and mile
Michel. Sandrart and de Hoogstraeten of the XVIII century had celebrated his
oeuvre, but since their labors, with the exception of the catalogue published by
Gersaint, Watteaus friend, nothing of worth has appeared in print.
Perhaps it was the fate of the most masterly and original of painters to owe
his rehabilitation to art itself. For never, as in the recent past, did art find a place
in the daily life of everyone. Before then, art was viewed as an exotic flower
and only kings and men of riches knew and appreciated it. It was kept at bay
from the masses, unapproachable, as if suddenly it could serve some dangerous
social breakthrough.
In effect, it was due to a revolution that museums came into being, that artists, like kings, came to enjoy a rich well-being, and that the spirit of liberty and independence stamped on their canvases were to be seen everywhere by the masses.
Soon the Louvre, the Prado, The National Gallery, could no longer contain
the efforts of artists, celebrate and see them thrive. One conceived of grand artistic fairs, seats of beauty held here and there in the capitals. In Amsterdam, in
Bruges, Antwerp and Paris exhibitions were organized regularly, be it to honor
such and such a master or even an entire school of thought. And one witnessed
in Europe on certain anniversaries, all the painters, all the mcnes, all the aesthetes and critics swarming about these exhibitions as in the days of yore when
pilgrims swarmed about holy sites.
It was Holland that first took the initiative for such manifestations and they
have multiplied since. Yet none of them had the solemnity and the splendor
of the one in 1898 which brought under one roof at the museum of the city
of Amsterdam all of Rembrandts unknown masterpieces as well as those who
had made a cult of his work around the globe to admire them. It was a belated
but radiant attempt to rectify past errors. And more needs be said: Those who,
in the XVIIth century had slighted him in his own land, he who Banning Cocq
and his friendswhose likenesses, with so many others, embellished imposing
siteshad mocked, disparaged and insulted, he who had not found support in
the forebears of those now admiring him, was there in the fullness of his glory.
One no longer discussed his work, one venerated it.
This city of Amsterdam that had impoverished him, this city replete with
men of the law who formerly had dispersed his goods and forced him to live in
dire straights until the final days of his old agehe was now enriching this city by
convening visitors and mcnes about his work. The country that had betrayed
him, hounded him, pushed him away, was now glorying in his glory, so that in the
eyes of many he was the best and most distinct reason for the existence of his

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own people. For ifas many thoughtful men believethe supreme function of
a collective society is to bring forth and produce men of eminence, what nation
would be more entitled to proclaim itself vibrant and whole than the one who
witnessed the sudden and magnificent rise of Rembrandt?
The festivities and emendations that came with them were unique, it remains
for us to say. The sustained enthusiasm of those who planned the event and the
absolute wonder of its many visitors fused. Never was homage to a man more
ardent nor more unanimous. From the 18th of September to the 31st of October
1898, Rembrandt reigned like a powerful spiritual force over Europe. Savants,
artists, and philosophers came to visit him in his latest incarnation to take away
with them profound lessons of art and humanity before his oeuvre.
The exhibition spread over a number of rooms. Side by side with works well
known such as The Night Watch, The Syndics, The Jewish Bride, loans from the Rijksmuseum of more than a hundred nearly unknown works were lined up against
the ramps of the salons. They belonged to celebrated collections from Paris,
Berlin, Glasgow, the Hague, Edinburgh, Munich, Vienna, Cracow, Leipzig, Weimar, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Cologne, Budapest, Saint Petersburg, and London.
All of Europe had collaborated in this apotheosis. A Rembrandt quasi-unknown
emerged, though one thought one knew him thanks to his immense oeuvre scattered throughout the world. At the museum of the city of Amsterdam this work
seemed ever more impressive. So many likenesses found refuge there along the
walls of those halls! They had conquered death, and they too had come together
to celebrate their painter.
Above all, Rembrandt was seen by the critics as a spokesman for strength,
endurance, anguish. And here he was demonstrating with the Gentleman with a
Falcon (the duke of Westminster collection) and in the Lady with a Fan (same collection) a painter whose elegance and grace seduced as much as his gravity. Faces
of young, nave, clear-headed and charming girls were there to be seen, gilding his genius with unexpected dose of freshness, gentleness, and purity. All of
this did not speak of a coarse reality, but an exquisite and transfigured life. One
could, if one so desired, name this one Ophelia; another might have been named
Titania. This one could have been Desdemona, that one Juliette. Lips full of
youth and candor, clear springtime skin, glances drawn from fabulous unknown
regions, foreheads fashioned to bear crowns, frail hands never weighed down by
flowersall these heroic slender bodies testify to the exquisite imaginings that
haunted Rembrandts fancy.
As always he thrived in a world of mirage, a world that was not there, and
painted glimpses of barely perceived sights. Then again, he was once more grave

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and pious. The Old Lady Reading a Book manifested such complete perfection that
one stopped before her as before a masterpiece. Nothing need be altered; all
criticism was unwarranted. The book the old woman held in her hands, and from
which light seemed to flow, lighted her face from top to bottom, and the shadow
that her elaborate headdress projected on her forehead was alive with glimmers
of light. The modeling of her face and hands, the steadiness of her attentive
eyes, her allure, grand and simple, drew our full admiration. One found oneself
before a self-evident axiomatic marvel, and the crowds which till then had dared
to raise their voices fell brusquely silent. This experience was curious to witness
inasmuch as the same happened before the Syndics.
More need be said: for instance, Man Wearing a Cuirass (Glasgow gallery),
whom one might have mistaken for an aged Lear, despairing and tortured, dreaming of his now defunct royalty and chased by tempestuous storms; the Old Man
with a Cape, whose visage seemed careworn from witnessing life so many years;
the Old Lady Cutting Her Nails (collection Rodolphe Kann, Paris) and especially
the great Nicolas Ruts (the Pierpont Morgan collection) and Jean Six at the Window
(muse Bonnat at Bayonne).
Rembrandt celebrates every model he paints. Due to his great talent the art
of portraiture becomes the art of apotheosis. There had never been an artist
who had come to grips with portraiture in a more personal and singular manner,
for the model exists for him only inasmuch as the individual transmits to him a
profoundly human truth. He paints the model as he perceives him.
He accentuates and probes and thenand this is plainly where his originality
lieshe injects in his naturalism something beyond realism. His Old Rabbi (Derby
collection in London) is not solely the embodiment of gravity, dogma and veracity,
but he is all of that and more: he has been sublimated as if God himself had imposed on him the duty of being who he is. The Portrait of Titus van Ryn (Rodolphe
Kann collection) is not just the image of a young man; he is youth, suppleness,
vivacity. But due to a sort of light that stems from him, that shines forth from his
face and his skin, he also appears as an apparition of lifes grace and fragility.
Never does Rembrandt cease to be a magician of sorts who paints. As we
study his portraits where he most faithfully captures the essence of his sitters, be
it by a sudden burst of light or by rays of light stemming from where we do not
know, be it by unexpected range of tones or by an unexpected arrangement of
figures, the figure is evoked rather than directly transcribed. Certainly the body
is admirably defined, the face in its complexity magisterially treated, the hands
alive and supple, the shoulders, neck and torso in it entirety excellently doneas
though the figure itself could rise, walk, sit, and mingle with onlookers.

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Nevertheless, unexpectedly, one could not shake away the fear of having
been before a being at once so close and so far from ones self.
The world of the living that Rembrandt depicts is thus a world of his own
making, just as the world of his legends and fables is his own. Amongst the portraitists of all time, it is he who comes closest to a miracle worker, a thaumaturge.
The Exposition organized by the city of Amsterdam amply demonstrated
this and calls for such remarks. It had a resounding effect on the critics and artists. It shook the world.
Just when only religious feasts seemed to recall the past, the present show
inaugurated feasts to come. Since then other artistic venues have taken place: the
van Dycks, the Gothic School in Flanders, the Gothic School in France. Furthermore, along with Labor Day, the peoples holiday on the 1st of May, and the
holiday that celebrates the sun and Nature and the summer solstice, there should
be once a year in one or another European nation a certain glorious anniversary
that celebrates Painting. Rembrandts name would often appear on these solemn
occasions and his memory would be assured and deeply imprinted in the admiration and love of men.

CONCLUSION
As we have said, Rembrandt is the painter of miracles. He imbues the supernatural with authenticity. There is but one-way to attain this: bind the unknown with
the known in a burst of light. Rembrandt always achieves this end, for he is at
once the most divine of painters and the most humane of painters. He thus holds
in his hands two bolts of lightning. He nurtures our most private tears, cries, joys,
sufferings, and our most intimate hopes, and shows us the God he celebrates who
is troubled by the same confusion as ourselves. Or else he presents him to us as
a body endowed with such sweetness, such goodness, and such serenity that his
prodigious being comes to us through love. His Christ, his patriarchs, his saints,
his apostles, whom he shapes and whom he endows with life with the most astonishing visions, are but men like ourselves, but more profoundly human. Artists
of the middle ages rendered the supernatural accessible to us through their innate
candor and naivet. Rembrandt does the same, but he leads us there by suffering, by ways of anguish, of tenderness, of joythat is by ways that denote the
grandeur of life.

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Rubens, Titian, Veronese and Velzquez are not really religious. They find in
the bible and its stories beautiful settings for their paintings and they interpret the
texts accordingly, but fancy rules. They hardly respect the subject they are interpreting, nor do they dig deep into themselves to discover the God implanted in
us all. Art is their pleasure, it enflames them and intoxicates them, and their great
works exalt the beauties of life. They have sight but not vision. Rembrandt, just
as Dante, as Shakespeare, as Hugo, sees beyond. Never has there been a painter
like him, and thats why he towers over all.
As we have said, Rembrandt freed himself as much as possible from his
milieu and his age.
And this had to be if he were to be true to his dreams and to his fancy. And
thus he soared most naturally and in full bloom, translating his dreams with ease
with his brush.
His temperament, his character, his life, all conspire to give us his art as we
have tried to define it. A profound unity seals it as one. And isnt it towards the
discovery of this oneness that binds in a solid sheath the gestures, the thoughts
and the labors of such a genius on this earth, that criticismeven after so many
errorsshould uniquely strive for?
Those whom posterity remembers appear like formidable and untamed forests, if they are worthy. One must forge unique paths to ceaselessly and earnestly
probe the length and breadth of their mysterious realms to find oneself, with
these solemn trials behind us, ever more exalted.
The End

Rembrandt (Paris: Henri Laurens, 1904)

Netherlandish Art

For those who are not familiar with the museums in Holland, the Trippinhuis
and the Binnenhof, the section dart of the Netherlandish Exhibition is dazzling.
There is nothing in the world that compares with it, aglow from an inspired blaze
from Rembrandts, Potters, de Steens, Ter Borchs and Ruysdaels efforts ; rooted
in its native soil and from a single source, inspired masterpieces came into being.
Dutch art brusquely cut itself free from its bonds with Flemish art, bonds that
held her tight since the beginning of the XVIIth century. Why was that? Was it
due to a dearth of inspiration? On the contrary. The Flemish Renaissance was
thriving; masters such as Van Dyck, Jordaens, Snyders were endorsing it with a
supreme immortality and Rubens was cramming palaces and churches with his
grand canvases. Nothing but historical events can explain this break into two
schools: the independence the Taciturne gained for Holland and the tearing in two
of the Low Countries.
Dutch painting brought to the highest degree a taste for perfection. Drawing
rendered things most subtly with color profoundly enlivening the scene, an interior light mysterious at the edges and triumphant in general, a prestigious facture
stemming from experienced hands familiar with the most demanding tasks. A
handsome canvas from a Dutch master lives in the eye and in ones thoughts. It
is for the retina and the spirit what a symphony is for the ears. There lies in such
canvases such a fusion of vibrant tones, such a masterly and easy harmony, such
learned breadth and sure execution, that nowhere else in the world has painting

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so effectively brought together drawing and color, binding them as one. For these
two opposing factors sustain each other as they work and triumph in accord.
They embody life with their expressive line and with such astonishing intensity
and impressive range that it seems that all the painters of Amsterdam, of Haarlem, of Dordrecht and of Delft had an uncanny sense for intuitively responding
to its verve, rendering it with life.
Rembrandt has the place of honor in this show. One can see the master in his
various modes. His first manner is tight, clear, a little cold; few generalities can be
made, though he already focuses on impressive effects of light and he finds pleasure in imparting difficult fleeting allusions on the lips of his figures. The proof
of all this is his charming Portrait de jeune fille (Portrait of a Young Girl), a youth so
fresh and hale with glowing and clear skin and a fascinating facial expression. It is
all very Dutch with nothing finicky about it, nothing mincing, but quite healthy,
although a bit stiff. The painter dotes on chiseling jewels, embroideries and accessories with his brush in prodigal effusions of gold, as well as precious stones
bound together in bunches by the bodice of the dress. Le Portrait dhomme (Portrait
of a Man), belonging to a Mr. Wilson, testifies to his latest and most attractive
manner. On the canvas, a shaft of light comes from nowhere in particular, while
the rest is in shadow, obscure. One figure is in full daylight, another, farther back,
in gloom. It is a superb way of working that beggars reason, but Rembrandt
works it with such masterly effects that one no longer finds it necessary to try
to come to terms with it. The figure we see here with a fur-lined coat astonishes
by a certain undefined macabre effect. His skin has a sickly tone; his thin hands
clasp a book; his eyes are full, passionate and melancholic, his mustache thin and
curledall this calls to mind a dandy-like Faust such as Baudelaire conjured. The
head, seen as though almost fully in the round, comes forth from the shadows
behind him, suggesting a mysterious sphinx-like mask. Unknowns dominate this
canvas as they do most of Rembrandts work, but here enigmas seem even more
fleeting. An Adoration des mages (Adoration of the Magi) informs us of his current
talent; two portraits show off his vigor, especially the bust of a man.
There lies between these two portraits a smallish canvas by (Paulus) Potter
depicting a couple of hogs by a porch. What the artist was able to do with their
movements and the look in their eyes is beyond translation. A beautiful somber
gold color shines throughout the canvas. The sow, lifting herself on her paws
and weighted down by her heavy udders, is superbly drawn. The other swine
stretched on its side, resting. All this, sketched in with a few lines, speaks of a
masters handling. The shed roof has the allure of the picturesque that Dutch
painters in general know how to do, whether it be a heap of dishes or braziers

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or other accessories. Potter had in him at one and the same time something both
crude and sharp, deliberate and artless. He painted his farmyard animals with
an evident concern for ideal forms, and yet the reality of things is always there,
transforming his canvases into models of simplicity.
One can study (Jan) Steen in Le Roi boit (The King Drinks), a canvas with rich
colors: The scene as always is bursting with droll figures sporting kettles and
baskets, scraping at racks with spoons and pokers, merry-makers who call to
mind Rabelais. A child with a crown empties a glass, and in the center of it all a
jester of sorts is playing rommelpot. A few unctuous maids in yellow skirts and red
bodices laugh away, their heavy torsos flung back against chairswarm spirits
and good cheer rule.
This canvas is quite good. It calls to mind the Steen in the Muse de ltat,
though the over-all composition, the arrangement of the figures on the canvas
works better. The burst of color high in the center of the canvas is effective; a
most pervasive harmony reigns, even though certain notes that might clash elsewhere are used throughout. Deep reds, lush whites, clear and pale goldsthese
colors form striking and effective harmonies. No one can compare with Steen
when it comes to such rowdy fanfare. Teniers bourgeois farces are just that, while
Steens have an epic cast. Steens figures are vulgar, but great, as with (Jacob)
Jordaens, two masters who also fancy lovely children. But Steen, even more than
Jordaens, recalls Rabelais. Could there be a better illustration for Pantagruel than
la Cuisine grasse (The Greasy Kitchen). The tripes, the blood sausages, the layers of
bread, the enormous chickens, the cochons dInde on spits, and everywhere mouths
stuffed, hands full of grub, cheeks bursting; greedy, gluttonous kids hanging
around pots and dishes, men and women, red-faced drunkards and chatter-boxes,
singing their all with their rusty gullets, grudging the tunes of someone scraping
a fiddle. Here the color is more contained than in le Roi boit. The paintings merit
lies in its sketches of men, women and children, bristling with life and in its admirable grouping of figures. In contrast stands La Cuisine maigre (The Meager Kitchen),
which calls to mind certain Bruegelesque rachitic figures that Steen also favored.
Many other works by the same master are there to be seen in the sale dhonneur,
although they are quite uneven.
Very near the Cuisines a canvas by van der Poel is on view, a most renowned
piece showing a slaughtered pig spread out on a butchers block. Highlights of
rose and white flesh, enlivened by a flash of sunlight entering the barn, make for
a striking effect. Perhaps the whole is overly contrived, but no matter. The colors
are simply too attractive for us to raise objections against the painting or against
the artist. Teniers and Van Ostade were seduced by the very same subject but,

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with the exception of the bleeding head of the cow by the latter, van der Poel
succeeds better than they to show the ribs, the sub-cutaneous shiny layers of fat
and the splendid spread of the cuts-of-meat. Contrariwise, his Extrieur de ferme
(The Exterior of a Farm) lacks the formers colors with its brownish juices that
seem to roll off the canvas.
Further, nearby lies a most aristocratic portrait of the princess Marguerite de
Lorraine, signed by Franois Pourbus. This work has the flair of a Van Dyck with
its mingled tones of a pastel, but it is very effective. Van Dyck, it is true, is otherwise poorly represented here with second-class portraits. Certainly president
Roose has much character, but Van Dycks Sainte Famille (Holy Family) has something coal black in its smoky darks that says it belongs to a time when the disciple
was not aware of all that was offered by his master, the master being Rubens.
We are drawn to Ruysdaels two canvases for their restful landscapes strewn
with rivulets here, sloped paths there, dotted mid-way with a craggy castle or a
fissured ruin fractured by holes, torn by the wars, suggesting something restful,
a barely felt sadness that pleasescertainly not the passionate gnarled twisting
bushes and trees, the rush of streams for which Ruysdaels canvases have for so
long been lauded. At times Ruysdaels oils depict exquisitely fleecy clouds. Before
he was ever a tempestuous Romantic, as some French critics like to say, the most
illustrious Jacob Ruysdael is very much Dutch, one who responds to fields for
their repose, the easy flow of the flat spreading countryside. A tranquil mood
pervades his ponds, his marshes, his lanes, his woods; the moist air is filled with
an enveloping mist. His best works are those in which man barely makes headway, where only the eloquent silence of things addresses the eye and the soul.
Canvas no. 206 is especially noteworthy. The elder Molyn and Van Goyen are
landscape painters who favor Dutch marines as well. Calm pervades as always;
sluggish, choppy waves with patterned movements, their lapping crests at one
with their gothic cadence. But at times a beautiful blond light appears in the sky
as in the handsome canvases by (Albert) Cuyp, this wonderful artist, the most
gifted perhaps that Holland produced in the 17th century.
It is not only his landscapes that makes Cuyp the great painter he is. It is especially his beasts, his superb horses firmly planted on their feet, their bridle held by
a page. The formula he favors is well known. Rarely do his beasts lie down, they
are always standing, cinched, ready to be shown, their coats shiny, their heads not
too large, their manes thick, fluffy and light. He imparts to their somewhat still
demeanor a distinct note of Dutch aristocracy. These are the horses of moneyed
bourgeois. One of his small canvases shows a horse with a greenish hue in a green
stable. Cuyp made up his own light sources for his interiors and his landscapes

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and then colored accordingly. His father, the elder Jacob, was an amiable painter.
His Bergre (the Shepherdess) is painted in clear sepia tones, and has a certain twist
to it, something naughty, lively and intriguinga young girl all made up, all dolled
up, foreshadowing the taste for French shepherds and shepherdesses to come.
Now here is a major piece: la Femme assisse (the Seated Woman) by Ter Borch.
This is a fascinating canvas; one could stay hours before it. The figure is severe,
pensive, suffering; the sad dcor calls to mind a widow of puritanical mores, living with the souvenir of her husband. This pain shed without tears, this pain, the
pain of the mistress of a house that knows her servants are watching, this pain
held in check but nonetheless sincere has never been so profoundly rendered nor
bettered. Add to this that everything is sober, simple. And were we to see this
canvas anywhere else we would immediately recognize the sitter as an old lady
from Holland, piously, sternly, severely and with unwavering distinction observing the discipline family loss calls for.
Ter Borch, weve already noted, has a most impersonal touch. One does not
see it at first sight; there are no tricks, no conjuring of any sorts. There is in his
work a constant sense of perfection that never dissipates. Distinctive, beautiful
colors are sought and spread with his brush with an elegant sure touch. He is the
painter of the beau monde, of established wealth, solid and unobtrusive, of lightly
powdered matte velours, of patterned silks, of bodices edged with ermine, of lapelled doublets, of handsome slender reedy hands offering with their fingertips a
golden wine from a tinted goblet.
In the same salon, two still lives work as pendants, one by (Frans) Snijders,
the other by (Jean) Fyt. Both are superb, especially the first. One truly feels sorry
for our modern painters of still-lives to see with what spirit, with what sureness
and success, these artists of old painted piles of fruit and meat. Todays painters
barely dare fill a small table.
Here at this exposition dart ancien are rich displays, tiers upon tiers of victuals
lighted with warm, glowing, glorious tones. And nothing can be better rendered
than the sagging forms of dead animals, the undulant fall of a swans neck, the
pyramidal rise of apples, pears and grapes, of slices of marbled ribs, of finely
cut pieces of salmon, of ewers, of goblets, of lutes, where bands of light run
along crystal wares. It was their overflowing abundance, the spill, the enormous
piling of flora and fauna that made these works truly greatand Flemish at that.
Before these canvases one saw promised mounds of food as before the guzzlers
in the attics of Teniers and Steen, and one admired them for the same motifs
one does in the Kermesse and the Cuisine grasse. Today before these still lives, one
is tempted to salivate.

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Quiringh van Brekelenkam is a great artist who is not unknown but rather
ignored. Two marvelous signed canvases by him are here to be seen: La Boutique du barbier (The Barbers Shop) and lIntrieur (The Interior). His color is the
very finest, with the clearest of tones; the brown of the furniture and the red
of the skirts are superb and his figures as expressive as possible. Look at the
man whose hair is being cut, his mind and his thoughts are elsewhere! And the
man who is waiting in the shop, his arm wrapped in a scarf, and the smoker
on a bench lost in thought in lIntrieur, their mindless wanderings are so well
rendered. Brekelenkam must figure in the phalanx of those immortal minor
painters of which Holland has a monopoly. He is one more major figure for us
to love and venerate.
Nearby, a Pieter de Hooch. An old lady in a strong light, resting by a chimney,
working, head bent. Here and there, in the details, in the pavement, in the frying
pan, admirable green glistening tones. But its the old lady with the white headdress where the beauty of the piece resides for the most part. The focus is on
her work; it sheds light on all, enlivens all. Then, there is only left for us to point
out that nearby are paintings by Teniers, by Palamedes, Molenaer, Peteers, Maes,
Flinck, Craesbeeck, Ostade, Heem, Hondecoeter, Van de Venne, etc.
(Frans) Hals is represented here only by two minor portraits, that of Pierre
Triack with his donquichottesque manner, cavalierly rendered, and one of Marie
Larp, with pomaded rose colored cheeksperhaps a little strange, but true to
life. Otherwise, as always, a fiery, frank and sure facture.
Small, unimposing canvases, miniatures really, are signed Dou, Brauwer;
glossy landscapes, Berghem, Van de Velde, Asselyn; mountainous landscapes,
Huysmans; interiors of churches, Neefs; chiseled still lives, Mignon. Then the
Baigneuses (the Bathers) by Mieris, all gleaming with porcelain tones, with skin pomaded, raises for us a decadent period of icy preciousness.
Rubens does not have any major piece on display. The sketch for the Martyre de saint Livin (The Martyrdom of Saint Lievin) is in certain ways perhaps superior to the finished canvas in its movements and the layering of paint. There
is in this quick sketch two fields of action, two groupings, yet a most complete
unity reigns. Only Rubens was capable of such a feat. His Christ donnant les clefs
saint Pierre (Christ Giving the Keys to Saint Peter) is not worthy of him. Nothing
draws our admiration. Silne soutenu par les faunes (Silenus Held by Fauns) seems to
be made of gelatin, but still there are superb things there, amongst which are
the pouting figures so deftly captured with the brush. The Portrait de femme (The
Portrait of a Lady) is simply poor, the Cavalier romain (The Roman Cavalier) bears
an uncertain gesture, Christ chez Marthe et Madeleine is not the result of a happy

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collaboration with Brueghel the Younger who usually fared better when working with Rubens.
I was hoping to end this article with a few words on the greatest Flemish
genius, just as I had begun this article with a few words on the greatest Dutch genius. To see a large number of old masterpieces brought together under one roof,
almost all from Rembrandts timesome from Amsterdam, others from Delft,
Haarlem, Dordrechtone is surprised by their many modes and how little the
most superb and the strangest painter the North ever produced influenced his
peers. Contrariwise, at the Muse de Bruxelles (The Brussels Museum of Fine Arts) one
sees Rubenss pervasive influence over the whole of Flemish painting. Van Dyck,
Jordaens, Teniers, de Crayer emulate him in their color and drawing. He (Rubens)
dominates them all by his formidable presence and one amongst them, the last
mentioned, draws his strength only from him. This one fact alone throws light
on the different talents of the two master, Rubens and Rembrandt. If Rubens
has followers, is understood and imitated, it is above all because he senses and
voices in a grandiose manner his faith in humanity, his love, his sense of pain; it
is because the maternits, the sacrifices, sufferings, anguish, triumphs, and regrets,
the rebellious, the prideful, the nave caresses and the ideal or carnal joys fill his
oeuvre. He has sounded every chord of human sentiment, he has translated all
the manifestations of his soul on his canvas and has done that with magnificent
epic sway. Rembrandt as well engenders life with all he does, his figures are lifelike and their faces are alive and animatedbut often their expressions contain
something enigmatic, something we cant decipher. Then Rembrandt rattles us;
above all his sudden shafts of light as they filter through dark shadows draw our
admiration and humanity only secondarily affects his canvases. After all, he seems
especially preoccupied with the technical aspects of his work, or rather by his
genial tentative thrusts of light.
Night tempts him with its gloom, its unspoken mysteries, its dreams, its
nightmares, and it is in its deep embrace that his figures toss and turn. With Rubens, on the contrary, broad daylight is the issue, man reaches out towards the
sun, man in his full measure, aglow with vital health. One lives in an unsettling,
strange setting, the other in a setting most natural; one paints with the brush, the
other seemingly with a torch. One attracts, the other dazzles. Hence Rembrandts
isolation, transcending rules with his searing Romantic grandeur and his genius.
Theres only left for me to discuss the gothics and the grands modernes morts,
these two quite different and superb schools. In the 15th century it is tradition
that holds art together; it is hieratic and fixed in a vaunted immobility, but as
soon as men of great talent came upon it, they changed it, endowed it anew,

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gave it a sense of perfection it did not have before. It became a collective entity,
a body of work brought together as one, thought out, created, enlivened by a
people who chose in the Van Eycks, Memling, Van der Weyden, Metsys and
Van Orley a mandate to express their needs. With all these masters, that which
abides by conventions, by intransigent rules is so obvious that there was no need
to see in their faults anything but obeisance to the establishment. That which
concerned such masters above all was la decoration (nature [or naturalism] intervened most peripherally), beautifully embroidered canopies, the superb gold
of mantles, the whirl of banderoles, rigid, imposing poses with scepters and
with golden globes held high, with dazzling nimbuses, carved thrones, wooden
chests, swords, helmets, all the minute details of pomp and ceremony. Certainly
this did not cause these masters to forget the humanity of their sitters, but seeing the overall direction of this kind of painting one can say that they painted
their figures according to their wont, responding to the tyranny of their own
strong temperaments.
The moderns no longer have the rules the gothics enjoyed constructing. For
the moderns salvation lay where rules were dispensed. Therein lay the possibilities of art and its imminent dangers which they came to confront. After the reign
of the classics, romantics initiated the new; they became the great revolutionaries.
Seeking the new at all costs they made originality their goal, and from then on, individuality has given rise to an overflow of youthful untapped vigor. Works are no
longer anonymous; on the contrary, from now a personal interpretation of things
is desired even regarding the maddest of follies. Inspiration is sought everywhere,
in all domains, in history, in the novel, in travelogues, in archeology, untamed raw
nature struck by storms or under a brilliant sun. In turn, such fast moving outbursts had to be held in check. One no longer entertains des dbauches dimagination
(quick, sketchy flights of fancy), and a more positive attitude towards the subject,
a more exacting response to things has replaced the vision of yesteryear.
Hugo Van der Goes shines in the first ranks of the gothic art exhibition. His
Vierge et lenfant Jsus (Virgin with the Christ Child) is an astonishing piece. A majestic
maternity arises from this Mary giving her milk to the Son-of-God. She knows
her divine mission as she sits enthroned in her grandeur. All this set Hugo apart
from the other gothics, who see the Virgin quite differently as she has neither the
pure and limpid beauty they assign to her nor the candor of a virgin. But, as a
queen she sits in a royally opulent setting, her visage glows, her attitude grand, in
spite of her intimacy with her child. The Infant, who is painted in a conventional
manner, his skin wrapped tightly about his frame, his arms and legs too gainly,
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the whole. The details are superbthe book, the wooden frame of the window
and especially the rendering of the landscape.
Nearby, a triptych by Memling. It is gothic grace incarnate on a canvas, with
splendid colors and startling poses. Saint Grome dans le dsert (Saint Gerome in the
Desert) bears a marvelous facial expression. Ecstasy, just as little over the top as
possible, can be read in his raised eyes; his emaciated body all but rises heavenward, like a forward thrust that calls for wings. All of this denotes a faith and
fervor that beggars translation.
Here is the Portrait de lanabaptiste Knipperdolling (Portrait of the Anabaptist Knipperdolling) by (Quentin) Metsys. There is something unpleasant in its symmetry;
two arches flank the sitter in a manner that sets him up as a caryatid in the spring
of the vault. But the canvas is no less superb for this. It has character and is
painted with a sure hand, though the darks and the browns that dominate it are
liberally applied. As always the accessories are handled with care, the proof being
the open book with a page half-turned.
And here is a (Jan Van) Scorel triptych with the donors on the side wings
against a somber and moving background, his scraggy Christ on the cross. This
scene of Calvary, awash in horror, has the startlingly macabre allure gothic painters favored for their martyrdoms and terrifying scenes of torture. Yet the color
is dry and without character, as also in the anonymous triptych facing it. Several
truly small canvases by Lucas Van Leyden follow, le Retour du March (The Return
from the Market) and le Charlatan (The Charlatan). Nearby stands a couple of panels
attributed to a painter from Lombardy.
All that is left is to point out in the same corner of the room is a Portrait de
jeune fille (Portrait of a Young Girl) by (Lucas) Cranach, drawn rather dryly in a glassy
tint. Then an Apollon et Diane (Apollo and Diana) with flesh as unpalatably hard
as wood. Before us is a pagan nudetreated as a gothic would treat a Christian
nude. Apollo and Diana could as well be Adam and Eve; there is no love for
carnal forms here, no seduction whatsoever. A beautiful portrait by Memling (or
is it by Antonello da Messina), two heads assigned to Metsys, one of Christ, the
other of the Virgin Mary, brings the show to a close.

(Journal des Beaux-Arts et de la Littrature, May 1882)

Part 2

Rubens

The whole of this masters oeuvre is an ode to joy. This ode that all major artists
realize at certain lucid moments of their existence, that Dante, with the golden
circles of Paradise imagined crowning his Divine Comedy, that Shakespeare injects
into his convulsive and bloody theatre under the guise of feries [Verhaerens italics], that Beethoven inserts in his tumultuous and tragic symphoniesRubens,
voices with joy and a unique resonance throughout his life. Therein lies the miracle that is Rubens.
Before him, we could not find throughout the entire history of art a like
triumphant prodigy. The high notes were hardly there in the human choirthey
burst, subside, vanishyet Rubens played them tirelessly without ever suspending his efforts.
And his joy is far from dull. It has a marvelous and varied life. It encompasses all human pain in the fabric of its song, it includes in its transports all the
tears and all the sobs. It is the human soul itself, though still it is always joy.
That Christ dies at Golgotha, that the Virgin and Saint John are pathetic witnesses to his agony, that [Mary] Magdalene at the foot of that gross, brutal cross
weeps and despairsnone of this is of import. In the lines, in the colors, in the
splendid red of setting suns, in the agitated dress of personages, in grand loose
bands of hair, in the silk and golden fabrics, in the convulsed arms, in the shapely,
straining supplicating hands which all could hold flowers betwixt their fingers, in
the rich, sumptuous, decorative compositions, in the prodigious life torn asunder

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at the very core of this awesome sorrowjoy asserts itself, whether overt or
veiled. No fundamentally dolorous note, no irremediably mournful or sinister
accord occurs. The entire body of work unfolds with pomp and pageantry, a
cortge of oils en route towards peaks of glory illumined by joyous bursts of
sunlight. And this joy is not solely a spirited joy, a pensive joy, a philosophical joy,
but it is an instinctive, sensual joy, a Flemish joy, naive and violent. It spreads with
overflowing vigor, an enormous rush of health, a rich lode of ideas and feelings.
At times it slips to expose a vulgar side, but more often, in spite of that, it leans
on its own sheer energy and leaps forward as art. At that point it takes on an epic
grandeur, and unforgettable sacred masterpieces grow apace.
Thus defined, this joy becomes emboldened until it recalls the panic-wracked
joy that feverishly shook the antique Dionysian world, whose hymns and mysteries have left us guessing at its violence and grandeur. All of nature, all basic
instincts are at work here, and it is truly surprising to see in this Christian age, in
the midst of a most devout 17th century, a painter resuscitate this frenzy with the
same ardor it possessed three thousand years ago.
Rubens was a man of elegance and beauty. Wherever he was, admiration duly
followed and he soon became renowned. He worked easily, for more than anyone
else he understood that art must be effortlessor it will not be. He voiced his
thoughts without ever censoring them or hedging their spontaneity with scruples.
He worked as a child plays, and so his colossal canvases seem effortless. He never
wavers or doubts himself. Unfailingly, sketches grow into masterpieces.
He loved his own, his heritage; his rarest gifts stem from her. He loved bonhomie, gormandize, and blazing, brutal passions. Soaked in blood and aflame
under Phillip II, Flanders was living again, drinking, guzzling. Banquets, feasts,
processions and festivals celebrated the advent of the archdukes Albert and Isabella. A universal surfeit of plenty was inaugurated as gusty Flemish laughter
once more punctuated refrains from rustic peasant songs and dances. The general mill of people, as violent in their joy as they were sober and unflinching in
their reverses, were finding anew in their own coarse fabric a large pagan heart
that so many centuries of Christian doctrine had not managed to stifleand
that still beats today in every bell ringing along lEscaut to announce the annual
kermesse (the rowdy county fairs of Flanders).
Peter Paul Rubens was thus hale, hearty and vigorous, asserting himself in
a turbulent time of general happiness, of abundance, of prosperity and fame,
for a people that was being reborn, no longer crushed by war. If a few massacres still bloodied Flanders, he paid no attention to them. His oeuvre expresses
this well-being. He worked in tune with his age and the land he inhabited, while

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Rembrandtthis supreme artist ranked among the very bestseemed apart, an


isolated genius. The aesthetic theories of (Hippolyte) Taine can capture in their
constructs Rubenss peculiar genius, but Rembrandts escapes their grasp. One
might say that he comes from another planet, to grace us with a sense of beauty
we dont expect at all. His work, lighted by a blinding and somber clarity, bursts
before us like a meteor; that of Rubens, on the contrary, is studied and continues
that which others initiated, whether in Flanders or in Italy. It is made up of many
referencestraces of Michelangelo and Titian are there, at least at first. The sole
link that can be drawn between Rembrandt and Rubens is that both of them,
thanks to their transcending genius, are painters of universal renown.
I have just reread a number of letters that Rubens signed in correspondence
with Suttermans, Junius, du Quesnoy, Peiresc. The many-sidedness of the man
unfolds in all its complexity, his curiosity, as bees in their hives, forever abuzz.
Everything interests him. He studies the antiquity he adores in sculptures, cameos, and medals. He is a polished Latinist and with patience deciphers enigmatic
texts and inscriptions. His friends are well-informed men of letters, humanists,
collectors and artists.
He pursues the new. A discovery elates him and renders him breathless. He
himself seeks that which his humanist friends seek and come to know. He asks
of Peiresc in August of 1623:
I am most pleased to hear that you have received the drawing referencing perpetual motion, a study done with precision in order to share with you the veritable secret of this
invention. When youll be in Provence and when you will have tried it out, I will strive, if
it does not succeed, to settle all your doubts for you. Perhaps, although I cannot say that
it is done, might I obtain from my colleague a finished instrument with a case, such as
I would love to have to place in my closely guarded atelier. If I can obtain it, I will with
pleasure present you with a gift.

This passage sheds light on Rubenss preoccupation with science and invention as they haunted him, and the private atelier of which he speaks of enjoins us
to wonder what else might he have pursued.
His brain seems to us thus like a cross-road where the new directions the
Renaissance provided come together. He is a man of letters, an archeologist,
a savant, a philosopher. He immerses himself in the temper of his age, in the
flow and eddies of its currents, so that soon kings shall depend on him for his
universal gifts and shall dispatch him to the courts of Europe with the title of
ambassador. And then he shall be le chevalier Rubens; hell be seen by all in his
new dignity perfectly at ease and wondrously gifted, as evidenced in his atelier in
Antwerp before his canvases and his models. He charms all who meet him and

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he instinctively intuits what he must do and say. He will be the triumphant one
we admire, but neither successes nor praise shall make him forget that above all
he is an artist, a superb masterand to the Lord of Spain who once asked him
if he used painting at times to distract him, he answered that he is a painter who
at times forgets himself as a diplomat.
His disposition is as joyous and balanced as his life is joyous and easy. There
are no setbacks. His handsome wife, Isabella Brant, gives him sound and beautiful children, and when she dies he marries Helena Fourment. His two spouses
and his sons, now his models, embellish his canvases. It is through them and his
wivesthat is to say, through beings ceaselessly observed and admiredthat
he interprets the Bible, the Evangelists, antiquity. Through them he bestows on
legends and histories an intimate warmth and a close proximity to life, banishing
forever all traces of coldness and stiffness from his tragic or lyrical evocations.
He knows neither hate nor envy, which he crushes through his incessant
triumphs; jealousy is beyond his reach. Seeking to render service, he sustains the
needy with largesse. Goodwill rules his conduct: he admires his rivals with joy.
Here is one of his letters to Franois Duquesnoy, which he mails from Antwerp
to Rome:
The high commendations of your statue of Saint Andr, recently set in the church of
Saint Peters, have reached Antwerp; all of Flanders, and I, especially, rejoice in your success and laud the praises you justly deserve. If I were not held back by gout and old age,
which render me helpless, I would travel to see you and your chef-doeuvre and admire
its perfection. I still hope to have the pleasure of seeing you amongst us and that one-day
Flanders, our dear country, shall be ablaze once more from the luster of your talents. I
sincerely hope that that shall happen before my eyeswhich are still capable of admiring
the marvels that your hands shapeclose shut to lifes divine light.

The most untroubled bond reigns between his character and his art and this
bond can be summed up in the word: joy (bonheur).
What could be more natural than his laborwhich, as we have said, is a labor
of joyand that this joy, enriched and enlarged by an enlightened mind, expands
to the point where it comes to embody the very idea of radiant health? Further,
through the passage of time this joy has become one with those startling revelations of free and radiant instincts that a Greece of yore knew, a joy cherishing its
own cult, a cult dedicated to Dionysus.
***
All the genres that a painter can employ were treated by Rubens: religious, histori-

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cal, and mythological genres, as well as portraits, landscapes, and scenes of local
color. How succinctly this variety holds our attention!
The Gothics in general aligned their catholic art with the cult of death. The
life instinct that defined Rubens necessarily distanced him from such a mournful view. Golgotha, where a god expired but from whence a new world arose,
became in his eyes, not a site for supplication, but a grand mount for resurrection and glory. Christ, symbolizing a new beauty, the rebirth of the human spirit
and the conscience of mankind renewed, was seen by him as one invested with
force and splendor as was the God of Thabor, while the Virgin and especially
Mary Magdalene personified humankind and its longings through their tears.
Rubens never painted death, nor do I know of a skeleton appearing anywhere
in his oeuvre.
There are numerous crucifixions, those of the muse dAnvers and the Louvre,
the Christ at Calvary from the muse de Bruxelles, the Raising of the Cross from the
cathedral in Antwerp. And also in a number of private collections are various
Christs nailed to the cross, where behind a huge mound, writhes an enormous
bleeding sun.
Of all these crucifixions, the one from muse dAnvers, is the most moving and
one singles it out from the others by titling it Le coup de lance. Against a tumultuous
ground, as if a conflagration was ablaze, the body of Christ rises before us between two crushed, nasty and fierce thieves, his arms nailed to the cross-bar, his
head drooping on his chest and his feet bunched together all betraying suffering.
A vile butcher runs him through with a sharp blade. The Virgin swoons in tears
with Saint John at her side. Horses paw the ground. A confusion of armored men
and torturers grow restless. As witnesses look on, one can make out Jerusalem
in the far background. And this funereal scene, astir and tightly wrought, is as
animated as a bustling scene from life. Moreover, as we gaze, Magdalene through
her tears and streaming hairshe who embodies the sorrow of loveshe seems
to us a marvelous and opulent incarnation of youth, a large ardent sunlit plant
whose being denies and negates grief, and her presence installsin spite of the
torture instruments, in spite of the blood, in spite of the cadaversone hardly
knows what celebration in the midst of this torment. Her silken garments, her
engaging and rosy flesh, her eyes smiling as they plead, her strong and firm arms,
distract us from contemplating death to contemplating life. The Virgins pain is
more melodramatic than sincere; we dont feel the pangs of death in her sobs.
Oh! That [Quentin] Metsys triptych shown not far from the Coup de lance cries out
with a different voiceof suffering, torture and end of a sorrowful God!
In the Martyrdom of Saint Livin in the muse de Bruxelles, the horror of the

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scene prompts one to celebrate a triumph, as well. The violent and furious brushwork of the painter finds a special relief in their entangling lines and in the prodigiously enlivened colors, warranting something close to rejoicing. The martyrs
red tongue, torn with pliers by an executioner with a scarlet bonnet, seems like
a magnificent jewelcoral or rubyand the golden fabrics of the chasuble, the
green palms swaying under skies, the laughing and unctuously fleshy angels, and
the enormous white horse rearing towards the clouds sweep away all anguish and
all desolation in a gust of vertiginous lyricism. So once again neither anguish nor
mourning exists for Rubens. He depicts bodies wrapped in costly fabrics, torsos,
thick heads of hair, splendid arms, beautiful and fleshy hands. His art sustains
life, and he understands nothing that does not embody it. What might these Last
Judgments set on the walls of the muse de Munich be if not overflowing cataracts
of splendid flesh, rafts of entangled men and women clinging or descending,
bouquets of wildly agitated gestures, bodies falling from on high in such a fury
that one cannot distinguish the damned from the elect? Rather than a time of
reprisals, it seems a time of surpassing tireless fecundity ringing forth. Even in
the convulsed and livid head of the Medusa, life erupts. The serpents strands of
hair are so terribly vibrant they sweep away all thoughts of fear and terror and are
nothing more than twisted vines enmeshed with costly stones.
But it is especially in sacred imagery where glory triumphs that the masters art is at its most exalted. Oh! the great Adoration of the Magi from the muse
dAnvers. The infant Jesus supine on a bed of straw looks like a wondrous gathering of ripe and pulp-laden fruits which his mother displays with pride. With the
bountiful and nourishing soil of Flanders and a fecund and overwhelming sun,
Rubenss robust ideals define this masterful canvas and the immense cow set
in the foreground near the crib imposes recollections of a lusty and rustic spirit,
even more than the canvass personages. The Magi are colossal. One of them, the
Black of African descentwho is wrapped in green satin and coiffed with a tall
and tight turban, his eyes aglow with desireholds sway with his instinctual and
luxurious violence over the scene and largely dominates the canvas. Surely they
come from afarthese good kings and their camels, whose heads say as much
but the Orient from whence they come must be as Rubens favored, a land, like
Flanders, aburst with gluttonous repasts.
The Louvre Virgin Surrounded by Angels appears as a cavernous body of flesh,
an apotheosis of maternity, an engaging animal warmth from which flows a
creamy, fresh milk. Effervescent bands of plump infants, as if bathed in roses
and butter, circle about the mother of their master Jesus, dressing her hair with
a crown and extending palm leaves to her as they squeeze and jostle each other

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playfully, looking admiringly at one another. All naked and radiant innocence, all
the clarity and gaiety of fecundity and health are here aglow. Mary is no longer a
virgin, but stands for the women of Flanders, where the earth and ones spouse
are ceaselessly fertile.
***
When (Peter) Paul Rubens resorts to history he brings into play Gods and Goddesses, for it was common in his day to resort to mythological beings to highlight
the solemn acts of kings and queens with otherworldly interventions. Jupiter,
Juno, Mercury, Apollo still reign in artwhich is to say fiction, for Christ now
governs and dominates life, having denigrated their worth. The same understanding applies in the story of Decius in Vienna, in the ceiling sketches celebrating
the acts of Jacques 1st at Whitehall, in the magnificent series in Paris dedicated
to Marie de Medicis reign.
One of the canvases of this last series is entitled Olympus, and this title, from
the moment one enters the Louvre gallery where the entire series is on view,
speaks for the life of the ensemble as a whole. The canvases are like gods reigning
over the grand chamber. Art in its solemn splendor is celebrated and one believes
one is here to hail a cult of beauty heretofore unknown to man. Those who once
were drawn to Bayreuth as pilgrims when Wagnerism was thriving were struck
by the same religious emotions as they witnessed in an elegant theater drama
bursting forth with full sound. It seems to me that a sight as grand and as large
is at hand here, as the Louvre, to its credit, installed to advantage the admirable
ensemble Rubens painted for a queen of France.
The commission dates from 1621 when he was then forty four years old. On
the word of the Baron de Vicq, minister for Spanish Flanders, Claude de Maugis,
who was the abbot of Saint-Ambroise and the queens treasurer, designated Rubens as the sole painter who could appropriately embellish the walls of the two
new galleries recently added to the Palais du Luxembourg. Never had the master
traveled to France, or at least to Paris. They all agreed immediately on the four
scenes for the first gallery that Marie de Medici wanted to consecrate; the other
gallery would celebrate Henry IV, although this series never materialized.
Rubenss work at court consists of numerous sketches after the fact. Having
come to Paris the 11th of January, 1622, he is back in Antwerp the 4th of March.
By the 10th of May, the overall plan is set. The Queen approves the project in its
entirety on the first of August.
The 24th of May, 1623, Rubens leaves Flanders with nine canvases. Marie de

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Medici sets out from Fontainebleau (for Paris), retains the paintings after examining and praising them and then commissions him for nine more, due by February
1625. On the assigned date, the master is in Paris accompanied by his pupil Justus
Van Egmont in order to bring to completion the Crowning, a large canvas in which
numerous courtiers associated with the court stand in the limelight. The official
ceremony inaugurating the series takes place on the 8th of May, and by the 12th
of June, Rubens and his disciple are back in Antwerp.
Rarely has a commission of such scale been brought to fruition with such
speed, with such impeccable sureness, with such glorious ease. What heretofore unknown groupings, what new and original settings, what stylistic breakthroughs and audacious mises en page! They are far from the dry symmetrical
compositions the illustrious Italiansespecially Leonardo and Raphaelstill
favored. The placement of figures in pyramidal groupings, regularly counterbalancing one set of figures against another and ordering them in parallels, is
never used. Knowing decisions replace stale and established conventions. In the
Disembarkation of Marie de Medici and in the Marriage of Henry IV, the king of
France in the guise of Jupiter weds a Florentine Junoa diagonal line formed
in the former piece by a foot bridge and in the latter by a gap amongst the protagonists of the drama, successfully fashions the scenes contrary to all rules.
The center of the canvas in Henry IV Bestowing the Reins of Government to the Queen
remains empty, rather than being crammed with figures. In Henry IV Receiving
the Portrait of Marie de Medici, the composition follows a sinuous arrangement
forming an S; in the Conclusion de la Paix, the temple is set towards the left
of the canvas and the effect, thanks to the enormous bare space on the right
side, appears symmetrical. In the large and grand canvas of the Crowning of the
Queen, the stress on the cardinals on the right hand side of the composition
would derail the whole were it not for an audacious tour-de-force where Rubens
sets it aright. Oh! the admirable ceremonyhow it thrives, grandly, solemnly
and abundantly filling the canvas! How the Sacre de Napolon by David appears
meager, cold and labored once seen against Rubenss canvas! The red mass of
cardinals that no other painter would have dared to conceive, highlighting them
by setting them in the foreground, underscores with its lively contrast the entire
gamut of gray, white and silver colors of the royal cortge! And what cool and
tranquil light, and how, by the queens side, the princess face is drawn partially
in the shade and partially in the light, itself a marvel of taste and of French
finesse la Clouet!
Such canvases appear like apotheoses under the full sun. Others impress us
as massive and solemn, while still others, with their densely set flowers, their fiery

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vigor, their firm and rose folds of skin, recall opulent and full bodied still lives
that the Flemish palette in its virtuosity adores to paint.
I know of certain mythological canvases where, more than elsewhere, Rubenss pagan nature is unveiled at its core. The Rape of the Daughters of Lysippus astonishes us with his love for tumultuous free engagement, for salacious instincts.
The group with its heavy dose of fecund and golden skin, the wild thrust of
the arms of its victims as of the heads and legs of the horses, superbly realizes
a scene of abduction, embodying fully the idea of passion and voluptuousness.
But it is in his priapic renderings and especially in his versions of the Cortges de
Silne at the muses de Berlin and de Munich that the full strength of his joy lives.
Here violence and lust fill the canvas like a rivers torrential waters, like a furious
gallop across fields of flesh. The God, thick and compact, aburst with dark passion and wine, is raised on high and seemingly swept across the universe by his
entourage of maenads and goat-like figures, as some blow on flutes and others
embrace silver and golden goblets. And this formidable and sensual rabble beats
the earth with uneven strides, while a base, coarsely drunken bacchante, her body
flung back, enjoins young satyrs with their avid lips to scramble over her exposed
breasts. The age of Pana far-away age, grand, instinctive and violentlives
again in its entirety in this impressive poem. It overthrows all customary barriers
of reserve and discretion; it affirms itself to be at once tragic and colossal; it is
beyond good and evil, a passing force of nature; its scope is too encompassing
for it to be branded indecent. It is due to such impassioned visions on canvas
that Rubens, who is not noted for sweeping theses nor for guiding philosophical inquiries, can nevertheless be linked with the most auspicious artists probing
the nature of life, granting him wisdom to voice a few timeless truths. But his
licentious transports and his raw passions are fleeting at best. By his zeal for the
fiery spasms of flesh, he adores the splendors of a graceful body, even if always a
heavy one. In the Medici gallery, sirens and goddesses abound and he paints them
to please the discerning eyes of those responsive to gracious and splendid forms.
In the Education of the Queen, the three Graces realize an ensemble of child-like
and delicious charm. But it is especially with the Three Graces from the muse de
Madrid, where his art in its entirety bursts forth as he draws with supreme mastery
the lines of the backs and shoulders of the three godesses, the suppleness of
their limbs, the attractive and luminous tones of their flesh in the sun. His brush
favors the warmest of golden colors, animated, sure strokes trembling with life.
Shadows float and linger, circling bodies without ever weighing their deep furrows down. These are caresses bestowed upon strict shafts of beauty.

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***
Often, when he portrays his wife, the master recalls the three Graces, so often
the subject of his attention. The likeness of Helena Fourment at the muse de
Vienne known as La Petite Pelisse is no less enchanting with its pure and throbbing skin than that of his goddesses and nymphs. All the efforts of minutely
observed truths (one even notes the imprint of the garter above the knees) in no
way diminish the astonishing beauty of this splendid nude. An esquisse from the
Louvre shows the painters spouse all arrayed with a child on her knees. Here we
stand before the image of a mother, and though the work is quite different from
the one in Vienna, it is no less impressive. It is a sketch by a master, with large,
supple and active strokes in handsome tints of yellow and brown, to be likened
to a bouquet of golden flames. Her dress, her hat, the light and unruly feather,
are astonishingly supple. The strokes of the brush enliven the canvas, and impart
a singular expression to each object and to each gesture. A sketch such as this is
more beautiful than a perfectly finished work. The painters immense virtuosity is
self-evident and nothing in his production is as lifelike as this piece.
And with his portraits of men his art plumbs new profundities. For sure, the
Levantin from Cassel, the Doctor van Tulden from the Pinacothque in Munich, the
Unknown Man from the Lichtenstein gallery in Vienna offer us characteristic and
superb effigies, but the image of Baron de Vicq from the Louvre, and the Archduke Albert do not have the same authority as most of his portraits of women.
Like Rembrandt, Rubens took pleasure in his own self-portraiture. We know the
Rubens from Munich where he portrays himself by his first wife Isabella Brandt,
and one admires the Rubens from Windsor so magnificently a grand seigneur, a
man of station and authority. In Vienna, the master already in his sixties, depicts
himself in a truly pathetic guise: a calm and scrutinizing gaze, a lax but still lively
mouth, his skin white, flaccid with age. However, unlike Rembrandt, Rubens never presents himself in an ateliers garb, wearing a frock and turbaned with some
sort of dirty greasy toque. He has none of that awesome familiarity vis--vis the
public which neither fears the ugly nor vulgarity. To hide his baldness he never
depicts himself without a hat.
***
Hunting outings, idylls, scenes of farming and peasants laboring, fields, dales,
country gardens, castle greens, nothing that the countryside could inspire was
neglectedthe land, water, foliage, the wind. And here he is painting fallen trees

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with their roots exposed, tragic stumps and cut up twisted branches where tiers
of dogs struggle to down trapped boars (the Chase of the muse de Dresde). And
here he unfolds for us fields of labored earth and prairies with bogs and swamps
tramped by yoked herds of cattle, and old rustic peasant women with eggs in their
baskets, and millers weighing down the backs of their donkeys with heavy loads
of sacks, right and left, bursting with rye and wheat (Summer, Windsor gallery).
And coupled lovers, field hands entwined by the edges of a ditch or on green
knolls as spotted reddish brown or jet black cows tumble about them, full and
heavy (Paysage from the Pinacothque in Munich). And then the Tournament, this
bursting and exalting encounter from the Louvre, one of his most successful efforts of tones and ardent lines where the fury of clashing arms is translated into
radiant sparkling gestures.
Rubens seems to have found new life in these grand canvases and in these
landscapesnow calm, now fiercely alive. They seem to be beyond our expectations, but for those who examine them closely, they apparently hide such profound riches that Constable had only to draw from them with broad strokes to
seem a master and to imitate a true comprehension of natureas the English
painters witnessed in the early years of the 19th century.
***
As a true Northern painter, the mores, customs, interiors, and intimate everyday
life of Flanders could not but attract him. The best known and the most typical
of this genre is none other than the Kermesse of the Louvre. Its whirlwind energy
and brutal strength were evidently too impassioned to be understood or to be
depicted as Tenierss calm depiction of the same had. He had to conceive it with
violent, scorching passion, just as he had once conceived le Cortge de Silne. The
Kermesse bursts forth with the same heady joy. This modern drunken file of rustics
and kitchen-wenches with its wild couplings of tipsy celebrants makes its way
with faltering steps through fields, gamboling through thatched villages as maenads and satyrs of old sang and drank on their fabled journeys. In both scenes,
the modern and the old, vulgarity and base acts and cynicism are sparedthanks
to who knows what epic forceand we see rather the youth and bonhomie one
encounters only in a Falstaff or elsewhere in Shakespeare. All the vicesgluttony, stupor, lustare praised and celebrated in such a major way that one forgets what is being said in order to hear the works grand cacophonies. There is
no holding back, neither restraint nor rest. It bursts forth with an angry clash of
cymbals, the ringing peals of brass, the beat of heavy drums, that upon hearing

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it no-one would dare say it does not call to mind the tempestuous and burlesque
percussions of orchestral country fairs. The Kermesse resides in one of the wildest
and most magnificent pages of life, an admirable fanfare of the instincts of the
crowd, a handsome flow of vital reds crossing green fields till it reaches the blues
of the horizon. And the sinuous line of the dance and the lopsided gestures of
the dancers underline the tumult and the turbulence that a village feast awakens
in the mind.
The prodigious ensemble of production that Rubenss hand brought to
lifereligious, mythical, historical, imagined or realcan be compared to some
supreme force that can recreate the world anew and make it live in an heretofore
unknown web of lines and a gamut of colors. His drawings are not based on
any known canon, on any known formula. Nor does he circumscribe movement,
imprisoning its formrather, he melds it with space. He is always precise, if
not always concise; he does not contour form, he delimits it. For some, the line
isolates objects contiguous to one another; for Rubens, all is in flux and lines fuse
with their neighbors so well that the canvas in its entirety appears like a burst of
flames in a brazier. All is at once distinct and molten. This mode of drawing, so
foreign from what is taught, is the one all true painters adopt as their own. For
them the drawing they see in Rubenss ensembles, in his co-penetrations, does
not divide any one part of the canvas from another. A universal rhythm binds
all he does, in things as in man, in the air, in the flow of wind and the sweeping
sky, the changing horizon, as well as in objects which fix our attention at any
given moment. All movement that is restricted is moribund, dead, for immobility as such does not exist, it is only a concept of the mind. All that is static is
in truth dynamic. And further, form in Rubens is so bound with color that it is
dangerous to draw distinctions between them. It is this that almost exclusively
fascinates and exalts him. He has found a thousand new and audacious combinations. Upon a brownish or grey base that is as fundamental as sound in music, he
projects reds, greens, yellows, blues, violets, the entire gamut of high and somber
notes, frail or stressful, lively or attenuated. He favors orchestral challenges, he
alters the registers of his tools without ever suffering a dissonant note. He goes
from solid to fluid, from sharpness to shadow, from bursts of transport to unruffled calm, and he does this with a sovereign ease that always pleases the eye.
Certainly, he is committed to the motifs sprawled before him, but no one
is less enslaved by them than he. Before setting out to find the local color of
his subject, its authentic color, he instinctively realizes its unity. In the fine canvas from Madrid, the Atalanta and Meleager, a symphony of reds and greens play
against each other. Large chunks of massive gnarled trees, combed and ransacked

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by wind, form a grand dcor for the turbulent chase of the huntress. The clothes,
the skin, the tools of the hunt ring brazenly in the tumult. But other than the
tones of blood staining the lead actors of the canvas, a thousand details that a
strict observance of truth would call forsuch as certain roots of trees, clumps
of leaves, a dogs paw, a brake in the terrain, a narrow field, the color of the
earth or a single boughbecome notes of violet or red under the brush of the
master and forcefully add to the vibrancy and life of the canvas, as these two
strong complimentary colors oscillate within their infinitely varied but ever present gradations. This approach to work that Rubens instinctively pursued narrows
the distance between him and the painters of today; with them as with him, all is
sacrificed for harmony. Shadows take on a sensitivity. They are imbued with color
and take on life rather than the deadly opaqueness favored by painters from the
Bolognese and Dutch schools. And so we study the shadows and their variants in
this or that canvas of the Medici gallery, especially those that are cast by the lighted bodies of this muse or that goddess. At once the surprise of such moving light
and delicate surfaces charm us. Even before we are drawn to the subject at hand,
the eye is flattered by the marvels and vividness of the canvases. Not only do the
most vivid colors find this balance and wed with one another, but even golden
colorscoins that fall from a horn of abundance, or violent and raw flames that
flicker from a torchmeld into the ensemble. From a uniquely painterly point of
view, this is prodigiously inexplicable. And yet here it is, patently before us in the
Crowning of Marie de Medici or lchange des Princesses en lle des faisans. No one prior
to Rubensnot even Titian, nor Veronese, nor Tintorettocame as close to the
experiments and preoccupations of contemporary artists, and, if there is a modern master among the old masters, it is certainly Rubens and those that followed
him, men like Fragonard, Boucher, and Watteau and later, Delacroix and Renoir.
Having studied his oeuvre and his technique, and having touched upon his
rich, ardent and ceaselessly active life, one can with broad strokes draw an overall
judgment affirming that, if he is not the greatest of all artists, he is the most prodigious of all painters. In art he outruns the deeds of Hercules, for though the
labors of the Greek god are numbered, his cannot be counted. One will always
forget how prodigious was his output, so fecund was it. Meticulously detailed and
precise catalogs will strive to enlist and enumerate his oeuvre but its limits shall
elude them, for his oeuvre bursts all confines. The most strenuous efforts to contain him are inferior to his efforts. Although he worked for only forty years, the
oeuvre that remains seems not to be the labor of a single individual but the labor
of an entire school. Rubens is a generation of artists unto himself. He had at his
sides Van Dyck and Jordaens as well as Crayer, Segers, Snyders, Fyt, Corneille

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de Vos, all of whom painted scenes of Antwerp at this time. They are all great
artists. Their names will shine forever. Nevertheless, we can ask ourselves what
would they have achieved if Rubens had not guided them to the summits of art,
for they all followed in his footsteps. All of them looked on life as he saw it: he
is their minds-eye, he guides their hands and thoughts. He awakened them to art
once they understood his vision. It is his Adorations, his Crucifixions, his Descents
from the Cross that they paint with slight modificationsit is his well-appointed
dcors, his country sides, his sense of order and his mise-en-page that they adopt.
And this forceful and tumultuous influence spread through the art of Europe as
a whole, in France, in England, in Germany. Rubens, feared by academic circles,
whom Ingres outlawed to exalt Raphael, nevertheless had an effect as profound
and lasting as the Italian in a contrary mode. They are the two lovers, one positive
and the other negative, who hold with their two spheres of influence the entirety
of art, afire and inflamed.
He gives voice to his native land, but in such a way that he discovers the
whole of humanity in Flanders. He never stresses details at the loss of a broader
synthesis, an overall grandeur in his art. Quite the contrary, he leaves that sort of
niggling manner to the minor masters of the North. He is the Flemish master
who embodies Europe. He travels to France, to Italy, to England, to Spain, his
wide-ranging travels in line with the great predecessors of the North. Van Eyck
also felt drawn to far-away horizons, making his way as far as Granada residing,
we are told, in the courts of Moorish kings.
Rubens constructed a grandiose residence in a quiet street of the city of Antwerp, near the present square de Meir. Its structure is sumptuous and stately, with
colonnades, ample chambers, and well-groomed, symmetrically planned gardens.
He resided and worked in this dwelling at length, surrounded by students and
admirers. His life was baronial as he took pleasure in pomp and pageantry. One
could see him daily, relaxing and promenading on his horse about the outer walls
of the city. Both of his wives were as beautiful as goddesses, and their beauty
only enhanced the noble edifice Rubens had chosen for himself.
Death came unannounced, his gifts still whole and intact. As his work attests,
his powers continued to grow until the end. Each completed canvas served as a
stepping stone for another, one even more accomplished than the other.
Not far from his abode rises the church of Saint-Jacques with its large square
tower and massive, formidable striking bells.

Rubens

There until this day he lies


au bruit du grand bourdon
Et sur sa dalle unie ainsi quune palette
Un vitrail cribl dor et du soleil reflte
Encor ses tons rouges et forts, pareils des brandons
( to the toll of its great bells
And on his stone slab as on a palette
A stained-glass window riddled with gold and sunlight yet reflects
Strong red tones, likened to lighted torches )
He came into this world in 1577 and departed in 1640.
Peter-Paul Rubens, Brussels
The New Library of Art and Art History,
G. Van Oest & Co., 1910

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Glory fosters instruction. That which Antwerp brought forth in the 16th century, a city thereafter immortal, proposes to our own artists, painters and poets,
certain modes of thought and of conduct that one must not casually dismiss.
Such thought and conduct affirms first of all that a people, even if from a land
of limited scope, though well favored and sure of itself, may readily strive beyond
local goals to affect humanity at large. Flanders awakens such lively passions with
its sense of beauty and its inner resonance, that it would be a crime against her
(and I have in mind the struggle of favoring one language over another as I write
this) to deprive her of any means whatsoever of expression. Artists such as Rubens, Van Dyck, Jordaens, as before them the Van Eycks, Memling and Van der
Weyden, belong to humanity at large, just as the greatest of our writers will follow
suit one day. Artists depend more and more on their forebears, for they study the
art of the past to set it against their own, and they learn to read their destiny in
the rich history of those that came before.
In spreading their masterpieces throughout Europe, Rubens and Van Dyck
drew from Italian art its ample and decorative language, its firm and well ordered
rhythms, its kinship with universalitiesqualities long associated with the Renaissance. To this numerous voyages complemented their efforts: their eyes were
then awash with acute and diverse insights, their keen curiosity probed the innumerable problems of their day; their judgments grew with their perception of
the universe; they ceaselessly surpassed themselves, refusing to be inferior to the

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talents they admired. Moreover, at any given moment of their glory they left their
native soil to instruct themselves and to dominate others, peacefully but with
sovereign surenessand to sow on exhausted or unknown terrains their newly
harvested seeds. After they wisely took, they generously gave. And yet in every
one of their souls the benefits of their foreign and enlightened education in its
grand afflux never endangered the torrent of their own original most sacred fires.
Only of the latter did they drink most plenty, only tasting the former. They liked
Italy, but they adored Flanders. They granted their peers in Rome and Florence
certain initial qualities of order and measure that they sorely lacked, but their zeal
to acquire these qualities was expressed neither awkwardly nor servilely nor with
obliging complacency. They perceived, thought and conceived as one has always
perceived, thought and conceived along the shores of the Lys or lEscaut: they
remained at one with the earth and the race from which they had sprung. Their
native land was aglow, steady, firm, tenacious and vigorous, and they argued that
these primary traits were fundamental to their art.
They lived an opulent material life. They brought God down to the level of
man and endowed nature with the divine. They were at once cryptic and sensual.
Their works mirrored and voiced in myriad reflections the instincts and joys that
the multitudes sought. They tracked the rush of their own vital flow and enlivened it with the pounding throbs of their red-hot passions. They were thus deeply original, and they could have formed a school very different from all the others,
for nowhere else on earth did artists voice their thoughts as they did. They were
universal masters becausegiven the spread of their culturethey translated all
that they touched through their irreducible Flemish souls. They all were begot by
someone, and though they were all singularly different from their fathers, without
this indispensable wellspring they all might have profited from a passing vogue,
but renown would not have been theirs. Their work would pass muster, but it
would never know triumph. Events may be tamed, but never undone.
Today, those who once took exception to them prodigally sing their praise,
granting them their due. And their eulogies rise and rise, melding as one their
good and bad encomiums.

Exposition de Bruxelles: Hommage aux Peintres, Le Sicle de Rubens


(Brussels: m. Rossel, 1910)

Van der Meer

A surprise awaits us at this German museum, where in the heart of this city of
roofs and houses sculpted and painted as massive wardrobes this rare and infinitely admirable canvas came to be, perhaps due to the dilettantism of a powerful
mcne, and hung in a small room with a commanding presence over the museum.
A photograph cannot capture this effect. Seeing it, one thinks of Metsu or Ter
Borch. What is it? A scene of elegant surrounds as we know so many minor
Dutch painters have painted. A cavalier with a long cape, handsome shoes, and
loose pants inclines over a seated lady to have the honor of ridding her of a glass
she holds in her hand. The lady looks up smiling and is not affected by the politesse of the cavalier at her side. She bothers even less over a figure by a shuttered
window in a brooding or indifferent pose.
The subject is slight and when Alfred Stevens or Florent Willems were engagedone in transcribing Parisian beauties, the other in giving life to worldly
women of the 17th century for them primarily to gaze at their reflection in a
mirror or pin a rose on their bodicesthey were closely following the minor
masters of Holland who also focused on slight meaningless subjects solely to
demonstrate their abilities to paint.
Before these minor masters, Van der Meer from Delft towers above them.
He has all the needed finesse, elegance and refinement. He knows his mtier
better than anyone else. All forms of gaucherie, of hesitation, all doubts are
absent. If perfection was ever attained, as far from coarseness as from all af-

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fectation, it was by him. Impeccableness is hishe possesses it as much as one


can master it.
In the collection of Amsterdam and of the Binnenhof of the Hague, he
comes off as a landscapist. Who does not enthuse over his Vue de Delft (View of
Delft)? Who does not marvel over his les Ruelles (the Street Scenes) of the gallery
Sixte? What moved us most there was his knowledgeable sense of proportions.
How his figures maneuvered in the city, how his canvases were fashioned against
the sky, how we sensed only questions of placement and dimensions were of
import to him, how the parts constituted the whole, how the delicate problems
of weights and optics seduced himwe sense all of these were decisive for him.
Proportions cannot be taught, it is a gift like color. As such it denotes an acute
sensibility, in addition to all the difficulties one learns to solve at the Academies in
twenty-four lessons. A few painters, Teniers for one, never troubled themselves
with these problems. Others like Van der Meer labored over these questions to
resolve them anew with every one of his canvasses.
A second rate work found in the muse de Hamburg renders these remarks
even more timely.
At Brunswickas one may guess by our previous observationsis an interior where, as with most panels by the Master, a preoccupation with lighting
dominates the canvas, thanks to a window placed on the left; the Milkmaid of
Amsterdam proffers a similar handling of light. Daylight [in the Brunswick canvas] filters across squares of light-filled glass, and every sheath of light is studied
singly. Nearby on a covered tablecloth lies a stoneware jug and a plate of silver.
If the whole were not so precise, the drawing so polished, the facture so apt
and so controlled, one would think one was standing before a Manet: this table
bespeaks a modern hand, the gaze of an impressionist. The shadows are lightly
colored; the back of the jug has a bluish tint. The canvas is so true-to-life [eg., so
Impressionist] that it is hard to imagine an artist in the 17th century could paint
in such a manner; and we are tempted to think the work has been restored. But
in truth no German could see this way and we are in Germany. It is thus certain
that nothing has been altered and one stands before some sort of miracle, more
so even than before a disconcerting exception.
In the neighboring rooms are hung pictures by Brauwer, by Van Ostade, by
(Jan) Steen, canvases by Mieris, Hals, and Fictor, all the so-called genre painters
that Amsterdam, Delft, the Hague, and Leiden elsewhere produced. But who
amongst them does not appear trite set against this unforgettable chef-doeuvre.
All prefer dusky, grayish, weak tones; all favor their gimmicks and their clichs, all
are alike. Before the Van der Meer, they whom we once admired we now neglect,

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Van der Meer

barely focusing on them. There is between them and this novel master such a
distance of taste, of insights, of astonishing glory and boldness that his supreme
gifts overwhelm all critiques with their judgmental and despotic overtures.
Never has a painterwe do not mean to say from a point of view of ideas,
but from a point of view of form and visionso astonishingly broken free of
his own day to foretell the future. Looking at other artists, say Tintoretto, one
comes upon certain astonishing practices, where for example shadows are colored with blacks and blues and greens; but nowhere does the Venetian realize an
impressionist manner, the entire gamut of modern tones, the joy of colors that
makes a canvas by Monet and Renoir address our sense of smell as well as our
sense of sight and fuse the two together, as would a bouquet of perfumed and
color-filled flowers. Van der Meer is the magician of these elusive meldings and
artistic correspondences. He is the first to clear the air, to let the canvas speak
for itself. He is the great evocator of light, more so than anyone other than Rembrandt. The latter glorified his vision and ours with evocations of supernatural
light that probe skies of aureole-filled days, while the author of the lady with a
glass of wine confronted light as it is, vibrant and alive as we all know it, and
conquered it like an authentic and multi-faceted Golden Fleece.

(LArt moderne, 4 October, 1891)

Part 3

Grnewald

The Painter Matthias Grnewald dAschaffenburg1


On the 15th of August 1886, after a visit to the museum in Cassel, I wrote
the following piece in a Brussels paper which youll allow me to recall here:
God in three beings: Drer, Holbein, Cranachso German gothic art appears to those who have never deigned to study it. To know it and to see it as
superb, complex and grandiose, one must have the patience to linger in minor
museums and ponder pictures in little known cities such as Augsburg, Nuremberg, Bamberg, Cassel. Accepting this, we see how German gothic art rises to
new heights, how it casts a profound, complex and tenebrous image, and how
it grandly embodies the Germany of the middle ages with its crude, untamed
beliefs, its barbaric pieties and mystical customs, and how many of its all but
forgotten masters can at times overwhelm or diminish those who, as most see it,
embody their countrys glories.
Oh! the primitives of Kln, the anonymous many who first multiplied all
of Christs pain and all of Marys joys upon a honey-combed gold ground, and
then the Wilhelms and the Stephans and that remarkable De Bruyn, a most
expert portraitist whose oils capture the grands bourgeoisie of the city with acute
details and power. And then finally, the masters of the polyptychs of the altars,
that of the Life of the Virgin, the Altar of Saint-Severin and especially that of the
Passion of Christ, masters of old who meld their own suave German melancholy

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with the divine sweetness of the Flemish masters, Memling, Van der Weyden,
and Dirk Bouts.
Later, the school of Nuremberg imposes itself victoriously. Drer is resplendent, Holbein shines forth. But at their sidesand why not of the same
standingwe face a Schaffner, a Baldung Grien, (Hans) Burgkmair, and especially Grnewald.
Grnewald was Drers contemporary, although all the glory lies on the latters shoulders. Drer is all but a classic and nothing can detract from our growing admiration for him. Yet we cant explain why we are drawn to the otherbe
it from an excessively personal stance, from a Northerners perspective, or from a
morbidly sensitive reading. We find it unfair that these two gothics are not placed
in the same rank, and to be quite frank, we are inclined to affirm that Grnewald
deserves the first rank: if he has less talent and knows less than Drer, he is the
greater genius.
These words were written eight years ago when I had seen only two canvases from the museum in Cassel, which had in effect been shipped to Tauberbischofsheim. Today Ive made the pilgrimage to see his oeuvre in toto, and my
admiration as first expressed in that article, remains steadfastin fact, I would
reinforce it.
La Vogue, a bold periodical that at the time fearlessly attracted young French
writers, reprinted these words as they were first published in LArt moderne. In
turn, a number of letters were sent to me regarding Grnewald; but that was all,
and my enthusiasm for his work, remained an isolated case.
It was Joris Karl Huysmans, and surely not myself, who eventually made
Grnewald known to a public passionately given to art, and it was also that curious, patient and most able writer of Rebours and of En Rade who fostered the
curiosity and admiration of the young towards this distant and unknown master.
His latest novel, L-bas, which dates from three years ago (1891), celebrates
the master from Aschaffenburg in a precise and exalted manner and proclaims
him to be at once the most passionate of realists and the most committed of
idealists. As I see it, this French author does not quite understand the German
painter, but no matter. It is the admirable stylist Huysmans who has made his way
back from dwelling on regions of the flesh to regions of the soulit is Huysmans, I say, who has done the most to lead us to Matthias Grnewald and to see
him for what he is, a powerful transcendent expression of stirring originality. He
was the godfather of Grnewalds recent glory, only three hundred years late to
render him justice.
The same neglect took place in Germany. In 1837, M. Alfred Michiels, a

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Belgian with French leanings and art critic for the paper Le Temps, drew our attention to the Grnewalds housed at the muse de Colmar in Alsace. Unfortunately,
he attributed them to Drer. And he added: No one sees them, no one utters
a word for them. Schweigauser and Golbery forgot them in their decisive work
on Alsace. Fiorillo ignores them completely and finally Kluger who has just published a history of German painting doesnt mention them, not a word
In these years of crude and failed criticism, our masters oeuvre was dispersed in various ways. Drer cornered most of it. Baldung Grien took the rest.
Always the best-known artiststheir reputation based on their fameovershadow and overtake artists in their wake.
Once, here in Belgium, works by Memling were assigned to Van Eyck; Dirk
Bouts were attributed to Memling; Rommerswalles were thought to be Quentin
Metsys. Today in Vienna Memlings and Quentin Metsys are still labeled Van Eyck.
The Grnewalds that first drew the Germans attention were from the
museum in Colmar. Weve seen that Alfred Michiels assigned them to Drer.
Dr. Woltmann, on the other hand, attributed them to Baldung Grien, and M.
Charles Goutzwiller to Guido Gerci, an Italian monk and preceptor at the abbey
of Isenheim.
The other canvases that found their way to Munich, Cassel, Basel, and Frankfurt were all at some point falsely attributed to the celebrated painters mentioned
above, while certain minor canvases such as the Beatitudes of the Virgin from the
museum of Mayence were labeled Grnewald. False attributions lead to further
false attributions. Well-honed and learned dissertations laden with footnotes and
informed texts followed in quick succession. Criticism of the highest order
fashioned mostly by archeologists who are not artistsbuilt this superstructure in concert with the rules of the discipline, only to succeed with obviously
contradictory statements. The whole became such a confused mess so quickly
that one might have asked if Matthias Grnewald ever existed. Today, not only
is it proven that the painter Matthias Grnewald truly lived, but that there was
another Grnewald with the name of Hans, a draftsman and engraver, and even
that a pseudo-Grnewald existed whom one still assigns false attributions to
Matthias, works that have all the markingsfacture and compositionof the
elder Cranach.
Here is how such conclusions came about:
He who visits Colmar, Basel and Tauberbischofsheim is struck by a series
of distinct and extraordinary works. Neither Drer, whose strong Italianizing
orientation could ever conceive such things, nor Baldung, whose elegant manner
could never be so warped to allow such gross unseemly expressions, nor Cranach,

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whose navet was too sophisticated, nor Holbein, whose Dead Christ denotes a
most polished and most exacting manner, could have signed such works. They all
are beyond or below the manner of these masters. They highlight another way of
thinking, another soul. Uniquely special across the whole of the history of art, that he who
fashioned one fashioned the others [Verhaerens italics].
From these we can conclude that a painter existed in the 16th century in
Germany whose manner was unique, different from all his contemporariesa
shaper of canvases whose essential qualities evidently impress and dazzle the
aesthetes of today.
Who was this man? To discover him, all that needs to be done is to assign his
name with certitude to only one of his unique pieces.
Amongst the panels of the Isenheim altarpiece conserved at Colmar, one
spots a saint Anthony entrusted with a tau des antonistes (a cross of St. Anthony)
standing on a pedestal garlanded with vines. To the left of the saint appears a demon who is shattering a stained glass. In Germany, there is only one other canvas
that shows a similar scene.
Sandrart, the 17th century painter and German biographer, says that he had
heard of a canvas with a similar subject fashioned in a similar manner and that
this canvas was by Mathias of Aschaffenburgwhom he names, for the first time,
Mathias Grnewald.
Sandrarts text is decisive. If Grnewald is the author of Saint Anthony, he
must have fashioned the entire altarpiecethat is to say, the polyptych of Colmar, which is composed of nine panels. Furthermore, he is the author of all the
other canvases that are linked decisively to this altarpiece.
But are the documents silent on Grnewald? Isnt there a way to know more?
In a book of wood-engravings that date from 1620, librarian Vincent Steinmeyer of Frankfurt cites a Mathis dAschaffenburg, whose work is seen near that
of Drer.
In 1573, Bernhardt Johim speaks of a certain Mathias von Oschenburg.
In the Basilius Amerbachs inventory, which dates from 1586, one finds
amongst the names of artists that of Mathias von Aschenburg. These different
names, taken from diverse sources, might well apply to the same master that
preoccupies us. The commentators and biographers of this distant period were
not especially well-versed in the geography of the region, which allows us to say
that Mathias von Aschenburg or Mathias von Oschenburg are none other than Mathis
von Aschaffenburgthat is to say, Matthias Grnewald.
And so we conclude, Matthias Grnewald, no matter what one says, did exist; he is the author of a series of spectacular pieces, intimately fashioned; he lived

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at the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century, contemporary with the greatest painters of Germany: Drer, Holbein, Burgkmair, Cranach,
Baldung, and (Hans Sebald) Beham.
What was Grnewalds manner of living? The Drers and the Holbeins and
the Burgkmairs mingled with the most worldly or most aristocratic people of
their day. Drers name is bound with the names of the Reformation, and Holbeins name shined in the courts of England. One knows them by their travels
and their adventures, by their service to nobles and by the friendship which at
times their crowned peers would bestow on them. Holbein served as historian for
the court of Henry VIII, depicting the age as would a psychologist, and still today
when one wants to study the terrible and voluptuous character of the king who
tortured all of England without his own health suffering any distress, one turns
to a slight portrait of King Henry housed at the Kensington museum of Art.
Drer, on the other hand, informs us about Erasmus, Melanchthon, Pirkheimer,
Luther. He performs as a theologian, even somewhat as a humanist: the Renaissance set his spirit aflame, liberal ideas seduced him, and a reborn 16th century
Germany finds a place in his oeuvre.
Grnewald appears to us in a very different light. Nothing in his work suggests that he was attuned to challenging, bold ideas. The Renaissance, whose mythology affected Drer and Baldung and whose fables furnished them with mundane subjects, moved him not at all. Like Schngauer and Lochner, he remains
a uniquely religious painter, which signified a popular painter during this period.
Only the life of Christ, the Virgins passion, and the confirming beatification of
saints by miraculous events draw his attention.
One does not encounter him at the courts of princes or of kings; he travels
neither to Italy as did Drer, nor to England as Holbein did. He is a local painter,
if I may dare to say so. And the humanism that produced Erasmus two centuries
before Voltaire, with its tendency towards skepticism, does not affect him.
Might he have been under the protection of the elector Albert de Brandebourg? One thought so for a long while. But this opinion no longer holds today,
for it is certain that all the canvases commissioned by this bishop and attributed
to Matthias Grnewald, be those in the museums of Darmstadt or Aschaffenburg, must be reattributed to the painter whom German criticism assigns to the
pseudo-Grnewald.
And so here we are before a silent and humble artist who worked in solitude,
without fame affecting him or his genius.
And to confirm this conjecture, we find the following amongst the few lines
Sandrart devoted to Grnewald: He lived especially at Mayence, a solitary and

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melancholic life; his private affairs had their sorrows.


This phrase, it seems to me, sheds light on whom Grnewald must have
been, and we must fashion anew the peripheries of his existence in those Rhenish cities with their ancient streets and formidable cathedrals, dolorous as his
art. He must have been withdrawn but very close to other unknown artists who
ornamented the walls of the htels de ville and of churches without ever signing
their work, and very close as well to their raw and uncouth souls filled with terror
and mysticism and much inclined to superstition, believing the awesome truths
of Christs passion and the infallible Word of the scriptures with all the faith they
could muster.
Beauty as the Latins understood it and as sought by the Drers and Holbeins
and Baldungs was not his strong point. Without a doubt, he was a Northerner
from head to foot, uncompromisingly so. The pantheistic Germany of old, violently baptized under Charlemagne, found a muffled voice in him. He looked
neither beyond the mountains nor beyond the Rhine. He was blissfully unaware
of all that was alien to him.
Artists like him, long disdained and long neglected because they remained
uniquely themselves and because they never fell under the spell of their neighbors nor did they seek the backing of illustrious patrons, maintaining their own
artistic integrity instead of fawning courtiersartists like him, I say, are artists
we seek and admire today. Other than all their merits, there is a certain probity,
a fundamental honesty and a touching navet that rises and hovers over their
work. And the more they willfully stayed out of sight, the more zealously we draw
them out of the shadows and suddenly admire them.
We know also that Grnewald worked in Frankfurt where he had a pupil
named Philippe Uffenbach and at Aschaffenburg where he was probably born.
Mayence, Frankfurt, Aschaffenburg are neighboring cities. His early years
must have been spent there, for they are the centers where his earliest works were
created. Later he went south towards Isenheim in Alsace, and it is in Basel, Colmar, and Tauberbischofsheim that one finds the works of his last years.
His life then is divided into two periodshis time in the north and time in
the southand, curious to say, with each period there is a corresponding manner
of painting.
To understand an artist as profound and as wrought with pathos as
Grnewald, one must cleanse oneself of a host of widely held ideas time has
sanctioned. No matter what piece one turns to, they are, at first sight, with their
gross disproportions and their formidable stretches of the imagination, always
disconcerting, their mysteries, vulgarities, monstrosities, patent errors and even

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childish play, errors he never bothered to sweep away.


Nothing could run more against the grain of classical doctrine. Surely, here
is a passionate soul for whom reason is the domain of theology, not of art. Here
is a prodigiously passionate being who fully exemplifies his native land. He never
for a moment assigns the scenes he paints to Jerusalem. Even if he held such an
idea at first, immediately thereafter he envisions them taking place in Germany,
as though they were launched into his own immediate ambience.
His figures are those he would meet in the cities or in the fields; the sites he
paints are Northern, dark, sinister, and bare. His passion is for the horror and
the drama that shook his soul when the peasant wars ravaged the countryside
he knewmore savage and brutal and more awash with broken bodies than
any other war. The time he lived in was fierce, as his art is as well. He imagines
things only in the mournful and blood-soaked atmosphere of holy Friday, when
the mountains and skies are split asunder with a bolt of lightning and a bond
between humanity and God is born of terror.
Furthermore, as a German with deep roots, he allows himself to be swept
away by mysteries, at times bursting with joy like a light-filled glade, at times nocturnal and heavy like a sonorous forest in dense under-wood.
An endless forest reigns in the mystical horizons of German art that all
native-born artists cross, their dreams steadfastly at hand, be they musicians like
Wagner, poets like Goethe, or painters like Grnewald. They all have felt the life,
color, and the music of this forest and have given it voice, and it is with that forest in tow that reveries of a pagan past have enlivened their souls. From there
the fantastic rushes of Tanhauser, of Faust and the Temptation of Saint Anthony at
Colmar. Denizens from those dark woods emerge to fill Grnewalds world of
radiant canvases where the sky opens like the break of day or spreads like a full
moon, and also where there are sensations of anguish, of chocking suffocation,
of dreadful fright and violence. The awesome forests of Germany are the true
milieu where German art most resonates and where Germanys greatest poets
find deep draughts of inspiration for their art, firing their spirit and imparting
a locale for their dramas, epics and legends. German art thrives like the forest,
embodying the same sensations and eliciting the same thoughtsluxuriant but
profound thoughts, mournful and limitless passions that like the wind bend the
tops of trees. Obscure philosophies set against shafts of light, somber mists at
the end of clearings, aligned with irreproachable judgmentsand there thrive
dreadful and terror filled lunar sights that sorcerers and magicians favor.
It is because Grnewald leads us to ponder on forests and their tenebrous,
deepest nightsand moreover, to the sinister and savage dramas which through-

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out the centuries must have taken place in their dark woods: hangings, sacrifices,
murders and torturesthat one can define this too terrible, too tragic, too savage
artist, a painter that could make wolves cry [Verhaerens italics], summarizing with such
effusive words the emotions he fosters and the type of scenes he selects.
Lets now look at his oeuvre. First, those he painted by the Rhine and the
Mein and that are the least known, or rather, the most contested: the Crucifixion
of Mayence, the panels of the local museum in Frankfurt, and the fragments
housed in the church of Aschaffenburg.
Following that we will broach the series at Colmar, the two pendants at
Tauberbischofsheim, the quadro from Basel, and finally the unique expression
from Munich.
You know Mayence, whose Romanesque cathedral stirs in us memories of
massive forms. Slowly and imposingly the city extends the length of the green
waters of the Rhine and faces the Mein, with its own red billows. A large crosswise bridge leads towards the city and towards its grand electoral palacea palace whose style recalls Versailles in the 17th and 18th centuries and one which
stirred the luxurious dreams of the greatest princes. It is in this old palace that
one finds the museum.
I hastened there last August upon landing, anxious to know loeuvre de
Grnewald that Messrs. Dennin (sic) and Charles Blanc had encountered.
A polyptych of sorts of not so great valuewith figures with full nimbus,
with garments whose folds were after Schongauers and Isenmanns, with virgins
with ample and tall foreheadshandled in a manner of the gothics from Germany that artists like Van der Weyden and Bouts had influenced. Nothing could
be less Grnewald than these panels.
As I was feeling disenchanted before this polyptych, titled, Life of the Virgin,
the attendant there brusquely turned over a canvas labeled unknown, a panel
whose obverse side displayed an Adoration of the Magi. Then, as I studied the
back of this panel, I saw a tragic expression of the Crucifixion, the murder set
in a dark setting. The cross stood in a barren landscape, and on it was a terribly
beaten body that had known the torments of the rack. Immediately I guessed it
was a Grnewald, but a Grnewald that is not quite there yet, a Grnewald that is
trying and is still feeling its way. German criticism, just beginning to worry about
the master, is astonished to find only finished works of Grnewalds maturity,
and is surprised not to find prolegomena (prefatory expressions) before the sudden
burst of anguish and terror that defines him as a unique master. After having long
studied the panel that bears the number 1500 in the catalogue in the museum
of Mayence, we believe we have found that which German studies are seeking.

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And since we know that a number of canvases by him were stolen by the Swiss
from the cathedral during the Thirty Years War, one needs to look over there,
in the museums of the North, to see if a few panels might exist comparable to
the Crucifixion weve highlighted. If this were so, we would know at once what
Grnewald had fashioned during his long stay by the Rhine.
In Frankfurt, the Staedel museum draws our attention above all, sitting there
in a new building alongside the Mein, well managed and well lighted. One sees
wonderful Baldung Griens, and a singularly strange and noble Drer, but no
Grnewalds. For that one must turn to the city museum.
Sandrart states that in Frankfurt our master collaborated with Drer in a
triptych and where he worked on the side panels, but after examining them I see
that these panels have nothing in common with Grnewalds work.
To detect the master one must turn to two grisailles, one representing Saint
Cyriac, the other Saint Lawrence, one of which contains Grnewalds monogram,
as discovered by Mr. Schmid.
The unassuming Franconian city of Aschaffenburg is well known for its
church and its castle. The holy site is built on a mountain, a red sandstone staircase with statues of saints leading up to it. A dilapidated cloisters gallery echoes
the aisles; the whole is in ruins and in silence, including the interior.
Here we are in the presence of a sort of Piet whose composition even at
first sight denotes an authentic piece. It forcefully alludes to the great predella
from Colmar, for the two subjects are related.
Christs dead body lies prone in death or rather brought low by deaths decomposition: the body is green and seeping with blood and, it is hard to believe,
that the head, collapsed in the agony of defeat, will, at the end of three days,
crash through the sepulchral stone that contains it to rise to heavenly spheres.
This is man in all his misery, in all the depths of his physical degradation: it looks
like a bundle of skin and ulcers jumbled together, tossed in a sewer.
But already the work contains a host of Grnewalds characteristic traits
namely, going all the way, favoring extremes, pursuing the last limits of the possible, though always with some logical underpinning, no matter what the sentiment,
no matter the situation, no matter the gesture. Oh! this convulsive paroxystic
master until the nth degree!
Three hundred paces from the church stands the old castle of Aschaffenburg, a structure in the manner of the German renaissance where four angular
towers climb upward. In the courtyard, we hear the sound of a fountain, and
when the hour rings, a shower of notes falls from the clock, from which glitters
a gold quadrant.

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A guide who barely knows the differences between canvases attributed to


Aldegrever, Baldung or Altdorfer keeps the keys that lets you into the galleries.
The catalogue cites eleven Grnewalds. For a moment we think we are before
a horde of treasured canvasesbut we are completely deceived, for none of
these paintings belong to our cherished painter. All are evidently by Cranach or
his school. Before us are many second hand works, works that have nothing to do
with his art, even though someone has gotten into their heads to attribute them
to the master.
Thus the castle of Aschaffenburg is not a point of pilgrimage for those fervent souls seeking the master, as is the church.
Of all the canvases encountered up to this point, clearly the Dead Christ or
the Piet of the cathedral of Aschaffenburg is the most important and special.
The piece speaks of that domain of violence Grnewalds genius favors, and
from this point on almost all of his works will return to this domain. I say almost
all, for in reaction and by contrast we see him at times piously composing the
most joyful or most triumphal of scenes, yet without ever abandoning certain
strange and excessive notes. He will be clear and immoderately other-worldly,
just as he was intensely ferocious and tragic, and in these two modes he will
surpass all his rivals.
At the museum in Basel, Grnewald is cited twice in the catalogue. A Resurrection in the manner of the [Last] Judgment presently in the Germanic museum in
Nuremberg and also a Crucifixion. The first seems to us apocryphal. It would be
helpful if we were able to construct another Grnewald with leanings towards
certain Flemish and Dutch artists, be it Lucas van Leyden or Engelbertsz or
even a cloying Grnewald with rose and pale tonesin a word a diminished
Grnewald. But the evidence to confirm this disgrace is missing.
But the Crucifixion in the museum is of a totally different order. It is very
characteristic of his work, very Grnewaldian. It contains the power of the Crucifixions of Colmar and Tauberbischofsheim and is a sketch of what is to come,
a germinating thought. For the first time, in this small format, one comprehends
the divine drama as Grnewald conceived it: awesome encounters transpiring
over there somewhere at the ends of the earthnocturnal, exacerbated, alone.
The sky is pitch black, the colors of the earth strangely green. A number of personages gather under the gibbet: the Virgin, [Mary] Magdalene, the Holy Women.
Christ is in the throes of death, torn apart, hacked to pieces, swollen, a pitiable sight. His skin seems covered with holes, punctured like a sponge, roiling in
blood. An armored and helmeted soldier raises his arm to proclaim his presence
before Christs agony, and this gesture heralds that of Saint John to be seen at the

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museum in Colmar, one of the grandest, most meaningful and eloquent gestures
in art.
One can thus affirm that not only is this panel from Basel beyond a doubt by
Grnewald, but also that is was painted before all the others with a like subject,
even if one accepts [the Crucifixion] from Mayence.
The two important panels that presently reside at Tauberbischofsheim were
moved only ten years ago to the museum of Cassel. I still recall how I felt when
I came upon them for the first time and admired them as unexpected marvels. I
had been totally unaware of GrnewaldI knew nothing about him, not even
his name. I was forever praising Drer and Holbein, who were for me the endall-and-be-all of German art.
And here I was standing before an unknown entity, for sure as powerful and
profound as those two but even more extraordinary than they. What meaning could
Holbeins dead Christ have before this suspended figure, hanging and formidable?
I recalled how the master from Augsburg [Holbein with his Dead Christ from
Basel] had realized with his apt, precise and sure brush all the signs of wretched
distress: a torso with jutting bones; feet livid and bloodless; thin, crisped hands,
shriveled and shrunken in death; arms rigid and black nailsand that bleak head,
with eyes already so far gone, life ebbing, that all of suffering and piteous humanity seems to die in them.
But Grnewald! His Christ is an awesome being hanging on a cross. The gibbet, roughly-hewn, apparently cut from a thousand year old tree, an enormous
thicket of thorns piercing the Gods headthe whole forest seems to have had
a hand in his passion.
The drama takes place in a brutal milieu where the soil churned by immemorial forces denotes recent geologic cataclysms. A striated sky with longitudinal
clouds extends towards the far reaches of an unbearably sad horizon whose dark
ink-laden clouds lengthen over the earths surface. And the impression grows that
all the world attends the martyrdom that is Christs.
And the one who has been executed seems to hover over humanity as a
victim of universal scope, if only because of his awesome size and the limitless
stretch of his arms and the immense spread of his open hands. If now you can
conceive that by a miracle of art Grnewald had managed to impart a voice and
a cry of distress from each of his numerous bodily soresand from the twisted
feet and exhausted limbs and the defeated head which falls over his collapsed and
vanquished chestembodying an unbearable paroxysm of pain a man could not
bear but only a God endurethen you could understand that the vision of our
painter is in its reach and depth, other than that of Holbein.

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The Road to Calvary that once was at Cassel facing the Crucifixion is a cruel
expression whose acrid, as though suffering, colors exhale a strange and astringent pain.
These two canvases set amidst the amiable canvases by Flemish and Kln
masters effectively proffer a corrosive art that wounds and enraptures us at once.
From the moment I entered the muse de Colmarwhich some insist on calling the muse de Schngauer, although it would be appropriate to baptize it the muse
Grnewaldthe two canvases from Cassel vanished from my mind, or at least
lessened in importance, as I stood before the great panels of the polyptych. Now,
I found myself no longer before one or two panels, but before a complete poem,
a sort of drama in multiple acts where the two canvases representing Saint Anthony and Saint Sebastian were but the prologue of what was to come.
The muse de Colmar is housed in an ancient convent; stone sculpture occupies
the galleries and the cloister court, while painting occupies the chapel. Only a few
polychrome wooden pieces adorn an altar set in the rear of the choir. Almost
all the works thus gathered originate from Isenheim where an Antonite abbey
flourished during the middle ages. Marvels were amassed there with the passing
of centuries as each abbot during his tenure confirmed his reign with an artistic
legacy. And the most celebrated of them all was Guido Gersi, who commissioned
the most awesome piece for the abbeythe polyptych of the main altar.
During the tempest of the French revolution the abbey was plundered and
her treasures taken to Colmar. Here is how this transpired according to the catalogue of the museum, which dates from 1866.
A decree from the executive Directory of the District of Colmar, with a date of 24
vendmiaire of the year III [24th of September of the year III], had charged the citizens
Marquaire and Karff to seek in the condemned churches and religious houses, as well
in the abodes of the refugees, objects of art or of science whose preservation could be
of interest.

And the agents submitted the results of their mission in the following terms:
We have surveyed all the major points of interest throughout our assigned territory where
objects of art or science called us. This labor was not fruitless; it placed us in the position
to preserve numerous examples of painting and sculpture that would be destroyed, which
we subsequently shipped to the district library. But in uncovering unexpected discoveries,
which we add to our inventory, we regretfully realized that ignorance had destroyed a raft
of most precious works that were seen as vestiges of feudalism, and that others were lost
to the neglect of their caretakers who carelessly oversaw their destruction in large numbers.

Thus the official report.

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Tradition adds that the abbey of Isenheim, where the agents of the Republic
had traveled, was one of the most beautiful in the world and that cartloads of
paintings and sculptures were taken away either to be sold or to be reassembled
in museums.
Colmar thus possesses only a portion of the marvels of Isenheim. But what
is left, Desiderius Beychels sculptures, Gaspard Isenmanns panels, Schngauers
diptychs and Matthias Grnewalds polyptych constitute a unique ensemble.
Grnewald appears in Colmar at his best, surely much better than elsewhere,
with all the virtues and faults of his creativity on display. He gives his all, without
holding back as in Munich, without doubts as in Basel. Without distractions, he
gives himself fully to his work, drawing on the excesses of his own personality
so much that critics view his oeuvre as capricious, whimsical or fantastic. Caprice
or fantasyso be it! But then one has to say that fantasists are the best of
painters, ever.
His oeuvre per se proffers the starkest contradictions of pain and joy, somber dramas and invigorating idylls. In one of the panels, the Temptation of Saint
Anthony, all the diabolism of a Christian hell is invoked, while in the Nativity a sky
filled with angels playing lutes and psalteries descend upon the earth. A glorious
resurrection is pitted against a crucifixion and life against death. Contrasts are
fundamental to a spirit as paradoxical as Grnewald. All violence favor antithetical contrasts, and antitheses deny measure and constraint.
In the Crucifixion, Christ is enormous, the Virgin and Saint John not as large,
only medium in height. As for the Magdalene, she seems like a rag doll suffering
convulsions at the foot of the cross. In the Nativity, in the far distance, a group
of men rise taller than the church that occupies the second tier. In the Resurrection,
Christ, who is so imposing in the Crucifixion, is here, by contrast, shabby and paltry.
In addition to the contrasts and disproportions in our subject and in its drawing are the anachronisms of the work as a whole. Saint John the Baptist, who was
long deceased when the Passion took place, assists in the drama of the Calvary.
More than anything else it is color that defines Grnewald, for unlike most
Germans, he has a feel for it. Drer is dry and parsimonious, Holbein is cutting
and trenchant in tone with the exception of certain portraits, Baldung is more
uneven than most. With the elder Cranach, Grnewald is the sole German who
is not afraid of color, its riches and power. He knows its charmhe spreads it
in broken tones, in inflections and nuances. He manages to attain equilibrium
between grand luminous strokes, and rather than favoring symmetry he harmonizes disparities, which is the better course. As the panels at Tauberbischofsheim
prove, he brings to color an emotional or moral resonance using acerbic and

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crude tones for the dramaand triumphs: see for instance the Nativity with roses, blues, and whites.
When the polyptych of Colmar is closed, the predella and the central Crucifixion are displayed on the obverse of its panels.
On the panels, Saint Anthony and Saint Sebastian surge forward: the first,
raising high the Tau of the Antonites, majestic, patriarchal; the otherwhy say
these disparitiessmall, stocky, bunched-up.
Both figures are standing on a pedestal ornamented with live plants. Traditionally in such an architectural dcor, Grnewald should have drawn their
effigies as painted sculptures, following in this way the tradition of his Gothic
predecessors. But he did no such thing and was the first to break away from this
secular custom.
The Crucifixion of Colmar is as ingenious as Cassels, but seems more tragic.
The tremor of death that runs through his supplicating body is more disturbing;
the grouping of the Virgin and Saint John denote a modern pathological condition: the disciple, mouth open and wailing, his head wracked by despair, holds a
stiff, ashen white Virgin in his arms swooning in a cataleptic fit.
On the other side of the cross stands John the Baptist holding in his hands
the Book, confirming with a gesture of inordinate strength the words: For him
to ascend, I must efface myself. This freely given gesture is a miracle of muscular expression. The scene, as in the one from the muse de Cassel, seems to have
taken place beyond time, across the ages, eons ago, leaving the world far behind.
The predella cries out in raw pain. Mary and the Magdalene lament by Christs
crushed and piteous corpse in death, a miserable corpse as with the humblest of
men. The eyes of the sinner wander desperately, filled with loves infinite pity.
She seems used, damaged in the wake of her former beauty, weary of her spent
youth. The long ordeal of her master has enfeebled her, has reduced her to a
thing that wends its way from one painful rise to another; she drags herself to
the tomb to crash, fall apart, and shatter in interminable wild wailings. Truly, one
hears more than one sees her sobs and her shrieks before the open sepulcher.
And while the Virgin is more contained in her mourning, expressing but a tender
distress, and Saint John is more resigned, the Magdalene excruciatingly proclaims
her agony, abandoning herself to her grief as she once abandoned herself to her
love, forever the victim of her own heart.
With the polyptych closed is the Nativity. A strange Nativity and in parts inexplicable, if it were not for a bold interpretation.
In one of the two halves that form the ensemble, on the left, the Virgin
is seated in a bluish setting where God the Father appears in his glory sending

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forth rays and shafts of light towards Mary. Near the mountain in the distance
we see a sketch of the Church of the Antonites of Isenheim and a host of hastily drawn cupids.
This manner of seeing the birth of Christ outside the traditional setting of
the stable with the ox and mule and Saint Joseph leads us to question the title
generally assigned to it by all who have dealt with it. We see rather in this scene a
glorification of the divine mother, a reading that would explain the presence of
that exquisite and divine concert of angels and even the presence of their future
queen in their midst who with anticipation comes to praise her son here on earth.
Oh! an astonishing marvel beyond description! Imagine if you can the joy, the
songs of praise, the exaltation, the hushed respect and tenderness of these kneeling, suspended angels hovering over clouds, as others, aloft, float in the light of
day. What precious and elegant conduct, what rare carriage and exquisite acts of
folly. Oh! all this celestial and ornate life, rendered by the painter of green and
livid agonies! Is there in all of art a master who, having descended to the lower
depths, has ascended greater celestial heights? And he seems to have painted all
these glorious triumphs with the same ardor, passion, and fury that he painted
his tenebrous Golgothas. One admires in Quentin Metsyss Antwerp triptych, the
exquisite coupling of an elegant Herodias against the prostrate form of a dead
Christ, but how different from all this is Grnewalds fine and subtle art?
When the polyptych is opened, four new panels await us: the Temptation of Saint
Anthony; Anthonys Visit to Saint Paul in the Desert; and finally the Resurrection of Christ
and the Annunciation. All, with their different focus, are remarkably astonishing.
Two amongst them, the Temptation and the Resurrection call for explicit commentary.
The Temptation of Saint Anthony is what we conveniently call a diablerie where
grotesques lie. For those of the middle ages, temptation was more fearful than
seduction. Voluptuousness with its magic and witchcraft was especially rampant
in places like Germany with their forests and lunar landscapes.
It is thus a fantastic and malevolent scene that the master depicts. His overflowing imagination, leads him to create violent monsters, grasping birds, fishes,
reptiles, and men, basing their colors on mineral and vegetal lifewith caprice
to mark outlines. All the various kingdoms of being are brought together as
one. These specimens of terror are not especially numerous, but they are real.
In almost all of his canvases, Grnewald limits the number of actors that might
people his drama. In his Temptation he has chosen to follow neither Bosch nor
Bruegel, nor Lucas van Leyden, rather he has chosen and condensed the components of fear concerning a given action. Demons apprehend Saint Anthony, drag
him by the hair, bite, beat, and rifle him, assailing him as they would an inanimate

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thing or, rather, an idea. Thus the subject at hand seems more immediate and
stripped of anecdotes, simplified and invigorated.
In the foreground lies the struggle against man, in the background against
things. And in the vaporous clouds above, God the Father appears, assigning a
few select angels to rescue a humanity assailed.
The Resurrection of Christ is so far beyond its time that it recalls Rembrandts
unparalleled vision of things, and that two centuries later! Christ bursts forth
from the tomb, a veritable victor, delivered henceforth from his shroud as from
all earthly misery. An enormous nimbus surrounds His person and little by little
His face dissolves and decomposes; one sees in a very real way the changes that
take place, humanity transforming into the divine, and a man mutating into a
God. The sole link that remains between Christ and the earth is the white and
glorious shroud that unfolds, stretching from his body to the open tomb. The
soil is black, muted. Soldiers, dazed and overcome, lie down or fall into a heap.
The atmosphere which the prism of Christs nimbus triumphantly invades expands into an apotheosis so effectively that a passerby before the canvas has
the sensation of witnessing a miracle taking place. Here perhaps lies the most
beautiful expression of German painting. It holds together in all its parts. The
gamut of colors going from somber to light, from black towards yellows; roses
and reds unfold without a false note. If overcoming difficulties define art, this
canvas would fully embody it by its effective contrasts and the astonishing life
of its lines. Meanspirited critics have faulted the seeming incorrectness of the
anatomy of Christs body.
But does it matter! Do we complain as we look at an admirable stretch of
scenery that an unwanted insect flits before our eyes?
The Resurrection of Christ remains nothing less than a definitive and decisively
prodigious work, and those who want to crush it under the weight of Drers
correct and seemingly impeccable canvases will never hold sway with artists
who know.
Ive analyzed for you the polyptych of Colmar and I shall abstain from looking into the question whether the artists students or followers aided Grnewald in
his long and capital labors. Mr. Waelz, the museums director, has approached me
with several curious missives. He believes that several hands worked on the altarpiece; his argument is based on different factures in handling the paint in this or
that part of the painting. Such differences may well be, since in general the handwriting of any given canvas can change in accordance with the subject at hand.
There remains for me to speak of one more canvas by Grnewald, the Saint
Maurice and Saint Erasmus, which was delivered to the church in Halle under the

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auspices of Albert de Brandebourg, then brought to Munich to be installed at the


Pinacothek. In Munich, Grnewalds art instructs. But here the paradoxical and
excessive strain towards pain or joy that defines his work is stretched to the limits
and even self-destroys. His work is certainly beautiful, effective, handsome and
grave, its color delicate and rich, the drawing masterlyyet neither the handling
nor the command nor the overwhelming grandeur that we have come to expect
from Grnewalds triumphant oeuvre is to be found here.
Saint Maurice is dressed in a fine silver-colored armor; Saint Erasmus is
coiffed with a colossal miter and dressed in golden sacerdotal robes, recalling
those royal abbots who ruled their cloister like a splendid fief richly laden with
conquered loot. Secondary figures are stationed in the rear plane, stressing the
works sober and rigid tones.
As fine and correct as the portrayal of these figures may beaccording to
recent researchstill one sees a slackening of lan and of achievement in the art
of this most brutal painter.
I have completed the catalogue of his work. One is still attributing to him
canvases from Halle, Vienna, Aix-la-Chapelle, Nuremberg, and Darmstadt, and
who knows where else! It is said that he painted the Virgin with the Rosary from
Bamberg. I feel all these attributions are gratuitous and I dont want to deal with
them here. My conclusions are based on my studies and my research; suffice to
say that they immortalize the oeuvre of a major artist wholiving alone and relying on his own means, close to seeing things his way, but far away from the strife
of his own daysvictoriously rises today after three centuries of neglect and is
now starting to wield an enormous posthumous influence on us all.
In the 16th century, he surely haunted the imagination of Baldung Grien,
who owes him his own unique qualities. Yet the influence he exerted during his
own lifetime cannot be compared with that of Drer, Holbein, nor even Cranach. Today he influences many a German painter, especially Arnold Bcklin.
Id like to conclude this study by probing a bit further the nature of
Grnewalds art.
As I understand it, the art of such a painter derives directly from the folk
art of the Northbe it in Breton calvaries or in carved village tombswhere
navet and ardent faith created artists working the most unassuming churches
the world the world has seen.
What prevails in this sort of work is the predominance of emotion over
theory, spontaneity over study, passion over science.
With rudimentary means and without any worldly skills, apologies or theories, obscure carvers dedicated to God images they perceived of their own

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humanity. And what they offered God was a sorrowful but hopeful vision of
humanity, grotesque and unattractive just as it is, far from the beauty of, say,
Greek or Roman or Classical art. In religious subjects this sense of the ugly
took hold with beliefs that spread from the Orient and passed on to the West,
beliefs that argued that Christ did not embody beauty as such. Artists of the
Middle ages sought a different sort of beauty, an ideal beauty that transcended
both comely and unsightly bodiesand their efforts resulted in works where
character dominates.
What is more, these artists gave themselves simply and instinctively to their
passions freely without holding back, not worrying about good taste, seeking the
depths rather than the surface of the subjects they treated.
The result is an adorable art-enfant, a nave art, whose origins today we study
and research and which we turn to with joy. A few amongst us have even sought
to imitate this art, forgetting that one cannot really turn the wheel back. But we
all care for this art of long ago, if only for its joy, its simplicity and awkwardness,
traits that run against the grain of our art establishment, our art theories, our art
schoolsour rotten art. When Jules Laforgue cried out: Je suis si extnu dart
Todays art so exhausts mefor sure he was contrasting the nave painters and
sculptors and poets of yesteryear with the current scene.
Grnewald bonds with them directly but not immediately [Verhaerens italics]. Already when he first came upon the scene, their art was flourishing here
in Flanders, there in Kln, and further down in Italy. He knew of their various
approaches and ways of doing things: he knew what had transpired there and
thus he knew what was happening, he was up to date with the latest currents
in Germany.
But his soul never strayed from les primitifs, only his manner is different.
Like them he rends art asunder with his rough, driven and exalted manner; he
depicts ugliness; he favors distortions, uneven, enormous and febrile renderings all at once; he draws his figures seemingly from brigands and ruffians and
from kitchen wenches; he is not attracted by good taste in any shape or form;
he gives his all crudely, with cynicism and genius. Later someone as awesome
as he will come forth, someone unlike him but intimately bound to him, someone who will understand as he doesthough with ever greater subtletythe
crucifixions and resurrections of Christ, the sorrows and joys of the Virgin.
Someone who, like him, lives apart, somewhere in Holland, far from official
courts and grand festivities; someone also from whom meaning rises above
miseries, agonies, horrors, despair, the follies we all knowI am speaking of
Rembrandt. The spiritual bond that binds these two geniuses is self-evident,

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for the two of them, like Shakespeare, have their roots, do I dare say, in the
fathomless depths of the people.
(La Socit nouvelle, December 1894, 661679)

NOTES
1

Works consulted: Mathias Grnewald by Heinrich-Alfred Schmid, Repertorium fr Kunstwissenschaft, tome VII; Le Muse de Colmar by Charles Goutzwiller.

The German Gothic

God in three beings: Drer, Holbein, Cranachso German gothic appears to


those who have never deigned to study it. To know it and to see it as superb, complex and grandiose, one must have the patience to linger in minor museums and
ponder little known pictures in cities such as Augsburg, Nuremberg, Bamberg,
Cassel. Accepting this, we see how German gothic art rises to new heights, how it
casts a profound, complex and tenebrous image, and how it grandly embodies the
Germany of the middle ages with its crude, untamed beliefs, its barbaric pieties
and mystical customs, and how many of its all but forgotten masters can at times
overwhelm or diminish those who, as most see it, embody their countrys glories.
Oh! the primitives of Kln, the anonymous many who first multiplied all
of Christs pain and all of Marys joys upon a honey-combed gold ground, and
then the Wilhelms and the Stephans and that remarkable De Bruyn, a most
expert portraitist whose oils capture the grands bourgeoisie of the city with acute
detail and power: a magistrates cap partially covering an ear, a black cape with
heavy folds over a shoulder, long gloved hands with rings over an index finger.
And then finally, the masters of the polyptychs of the altars, of the Passion
and of the Life of the Virginand also the most Christian master of Lijversbergh [Lyversberg], who took from Memling his divine sweetness to implant it
in German suave melancholy.
Later, the school of Nuremberg reigns victoriously. Drer is resplendent,
Holbein shines forth. But at their sidesand why not of the same standing?

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there is Zeitblom, Wohlgemuth and especially Burgkmair and Grnewald. Here


we intend to linger over the last two names.
Burgkmair often sins with his dry drawing and black manner. His skies are canopies of ink suspended in azure blue, his figures, hollowed by deep shadows, form
crude silhouettes. At least so he appears at the museums in Munich and Augsburg.
To appreciate his best pieces one must visit Nuremberg, where we were most astonished to encounter and admire canvases of Saints and particularly the Virgin with
Jesus. This last canvas is amongst the most marvelous Gothic expressions known.
The Madonna is seated on a marble bench surmounted with panels. The architecture is most curious and the details speak of the Renaissance to come. The
child, in a slightly awkward pose, readies himself to sit at his mothers feet, and on
the right side is a landscape tangled with flowers and branches. A sky laden with
somber clouds hangs overhead.
Its not so much her gaze that strikes usthough it is enchantingas the
color which recalls golden hides, glorious blots of blood and purple stuff, sunsets seen through aged stained glass windows. The arrangement of the scene recalls certain canvases by Gustave Moreau where Bathshebas and Dianas adorn
themselves on ivory terraces. The inextricably entwined vegetation, perhaps
symbolic, strengthens our links with Moreau. Otherwise the Virgin has such
a mysterious allure and such a strange manner. Neither Drer, nor Holbein,
nor Cranach ever managed to realize such an apotheosis of warm, sumptuous
tonesthis denotes a most accomplished achievement, this shines forth as a
unique expression, this surpasses the time of its birth and speaks to us of today
with a miraculous and sweetly divine accent.
Grnewald is even more astonishing. At Bamberg, his Rosary shows him off
as an experienced draftsman, and the same can be said for his painting at Augsberg. In Munich, his work is that of a master, while the two glorious panels at
Casselthe Way to Calvary and a Crucifixionare those of a genius.
In this most austere German art, so intense and so catholic that nothing
can deny itneither the pungent truths of the body nor grotesque scenes
Grnewald strikes or rather sounds fierce, wild notes. His ideal seems to stem
from deep forests; his brush is drawn solely to horror and fright, its life diminishes if it does not express pain and fury. His figures are sordid brigands encountered in abandoned woods; his Christs, low thieves; his Saint Johns, assassins. Their faces are distorted by evil, their well-kneaded bodies and their hands
are shaped for engagements at night. Even the Virgins, as Grnewald envisions
them, are terrible. At first sight nothing could seem less religious, and yet only a
profoundly sincere and nave believer could paint such canvases.

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When one strolls along long untroden byways of certain countriesBelgiums Ardennes, Germanys Swabiaone comes upon wild, fierce, sullen Calvaries along quiet routes or sylvan crossings. The sculptors of these divine suspensions are village cobblers or woodcutters. They believe, as they themselves are, in
an unruly God, and they carve him like that.
Grnewald responded to like inspiration.
His crucified Christ from Cassel is green and covered with caked pustules of
blood. His feet, turned, tense, twisted; his head, pierced and cut up by a thicket of
thorns; his hands stand wide open, and the slits of their gaping wounds scream
at death.
A sky tormented with pain and gloom hovers over the mountain; a sinister
landscape quietly stirs all about with fright. And bolts of red streak across it here
and there.
Mary and the apostle look on, and from them sparks of vengeance and menacing anger glisten.
The color of the retable seems made of the acrid vinegar that soaks the
sponge of the lancer; it grates and howls.
Grnewald was Drers contemporary, although all the glory lies on the latters shoulders. He is more accessible, more measured, more perfect. He is classic
and as we gaze at him nothing can sway us from our growing admiration. Yet we
cant explain why we are drawn to the otherbe it from an excessively personal
stance, from our teutonic heritage, or from a morbidly sensitive reading. We find
it unfair that these two gothics are not held in the same esteem, and to be quite
frank, we are inclined to say that Grnewald deserves the first rank: if he has less
talent and knows less than Drer, he is perhaps the greater genius.

(LArt moderne, 15th August, 1886)

Part 4

Flemish Painting

One might be permitted to say that the art that came out of Egypt, the seat
of the most ancient of known civilizations, spread from the Orient to the Occident, from East to West. We can compare its forward march to an inexorable
tide, immutable and eternal, which would circle the globe from right to left. After
influencing Asia Minor, it roused Europeespecially affecting centers such as
Athens, Rome, Florence, Venice, Paris, Bruges, Antwerp. From there in the coming centuries it shaped England and America and returned after a thousand or so
years to its point of departure.
Unfortunately, this theory fails us. If the oldest aesthetic center stems from the
Nile valley, one cannot deny that its influence, prior to striking Europe, must have
struck Chaldea and Assyria, the Persians and the Phoenicians and the Far East and
the Indian Sub-Continent. However, these illustrious lands, rich in the plastic arts, do
not affect the seat of les primitfs, whose impetus towards the ideal precedes our own.
We are thus led to deny the simplistic and empirical views that certain lightheaded critics have consistently insisted on. It seems that art has arisen from
multiple origins, just as civilization and the history of human affairs have. Its
influence has never been unique and colossal and unified and unwavering from
time immemorial; art does not follow the needle of a constant magnetic current.
Rather, if one must refer to a given image, I would chose that of a cloud floating
by formerly parched fields, drenching them with successive and salutary storms,
following the whims of uncertain winds.

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Long ago, Flanders was enriched with art twice, once in Bruges, once in Antwerp. A flourish of artists spread forth at least these two times as if begotten out
of nothingness. Before the established masters of the 15th century, one could
point to Jean de Bruges and the miniaturists. One knew as well Jean de Hasselt
and Broederlam, where the museum at Dijon, in the guise of a retable, conserves
pure and tender expressions from the school of Kln and of Prague. Before the
masters of the 17th century were such as Martin de Vos, Otto Vaenius, Floris and
all the Antwerp Romanists.
And even so, the same rich flourish of Flemish art did not make its way all
of a sudden, and Decadence still thrived.
The Gothic school had long passed by the wayside, though it sustained the
Bruegels (the Elder Bruegel and his son) whose naive and profound canvases
covered with lively streaks of motley colors and brimming with life and everyday
talesinformed us on the mores and customs of the Flanders of old and addressed, for the first time, in a jovial, formidable and epic manner the spectacle
of stuffing ones belly and filling ones gullet (with good food and good beer).
The Bruegels are chroniclers and narrators of genius (The Way to Calvary, from
the museum in Antwerpthe Massacre of the Innocents and La Dme, the museum
in Brussels).
The Renaissance had died out and French influence was upon us. But there
were the faithful to the older ideals, although generally disowned; in spite of everything, Pierre Verhaghen, the Janssens and even the Herreyns clung to picturesque ways, to sonorous peels of the imagination, to violent and blood-drenched
colors in dark and dusky settings.
Such were the stammerings and the struggles of our two grand artistic epochs, where Van Eyck and Rubens were the indisputable emperors and conquerors. These two seem at first so different, but in truth are so alike. They both embody the same race, which in Rubenss day never disowned the vices and virtues
that flourished in Van Eycks day. One ends where the other begins.
Phillip the Good as well as Albert and Isabella appear at a relatively quiet moment in history. They allow the Flemish people to give vent to their taste for the
comforts and splendors of life and to consider, above all, the realities they cherish as a means to enhance the fullness of the material side of their existence
not as a failing nor as an expression of despair, mourning or fear.
Like Antwerp, Bruges was a city of rich merchants. Its commerce had a firm
grasp on worldly wealth. Its port, today filled with sand, bore on its glaucous
waters, vessels headed for the Mediterranean and the Atlantic and ships from
the Orient and the West proudly displayed their flags. The rewards of well-being

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were palpably felt by a self-confident bourgeoisie as well as by a powerful aristocracy. Life was good. People were frank and free and freely shouldered the
demands of commerce to shore up the common good.
The Van Eycks are known for their vigorous and vital productions. They
painted large cyclical canvases, uniting the sky and the earth in a pious feast, opulently well ordered. They imagined and conceived polyptychs, not unlike dividing
their poems into chapters or books.
The Mystic Lamb on which Hubert and Jan worked together does not in any
way appear ascetic as soon as one compares it in ones minds eye with a similar
canvas, for instance the Crowning of the Virgin by Fra Angelico. The two brothers
never depart from truth itself. Their figures are portraits. Barely does the grass
where the Mystic Lamb sits enthroned present a vague Elysian aspect. In Adam and
Eve the figures impress us with astonishing anatomical precision. Their nudity is
based on the live model, with close study of every fold of flesh and every hair.
To find their immortal place in art, the painters had only to look in the streets
for a model of a man and a woman. They do not dream; they declare. Their Saint
Cecilia from the museum in Berlin seduces by its marvelous cloak. In the Arnolfini
and His Wife from the National Gallery Jan van Eyck copies every detail of a
bourgeois interior and depicts the married couple as though he had come upon
them unexpectedly in their daily dress with the little household dog at their feet.
The Chancellor Rollin kneels in his oratory with the solemn authority of a celestial
presence. The distant landscape appears like an ornamental miniature in a gothic
missal. And as always the painters exclusive focus is on the surface of things. He
addresses a handsome face, rich shocks of hair, clear hands, shiny foreheads, full
breasts, firm flesh. But even as he stresses tangible forms he is seduced by the inner being of his personages. Before his canvas, one understands Arnolfinis make
up, the core of his being; one penetrates the soul of his lHomme loeillet (Man
with the Pink); one understands how bright chancellor Rollin was. Their psychic
makeup is exactingly and utterly exposed.
The Virgin, Saint Georges and Saint Donatien fully explain Jan van Eyck. The
basis of his art is decorative. The Madonna is the synthesis of womankind. She is
a full bodied earthy Flemish type, imposing and sensual, contrasting sharply with
familiar Gothic scraggly types. She is a mother, not divine at all, but fertilely human, modeled to have numerous children and built so unlike the frail Christ child
whom she holds on her knees. The bishop, Saint Donatien, embodies the power
of the Church, majestic, grave, authoritarian. His person resonates Catholic dogma; he is its living monument. The Saint Georges only interests us by its beautiful
armor. And as to the kneeling Canon (van der Paele), never has art proved to be

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more exacting, more sure of itself, more decisive, endowing his person with an
intense life comprised of precision and meticulousness, a full and ample outlook
regarding his mtier, an outlook marked by lucid and probing observations, the
whole inscribed with vigor and simplicity. One feels that one is patently standing
before a miracle.
Van Eyck, like all supreme geniuses, is familiar with all the intricacies of
painting and has made them his own. His draughtsmanship is precise and powerful with a sumptuous and knowing manner of coloring, a unique skill. Gravity
imbued with strength, therein lies his forte. He was the first painter of Flanders,
and he retains his eminence.
About his person circle three major figures, Van der Weyden, Memling, Metsys. The first of these, who was a Master painter in his own right, distilled the
style of his predecessors. But he comments on the mysteries of the faith in a
more soothing manner, developing the dramas of the passion with kindness and
faith; he is a marvelous playwright of sacred dramas. His Last Judgment at the
Beaune hospital, his Descent from the Cross in Madrid, his Seven Sacraments in Antwerp classify him amongst those whose originality graces painting evermore.
The other [Memling] travels from Germany. He was seduced by Bruges,
whose monumentsmarkets, cathedrals, belfries, palaces, those of Franc and
Gruuthuseloomed as marvels. He brings with him from his native land a mystical spirit, a sense of the dream. He adopts the means, the tradition, the palette,
the way the painters of Flanders paint; he draws life from their life; he enters their
guilds; he is so much one of them that history says that he belongs to the Flemish school. With him unsubstantial, diaphanous virgins appear. His panels inspire
praise. Drawing in color has a feminine cast, but the masculine side of things that
Jan van Eyck exemplified favored majestic and theological virtues, while Memling
conceives of them as intimate, humble and gentle, favoring a candle to a torch.
Precious sentiments arise here and there and the soul relegates judgment and
study to a distant plane. With admirable genius, he alters the basis of Flemish
aesthetics: succeeding an issue of blood, he denotes clear spring water.
As Van Dyck is to the school of Rubens, Quentin Metsys imparts a Gothic
elegance to the group. Van Eyck embodies solemnity, Van der Weyden drama,
Memling mystery. From one master to another, Flemish art flourishes.
The figures in the Virgin and Child [by Metsys] from the Berlin museum impart by their attitudes and their gestures such a delicate and charming life that
a more exquisite evocation of tenderness would be hard to find. It is in the
bonding of figures, in their dependencies, and especially in the adroit depiction
of hands one finds the easy manner of the painter. More than the faces of his

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beings, he defines and imparts his own manner with these slender hands, favoring them with a certain authority. Observes them, frail and thin, holding at times
flowers, at times emblems, as in the Legend of Saint Annequiet and still, resting
on a table with weights and tools for exchanging gold; or in scenes of the Passion, with the nails, the veil, the crown of thorns. His Entombment [Ensevelissement
du Christ] is a supreme expression of art. Do you know a more tenuous allure,
more subtle, more provocative, more cunning than that of Salome Before Herod?
Have you seen elsewhere a gesture more fragile than that of Herod flourishing
with his blade the head of his predecessor? No one other than Metsys appreciates the unity and harmony triptychs call for. Little does it matter that the scenes
are quite diversemurder or extreme pain side-by-side with feasts; agonies elbowing triumphs or scenes of ecstasythe triptych holds from panel-to-panel
and never sounds a dissonant note. Even with Jan van Eyck, such pervasive unity
is not to be found.
Dirk Bouts from Harlem and Hugo Van der Goes were, like Memling, followers of Roger Van der Weyden. Their corporeal art favors drawing more than color.
Bouts found his way with the grand formalities of the Iniquitous Judgment of the
Emperor Otto. Scenes of torture pleased him. Van der Goess painting, on the other
hand, is freer, less disciplined and precise, and is especially keen in portraiture.
Certainly the list would be a long one if one had to characterize the canvases
of their disciples as they responded to the great Flemish Gothic Masters, but
Patenir and Bosch would head the list. The former observes nature and understands landscape more than anyone else; the latter, his soul aflame and mad, created monsters and demons with such abundant invention that they would replenish hell if it were ever depleted. Both of them are true painters and artists. Also
we find Juste le Gand, Gerard David, Petrus Christus, Marmion; later, Henri de
Bles and the Van der Meiren; finally Mabuse, Lombard and Bernard Van Orley,
who immediately precede the Renaissance.
The influence of the Van Eycks and of their successors was European. They
gave new life to the German school, dormant since the death of Wilhelm and
Stefan; they rouse the French school and they over-run Holland and are the reason why painters succeed there. Even in Venice, Antonello da Messina acts as
their ambassador. They are in Spain and Portugal, and there are those who hear
their every word and follow their every step. They dominate the world of art as
their city of Bruges dominates the world of goods. The rule of Flanders is profound in the 15th century; it dissipates in the 16th century but is renewed in its
overarching role in the 17th century, thanks to the presence of Peter Paul Rubens.
Like Van Eyck, Rubens is a painter of truths, but of grand and heroic truths.

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Van Eycks manner probes down deep channels, while Rubenss expands out in
great breath and height. Both of them love pageantry, display and flesh. Both
of them, though they fashioned religious subjects, are ill at ease with mysticism.
Both respond to vigor, to solid forms and to force, and both of them seek clear,
deep tones in their painting. Both of them are prodigiously skillfulboth are geniuses. Rubens, more than Van Eyck, was affected by his tutors. The Italians, with
whom he had studied, influenced his beginnings. The Venetians, the Bolognese
(especially Baroccio) and Michelangelo are found in the Descent from the Cross and
the Raising of the Cross. But this dependency was short lived, and soon he will cast
that yoke aside and once free be his own Master.
For those familiar with the whole of his oeuvre, he looms superhuman, a
Hercules engaged in innumerable labors of art. History, legend, the Bible, mythology, mores, landscapes, men, nightmares cross his imagination and canvases
emerge. Catastrophes and feasts, horrors and joys, despair and bursts of anger,
appeasement and smiles, his soul listens to all those clashing voices and translates
their uproar, their clashes and storms. In canvases brushed by himself a cloth or
a coat, a breeze one knows not from where, enlivens a scrap of cloth. Consumed
by a creative fever, he embodies restlessness, thunder and lightening. His instinct
drives him to see life in all its aspects. He loves it fleshy, fecund, full; he loves it
sumptuously passionate; he loves it in its raw skin; he loves it in its movements, in
its contortions. He loves it just as it is for its vulgarities, its louche encounters and
depravities; he loves it as a greedy glutton savors a rich, flavorful, bloody piece of
meat. Ah! What a feast before this grand banquet. How he yearns to feed before
all of nature and how the full breasts of Abundance and Ceres struggle to quench
his thirst!
The visible and tangible world is his conquest. He subdues it to cut his epic
poetry as a knight errant and a hero. He truly was le chevalier Rubens, not as his
peers understood it, but as history has shown.
The chefs doeuvre he fashions as easily as he breathesas he goes about, as
he greets othersfill the great houses and the museums. His Saint George honors
the church of Saint-Jacques where his ashes lie, as his greatest gifts honor this
canvas: vigor, spontaneity, a fulsome allure, pomp, scale, life itself.
Grown weary by his copiousness, by his numberless and giant compositionscanvases beyond all measurefor the past few years one has come to extol especially his sketches. It would seem that one is afraid of that which is larger
than life, that one feels the need to bring things down to an everyday cut. But
his glory cannot be assailed. One could call him a blackguard dressed in satin,
a butcher, a rhetorician, a loud mouth. As one considers the violence of

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his creations, to the miracles he dazzles us with, the futility of critics faulting
such monuments, exaltation overwhelms us. He was at once a revolutionary and
a keeper of traditions, as all geniuses are. Like them he thought anew his art;
he imposed a certain manner; he shaped the age he lived in; he was for a century
the whole of painting.
His formidable labors drew apprentices and students. Van Dyck and [Jacob]
Jordaens were the greatest. With their master, they form a marvelous trinity.
Van Dyck enjoyed the patronage of the well-to-do and painted men and ladies of import. The aristocracy resounds in his oeuvre. He ranks with Velzquez
and Hals. Race, class, beauty are rendered, not as we know them from antique
sculpture with their classical base, nor as seen in Italian, Spanish, or French canvases, but as they are familiar to us from the NorthFlanders and England. And
along with his portraits are his religious tableaus where he specializes in rare harmonies, as in his Pieta in Antwerp. With his lively personality he is one of those
grand vassals who without doubt paid heed to the kings decrees, extolling them
according to his own lights.
Jordaens closes the cycle of ribald and waggish masters that the aged Bruegel
started. Between the two one finds Teniers, Brouwer, Steen, Craesbeeck, and Van
Ostade, painters of guzzling, swilling, and tippling. Of the events of the overfed and the very thin that their master painted, they retain only joyous and redblooded episodes. The kermesse howls and dances and follows her roundelays
throughout their art.
With Jordaens, nonetheless, feasts become ever more familial. A proverb,
As the old sing, the young pipe forth, serves as his leit-motif. And during his lifetime,
with innumerable variants, he paints his wife and his parents, the hired help and
servants as good bourgeois and as joyous citizen brimming with health from the
Antwerp of old, endowing the most banal and everyday customs with a poetic
nod. No one could paint flesh as he could, not even Rubens. There are torsos,
backs, thighs bathed in light that he cloaks with immortal beauty. The nuances,
the values, the tones are miraculous. There hardly exist more solid or more admirable expressions in painting.
Like Rubens, like Van Dyck, he adorns the altars for churches. Here is Saint
Martin Curing a Possessed. The canvas is in harmony: red dominates here, spreading
from the center as the sun does, lightening the shadows, highlighting the nudes,
affecting all the other tints. The whole of the composition comes together and
reinforces itself with a rare and delicate and truly artistic sense of oneness. Life
bursts in all its prodigality. His workers, dockers, maidservants, domestics, blacks,
slavesare all transformed, metamorphosized. Familiarity in no way excludes

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grandeur; meanness disappears in the solemnity of the drama it competes with.


To enumerate his typical traits: the force of his work, though not as general as
Rubenss, is contained and concentrated; ardor is disciplined; splendor is even
more assured. To enumerate his plastic qualities: he draws with broad but sure
strokes, his vivid burning colors are controlled in their fiery-flames. The Saint
Martin impresses itself on our collective memory as a grand masterpiece.
Ranked below these three masters, but endowed with notable originality are
Cornellius de Vos and Francis Pourbus. Cornellius de Vos at the Brussels museum painted himself surrounded by his wife and children. Compared with those
of Van Dycks, his portraits are quieter and more intimate, yet as alive and as
beautifully understood and fashioned: thats how they differ and how they come
together. Suttermans and Pourbus follow de Vos lead. And one could say that
Van Oost, Franchoys and Philippe de Champaigne follow the same.
With the exception of these last painters who derive rather from Van Dyck,
the school of Rubens comprises the De Crayers, the Seghers, the Janssens, the
Schuts, the Van Diepenbeecks, the Van Thuldens, the Van Molsall proud amateurs, healthy and of sound constitution. Pupils of their illustrious master, they
make up his large family; all received from him, if not his inspired flame, at the
very least a few rays from his crown aflame with life with which he illumined
beauty. They are the foot-soldiers of his empire whose reach extends far. Some
go to Germany, others to Italy, and still others to England and France. Only Holland, whose art is native to Dutch soil, escapes their influence. For a second time
Flanders leads the world, and all who think and labor acknowledge their presence.
Sculpture in these two glorious epochs follows painting from afar. Nevertheless, other than the anonymous carvers who gave life to the mournful stones of
our cathedrals, the figure of Claus Sluter stands out, he who first gave life to a
manner heretofore unknown, one made of large and dense forces very different
from the general cut of images, meager and slender. Later Colins, de Vriendt,
Duquesnoy, Van Opstal, Quellin come to the fore. These last imposed on marble and ivory a heavy hand, picturesque and firm as Rubens had defined with
the genius of his brush stroke. Just as it affected the hand of his painters, his
strength made its way to the muscular arms of the sculptors. Thus, whatever
our vantage point be, it is Rubensalways himwho spearheads all creative
avenues of thought. The shadow of his grand stature weighs on the whole of
art. Astonishment gives way to incredulity when one considers that other than his
formidable labors and influence on so many others, he affected a new mode of
ornamentation for churches, for palaces, for gardens, and for public spaces, and
also organized events, decorated chariots, and designed cortges.

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His influence persists to this day. Our painters of 1830 acclaimed him anew
and romanticism revived his glory. But at the same time, the other ancestor, Jan
van Eyck, has arisen and impresses us all. Leys has renewed his manner and has
done this so well that at this moment these two supreme masters bring new life
to the Belgian school with their profound and marvelous response to art. From
their distinct and different approaches, one intimist, the other decorative, they
labor for the future under the spell of one and the broad sweeps of the other.

(Conference given in May 1897)

Hans Memling

One knows the legend: wounded at the battle of Nancy, Memling comes to
Bruges to treat his injuries and heal at the hospital Saint-Jean. Thereafter, he devotes his life as an artist to thank God with masterpieces for having led him safely
through tumultuous and dramatic times.
Today, we know that Hans Memling was a bon bourgeois of good standing in
Bruges, with a house facing the street in the Vlaminedam quarters, living not as a
recluse in a cloister, but as a reputable citizen. The tall tales that enliven his story
would be quite meaningless if they did not highlight the fact that the painter
came from afarfrom distant Germanysettling in Flanders, where art was in
full bloom with renewed force.
And in truth, A.J. Wauters, with documented, insightful and penetrating labor, has established that the author of the Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine was
originally from the little town of Memelingen near Mayence, and it was only towards the second half of the XVth century that he came to Van Eycks country.
Van Eyck! Memling!although the two were never official spokesmen for
the city of Bruges, they served nonetheless, as its wondrous and ideal heralds:
one, emblematic of a raucous and earthy Flanders, the other, an immigrant transplanted from the valleys or plains of the Rhine where he had lived his youth.
Different but proud, both, however, Northerners.
Van Eyck embraces life fully. He exudes beaming health, strength, equilibrium, beauty. He translates ideal forms only as well constituted bodies, vital

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muscled entities with glowing flesh and deep marrow. He fashions Madonnas
after well-to-do Flemish women, servants or even peasants with their powerful
carriage, bountiful breasts and full cheeks. Later, Rubens, who stands for all that
is Flemish, will take these rich and robust qualities to new heights, exaggerating
them to an extreme. His oeuvre may be likened to a feast, at times a grand debauchery. On the other hand, Van Eycks retains a certain restraint and measure.
He practices a grave and beautiful manner, favoring a high style. He is respectful
of details: he is precise, even meticulous. Neverthelessand that is the obvious
miracle he fostershe retains a high and noble stature. Never, we believe, has a
painter mastered his innate gifts so deftly. With a steady hand he shapes his canvases with the sureness of a learned and knowledgeable theologian who molds
his theses and prodigiously assembles, develops and disposes his arguments. He
steadfastly conquers all, calm and sure of himself. His Adoration of the Lamb unfolds as an eloquent discourse filled with pathos; it is a beautiful essay comparable
to an admirable and lucid argument, like a discussion of life itself.
***
Memlings work has none of that, but settles with folded wings exclusively on
our souls.
And what might we say of his piety, inner life, and love? His women are almost all virgins; their bodies casement of flesh, nothing more; their faces at rest,
tranquil. At peace, their conscience at ease, albeit under a watchful eye, they favor
invariably static poses. His pages and warriors are endowed with grace and at
times with a feminine fragility. Domineering strength is nowhere to be seen, but
a pure, faint, almost joyous beauty, is nestled here. As has been said, melancholy,
if it appears at times, does not stay long.
In the hospital of Saint Jean, ones imagination strives to reconstruct the milieu where Memling worked. The sense that the world has passed it by, the stifling
silence of its walls, the confined cleanliness of its corridors, the pious calm of
its courtyards and gardens, the black and white silhouettes of its sisters amongst
glimpses of verdure, seem to construct anew a somewhat renaissance-medieval
scene where Memlings admirers rejoice. They behold their painter thrive and
grow far from the mundane world in this haven of meditation and contemplation.
But Memling, as much as Jan van Eyck, adores pomp, show, ostentation. He
is a citizen of this worldly Bruges, the queen of Northernly commerce laden with
earthly goods, whose streets and squares and monuments speak of pride and
preach an ample and expansive life to all its visitors. He embellishes the life of the

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Saints and the Evangelists with pageantry and style, which is how he understands
them. His soul stirs and is inspired by costly splendors. He does not pout like a
penitent cloistered in the recesses of a splendid tabernacle.
The Marriage of Saint Catherine or the Reliquary of Saint Ursula are paintings
richly conceived whose present setting in a worn hospice shocks rather than
charms. Could it be that certain figures from Bruges have understood these inconsistencies that they have recently adorned the small museum where these
panels are to be found with scrolls and illuminated manuscripts?
Such arrangements work well with works by Henri de Braekeleer or Mellery,
but not with Memling. Painters like them lived in similar spiritual spaces and gave
them voice. They embodied in their panels the usury and dereliction of things,
the humility that comes with meticulous labors, the silence of vast chambers that
recall the past, the intimacy of small gardens, the gravity of a worn staircase, the
pale and lined face of an abandoned wall. Their art is one of regrets, while Memlings bursts forth with rays of hope and ardent faith.
To call Memlings art ascetic is hardly fair when seen against the art of certain Spaniards and Italians; to say it is sad and wracked with pain is sheer folly; to
view it as mystical assuredly suits it better, as long as we grant it a seraphic and
celestial import.
Mysticism, as adhered to in Flanders, barely influenced painting; its furious
sallies, its zealous passions, its glowing flames hardly affected the many artists at
the court of Burgundy. As soon as Moralss or Zurbarans art comes to mind,
Memlings art fades. A passion for God, a crazed folly for Himthese are absent
in Memling. He even ignores Fra Angelicos sublime rapture; barely does he have
a trace of his sweetness. A gentle manner he knows; innocence and candor as
well. But above all, he dreams of a heaven whose angels could descend down
below, thriving in sumptuous residences or in the handsome courts of the dukes
of the West or under the peristyles and colonnades of the bankers of Italy or
Castille, in palaces found in Bruges.
He is the painter of an empyrean realm, reduced to the proportions of an
oratory where limpid sounds are heard, where the soil is scattered with flowers
and pearls, where marble glitters, where sparkling views dazzle through glazed
glass. Thus he found his place amongst the Flemish primitives. It is the milieu
that affects him thus, as it is his race that guides him in his choice of figures lost
in the meditative sentiments of German souls.
At the museum in Cologne resides his true masters. It is the aged Meister
Wilhelm and better yet, Stephan Lochner. His Flemish experience taught him to
paint better than they; his drawing is firm, decisive, precise; there are no difficul-

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ties he cannot overcome. His colors are clear, pure, alive; long ago he rid himself
of all slack, all flaccidness. The art of Cologne favors the middle ground, his
favors the high ground, masterly authoritative. But he remains faithful to Rhenish
women and angels. His Madonnas have broad and excessively large foreheads, a
tiny chin, a narrow neck; his angels at times smile as they smile in Rhenish works.
Only little by little does he free himself from accepted modes of thought and
learns to react against acquired precepts.
When he fully comes onto his own, he will in turn influence Geman painters,
with Roger Van der Weyden at his side. He will teach them more than they formerly taught him; he will return as a conqueror in his native land to abolish what
might be called a certain Germanic wavering. The unknown master of such altarpieces, in particular the Life of Mary (from Lyversberg), are so close to his own,
that these works (I cite the Crucifixion from the Kums collection in Antwerp) have
been inadvertently attributed to him.
Of a sudden, Memling appears to be a portraitist, a painter of religious legends, and a miniaturist painter.
As custom dictates, other than the patrons aligned by the wings of his triptychs (Pierre Bultync and his wife, the Adolphe Greverades, the Adrien Reimss,
the Floreinss, etc.), he immortalized the features of a large number of his contemporaries. Three portraits hold our attention.
The first (in the Brussels museum of Fine Arts) is severe and grand, a portrait of Guillaume Moreel, the burgomaster of Bruges. Wearing brown dress, he
is set against a landscape with a colonnade.
Ingress art is akin to this: simplicity of means, sober and sure drawing, a
deep and austere characterization. There is nothing fanciful, no embellishments,
only the gravity of life embodied in a dignified and probing individual. The nose
is large, the mouth severe, a tense manner, hands folded as with donor portraits.
One expects him to stand by Guillaume Moreels side.
Here is Sybille Zambeth (Saint Jean Hospital), a richly attenuated and delicate
portrait. The features seem coarse but the nuances of skin seen through the
veil, the light and nuanced coloring of the head, a thousand difficulties so easily
surmounted are compelling. One dreams before this work, which ever so slowly
appears ever more mysterious. This supple veil, this reclusive aura, this mouth
bearing secrets! Contradictions and antagonisms come together as one in this
portrait, the strangest yet our painter has left for us.
And finally, on a leaf of a diptych appears the fine image of Martin Van
Niewenhovethe other leaf shows the Virgin, holding with her tapered fingers
and with a rare and studied gesture a fruit which she presents to the infant Jesus.

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An oratory, an open window and the countryside sets the scene. In the foreground are the hands of Martin Van Niewenhove bound in prayer. A book of
hours lies open before him.
A fresh, unspoiled visage, lips slightly apart. Hair in ringlets falls onto his
shoulders; a rich but sober costumethe same auspicious gravity as in the
Moreels portrait; but here a bold frown, a sturdy neck, a vigorous, frank, and
sincere air defines a youthful and nave beauty.
These three panels are masterpieces. We can suspend our doubts on the truth
of things as we observe Memling patientlyand never coarselyseeking the
defining traits of his sitters, proffering them with certainty; he seeks to study their
internal lives, the soul stripped bare, a persons traits underlined in an unforgettable manner. Memling belongs to the highest order of portraitists of which the
great French academics, the Davids and the Ingres, were the last representatives.
His sacred triptychs are dispersed throughout the whole of Europe, at
Dantzig, Lubeck, Madrid, Munich, Florence, Brussels, Paris. His best subjects
depict the Adoration of Christa subject he binds with scenes of the shepherds
or the magi from Bethlehem, or solely with the Virgin Mary on a throne honoring her son. Here the placement of the figures is always the same: Mary occupies
center stage; at her sides are angels or pious saints, male and female. On the right
and left, often between columns, are glimpses of the countryside: impressive
castles, men on horseback making their way back, rocks studded with grasses on
distant lanes, paths winding along green pastures. At times, a harbor strewn with
sails, appears. A few panels seem like replications, copies of each other. Those
from Vienna and Florence hardly differ.
The infant Jesus seldom strays from the formula of the day: skin adhering
to frame, like gestures addressing kneeling worshippers, head overly massivein
sum, a generic type (apparence batracienne).
Mary proves to be more German that Flemish. She favors sweet dreams; she
is more dry than fleshy; pale of tint and of passive allure. She is a virgin, but not
a mother. As A.J Wauters before us observed:
There is simply no Flemish painter, he observes in his study, who has assigned such
an important role for angels to play. I know of no less than thirty-two canvases where he
has introduced them. Some are set in vast compositions as with the Last Judgment or the
Apocalypse; others he assigns a place at the foot of the Virgins throne, offering fruits to
the infant Jesus or adoring him with a celestial concert; and still others where he singles
them out, as in the reliquary from Bruges, they are uniquely conceived. In that case they
are all endowed with beautiful, small, child-like heads, with long, undulating rushes of
hair parting their foreheads; as for their clothes, at times they wear superb white albs,
at times rich sacerdotal habits threaded with gold floral patterns. But that which draws

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them to us, more than their gentle manner and their sumptuous dress, is the intimate and
personal sentiments they engender, etc.

I hasten to differ from Wauters on this most original creation by Memling.


To begin with, it is his predecessors, the masters from Cologne, who inspired
Memlings passionate love for angels; following their lead he introduced them
into his art. Lovely angels abound in Meister Wilhelm and Stephan Lochner
work. Moreover, like Memling, the masters from Cologne envisioned them with
outrageously colored wings in the shape of swallows. A primitive manner was
fomented thus in the pious gardens of these two masters. All the same, Memling
enlarged their primitivism, rendering his angels real, personages weve encountered. He stripped them of all formula and assigned them different personalities. Instead of a lifeless crowd, he fashioned an animated assembly; they are no
longer anonymous, they are actors. In the Vierge of the muse des Offices, what different expressions mark the two kneeling angels! The one who presents the fruit
to the infant Christ is a German angel with a full head of curls, smiling vaguely;
the other one who plays the harp is grave, long, drawn out, almost hieratic. This
is a Flemish angel, the angel the Van Eycks favored, but which Memling made
his own, endowing it with his tenderness and sweet intimacy. If the Triptych of
Najera is truly by our bourgeois masterand the reasons M. Wauters parades to
affirm his claims are excellentnever can a painter prove to be as inventive as
Memling with creating celestial types. All these sacred instrumentalists seem to
belong to the same family, but their allure and their faces differ markedly. They
each bear their own unique stamp, and truly before such a work, one can state
that there was once on this earth a painter of the Church triumphant, just as there
have been many of the Church at odds, struggling and suffering. In sum, one can
conclude that Memling is the great painter of celestial glories.
In Dantzig the Last Judgment is found, and at Lubeck, the Passion, works of
large scale, grandiose poems.
We were fortunate to study these two masterpieces. The latter possesses neither the superior ordering nor the vastness of the polyptych of the Mystic Lamb
of the Van Eycks, but still how the gravity and the pain of the sacred drama
unfolds! In the center, Calvary. On the right-hand panel: the Road to Calvary, the
Garden of Olives, the Kiss of Judas, Christ Before Pilate, the Flagellation, the Crowning of
Thorns, Ecce Homo. The left-hand panel: the Entombment and the Resurrection, Christ
appearing before Mary Magdalene, Saint Thomas, the Pilgrims at Emmaus, the Ascension.
And finally on the side-wings: Saint Blaise, Saint John, Saint Jerome, Saint Gilles. The
date of the polyptych? 1491.
The ensemble is cyclical. One of the most dramatic expressions of Aryan

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recondite religion is on display. Faith, pain, and hope pray, weep, and shine forth
one by one. The church where this chef-doeuvre is to be found holds in its lateral
chapels imposing caskets of a series of bishops resting on plinths. The site is impressive. Silence reigns as grass plots distance it from the city; and it is this silence,
before these effigies squeezed in their lead cases, that the canvas admirably works
its task of teaching Christian doctrine and funerary exaltation.
The Last Judgment of Dantzig, according to Mr. Wauters, is inspired in its
conception and composition by similar pieces by Roger Van der Weyden and by
Stephan Lochner. Memling thus would have brought together in this triptych
lessons from these two masters whose influence converge, that of Stephan at
first, and that of Roger at the height of his development. This triptych thus is to
be greatly valued, for as we understand it there is not a single art historian who
has significantly stressed Memlings dependence on Colognes former artists. All
exclusively address his master, Van der Weyden. We have tried to be exact and
truthful in this study. For the rest, the more we stress a persistent strain of Germanic influence, the more we shall explain this art so new in Flanders after the
Van Eycks.
As a miniaturist, Memling can be studied in the distant settings of his panels,
scenes which seem to be drawn from a missal, its pages torn. This effect is also
apparent in his smaller works, for example the ones in the salon carr of the Louvre, and especially, in the Chasuble of Saint Ursula.
Here, once more, a poem is sung. The saint, a blond heroine, gentle, sensitive
and innocent. The atmosphere is German. The subject is Rhenish. Its sources are
apparent. Ursula is the sister of the virgins and saints of the Dombild of Cologne.
The artwork is Flemish: there was no doubt on this point, for his manner is
so accomplished and the interpretation of movements so easy and rich; likewise
it is defined by its decisive coloring, an easy balance of tones ever so casually
maintained. Each scene is alive and laden with pathos, though the minutiae of
details never disturbs the arrangement of the ensembles. Firmness and daring
thats what makes these small, perfect panels masterpieces.
The catalogue of Hans Memlings paintings reads as follows: comprised of
53 pieces whose attribution is beyond doubt; 9 are in question. Belgium has kept
14 of his works; Germany holds 12, France 9, Austria-Hungary and Italy each 7;
Spain 2; the Low Countries 1; England might have 10. Memlings date of birth
is unknown, but the date of his death is settled. The chronicler Rombaudt de
Doppere must have known Memling. From June 1480, Memling paid an annual
rent to the authorities of the church where Doppere was its registrar. Thus he
records 11 August, 1494 as the date of his passing, recording as well his burial at

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the church of Saint Gilles. These facts have recently come to light, the fruits of
exacting research and demanding study.
For a long time, tall tales substituted for history. Descamps, Viardot, and
Alfred Michiels made it all up or maintained the fiction. But due to the work of
Carton, Weale, and Gilliots, the extraordinary Bruges archivist, the legends can
be stashed away in forgotten attics in the company of so many trite anecdotes,
slack as deflated bagpipes. They were familiar, worn, navebut they had their
charm. Memlings reign was impressive and was quite influential till the Renaissance. He weighed heavily on his immediate successors, Patenir, Van der Meiren,
Grard David, and Marmion. He and Van der Weyden, more than the Van Eycks,
influenced the fifteenth and the early sixteenth centuries. With their informed
and picturesque religious canvases, their influence was pervasive. Their dcors for
a brief moment affected all of European painting per se.
In Germany, at Cologne, at Calcar, at Xanten, the brothers Dmwegge and
Frdric of Herlen imitated them, as did Martin Schn[gauer] in Colmar. Even
Wohlgemuth, even Zeitblom, even Drer owe to Van der Weyden and to Memling a special way of seeing and of composing their Nativities or their Adorations
of the Magi or of the Shepherds.
In France, Nicolas Froment and Fouquet were fascinated by their Northern
expression and studied and followed it.
In Italy, Antonello da Messina, who came to Brugesnot when the Van
Eycks, but Memling, laboredbrought back to his peers the lessons he learned
from us.
In Spain and in Portugal there occurred the same metamorphosis of local
painting. Charles Yarte is well aware of this. Memlings influence reached most
Portuguese painters.
The place he holds in history is thus enormous. One wonders whether his
sudden arrival in our midst did not derail the strong and masterful current unleashed by the genius of the brothers Van Eyck. But Roger Van der Weyden
was already nudging Flemish art towards emotion and spirituality; Memling only
advanced his revolution. Be that as it may, his oeuvre stimulated the many strands
of our own art, extending them to affect the domains of the soul, of piety and
of profound and moving beauty. He remains enthroned.
(from Le Monde moderne, 1899, JulyDecember, 601616)

Pieter Bruegel: Flemish Life

Ladies and gentlemen,


I hasten to thank the attentive, kind and indulgent staff of the Annales for
honoring me with the inaugural lecture launching a series of conferences on
Flemish and Spanish art.
The names of renowned painters like Bruegel, Rubens, Jordaens, Velzquez
will often sound a familiar ring to your ears. With your solicitous admiration,
might they these names be more than sonorous assemblages of syllables and
might they induce you to contemplate on the essence of genius and on the force
and beauty that these artists embody. Artists as these shall instruct you on the
tempered and tumultuous times they have traversed, and which, perhaps without
even knowing it, their paintings mirror. Theyll also say much on the rugged manner, the patience, ardor and defining and obstinate qualities that mark the people
whose glory they represent. They shall thus be sure and steady guides, and, as
well, exalted and exalting guides.
Not long ago, one read the following on Flanders and Spain; books allowed
us to know these places, but not in depth; even if with the help of reproductions
one could see such and such a site, this and that landmark, the local citizenry, the
spirit of the country, or, if you will, its soul, remained hidden, out of sight. Today,
our approach is quite different. We look at the artists who embody these various
European countries in order to come to terms with not only their past but with
their most profound and vivid emotions. We study the spirit of different people

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from canvases or prints; we surmise the artists soul and we come to know, and
not superficially either, an age and a people. Artists do not document events as
historians do, but they shed light and revive their times.
If Peter Paul Rubens stands for the Renaissance in its prime, Pieter Bruegel
depicts it in its earliest stages when it was very hesitant, hardly there at all. He
lived under the reign of Charles V and Phillip II from 1526 to 1569. Having
witnessed all the religious struggles between the Catholics and Protestants in
the Low Countries; he traveled beyond the mountains to Italy where he learned
of Leonardo da Vinci, of Raphael, of Michelangelo, and he welcomes all the
disturbing and challenging new ideas. He could translate their art as well as any
Flemish artist who had been to Rome. But once back at home and settled, he
gave them up, for he never really embraced their views with his heart. Bruegel
was too committed to his native Flanders to do as Floris or as Otto Vaenius or as
Martin de Vos had done. He was sincere, but not especially savvy; he did not seek
to profit from what might have been a sure thing. He focused only on his own
integrity, wanting to make his mark just as he wasor not do so at all.
Certainly he reflects his age as do all great artists, and it belittles his achievement to see him primarily as a droll painter of rustic scenes. He is a sort of Rabelais, and to see him in this light is to see him as one should.
Yet, it is my pleasure this evening, if only not to prolong the little time allotted to us, to address you especially on the Bruegel who is a painter of landscapes
and of peasants. This subject actually is quite vast, for the chaos of the cities had
its repercussions in the open fields, and the red flames that devoured the lighted
funeral-pyres of city squares colored the countryside as well.
When Bruegel paints the Massacre of the Innocents under Herod, he shows us
a Flemish village buried in snow, as horsemen from Wallonia and German foot
soldiers replace the soldiers of the Jewish tetrarch. They knock doors down, they
slay the children on their mothers knees, they chase those who flee and spread
seeds of death and grief at their heels. And while this is going on, neighbors
console neighbors and two dogs chase each other playfully, enjoying themselves
in the village square soaked with blood. These last two details that reinstate the
reprise of life in the midst of the spectacle of death tell us much about Bruegel.
He nurses a bitter humor even amidst grief and destruction.
He is from Flanders which, though trampled more than any other country in
the world, rouses itself to gather and renew its forces. He is like the grand popular hero Thyl Ulenspiegel, who turns to face life from the depths of his grave, and
grabbing the hand of his sweetheart, the charming and nave Neele, rushes right
into the face of his grave diggers shouting:

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Does one bury Ulenspiegel and Neele, the spirit and heart of Flanders?
They may sleep, but die, never!
And now to focus on the Massacre des Innocents (the Massacre of the Innocents).
Surely these are foot soldiers from Wallonia and Germany that burst upon
the village. Here the body of their army is in the center of the square; others are
smashing doors as mothers weep with their children; and the dogs that play in
the village square are over there, on the other side of the canvas. Its snowing and
evidently Bruegel wants to express the misery of January, with the holiday marking the Innocents falling just then.
Our artist lived in Antwerp and Brussels, in the provinces of Campine
and Brabant.
Even as he rarely fails to paint the silhouette of a mountain in the far depths
of his landscapes, he particularly favors the fields and villages of his native land.
A backdrop of hills seem especially apt to frame fields of hay or lanes of snow,
and turning to a few old sketches taken while in the Alps and around Brenner, he
naively depicts Flemish things with an Italian aura. Other than this detail, nothing
in his work is more indigenous to his native Brabant than the manner in which
he comprehends nature. He draws her near, he cares only for her, he talks to her
during his walks, and he renders her portrait in every one of his canvases. Prior
to Bruegel, nature was but an accessory in compositions of religious scenes; one
could make her out in the far reaches of a canvas or one came upon her when a
window was open or from the heights of an open terrace, but man was the sole
focus of art. Thus in the art of Van Eyck, Memling, and Van der Weyden, barely
do we see a few saplings, a few flower beds or a few hills. I understand that these
great masters are right to honor men and their ways, and their decision is as it
should be. And yet I still want to show how Bruegel charms us as he distances
himself from everything we knowand still he holds us spell bound. We may be
struck with pity with his Carrying of the Cross, we may be informed with his Flight
into Egypt, he details for us Christ On the Way to Calvary, but above all, these paintings are landscapes. If I were not hesitant to use a much-maligned modern term,
I would say he is painting panoramas. And when he paints a landscape he does
not focus on a given setting but on many.
In the Portement de la Croix (The Carrying of the Cross), all our attention, to
quote M. Charles Bernard, a specialist on Bruegel, is on the group the Virgin,
saint John and the Holy Women form. But what contrast lies between this group
and the motley, lively, joyous crowd of men on horseback and on foot, and of the
towns-people and bourgeois, savoring public executions and hangings.
[In The Carrying of the Cross] there are people with baskets on their way to

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market, while others, struggling with a woman, want to strangle her; a cart overflowing with passengers crosses a ford; a windmill turns on a rocks promontory,
dominating the valley. And at the summit of Calvary, the assembled multitude
form a perfect circle about the crosses and the gibbets. In truth we ask ourselves
what happened to Christ in the middle of all this tumult. That he is situated in the
center of the canvas is difficult to see. The principal scene is thus lost in a sea of
diverse scenes, and in fact it is not in one but in numerous scenes that Bruegels
art finds its place. And so he strives first for our attention and then for our feelings, not with one but with a hundred incidents.
Does he succeed? He succeeds so well that there has never been an artist
better understood through the centuries than by his own people. His name deservedly can be inscribed, if not above, at least on the same line as the names of
Rubens and Van Eyck; one says his name with joy, and children, whom he drew
so well, learn all about him in school dancing round and round, repeating the
proverbs whose tales he painted.
Here for us to see on the screen is the Carrying of the Cross. Before us is the
group with saint John, the Virgin and the Holy Women. Here is the woman that
they want to strangle; here is the windmill perched on the rock. In sum, one looks
for Christ, and here he is in the centre of the canvas one barely spots him.
Bruegels focus is on the numerous scenes he details; he does not try to focus
our attention on a given incident, forgetting all else, as painters do in general.
When you first come upon his work at the museum in Vienna, you can hardly
believe your eyes. The painter here is in his glory. He has his own room, just as
Rubens has, and the two rooms adjoin each other. Rubens, the great master,
stuns and overwhelms us: he is stately as he bursts before us. A warlord comes
to mind, a masterful being en route heralded by flags flapping in the wind and
faades brimming with flowers; he smiles at the many who chant his name, while
not far away fires are still smoldering and blood flows freely. Bruegel does not
overwhelm us, Bruegel stuns no one: he draws us to him, he persuades us, he
moves us and convinces us. Pomp and circumstance is nowhere to be seen, there
are no grand gestures. His art is not theatrical for he never strays from the human
and familiar. He is nave and folksy, he has depth and he impresses us deeply. We
admire Rubens, but we love Bruegel.
I once knew in the village where I was born a man who sold images-of-sorts
who would explain to anyone purchasing his prints the fanciful and fantastic
tales behind his work, in exchange for a few pennies. This man was a simple and
good man who believed in angels, fairies, ogres, and Puss-n-Boots, and one was
forever curious and charmed by him. Bruegel reminds me of this poor man with

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his images whom I saw every Sunday when I was a child, but it is not monsters,
nor fairies, nor Puss-n-Boots that Bruegel draws, but life itself. He shows us all
the pain man suffers in the Massacre of the Innocents; The Way to Calvary, it denotes
religion per se; The Kitchen of the Fat and the Lean embodies stuffing oneself with
food or otherwise the gnawing hunger of the dispossessed and the homeless;
in The Battle of the Money-Boxes and the Strong-Boxes, we see cupidity deflated, and
when he focuses on Icarus, we see that the struggle is with vanity.
This last image truly deserves our attention. In the foreground plane, a laborer tills the soil and patiently follows his horse, as his ancestors had done. He
speaks of humility before duty. A bit farther off, a fisherman regards the moving
scene waged in the sky and turns his back, while below, ships follow sure and safe
routes as they sail the seas without danger, their sails filled with strong, favorable
currents. All is as it should be, nothing is amiss in this lovely and lucid landscape.
One looks for Icarus just as we searched for Christ in the Bearing of the Cross, for
it is not easy to find him as he is already lost in the waves, only one of his legs
still visible. The whole is truly impressive, and we are more and more drawn to
it as we seek to understand it. And as soon as weve grasped what is happening,
we cant forget this canvasit remains firmly engraved in our memory, just as
Bruegel envisioned, and in spite of all good sense, it would seem.
Here is the projected image of the Fall of Icarus canvas.
Here is the worker and his horse tilling the field, boats are heading out to sea,
the fisherman looks up at the passing clouds, and here, in the lapping waves, is a
fallen Icarus, submerged but for a leg still visible. See how the canvas is drawn so
naively. If you look at the original in Brussels, you will be impressed by its overall
clarity and harmony.
In spite of the horrors the Spanish introduced, Flemish life in the 16th
century was essentially informal, nave and jovial. Puns like Bruegels enjoyed a
lengthy vogue, and due to his watercolor skills, their fame was widespread. He
loved to illustrate proverbs and maxims. And so we might imagine the following: in a comfortable bourgeois setting with well-lit hearths and large chambers
lined with panels and wooden beams, a heavy and imposing Flemish bourgeois,
leafing his handsome prints, relishing and learning from them. His pleasure was
to scan them but not to get too engrossed in them; he liked the art of his native
Brabant which above all addresses the senses, be it ones hearing, ones sense
of taste, ones palette or eyesight. And all about him silence reigned; the streets
of Antwerp, of Ghent, of Brussels, of Bruges were quiet in the stillness of the
night; only the steps of the night watchman could be heard on the pavement of
a busy street. In a corner of an apartment an old lute leaned on a chair. And then

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to forget the daily tragedies that afflicted all, our imposing bourgeois would lose
himself in the past, as was his pleasure. Like his ancestors before him, he delved
in art. He liked both painting and music, and to redouble his joy, he would enjoin
his daughter, as he leafed through a few of Bruegels illustrated albums, to pick
up the lute and to hum enchanting love songs which Mme. Maud Herlen and M.
Mauguire1 will soon sing for you. All these songs date from the 15th or the 16th
century. In those days, words from hymns or psalms were favored; today those
lieders are again what they were once: beautiful, popular ballads. The notes have
hardly changed; only the French words of M. Wilder have replaced the Flemish
vocables. Hear them; listen to the simple and necessary rhythms, harmonies not
too involved, but just right. After having heard them, perhaps youll better understand the Flemish manner that colors Bruegelss production, and perhaps youll
understand what I still have to say about his soul, at once profound and rural.
If you ask me to define briefly the supreme artist that was Bruegel, I would
tell you that he is a village lad who became a painter, but who always stayed
throughout his life the easy-going fellow he was in the countryside.
Van Mander, the biographer of Flemish artists, says of him:
When Bruegel was living in Antwerp, a merchant by the name of Frankert commissioned
from him a large number of canvases. He was a good man who was very fond of painting.
The two together, Frankert and Bruegel, enjoyed going to the kermesse (country fairs) and
to village weddings. Dressed as peasants, they brought gifts like the other guests, and said
they were members of the family of the bride and groom. Then was Bruegels happiness
beyond measure, finding anew his youth, his life, his joy, and he brought to bear all his
gifts as an artist to voice his emotion.

But there is more! A dozen years before his death, he marries Marie Coeck,
the daughter of his former teacher. Once married, he settles in Brabant, a picturesque country, opulent and brimming with life, a place that changed him and
forced him to abandon his former meager and stringent Campine. Then, a new
influx of youth overtakes him and from then on he is at the helm of a sure and
steady life. He dwells in peace, he wants to work more than ever. He discovers
a new side to life which accords with his deepest inclinations, his heart and his
soul. From then on, hell only paint what he sees before him; he will invent as
little as possible, favoring the atmosphere of things and their beauty, in light or
in shadow. His canvases become ever more subtle as the countryside, in all in its
delicate truths, becomes the supreme theme of his art.
Do you know the environs of Brussels, not the bois de la Cambre nor the fort
de Soignes, but the humble outskirts of the city: Nosseghem, Sterrebeek, and the
three boroughs of Woluw? Oh! the picturesque and silent villages! Sunken paths

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pave the way lined with hawthorn, green weed, and alder trees; heavy harnessed
teams grind their way in deep ruts through the village lanes; and look here at the
farms with their beautiful white walls, their intensely red roofs and their worn
garret windows; tall dunghills glowing with sunlight fill the courtyards, with multicolored cocks amidst the straw; apples, pears and peaches seem like balls of fire
in shaded arboretums; working farm girls, tightlipped servants, shepherds and
wood cutters disturb the quiet with their full healthy strides, and dogs bark when
they see them passing.
The church and its belfry rise in the village square, and the towers long shadows fall upon the tombs of the old cemetery nearby and darken the priests vestments at night. They fall as well on the stones of the burgomaster and of the
priest who is no longer there, and on those of the farmers wife who died last
year at the age of one hundred. A long continuous wall, as old as the centuries,
encloses within its limits all these ashes of the past and thus holds everything that
once existed and transpired in this poor, dormant village. Not far from this cemetery lies the village square. Three linden trees give it shade, a rimmed well adorns
it. And there in a corner in full sunlight, the inn of The Three Kings or The White
Horse or The Blessed Tree invite every passerby to pause around their shiny, square
tables and every pint of beer the waitress brings has a crown of foam.
Its there at The Three Kings or The White Horse, or The Blessed Tree, that the
great Pieter Bruegel must have settled to translate in all its facets the life of the
Flemish countryside.
One imagines him working behind a window of small glass panesopening
it when it became greythere he painted the Four Seasons, treasures of Austrias
Imperial Museum. Of these four marvels, the most astonishing is Winter. When
I saw it for the first time, the most recent modern canvases came to mind. Apart
from the subject, what is depicted is the stillness that comes with intense cold.
The panel depicts hunters with a pack of hounds chasing wild game in the snow;
they emerge from a clearing on the hill where the countryside spreads before
them, where ponds, woods, glades and paths are all covered with an enormous
quilt of white lather. The sky is grey and darkening as birds as big as planes cross
it, and everything shivers and trembles with coldtrees, plants, thickets, beasts,
and everyday folk.
Here is Winter.
The hunters are in the immediate foreground and also the large birds, which
are truly astonishing and unusual in their scale, while the ponds are a bit further
off, where youngsters and locals are skating. And there are the mountains that
Bruegel dots his Flemish landscapes with, and which for him recalled Italy.

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It is also from the window of The Three Kings, The White horse, or The Blessed
Tree that Bruegel must have painted that wonderful work from the Louvre; The
Blind [Leading the Blind] and that most moving piece from the Brussels museum,
The Procession. In the latter, all is so rustic and true to ones faith that one may wonder who other than Bruegel has truly understood devotion in its most nave and
touchingly pious voice. Statuettes of the most unassuming of village saints pass
across the hamlet one by one. Poor folk look out of windows and have crowded
round to see those who tend their animals or protect their harvest as they pass
before their front-steps, where the finest fabrics drape their front entrances. They
see other peasant folk, their friends and brothers, as they carry flags and hold
steady on their shoulders pedestals and canopies [with saints]. All this transpires
en famille, but with what joy and warmth! All is silent, fervent, and sincere.
Although the Procession is but a fragment of a larger canvas now destroyed, its
intense emotion tells us much about the overall scene.
When I was working on my book, La Guirlande des Dunes [The Wreath of the
Dunes], that admirable fragment came to mind. I could not place my protagonist
in a peasant milieu, for I had to place him in a city bordering the sea, at Ostende.
Yet I captured for my account all the picturesque elements and all the familiar
fanfare that the painter deployed in his canvas. The procession I paint is Flemish
and colored like a Bruegel; the types I draw, the standard bearers, are like his. The
faith of the many I celebrate is nave and solid as his own.2
As I was saying, the canvas is but fragment of the original. Here are a saints
bearer, most probably saint Corneille, for he holds a horn in his hands. Here
someone holds a banner, others follow with saint Martin on their shoulders.
People have flocked to the windows and are showing off the most costly things
of their households.
Another image: Here the Fall of the Rebel Angels.
For a long time Bruegel followed the lead of a Dutch painter, who is known
as Jrme Bosch but also the Strange one [le Drle], and who painted the most
fantastic things in his art. The entire lower half of the Fall of the Rebel Angels
speaks of Bosch, the most fantastic things are painted there. But the upper register where the angels with their astonishing allure speaks of Bruegels manner.
The Peasants Wedding. This canvas is found in the Museum in Vienna. The
wedding party, as you see, is full of character. Here is the bride and those who are
bringing the pies and the custards, and here, in a corner, the guests; most probably the village squire is chatting with a priest of the nearby convent.
Having spoken of Bruegel, I should also speak of Teniers, who is a Bruegel, but
a peg or two down, and purged of his poesy. For sure, his village kermesse are full of

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life and his villagers dance in a row across country fields. But he does not believe, as
Bruegel does, that there is nothing more interesting nor more beautiful in the world
than country life. He does not really care for those rustic country lads and lasses. Furthermore, he became a village squire, while Bruegel always remained a local peasant.
It seems that Teniers paints the life of the locals only to amuse himself and
others; Bruegel paints them with care and with love, for himself only. Tenierss
sensitivities are lukewarm, Bruegels are in full force, springing from his navet
and his beliefs. One leads, the other follows; one invents, the other regurgitates;
one is sincere, the other facile. Bruegel still paints as the gothics of yore painted
with flat tones and closed shapes; before his oeuvre Van Eyck, Memling, Van der
Weyden and Quentin Metsys come to mind.
The grand manner with its hierarchies maintains its reign, imparting a certain grandeur to his slightest efforts, while Teniers is a minor master who is just
fussy and affected. He pleases those who only look for pretty pictures, only look
for charm in art, and not especially drawn to forceful pictures or the demands
of style. If one compares but for a moment Bruegels Peasant Dance, presently in
Vienna, with the Village Wedding by Teniers, housed in Brussels, one will sense
immediately with such a simple comparison that Bruegel strives for epic beauty
while Teniers for straightforward but stiff and self-conscious arrangements, settings hardly going beyond the picturesque. Between them, Teniers and Bruegel,
teach us to become ever more sensitive to differences between artists.
I believe Ive assigned Bruegel his proper place in Flemish art, placing him
between Van Eyck and Rubens. Like them, he is a universal painter; he paints every kind of subject only to observe them anew and render them ever truer to
themselves. Without him, certain aspect of Flanders would be unknown to us. Van
Eycks Flanders is faithful in its belief; Rubenss is aristocratic and politically viable;
Bruegels is a popular and populist Flanders. The work of these three great artists
forms a triptych that sums up an entire people under its three principal modes;
the three of them together synthesize the whole. And, as with Rubenss oeuvre,
Bruegels work affects our present sensibilities; an entire segment of our current
school of painting in Belgium is under his spell and guided by him. More and more
his art transcends his time and affects us allbut without the clat of Rubens, it is
truebut with the tenacity and a touch of humility, as do the lusty folk songs of
old which you shall soon hear and which will bring our evening to a close.

(Conference before the Annales littraires, 21 November, 1913,


published in Les Annales, 15 December 1913)

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NOTES
1

Here Verhaeren adds a copy of his lengthy poem, La Benediction de la Mer which he enjoins
his listeners to hear as they study Bruegels Procession. For Verhaerens Beneditction, see Aron,
2:99496.

Here Verhaeren is alluding to the musical interlude at the close of the conference. The singers
and their songs are listed in Aron, 2:997.

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