After I had seen the port, I went along the Boompjes dyke, on which stands an uninterrupted line of large new houses built in the Parisian and London style—houses which the inhabitants greatly admire, but which the stranger regards with disappointment or neglects altogether; I turned back, re-entered the city, and went from canal to canal, from bridge to bridge, until I reached the angle formed by the union of Hoog-Straat with one of the two long canals which enclose the town toward the east.
This is the poorest part of the town.
I went down the first street I came to, and took several turns in that quarter to observe how the lower classes of the Dutch live. The streets were extremely narrow, and the houses were smaller and more crooked than those in any other part of the city; one could reach many of the roofs with one's hand. The windows were little more than a span from the ground; the doors were so low that one was obliged to stoop to enter them. But nevertheless there was not the least sign of poverty. Even there the windows were provided with looking-glasses—spies, as the Dutch call them; on the window-sills there were pots of flowers protected by green railings; there were white curtains,—the doors were painted green or blue, and stood wide open, so that one could see the bedrooms, the kitchens, all the recesses of the houses. The rooms were like little boxes; everything was heaped up as in an old-clothes shop, but the copper vessels, the stoves, the furniture, were all as clean and bright as those in a gentleman's house. As I passed along these streets, I did not see a bit of dirt anywhere,—I met with no bad smells, nor did I see a rag, or a hand extended for alms; one breathes cleanliness and well-being, and thinks with shame of the squalid quarters in which the lower classes swarm in our cities, and not in ours only, for Paris too has its Rue Mouffetard.
Turning back to my hotel, I passed through the square of the great new market. It is placed in the centre of the city, and is not less strange than all that surrounds it.
It is an open square suspended over the water, being at the same time a square and a bridge. The bridge is very wide and unites the principal dyke—the Hoog-Straat—with a section of the town surrounded by canals. This aerial square is enclosed on three sides by venerable buildings, between which runs a street long, narrow, and dark, entirely filled by a canal, and reminding one of a highway in Venice. On the fourth side is a sort of dock formed by the widest canal in the city, which leads directly to the Meuse. In this square, surrounded by carts and stalls, in the midst of heaps of vegetables, oranges and earthenware, encircled by a crowd of hucksters and peddlers, enclosed by a railing covered with matting and rags, stands the statue of Desiderius Erasmus, the first literary celebrity of Rotterdam.
This Gerrit Gerritz—for, like all the great writers of his time, he assumed the Latin name—this Gerrit Gerritz belonged by his education, by his literary attainments, and by his convictions to the circle of the Italian humanists and literati. An elegant, learned, and indefatigable writer on literature and science, he filled all Europe with his fame between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; he was overwhelmed with favor by the popes, sought after and feted by princes. Of his innumerable works, all of which were written in Latin, the "Praise of Folly," dedicated to Sir Thomas More, is still read. The bronze statue, erected in 1622, represents Erasmus dressed in a fur cloak and cap. The figure is slightly bent forward as if he were walking, and he holds in his hand a large open book, from which he is reading. There is a double inscription on the pedestal in Latin and Dutch, which calls him vir saeculi sui primarius et civis omnium praestantissimus. Notwithstanding this pompous eulogy, poor Erasmus, stood in the centre of the market-place like a municipal guard, excites our compassion. There is not, I believe, on the face of the earth another statue of a scholar that is so neglected by those who pass it, so despised by those who surround it, and so pitied by those who look at it. However, who knows but that Erasmus, subtle professor that he was and will ever be, is contented with his corner, if indeed, as tradition tells, it be not far from his house? In a little street near the square, in the wall of a small house which is now used as a tavern, there is to be seen in a niche a bronze statuette of the great writer, and under it runs the inscription: Haec est parva domus magnus qua natus Erasmus. Eight out of ten of the inhabitants of Rotterdam have probably never seen nor read it.
In an angle of the same square is a small house called "The House of Fear," where upon the wall is a picture whose subject I have forgotten. According to the tradition it is called "The House of Fear," because the most prominent people of the city took shelter in it when Rotterdam was sacked by the Spaniards, and were imprisoned in it three days without food. This is not the only record of the Spaniards to be found in Rotterdam. Many buildings, erected during the time of their dominion suggest the style of architecture then fashionable in Spain, and many still bear Spanish inscriptions. In the cities of Holland inscriptions on the houses are very common. The buildings, like old wine, glory in their antiquity and declare the date of their construction in large letters on the facades.
In the market square I had every opportunity of observing the earrings of the women, which deserve to be minutely described.
At Rotterdam, I saw only the earrings which are worn in South Holland, but even in this province alone the variety is very great. However, they are all alike in this respect,—instead of hanging from the ears, they are attached to a gold, silver, or gilded copper semicircle, which girds the head like a half diadem, its extremities resting on the temples. The commonest earrings are in the form of a spiral with five or six circles; they are often very wide, and are attached to the two ends of the semicircle. They project in front of the face like the frames of a pair of spectacles. Many of the women wear another pair of ordinary earrings attached to the spirals. These are very large and reach almost to the bosom, dangling in front of the cheeks like the head-gear of Italian oxen. Some women wear golden circles which gird the forehead also, and are chased and ornamented in relief with leaves, studs, and buttons. They nearly all dress their hair smooth and tight, and wear white caps embroidered and trimmed with lace. These fit the head closely like a night-cap, and cover the neck and shoulders, descending in the form of a veil, which is also embroidered and trimmed with lace. These flowing veils, resembling those of the Arabs, and the peculiar and enormous earrings, give these women an appearance partly regal and partly barbarous. If they were not so fair as they are, one would take them for women of some savage land who had still preserved the ornaments of their native dress. I am not surprised that some travellers, seeing these earrings for the first time, have thought that they were at once an ornament and an instrument, and have asked their use. One might suppose that they are made thus for another purpose than that of beautifying the wearer—that they may serve as a defence to female modesty. For if any impertinent person should attempt to salute a cheek so guarded, he would encounter these obstacles and be kept at bay some distance from the coveted object. These earrings, which are worn chiefly by the peasant-women, are nearly all made of gold, and because of the size of the spirals and of the other accessories they cost a large sum. But I saw signs of even greater riches amongst the Dutch peasantry during my country rambles.
Near the market square stands the cathedral, which was founded toward the end of the fifteenth century at the time of the decadence of Gothic architecture. It was then a Catholic church consecrated to St. Lawrence; now it is the first Protestant church in the city. Protestantism, with religious vandalism, entered the ancient church with a pickaxe and a whitewash brush, and with bigoted fanaticism broke, scraped, rasped, plastered, and destroyed all that was beautiful and splendid, and reduced it to a bare, white, cold edifice, such as ought to have been devoted to the Goddess of Ennui in the time of the False and Lying Gods. In the cathedral there is an immense organ with nearly five thousand pipes, which gives, besides other sounds, the effect of the echo. There are also the tombs of a few admirals, decorated with long epitaphs in Dutch and Latin. Besides these I saw nothing but a great many benches, some boys with their hats on, a group of women who were chattering loudly, and an old man with a cigar in his mouth. This was the first Protestant church I had entered, and I must confess I felt a disagreeable sensation, partly of sadness, partly of scandal. I compared the dismantled appearance of this church with the magnificent cathedrals of Italy and Spain, where a soft and mysterious light shines from the walls, and where one meets the loving looks of angels and saints through the clouds of incense directing one's gaze toward heaven; where one sees so many pictures of innocence that calm one, so many images of pain that help one to suffer, that inspire one with resignation, peace, and the sweetness of pardon; where the poor, without food or shelter, spurned from the rich man's gate, may pray amid marble and gold, as if in a palace,—where, surrounded by a pomp and splendor that do not humiliate, but rather honor and comfort their misery, they are not despised;—those cathedrals, finally, where as children we knelt beside our mothers, and felt for the first time a sweet assurance that we should some day live afresh in those deep azure spaces that we saw painted in the dome suspended above us. Comparing this church with those cathedrals, I perceived that I was more of a Catholic than I had believed myself to be, and I felt the truth of those words of Castelar: "Well, yes, I am a free-thinker, but if some day I were to return to a religion, I would return to the splendid one of my fathers, and not to this squalid and nude doctrine that saddens my eyes and my heart."
From the top of the tower one gets a bird's-eye view of the whole city of Rotterdam with its steep little red roofs, its wide canals, its ships standing out against the houses, and all around the city a boundless plain of vivid green traversed by canals, fringed with trees, dotted with windmills and villages hidden in masses of verdure and showing only the points of their steeples. At that moment the sky was clear, and it was possible to see the gleaming waters of the Meuse from Bois-le-Duc almost to its mouth. I distinguished the steeples of Dordrecht, Leyden, Delft, the Hague, and Gouda; but nowhere, either near or far off, was there a hill, a rise in the ground, or a curve to break the straight even line of the horizon. It was like a sea, green and motionless, on which the steeples were the masts of anchored ships. The eye wandered over that vast plain with a sense of repose, and for the first time I experienced that indefinable feeling which the Dutch landscape inspires. It is a feeling neither of sadness, of pleasure, nor of weariness, yet it embraces them all, and holds one for a long time motionless, without knowing at first what one is looking at or of what one is thinking. I was suddenly aroused by strange music; at first I could not tell whence it came. Bells were ringing a lively chime with silvery notes, now breaking slowly on the ear, as if they could scarcely detach themselves from each other; now blending in groups, in strange flourishes; now trilling, and swelling sonorously. The music was merry and fantastic, although of a somewhat primitive character, it is true, like the many-colored town over which it poured its notes like a flight of birds; indeed, it seemed to harmonize so well with the character of the city that it appeared to be its natural voice, an echo of the quaint life of the people, reminding me of the sea, the solitude, and the cottages, and at the same time it amused me and touched my heart. All at once the music stopped and the hour struck. At the same moment other steeples flung on the air other chimes, of which only the highest notes reached me, and when their chimes were ended they likewise struck the hour. This aerial concert, as I was told when its mechanism was explained to me, is repeated at every hour in the day and night by all the steeples of Holland, and the chimes are national airs, psalms, Italian and German melodies. Thus in Holland the hour sings, as though to draw the mind from contemplating the flight of time, and it sings of country, of religion, and of love, with a harmony surpassing all the sounds of earth.
Now, to continue in order my story of what I saw and did, I must conduct my readers to a coffee-house and beg them to sit beside me at my first Dutch dinner.
The Dutch are great eaters. Their greatest pleasure, as Cardinal Bentivoglio has said, is to be at a feast or at some repast. But they are not epicures; they are voracious: they prefer quantity to quality. Even in ancient times they were famous among their neighbors, not only for the roughness of their habits, but for the simplicity of their diet. They were called eaters of milk and cheese. They usually eat five times a day. When they rise they take tea, coffee, milk, bread, cheese, butter; shortly before noon comes a good breakfast; before dinner they partake of some light nourishment, such as a glass of wine and biscuits; then follows a heavy dinner; and late in the evening, to use their own words, some trifle, so as not to go to bed with an empty stomach. They eat in company on many occasions. I do not mean on the occasions of christenings or marriages, as in other countries, but, for example, at funerals. It is the custom that the friends and relatives who have accompanied the funeral procession shall go home with the family of the deceased, where they are then invited to eat and drink, and they generally do great honor to their hosts. If there were no other witnesses, the Dutch paintings are there to testify to the great part eating has always played in the life of this people. Besides the infinite number of domestic subjects, in which we might say that dishes and bottles are the protagonists, nearly all the large pictures representing historical personages, burgomasters, and national guard, show them seated at table in the act of eating, carving, or pouring out wine. Even their hero, William the Silent, the incarnation of New Holland, shared this national love of the table. He had the first cook of his time, who was so great an artist that the German princes sent beginners to perfect themselves at his school, and Philip II., in one of those periods of apparent reconciliation with his mortal enemy, begged for him as a present.
But, as I said, the principal characteristic of the Dutch kitchen is abundance, not delicacy. The French, who are bon-vivants, find much to criticise. I remember a writer of certain Memoires sur la Hollande who inveighs with lyrical fervor against the Dutch cuisine, saying, "What style of eating is this? They mix soup and beer, meat and comfits, and devour quantities of meat without bread." Other writers of books about Holland have spoken of their dinners in that country as if they were domestic misfortunes. It is superfluous to say that all these statements are exaggerations. Even a fastidious palate can in a very short time accustom itself to the Dutch style of cooking. The substantial part of the dinner is always a dish of meat, with which four or five side dishes of salt meat and vegetables are served. These every one mixes according to his taste and eats with the principal dish. The meats are excellent, the vegetables, which are cooked in a thousand different ways, are even better. Those which they cook in an especially worthy manner are potatoes and cabbages, and their way of making omelets is admirable. I do not speak of game, fish, milk-foods, and butter, because their praises need not be repeated, and I am silent for fear of being too enthusiastic about that celebrated cheese into which, when once one has plunged one's knife, one continues with a sort of increasing fury, thrusting and gashing and abandoning one's self to every style of slashing and gouging until the rind is empty, and desire still hovers over the ruins.
A stranger who dines for the first time in a Dutch restaurant sees a number of strange things. In the first place, the plates are very large and heavy, in proportion to the national appetite; in many places the napkins are of very thin white paper, folded at three corners, and ornamented with a printed border of flowers, with a little landscape in the corner, and the name of the restaurant, or Bon appetit, printed on them in large blue letters. The stranger, to be sure of having something he can eat, orders roast beef, and they bring him half a dozen great slices as large as a cabbage leaf; or a steak, and they bring him a lump of very rare meat which would suffice for a family; or fish, and they set before him an animal as long as the table; and each of these dishes is accompanied by a mountain of mashed potatoes and a pot of strong mustard. They give him a slice of bread a little larger than a dollar and as thin as a wafer. This is not pleasant for us Italians, who eat bread like beggars, so that in a Dutch restaurant, to the great surprise of the waiters, we are obliged to ask for more bread every moment. On any one of these three dishes and a glass of Bavarian or Amsterdam beer a man may venture to say he has dined. Any one who has a lean pocket-book need not dream of wine in Holland, for it is frightfully dear; but, as the people's purses there are generally well filled, nearly all the Dutch, from the middle class up, drink wine, and there are few other countries where there is so great an abundance and variety of foreign wines, particularly of those from French and Rhenish vineyards.
Those who like liqueurs after dinner are well served in Holland. There is no need to mention that the Dutch liqueurs are famous the world over. The most famous of them all is "Schiedam," an extract of juniper-berries that takes its name from the little town of Schiedam, only a few miles from Rotterdam, where there are more than two hundred distilleries. To give an idea of the quantity made, it is sufficient to say that thirty thousand pigs are fed annually on the dregs of the distilled material. The first time one tastes this renowned Schiedam he swears he will never take another drop of it if he lives to be a hundred years old; but, as the French proverb says, "Who has drunk will drink again," and one begins to try it with a great deal of sugar,—then with a little less,—then with none at all, until, horribile dictu! under the excuse of the damp and the fog one tosses down two small glasses with the freedom of a sailor. Next on the list comes Curacoa, a fine feminine liqueur, not nearly so strong as Schiedam, but much stronger than that nauseating sweetened stuff that is sold in other countries under the recommendation of its name. After Curacoa there are many others liqueurs, of every gradation of strength and flavor, with which an expert winebibber can indulge in every style of intoxication, slight, heavy, noisy, or stupid, and whereby he can dispose his brain to see the world in the manner most pleasing to his humor, much as one would do with an optical instrument by changing the color of the lens.
The first time one dines in Holland a curious surprise awaits one when the bill is paid. I had eaten a dinner which would have been scanty for a Batavian, but was ample for an Italian, and, knowing how very dear everything is in Holland, I was waiting for one of those bills to which Theophile Gautier says the only reasonable answer is a pistol-shot. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when the waiter said I was to pay forty sous, and, as all kinds of money circulate in the large Dutch cities, I put on the table forty sous in silver francs, and waited to give my friend time to correct me if he had made a mistake. But he looked at the money without giving any sign of correcting himself, and said with the greatest gravity, "Forty sous more." Springing from my chair, I demanded an explanation. The explanation, alas! was simple. The monetary unit in Holland is the florin, which is equal to two francs four centimes in our money, so that the Dutch centime and sou are worth more than double the Italian centime and sou; hence the mistake and its correction.
Rotterdam at night presents to the stranger an unexpected appearance. In other northern towns at a certain hour the life is gathered within doors; in Rotterdam at the corresponding hour it overflows into the street. A dense crowd passes through the Hoog-Straat until late at night. The shops are open, for then the servants make their purchases and the coffee-houses are crowded. The Dutch coffee-houses are of a peculiar shape. They usually consist of one long saloon, divided in the middle by a green curtain, which is drawn at night, like the curtain of a theatre, hiding all the back part of the room. This part only is lighted. The front part, separated from the street by a large window, remains in the dark, so that from the outside one can see only dim forms and the glowing ends of cigars, which look like fire-flies, and among these shadowy forms appears the uncertain profile of some woman, to whom light would be unwelcome.
After the coffee-houses, the tobacco-shops attract the attention, not only in Rotterdam, but in all other Dutch cities. There is one at almost every step, and they are beyond comparison the finest in Europe, not excepting even the great Havana tobacco-stores in Madrid. The cigars are kept in wooden boxes, on each of which is a printed portrait of the king or queen or of some illustrious Dutch citizen. These boxes are arranged in the high shop-windows in a thousand architectural styles,—in towers, steeples, temples, winding staircases, beginning on the floor and reaching almost to the ceiling. In these shops, which are resplendent with lights like the stores of Paris, one may find cigars of every shape and flavor. The courteous tobacconist puts one's purchase into a special tissue-paper envelope after he has cut off the end of one of the cigars with a machine made for the purpose.
The Dutch shops are brilliantly illuminated, and, although in themselves they do not differ materially from stores of other large European cities, they present at night a very unusual appearance, because of the contrast between the ground floor and the upper part of the house. Below, all is glass, light, color, and splendor; above, the gloomy facades with their steep sharp lines, steps, and curves. The upper part of the house is plain, dark, and silent—in a word, ancient Holland; the ground floor is the new life—fashion, luxury, and elegance. Moreover, the houses are all very narrow, so the shops occupy the whole ground floor, and are generally so close together that they touch each other. Consequently at night, in streets like Hoog-Straat, one sees very little wall below the second floor. The houses seem to rest on glass, and in the distance the windows become blended into two long flaming stripes like gleaming hedges, flooding the streets with light, so that one could find a pin in them.
As one walks along the streets of Rotterdam in the evening, one sees that it is a city overflowing with life and in the process of expansion—a city, so to speak, in the flush of youth, in the time of growth, which, from year to year, outgrows its streets and houses, as a boy outgrows his clothes. Its one hundred and fourteen thousand inhabitants will be two hundred thousand at no distant time. The smaller streets swarm with children; indeed, they are filled to overflowing with them, so that it gladdens one's eyes and heart. An air of happiness breathes through the streets of Rotterdam. The white and ruddy faces of the servants, whose spotless caps are popping out everywhere, the serene faces of the tradespeople, who slowly sip their great mugs of beer, the peasants with their large golden earrings, the cleanliness, the flowers in the windows, the quiet hard-working crowd,—all give to Rotterdam an appearance of health and peaceful content which brings the Te beata to our lips, not with a cry of enthusiasm, but with a smile of sympathy.
Re-entering the hotel, I saw an entire French family in a corridor gazing in admiration at the nails on a door which shone like so many silver buttons.
In the morning, as soon as I arose, I went to my window, which was on the second floor, and on looking at the roofs of the opposite houses, I confessed with surprise that Bismarck was excusable for believing he saw phantoms on the roofs at Rotterdam. Out of the chimney-pots of all the ancient houses rise curved or straight tubes, one above the other, crossing and recrossing like open arms, or forks, or immense horns, in such impossible positions that it seems as though they must understand each other and be speaking a mysterious language from house to house, and that at night they must move about with some purpose.
I walked down Hoog-Straat. It was Sunday and few shops were open. The Dutch told me that some years ago even those few would have been closed: the observance of the Sabbath, which used to be very strict, is becoming slack. I saw the signs of holiday chiefly in the people's clothes, in the dress of the men particularly. The men, especially those of the lower classes (and this I observed in other towns also), have a decided taste for black clothes, which they wear proudly on Sundays—black cravats, black breeches, and certain black over-coats that reach almost to their knees. This costume, together with their leisurely gait and solemn faces, gives them the air of village syndics going to assist at an official Te Deum.
But what most surprised me was to see at that hour almost every one I met, gentry and peasantry, men and boys, with cigars in their mouths. This unfortunate habit of "dreaming awake," as Emile Girardin called it when he made war on smokers, occupies such a large part of the life of the Dutch people that it is necessary to say a few words about it.
The Dutch probably smoke more than any other northern nation. The humidity of the climate makes it almost a necessity, and the cheapness of tobacco puts it in everybody's power to satisfy this desire. To show how inveterate is this habit, it will suffice to say that the boatmen of the trekschuit (the stage-coach of the canals) measure distance by smoke. From here to such and such a town they say it is so many pipes, not so many miles. When you enter a house, the host, after the usual greetings, gives you a cigar; when you leave he gives you another, sometimes he fills your pocket. In the streets one sees men lighting fresh cigars with the stumps they have just smoked, with a hurried air, without stopping for a moment, as if it were equally disagreeable to them to lose a moment of time and a mouthful of smoke. A great many men go to bed with their cigars in their mouths, light them if they awake in the night, and relight them in the morning before leaving their beds. "The Dutchman is a living alembic," writes Diderot; and it does really seem as though smoking is to him one of the necessary functions of life. Many say that much smoking clouds the brain. But, notwithstanding, if there is a people whose intelligence is clear and precise in the highest degree, that people is the Dutch. Moreover, smoking is no excuse for idleness among the Hollanders,—they do not smoke "to dream awake." Every one does his work while puffing white clouds of smoke from his mouth as if he were the chimney of a factory, and, instead of the cigar being a distraction, it is a stimulus and a help to labor. "Smoke is our second breath," said a Dutchman to me, and another defined the cigar as "the sixth finger of our hand."
Apropos of tobacco, I must tell of the life and death of a famous Dutch smoker, but I am rather afraid my Dutch friends who told me the story will shrug their shoulders, for they lamented that strangers who write on Holland pass over important things which do honor to the country, and mention only trifles such as this. However, this is such a remarkable trifle that I cannot resist the temptation of putting it down.
Once upon a time there was a wealthy gentleman who lived in the suburbs of Rotterdam. His name was Van Klaes, but he was nicknamed Papa Big Pipe, for he was a fat old fellow and a great smoker. He was a man of simple habits and kindly heart, who, as the story runs, had made a great fortune in India by honest trade. On his return from India he built himself a beautiful mansion near Rotterdam, and in this home he collected and arranged in order every imaginable kind of pipe. There were pipes of every country and of every period, from those used by ancient barbarians to smoke hemp, to the splendid meerschaum and amber pipes ornamented with carved figures and bands of gold like those seen in the finest stores of Paris. The museum was open to visitors, to each of whom, after he had aired his knowledge on the subject of pipe-collecting, Mr Van Klaes gave a pouch filled with tobacco and cigars, and a catalogue of the museum in a velvet cover.
Every day Mr Van Klaes smoked a hundred and fifty grammes of tobacco, and he died at the ripe old age of ninety-eight years; consequently, if we assume that he began to smoke when he was eighteen years old, he consumed in the course of his life four thousand three hundred and eighty-three kilogrammes. If this quantity of tobacco could be laid down in a continuous black line, it would extend twenty French leagues. But, in spite of all this, Mr Van Klaes showed that in death he was a far greater smoker than he had been in life. Tradition has preserved all the particulars of his end. He was approaching his ninety-eighth birthday when it was suddenly borne in upon him that the end of his life was at hand. He summoned his notary, who was also a notable smoker, and, "Notary," said he with no unnecessary words, "fill my pipe and yours; I am going to die." The notary filled and lighted the pipes, and Mr Van Klaes dictated that will which has become celebrated all over Holland.
After he had bequeathed the greater part of his fortune to relatives, friends, and charities, he added the following clauses:
"I wish every smoker in the kingdom to be invited to my funeral in every way possible, by letter, circular, and advertisement. Every smoker who takes advantage of the invitation shall receive as a present ten pounds of tobacco, and two pipes on which shall be engraved my name, my crest, and the date of my death. The poor of the neighborhood who accompany my bier shall receive every year on the anniversary of my death a large package of tobacco. I make the condition that all those who assist at my funeral, if they wish to partake of the benefits of my will, must smoke without interruption during the entire ceremony. My body shall be placed in a coffin lined throughout with the wood of my old Havana cigar-boxes. At the foot of the coffin shall be placed a box of the French tobacco called caporal and a package of our old Dutch tobacco. At my side place my favorite pipe and a box of matches, ... for one never knows what may happen. When the bier rests in the vault, all the persons in the funeral procession are requested to cast upon it the ashes of their pipes as they pass it on their departure from the grounds."
The last wishes of Mr Van Klaes were faithfully fulfilled; the funeral went off splendidly, veiled in a thick cloud of smoke. The cook of the deceased, Gertrude by name, to whom in a codicil her master had left a considerable fortune on condition that she should overcome her aversion to tobacco, walked in the funeral procession with a cigarette in her mouth. The poor blessed the memory of the charitable gentleman, and all the country resounded with his praises as it now rings with his fame.
As I walked along one of the canals I saw under different conditions one of those sudden changes in the weather such as I had witnessed on the previous day. In a moment the sun disappeared, the infinite variety of cheerful colors was obscured, and a chilling wind began to blow. Then the subdued gayety which existed a few moments before gave place everywhere to a strange trepidation. The leaves of the trees rustled, the flags on the ships fluttered, the boats moored to the palisades tossed to and fro; the waters were troubled, a thousand articles suspended from the houses dangled about,—the arms of the windmills spun rapidly around; it seemed as though a shiver of winter passed through everything, and that the city was apprehensive of a mysterious danger. In a few moments the sun shone out, and with it returned color, peace, and cheerfulness. This scene made me reflect that Holland is not really as sombre a country as many believe; it is rather very sombre one moment, and very cheerful the next, according to the weather. In everything it is a country of contrasts. Beneath a most capricious sky lives the least capricious people in the world, and yet this orderly and methodical nation possesses the tipsiest, most disordered architecture that eye can see.
Before entering the museum at Rotterdam, I think it will be opportune to make some observations on Dutch painting, naturally not for those "who know," understand, but for those who have forgotten.
Dutch art possesses one quality that renders it particularly attractive to us Italians: it is that branch of the world's art which differs most from the Italian school,—it is the antithesis, or, to use a phrase that enraged Leopardi, "the opposite pole in art." The Italian and the Dutch are the two most original schools of painting, or, as some say, the only two schools that can honestly lay claim to originality. The others are only daughters or younger sisters, which bear a certain resemblance to their elders. So Holland even in its art offers us that which we most desire in travel and description—novelty.
Dutch art was born with the independence and freedom of Holland. So long as the northern and southern provinces of the Netherlands were united under Spanish dominion and the Catholic faith, they had only one school of painting. The Dutch artists painted like the Belgians; they studied in Belgium, Germany, and Italy. Heemskerk imitated Michelangelo; Bloemaert copied Correggio; De Moor followed Titian; to mention a few instances. They were pedantic disciples who united with all the affectations of the Italian style a certain German coarseness, and the outcome was a bastard style inferior to the earlier schools—childish, stiff, and crude in color, with no sense of light and shade. But, at any rate, it was not a slavish imitation; it was a faint prelude to real Dutch art.
With the war of independence came liberty, reform, and art. The artistic and religious traditions fell together. The nude, the nymphs, the madonnas, the saints, allegory, mythology, the ideal,—the whole ancient edifice was in ruins. The new life which animated Holland was revealed and developed in a new way. The little country, which had suddenly become so glorious and formidable, felt that it must tell its greatness. Its faculties, which had been strengthened and stimulated in the grand enterprise of creating a native land, a real world,—now that this enterprise was achieved, expanded, and created an imaginary world. The conditions of the people were favorable to a revival of art. They had overcome the supreme perils which threatened them: security, prosperity, a splendid future, were theirs: their heroes had done their part; the time had come for artists. After so many sacrifices and disasters Holland came forth victorious from the strife, turned her face upon her people, and smiled, and that smile was Art.
We could picture to ourselves what this art was even if no example of it remained. A peaceable, industrious, practical people, who, to use the words of a great German poet, were continually brought back to dull realities by the conditions of a vulgar bourgeois life; who cultivated their reason at the expense of their imagination, living in consequence on manifest ideas rather than beautiful images; who fled from the abstract, whose thoughts never rose beyond nature, with which they waged continual warfare—a people that saw only what exists, that enjoyed only what it possessed, whose happiness consisted in wealthy ease and an honest indulgence of the senses, although without violent passions or inordinate desires;—such a people would naturally be phlegmatic in their art,—they would love a style that pleased but did not arouse them, that spoke to the senses rather than to the imagination—a school of art placid, precise, full of repose, and thoroughly material like their life—an art, in a word, realistic and self-satisfied, in which they could see themselves reflected as they were and as they were content to remain.
The first Dutch artists began by depicting that which was continually before their eyes—the home. The long winters, the stubborn rains, the humidity, the continual changes in the climate, compel the Hollander to spend a great part of the year and of the day in the house. He loves his little home, his nutshell, much more than we love our houses, because it is much more necessary to him, and he lives in it much more; he provides it with every comfort, caresses it, adorns it; he delights in looking at the falling snow and drenching rain from its tight windows, and in being able to say, "Let the storms rage—I am safe and warm." In his little nest, beside his good wife and surrounded by his children, he passes the long evenings of autumn and winter, eating much, drinking much, smoking much, and amusing himself with honest mirth after the fatigues of the day. Dutch artists paint these little houses and this home-life in little pictures adapted in size to the little walls they must adorn; bedrooms which make one drowsy; kitchens with tables ready spread; the fresh, kindly faces of mothers of families; men basking in the warmth of the hearth; and, as they are conscientious realists who omit nothing, they add blinking cats, gaping dogs, scratching hens, brooms, vegetables, crockery, and plucked chickens. This life is painted in every class of society and under every circumstance; evening-parties, dances, orgies, games, holidays, all are represented, and thus Ter Borch, Metsu, Netscher, Dou, Mieris, Steen, Brouwer, and Ostade became famous.
From home-life they turned to the country. The hostile climate gave them a very short time in which to admire nature, and for this reason the Dutch artists admire it only the more and salute the spring with greater joy. The fleeting smiles of the heavens are strongly impressed on their imagination. The country is not beautiful, but it is doubly dear to them because it has been wrested from the sea and from the hands of strangers. They painted it with affection, making their landscapes simple, ingenuous, and full of an intimacy with nature that neither the Italian nor the Belgian landscapes of this time possess. Their country, flat and monotonous, presented to their appreciative eyes a marvellous variety. They noted every change in the sky, and revealed the water in its every appearance, its reflection, its grace and freshness, and its power of diffusing light and color everywhere. There are no mountains, so they put the downs in the background of their pictures; and, lacking forests, they saw and expressed the mysteries of a forest in a group of trees, and animated all with noble animals and sails. The subjects of their pictures are poor indeed—a windmill, a canal, a gray sky—but how much they suggest! Some of them, not content with their native land, came to Italy in search of hills, bright skies, and great ruins, and became a circle of choice artists, such as Both, Swanevelt, Pijnacker, Breenbergh, Van Laer, and Asselin; but the palm remains with the true Dutch landscape painters—with Wynants, the painter of morning; Van der Neer, the painter of night; Ruysdael, the painter of melancholy; Hobbema, the painter of windmills, cottages, and kitchen-gardens; and with others who contented themselves with expressing the charm of the modest scenes of their native land.
Side by side with landscape painting arose another branch of art, which was peculiar to Holland—the painting of animals. Cattle are the riches of the country, and the splendid breed of Holland is unequalled in Europe for its beauty and fecundity. The Dutch, who owe so much to their cattle, treat them, so to speak, as a part of the population; they love them, wash them, comb them, dress them. They are to be seen everywhere; they are reflected in the canals, and the country is beautified with their innumerable black and white spots dotting the wide meadows, giving every place an air of peace and repose, and inspiring one with a feeling of Arcadian sweetness and patriarchal serenity. The Dutch artists studied the differences and the habits of these animals; they divined, one may say, their thoughts and feelings, and enlivened the quiet beauty of the landscapes with their figures. Rubens, Snyders, Paul de Vos, and many other Belgian artists had painted animals with wonderful ability, but they are surpassed by the Dutch painters, Van de Velde, Berchem, Karel du Jardin, and Paul Potter, the prince of animal painters, whose famous "Bull" in the gallery at the Hague deserves to be hung in the Louvre opposite Raphael's "Transfiguration."
The Dutch have become pre-eminent in another branch of art also—marine painting. The ocean, their enemy, their power, and their glory, overhanging their land, ever threatening and alarming them, enters into their life by a thousand channels and in a thousand forms. That turbulent North Sea, full of dark color, illuminated by sunsets of infinite gloom, and ever lashing its desolate banks, naturally dominated the imagination of the Dutch artists. They passed long hours on the shore contemplating the terrible beauties of the sea; they ventured from the land to study its tempests; they bought ships and sailed with their families, observing and painting; they followed their fleets to war and joined in the naval battles. Thus a school of marine artists arose, boasting such men as William Van de Velde the father and William the son, Bakhuisen, Dubbels, and Stork.
Another school of painting naturally arose in Holland as the expression of the character of the people and of republican customs. A nation that without greatness had done so many great things, as Michelet says, required an heroic style of painting, if it may be so called, destined to illustrate its men and achievements. But simply because the nation was without greatness, or, to speak more accurately, without the outward form of greatness—because it was modest, and inclined to consider all alike equal in face of the fatherland, because all had done their duty, yet each abhorred that adulation and apotheosis which glorify in one person the virtues and triumphs the mass,—this style of painting was needed, not to extol a few eminent men or extraordinary events, but to represent all classes of citizens by occurrences of the most ordinary and peaceful moments of bourgeois life. Hence those large pictures representing groups of five, ten, or even thirty persons, gunners, syndics, officials, professors, magistrates, men of affairs, seated or standing round tables, feasting or arguing, all life-size and faithful portraits, with serious open countenances, from which shines the quiet expression of a tranquil conscience, from which one divines, rather than sees, the nobility of lives devoted to their country, the spirit of that laborious and dauntless epoch, the manly virtues of that rare generation. All this is relieved by the beautiful costumes of the Renaissance, which so admirably combined grace with dignity,—those ruffs, jerkins, black cloaks, silken scarfs, ribbons, arms, and banners. Van der Helst, Hals, Govert, Flink, and Bol were masters in this style of art.
To leave the consideration of the different branches of painting, and to inquire into the particular methods which the Dutch artists adopted and the means they employed to accomplish their results, one chief feature at once presents itself as the distinctive trait of Dutch painting—the light.
The light, because of the peculiar conditions under which it manifests itself in Holland, has naturally given rise to a peculiar style of painting. A pale light, undulating with marvellous changes, playing through an atmosphere heavy with vapor, a misty veil which is repeatedly and abruptly penetrated, a continual struggle between sunshine and shadow,—these were the phenomena that necessarily attracted the attention of artists. They began by observing and reproducing all this restlessness of the sky, this struggle which animates the nature of Holland with a varied and fantastic life, and by the act of reproducing it the struggle passed into their minds, and then, instead of imitating, they created. Then they themselves made the two elements contend; they increased the darkness to startle and disperse it with every manner of luminous effects and flashes of light; sunbeams stole through the gloom and then gradually died away; the reflections of twilight and the mellow light of lamps were delicately blended into mysterious shadows, which were animated with confused forms which one seems to see and yet cannot distinguish. So under their hands the light presents a thousand fancies, contrasts, enigmas, and effects of shine and shade as unexpected as they are curious. Prominent in this field, among many others, were Gherard Dou, the painter of the famous picture of the four candles, and Rembrandt, the great wonder-working superhuman enlightener.
Another of the most striking characteristics of Dutch painting is naturally color. It is generally recognized that in a country where there are no distant mountains, no undulating views, no prominent features to strike the eye—in short, no general forms that lend themselves to design—the artist is strongly influenced by color. This is especially true in the case of Holland, where the uncertain light and the vague shadows which continually veil the air soften and obscure the outlines of objects until the eye neglects the form it cannot comprehend, and fixes itself on color as the chief quality that nature possesses. But there are yet other reasons for this: a country as flat, monotonous, and gray as Holland is has need of color, just as a southern country has need of shadow. The Dutch artists have only followed the dominant taste of the people, who paint their houses, their boats, their palisades, the fences of the fields, and in some places the very trunks of the trees, in the brightest colors; who dress themselves as of yore in clothes of the gayest hues; who love tulips and hyacinths to distraction. Hence all the Dutch painters were great colorists, Rembrandt being the first.
Realism, favored by the calm and sluggish nature of the Dutch, which enables their artists to restrain their impetuosity, and further aided by the Dutch character, which aims at exactness and refuses to do things by halves, gave to the paintings of the Hollanders another distinctive trait—finish. This they carried to the last possible degree of perfection. Critics say truthfully that in Dutch paintings one may discover the first quality of the nation—patience. Everything is portrayed with the minuteness of a daguerreotype: the furniture with all the graining of the wood, the leaf with all its veins, a thread in a bit of cloth, the patch with all the stitches showing, the animal with every hair distinct, the face with all its wrinkles,—everything is finished with such microscopic precision that it seems to be the work of a fairy's brush, for surely a painter would lose his sight and reason in such a task. After all, this is a defect rather than a virtue, because painting ought to reproduce not what exists, but rather what the eye sees, and the eye does not see every detail. However, the defect is brought to such a degree of excellence that it is to be admired rather than censured, and one does not even dare to wish that it should not be there. In this respect, Dou, Mieris, Potter, Van der Helst, and indeed all the Dutch painters in greater or less degree, were famous as prodigies of patience.
On the other hand, realism, which imparts to Dutch painting such an original character and such admirable qualities, is, notwithstanding, the root of its most serious defects. The Dutch painters, solicitous to copy only material truth, give to their figures the expression of merely physical sentiments. Sorrow, love, enthusiasm, and the thousand subtle emotions that are nameless, or that take different names from the different causes that give them birth, are rarely or never expressed. For them the heart does not beat, the eye does not overflow with tears, nor does the mouth tremble. In their pictures a whole part of the life is lacking, and that the most powerful and noble part, the human soul. Nay more, by so faithfully copying everything, the ugly especially, they end in exaggerating even that. They convert defects into deformities, portraits into caricatures; they slander the national type; they give every human figure an ungraceful and ludicrous appearance. To have a setting for figures they are obliged to select trivial subjects; hence the excessive number of canvases depicting taverns and drunken men with grotesque, stupefied faces, in sprawling attitudes; low women and old men who are despicably ridiculous; scenes in which we seem to hear the low yells and obscene words. On looking at these pictures one would say that Holland is inhabited by the most deformed and ill-mannered nation in the world. Some painters permit themselves even greater license. Steen, Potter, Brouwer, and the great Rembrandt himself often pandered to a low and depraved taste, and Torrentius sent forth such shameless pictures that the provinces of Holland collect and burn them. But, overlooking these excesses, there is scarcely anything to be found in a Dutch gallery which elevates the soul, which awakens in the mind high and noble sentiments. One enjoys, one admires, one laughs, and sometimes one is silent before some landscapes, but on leaving one feels that one has not felt a real pleasure—that something was lacking. There comes a longing to look upon a beautiful face or to read inspired poetry, and sometimes, unconsciously, one catches one's self murmuring, "O Raphael!"
In conclusion, we must note two great merits in this school—its variety and its value as an expression, as a mirror, of the country. If Rembrandt and his followers are excepted, almost all the other painters are quite different from each other. Perhaps no other school presents such a number of original masters. The realism of the Dutch painters arose from their common love for nature, but each of them has shown in his work a different manifestation of a love all his own; each has given the individual impression that he has received from nature. They all set out from the same point—the worship of material truth, but they each arrived at a different goal. Their realism impelled them to copy everything, and the consequence is that the Dutch school has succeeded in representing Holland much more faithfully than any other school has illustrated any other country. It has been said that if every other visible testimony to the existence of Holland in the seventeenth century—its great century—excepting the work of its artists were to disappear, everything would be found again in the pictures—the towns, the country, the ports, the fleets, the markets, the shops, the dress, the utensils, the arms, the linen, the merchandise, the pottery, the food, the amusements, the habits, the religion, and the superstitions. The good and the bad qualities of the nation are all alike represented, and this, which is a merit in the literature of a country, is no less a merit in its art.
But there is one great void in Dutch painting, for which the peaceful and modest character of the people is not a sufficient reason. This school of painting, which is so essentially national, has, with the exception of some great naval battles, passed over all of the grand exploits of the war of independence, among which the sieges of Leyden and Haarlem would have been sufficient to inspire a legion of artists. Of this war, almost a century in duration, filled with strange and terrible events, there is not a single memorable painting. This school, so varied and so conscientious in reproducing its country and its life, has not represented one scene of that great tragedy, as William the Silent prophetically called it, which aroused in the Hollanders such diverse emotions of fear and grief, rage, joy, and national pride.
The splendor of Holland's art faded with its political greatness. Nearly all the great painters were born during the first thirty years of the seventeenth or during the last years of the sixteenth century; none of them were living after the first ten years of the eighteenth century, and no others appeared to take their places. Holland had exhausted its productiveness. Already toward the end of the seventeenth century the sentiment of patriotism had commenced to weaken, taste had become depraved, the painters lost their inspiration with the decline of the moral energies of the country. In the eighteenth century the artists, as though surfeited with nature, returned to mythology, classicism, and conventionality; their imagination was weakened, their style was impoverished, and every spark of their former genius was extinguished. Dutch Art showed the world the marvellous flowers of Van Huysum, the last great lover of nature, then folded her weary hands and the flowers fell on his tomb.
The present gallery at Rotterdam contains but a small number of paintings, among which there are very few works of the best artists and none of the chefs d'oeuvre of the Dutch School. Three hundred paintings and thirteen hundred drawings were destroyed by fire in 1864, and most of the works that are now there were bequeathed to the city of Rotterdam by Jacob Otto Boymans. Hence the gallery is a place to see examples of some particular artist, rather than to study Dutch painting.
In one of the first rooms are some sketches of naval battles, signed by William van de Velde, who is considered the greatest marine painter of his time. He was the son of William the elder, who was also a marine painter. Both father and son were fortunate enough to live at the time of the great naval wars between Holland, England, and France, and were able to see the battles with their own eyes. The States of Holland placed a frigate at the disposal of Van de Velde the elder; his son accompanied him. Both made their sketches in the midst of the battle-smoke, sometimes advancing so far among the fighting ships that the admirals were obliged to order them to withdraw. The younger Van de Velde surpassed his father. He painted small pictures—for the most part a gray sky, a calm sea, and some sails—but so naturally are they done that when one looks at them one seems to smell the salt air of the sea, and mistakes the frame for a window. This Van de Velde belongs to that group of Dutch painters who loved the water with a sort of madness, and who painted, one may say, on the water. Of these was Bakhuisen, a marine painter who had a great vogue in his day, whom Peter the Great chose as his master during his visit to Amsterdam. This Bakhuisen, it is said, used to risk himself in a small boat in the midst of a storm at sea that he might be able to observe more closely the movements of the waves, and he often placed his own life and the lives of his boatmen in such danger that the men, caring more for their skins than for his paintings, sometimes took him back to land against his will. John Griffier did more. He bought a little ship in London, furnished it like a house, installed his wife and children in it, and sailed about on his own responsibility in search of subjects. A storm dashed his vessel to pieces against a sandbank and destroyed all he possessed; he and his family were saved by a miracle, and settled in Rotterdam. But he soon grew weary of a life on land, bought a shattered boat and put to sea again; he nearly lost his life a second time near Dordrecht, but still continued his voyages.
The Rotterdam gallery affords very few examples of marine paintings, but landscape painting is worthily represented by two pictures by Ruysdael, the greatest of the Dutch painters of rural scenes. These two paintings represent his favorite subjects—leafy, solitary spots, which, like all his works, inspire a subtle feeling of melancholy. The great power of this artist is sentiment. He is eminent in the Dutch school for a gentleness of soul and a singular superiority of education. It has been most truly said of him that he used landscape as an expression of his suffering, his weariness, his fancies, and that he contemplated his country with a bitter sadness, as if it were a place of torment, and that he created the woods to hide his gloom in their shade. The soft light of Holland is the image of his soul; none felt more exquisitely than he its melancholy sweetness, none represented more feelingly than he, with a ray of languid light, the smile of a suffering fellow-creature. Because of the exceptional delicacy of his nature he was not appreciated by his fellow-citizens until long after his death.
Beside a painting by Ruysdael hangs a picture of flowers by a female artist, Rachel Ruysch, the wife of a famous portrait-painter, who was born toward the close of the sixteenth century, and died, brush in hand, in the eightieth year of her age, after she had shown to her husband and to the world that a sensible woman can passionately cultivate the fine arts and yet find time to rear and educate ten children.
And as I have spoken of the wife of a painter, I simply mention that it is possible to write an entertaining book on the wives of Dutch artists, both because of the variety of their adventures and the important part they play in the history of art. The faces of a number are known already, because many artists painted their wives' portraits, as well as their own and those of their children, their cats, and their hens. Biographers speak of most of them, confirming or contradicting reports which have been circulated in regard to their conduct. Some have hazarded the opinion that the larger number of them were a serious drawback to their husbands. It seems to me there is something to be said on the other side. As for Rembrandt, it is known that the happiest part of his life was the time between his first marriage and the death of his wife, who was the daughter of a burgomaster of Leeuwarden, and to whom posterity owes a debt of gratitude. It is also known that Van der Helst at an advanced age married a beautiful girl, for whom there is nothing but praise, and posterity should be grateful to her for having brightened the old age of a great artist. It is true that we cannot speak of all in the same terms. Of the two wives of Steen, for example, the first was a featherhead, who allowed the tavern at Delft that he had inherited from his father to go to ruin; and the second, from all accounts, was unfaithful. Heemskerk's second wife was so dishonest that her husband was obliged to go about excusing her peculations. De Hondecoeter's wife was an eccentric and troublesome woman, who forced her husband to pass his evenings in a tavern in order to rid himself of her company. The wife of Berghem was so intolerably avaricious that if she found him dozing over his brushes she awoke him roughly to make him work and earn money, and the poor man was obliged to resort to subterfuges to purchase engravings when he was paid for his pictures. On the other hand, one could never end reciting the misdeeds of the husbands. The artist Griffier compelled his wife to travel about the world in a boat; Veen begged his wife's permission to spend four months in Rome, and stayed there four years. Karel du Jardin married a rich old woman to pay his debts, and deserted her when she had paid them. Molyn, another artist, had his wife assassinated that he might marry a Genoese. I doubt whether poor Paul Potter, as the story runs, was betrayed by the wife whom he blindly loved; and who knows whether Huysum, the great flower-painter, who was consumed by jealousy in the midst of riches and glory for a wife who was neither young nor beautiful, had real grounds for his doubts, or whether he was not induced by the reports of his envious rivals to believe what was untrue? In conclusion, I must mention with due honor the three wives of Eglon Van der Neer, who crowned him with twenty-five children—a family which, however, did not keep him from painting a large number of pictures in every style, from making several voyages, and from cultivating tulips.
There are several small paintings by Albert Cuyp in the Rotterdam gallery, a landscape, horses, fowls, and fruit—that Albert Cuyp who holds a unique place in Dutch art, who in the course of a prolonged life painted portraits, landscapes, animals, flowers, winter pieces, moonlight scenes, marine subjects, figures, and in each style left an imprint of originality. But nevertheless, like most of the Dutch painters of his time, he was so unfortunate that until 1750, more than fifty years after his death, his paintings sold for a hundred francs, whereas they now would bring a hundred thousand francs—not in Holland, but in England, where most of his works are owned.
Heemskerk's "Christ at the Sepulchre" would not be worth mentioning if it were not an excuse for introducing the artist, who was one of the most curious creatures that ever walked the face of the earth. Van Veen—such is his real name—was born in the village of Heemskerk at the end of the fifteenth century, and flourished at the period of Italian imitation. He was the son of a peasant, and, although he had an inclination toward art, he was intended for a peasant. He became a painter by chance, like many other Dutch artists. His father had a furious temper, and the son was very much afraid of him. One day poor Van Veen dropped the milk-jug; his father flew at him, but he ran out of the house and spent the night somewhere else. The next morning his mother found him, and, thinking it would be unsafe for him to face the paternal anger, she gave him a small quantity of linen, a little money, and commended him to the care of God. The lad went to Haarlem, and, obtaining an entrance to the studio of a famous artist, he studied, succeeded, and then went to Rome to perfect himself. He did not become a great artist, for the imitation of the Italian school spoiled him: his treatment of the nude was stiff and his style full of mannerisms, but he painted a great deal and was well paid, and did not regret his early life. But herein consisted his peculiarity: he was, as his biographers assert, a man incredibly, morbidly and ridiculously timid. When he knew that the arquebusiers were to pass he climbed the roofs and steeples, and trembled with fear when he saw their arms in the street. If any one thinks this an idle story, there is a fact which serves to prove it true: he was in the town of Haarlem when the Spaniards besieged it, and the magistrates, who knew his weakness, permitted him to flee from the city before they began to fight, doubtless foreseeing that otherwise he would have died of fright. He took advantage of the permission and fled to Amsterdam, leaving his fellow-citizens in the lurch.
Other Dutch painters—for we are speaking of the men, not of their pictures—like Heemskerk, owed their choice of a profession to accident. Everdingen, of the first order of landscape-painters, owed his choice to a tempest which wrecked his ship on the shore of Norway, where he remained, was inspired by the grand natural scenery and created an original style of landscape art. Cornelisz Vroom also owed his fortune to a shipwreck: he was on his way to Spain with some religious pictures; when the vessel was wrecked near the coast of Portugal, the poor artist saved himself with others on an uninhabited island, where they remained two days without food. They considered themselves as good as lost, when they were unexpectedly relieved by some monks from a monastery on the coast, whither the sea had borne the hulk of the vessel with the pictures, which were unharmed. These the monks considered admirable. Thus was Cornelisz sheltered, welcomed, and stimulated to paint, and the profound emotions occasioned by the wreck gave his genius such a new and powerful impulse that he became a real artist. Another, Hans Fredeman, the famous trick painter who painted some columns on the frame of a drawing-room door so cleverly that Charles V. turned round to look as soon as he had entered, and thought that the walls had suddenly closed behind him by enchantment,—this Hans Fredeman, who painted palisades that made people turn back, doors which people attempted to open, owed his fortune to a book on architecture by Vitruvius which he obtained by chance from a carpenter.
There is a good little picture by Steen which represents a doctor pretending to operate on a man who imagines himself to be sick: an old woman is holding a basin, the invalid is shrieking desperately, and a few curious neighbors, convulsed with laughter, look on from a window.
When one says that this picture makes one break into an irresistible peal of laughter, one has said all that is necessary. After Rembrandt, Steen is the most original figure-painter of the Dutch school; he is one of those few artists whom, when once known, whether they are or are not congenial to our taste, we must perforce admire as great painters, and even if we consider them worthy of only secondary honors, it matters not, they remain indelibly impressed on our minds. After one has seen Steen's pictures it is impossible to see a drunkard, a buffoon, a cripple, a dwarf, a deformed face, a ridiculous smirk, a grotesque attitude, without remembering one of his figures. All the degrees of stupidity and of drunkenness, all the grossness and mawkishness of orgies, the frenzy of the lowest pleasures, the cynicism of the vulgarest vice, the buffoonery of the wildest rabble, all the most brutal emotions, the basest aspects of tavern and alehouse life, have been painted by him with the brutality and insolence of an unscrupulous man, and with such a sense of the comic, such an impetuosity, such an intoxication of inspiration, one might say that words cannot express the effect produced. Writers have devoted many volumes to him, and have advanced many different opinions about him. His warmest admirers have attributed to him a moral purpose—that of making debauchery hateful by painting it as he did in repulsive colors, for the same reason that the Spartans showed drunken Helots to their sons. Others see in his paintings only the spontaneous and thoughtless expression of the spirit and taste of the artist, whom they represent as a vulgar debauchee. However this may be, there is no doubt that in the effects produced Steen's painting may be considered a satire on vice, and in this he is superior to almost all the Dutch painters, who restricted themselves to an external realism. Hence he was called the Dutch Hogarth, the jovial philosopher, the keenest observer of the habits of his countrymen, and one among his admirers has said that if Steen had been born at Rome instead of at Leyden, and had Michelangelo instead of Van Goyen been his master, he would have been one of the greatest painters in the world. Another finds some kind of analogy between him and Raphael. The technical qualities of his paintings are much less admired, his work has not the finish nor the strength of the other artists, such as Ostade, Mieris, and Dou. But, even taking into consideration its satirical character, one must say that Steen has often exceeded his purpose if he really had a purpose. The fury with which he pursued the burlesque often got the better of his feeling for reality; his figures, instead of being merely ridiculous, became monstrous and hardly human, often resembling beasts rather than men, and he has exaggerated these figures until sometimes he awakens, a feeling of nausea instead of mirth, and a sense of indignation that nature should be so outraged. The effect he produces is generally a laugh,—a loud, irresistible laugh, which bursts from one even when alone and calls the people away from the neighboring pictures. It is impossible to carry further than Steen did the art of flattening noses, twisting mouths, shortening necks, making wrinkles, rendering faces stupid, putting on humps, and making his puppets seem as if they were roaring with laughter, vomiting, reeling, or falling. By the leer of a half-closed eye he expressed idiocy and sensuality; by a sneer or a gesture he revealed the brutality of a man. He makes one smell the odor of a pipe, hear the coarse laughter, guess at the stupid or foul discourses—to understand, in a word, tavern-life and the dregs of the people; and I maintain that it is impossible to carry this art to a higher point than that to which Steen has carried it.
His life has been and still is a vexed question. Volumes have been written to prove that he was a drunkard, and volumes to prove that he was a sober man; and, as is always the case, both sides exaggerate. He kept an alehouse at Delft, but it did not pay; then he set up a tavern and things went worse. It is said that he was its most assiduous frequenter, that he would drink up all the wine, and that when the cellar was empty he would take down the sign, close the door, and begin to paint furiously, and when he had sold his pictures he would buy more wine and begin life again. It is even said that he paid for everything with his pictures, and that consequently all his paintings were to be found in wine-merchants' houses. It is really difficult to explain how he could have painted such a large number of admirable works if he was always intoxicated, but it is no less difficult to understand why he had a taste for such subjects if he led a steady, sober life. It is certain that, especially during the last years of his life, he committed every sort of extravagance. He at first studied under the famous landscape painter Van Goyen, but genius worked in him more powerfully than study; he divined the rules of his art, and if it sometimes seems that he has painted too black, as some of his critics have said, it was the fault of an extra bottle of wine at dinner.
Steen is not the only Dutch painter who, whether deservedly or not, won a reputation for drunkenness. At one time nearly all the artists passed the greater part of their day in the taverns, where they became famously drunk, fell to fighting, and whence they came out bruised and bleeding. In a poem upon painting by Karel van Mander, who was the first to write the history of the painters of the Netherlands, there occurs a passage directed against drunkenness and the habit of fighting, part of which runs as follows: "Be sober and live so that the unhappy proverb 'As debauched as a painter' may become 'As temperate as an artist.'" To mention a few among the most famous artists, Mieris was a notable winebibber, Van Goyen a drunkard, Franz Hals, the master of Brouwer, a winesack, Brouwer an incorrigible tippler; William Cornelis, and Hondecoeter were on the best terms with the bottle. Many of the humbler painters are said to have died intoxicated. Even in death the history of the Dutch painters presents a thousand incongruities. The great Rembrandt expired in misery almost without the knowledge of any; Hobbema died in the poor quarter of Amsterdam; Steen died in poverty; Brouwer died at a hospital; Andrew Both and Henry Verschuringh were drowned; Adrian Bloemaert met his death in a duel; Karel Fabritius was killed by the explosion of a powder-magazine; Johann Schotel died, brush in hand, of a stroke of apoplexy; Potter died of consumption; Lucas of Leyden was poisoned. So, what with shameful deaths, debauchery, and jealousy, one may say that a great part of the Dutch painters have had an unhappy fate.
In the gallery at Rotterdam there is a beautiful head by Rembrandt; a scene of brigands by Wouverman, a great painter of horses and battles; a landscape by Van Goyen, the painter of dead shores and leaden skies; a marine painting by Bakhuisen, the painter of storms; a painting by Berghem, the painter of smiling landscapes; one by Everdingen, the painter of waterfalls and forests; and other paintings belonging to the Italian and Flemish schools.
On leaving the museum I met a company of soldiers, the first Dutch soldiers I had seen. Their uniform was dark colored, without any showy ornaments, and they were all fair from first to last, and wore their hair long, and almost all of them had a peaceful, happy look, which seemed in strange contrast with the arms they bore. Rotterdam, a city of more than a hundred thousand inhabitants, has a garrison of three hundred soldiers! And it is said that Rotterdam has the name of being the most turbulent and unruly city in Holland! In fact, some time ago there was a popular demonstration against the municipality, which had no consequences but a few broken windows. But in a country like this, which runs by clockwork, it must have seemed, and did truly seem, a great event; the cavalry was sent from the Hague, the country was in commotion. One must not think, however, that this people is all sugar; the citizens of Rotterdam confess that "the holy rabble," as Carducci calls it, is stoutly licentious, as is the case in other towns of worse reputation; the lack of police is rather an incentive to license than a proof, as some might think, of public discipline.
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Rotterdam, as I have already said, is a city neither artistic nor literary; on the contrary, it is one of the few Dutch cities that have not given birth to some great painter—an unproductiveness shared by the whole of Zealand. Erasmus, however, is not its only man of letters. In a little park that extends to the right of the town on the bank of the Meuse there is a marble statue raised by the inhabitants of Rotterdam to honor the poet Tollens, who was born at the end of last century and died a few years ago. This Tollens, whom some dare to call the Beranger of Holland, was (and in this alone he resembles Beranger) one of the most popular poets of the country—one of those poets of which there were so many in Holland, simple, moral, and fall of common sense, having, in fact, more good sense than inspiration; who treated poetry as if it were a business; who never wrote anything that could displease their prudent relatives and judicious friends; who sang of their good God and their good king, and expressed the tranquil and practical character of the people, always taking care to say things that were exact rather than great, and, above all, cultivating poetry in old age, and like prudent fathers of families not stealing a moment from the pursuit of their business. Like many other Dutch poets (who, however, had more genius and different natures), he had another profession besides that of an author. Vondel, for instance, was a hatmaker; Hooft was the governor of Muyden; Van Lennep was a fiscal lawyer; Gravenswaert was a state counsellor; Bogaers, an advocate; Beets, a shepherd; so Tollens also, besides being a man of letters, was an apothecary at Rotterdam, and passed every day, even in his old age, in his drug-store. He had a family and loved his children tenderly—so at least one would conclude from the different pieces of poetry he wrote on the appearance of their first, second, and third teeth. He wrote ballads and odes on familiar and patriotic subjects. Among these is the national hymn of Holland, a mediocre production which the people sing about the streets and the boys chant at school. There is a little poem, perhaps the best of his works, on the expedition which the Dutch sent to the Polar Sea toward the end of the sixteenth century. The people learn his poetry by heart, adore him, and prefer him as their most faithful interpreter and most affectionate friend. But, for all this, Tollens is not considered in Holland as a first-class poet, many do not even rank him in the second class, while not a few disdainfully refuse to give him the sacred laurels.
After all, if Rotterdam is not a centre of literature and art, she has as compensation an extraordinary number of philanthropic institutions, splendid clubs, and all the comforts and diversions of a city of wealth and refinement.
The observations that I have had occasion to make on the character and life of the inhabitants will be more to the purpose at the Hague. I will only mention that in Rotterdam, as in other Dutch cities, no one, in speaking of their country's affairs, showed the least national vanity. The expressions, "Isn't it beautiful?" "What do you think of that?"—which one hears every moment in other countries, are never heard in Holland, even when the inhabitants are speaking of things that are universally admired. Every time that I told a citizen of Rotterdam that I liked the town he made a gesture of surprise. In speaking of their commerce and institutions they never let a vain expression escape them, nor even a boastful or complacent word. They always speak of what they are going to do, and never of what they have done. One of the first questions put to me when I named my country was, "What about its finances?" As to their own country, I observed that they know all that it is useful to know, and very little that it is simply a pleasure to know. A hundred things, a hundred parts of the city, which I had observed when I had been twenty-four hours at Rotterdam, many of the citizens had never seen; which proves that they are not in the habit of rambling about and looking at everything.
When I took my leave my acquaintances filled my pockets with cigars, counselled me to eat good nourishing dinners, and gave me advice on the subject of economical travelling. They parted from me quietly. There was no clamorous "What a pity you are going!" "Write soon!" "Come back quickly!" "Don't forget us!" which rang in my ears on leaving Spain. Here there was nothing but a hearty shake of the hand, a look, and a simple good-bye.
On the morning when I left Rotterdam I saw in the streets through which I passed to get to the Delft railway-station a novel spectacle, purely Dutch—the cleaning of the houses, which takes place twice a week in the early morning hours. All the servants in the city, dressed in flowered lilac-colored wrappers, white caps, white aprons, white stockings, and white wooden shoes, and with their sleeves turned up, were busily washing the doors, the walls, and the windows. Some sat courageously on the window-sills while they washed the panes of the windows with sponges, turning their backs to the street with half their bodies outside; others were kneeling on the pavement cleaning the stones with rough cloths; others were standing in the middle of the street armed with syringes, squirts, and pumps, with long rubber tubes, like those used for watering gardens, and were sending against the second-floor windows streams of water which were pouring down again into the street; others were mopping the windows with sponges and rags tied to the tops of long bamboo canes; others were burnishing the door-knobs, rings, and door-plates; some were cleaning the staircases, some the furniture, which they had carried out of the houses. The pavements were blocked with buckets and pitchers, with jugs, watering-pots, and benches; water ran down the walls and down the street; jets of water were gushing out everywhere. It is a curious thing that while labor in Holland is so slow and easy in all its forms, this work presented an appearance altogether different. All those girls with glowing faces were bustling indoors and hurrying out again, rushing up stairs and down, tucking up their sleeves hastily, assuming bold acrobatic attitudes and undergoing dangerous contortions. They took no notice of those who passed by except when with jealous eyes it was necessary to keep the profane race away from the pavement and walls. In short, it was a furious rivalry of cleanliness, a sort of general ablution of the city, which had about it something childish and festive, and which made one fancy that it was some rite of an eccentric religion which ordered its followers to cleanse the town from a mysterious infection sent by malicious spirits.
On my way from Rotterdam to Delft I saw for the first time the plains of Holland.
The country is perfectly flat—a succession of green and flower-decked meadows, broken by long rows of willows and clumps of alders and poplars. Here and there appear the tops of steeples, the turning arms of windmills, straggling herds of large black and white cattle, and an occasional shepherd; then, for miles, only solitude. There is nothing to attract the eye, there is neither hill nor valley. From time to time the sail of a ship is seen in the distance, but as the vessel is moving on an invisible canal, it seems to be gliding over the grass of the meadows as it is hidden for a moment behind the trees and then reappears. The wan light lends a gentle, melancholy influence to the landscape, while a mist almost imperceptible makes all things appear distant. There is a sense of silence to the eye, a peace of outline and color, a repose in everything, so that the vision grows dim and the imagination sleeps.
Not far from Rotterdam the town of Schiedam comes into view, surrounded by very high windmills, which give it the appearance of a fortress crowned with turrets; and far away can be seen the towers of the village of Vlaardingen, one of the principal stations of the herring-fisheries.
Between Schiedam and Delft I observed the windmills with great attention. Dutch windmills do not at all resemble the decrepit mills I had seen in the previous year at La Mancha, which seemed to be extending their thin arms to implore the aid of heaven and earth. The Dutch mills are large, strong, and vigorous, and Don Quixote would certainly have hesitated before running atilt at them. Some are built of stone or bricks, and are round or octagonal like mediaeval towers; others are of wood, and look like boxes stuck on the summits of pyramids. Most of them are thatched. About midway between the roof and the ground they are encircled by a wooden platform. Their windows are hung with white curtains, their doors are painted green, and on each door is written the use which it serves. Besides drawing water, the windmills do a little of everything: they grind grain, pound rags, crumble lime, crush stones, saw wood, press olives, and pulverize tobacco. A windmill is as valuable as a farm, and it takes a considerable fortune to build one and provide it with colza, grain, flour, and oil to keep it working, and to sell its products. Consequently, in many places the riches of a proprietor are measured by the number of mills he owns; an inheritance is counted by mills, and they say of a girl that she has so many windmills as dowry, or, even better, so many steam-mills; and fortune-hunters, who are to be found everywhere, sue for the maiden's hand to marry the mill. These countless winged towers scattered through the country give the landscape a singular appearance; they animate the solitude. At night in the midst of the trees they have a fantastic appearance, and look like fabulous birds gazing at the sky. By day in the distance they look like enormous pieces of fireworks; they turn, stop, curb and slacken their speed, break the silence by their dull and monotonous tick-tack, and when by chance they catch fire—which not infrequently happens, especially in the case of flour-mills—they form a wheel of flame, a furious rain of burning meal, a whirlwind of smoke, a tumult, a dreadful magnificent brilliance that gives one the idea of an infernal vision.