Littell's Living Age/Volume 134/Issue 1735/Pictures in Holland, on and off Canvas
PICTURES IN HOLLAND, ON AND OFF CANVAS.
There is a curious difference between the two parts of the "Low Countries" — the "nether lands" formed of the ooze and mud deposited by the three great rivers, the Rhine, the Meuse, and the Scheldt, before entering the North Sea, and defended by a fringe of sandbanks and "dunes," thrown up by the winds and the waves. Belgium is simply a flat, ugly, prosperous-looking, uninteresting country, not unlike the more commonplace parts of England; but the flatness of Holland has infinitely more character in it, so that after passing the wide and turbid Scheldt, with its forests of shipping, one feels as if in a new land. It is the difference between a merely plain person and an ugly face full of character.
We left Antwerp on a grey day, with occasional gleams of light, the spire of the cathedral seeming for a time to grow taller and taller, as the perspective of distance showed more clearly the true relation of its height to the churches and houses, the masts and chimneys, grouped round its central point — the delicate tracery of its lofty pinnacles, rising four hundred feet above the little men who yet had ventured to build up that daring flight of masonry heavenward.
The dead flats, with trees and distant houses, and shifting islands of light on the bright green meadows, passed quickly by, — living illustrations of the Dutch pictures with which we all are familiar; the exquisite truth of which to nature strikes one at every turn, the land part of the scene forming a mere line in the whole subject, the sky and clouds, as at sea, monopolizing three-fourths of the composition, and requiring therefore infinitely more care and thought in their arrangement than with other landscapes.
Presently came a series of small pine woods, cut for fuel and the service of the rail before they could reach the age of any beauty; with wide tracts of sandy heathery common, and sour, boggy bits, where the turf was being taken out, and waste corners where more scrubby trees were attempting to grow. Few cottages, no châteaux, hardly any inhabitants, were to be seen; it seemed as if we were reaching the very end of the world. Then came the marshy flats, always at the mercy of a few inches’ rise in the tidal rivers, and the intricate series of islands, which alter as the muddy channels of the three great rivers divide and change, the rushing waters eating away the low-lying lands they have themselves formed, and carrying them bodily into the sea, against whose inroads the very existence of Holland is a continual struggle of life and death.
Here, in this apparently remote corner of the earth, name after name was shouted, as the nations succeeded each other at short intervals, recalling some of the most stirring scenes that the world has ever known, and reminding one how in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries this was the place where many of the greatest deeds in European history were enacted, and the most important negotiations were conducted.
Here was the centre of the great struggle for freedom, both religious and political, won hardly for Europe at the cost of such horrible sufferings to the inhabitants of these industrious, well-doing cities, — ingrained traders if ever any existed, — who yet gave up the prosperity so dear to them for the sake of what to some seem only mere abstract questions; where women and children helped in fighting the good fight, both actively and passively, not only enduring to the end the dreadful privations of the sieges, and exhorting their mankind not to yield, but even themselves fighting on the ramparts. Here such heads of the people as William the Silent, Barneveldt, De Witt, Prince Maurice, and William III. revolved their great schemes of European policy, and moved the strings that moved the world.
After such a past, it seems strange how the current of political power has now, as it were, stranded Holland on her own mud-banks, and left her to her prosperous trade, the commercial activity which fills the ports of Rotterdam, Dort, and Amsterdam with shipping and goods, the interior development of her agriculture over miles of flat green pastures, rich and fertile, tenanted with herds of fat cattle, and the furnishing of butter and cheese, salt herrings and other fish, to the nations — a useful, but not so heroic a vocation as of old.
This is not the age of small states; war has been revolutionized to the exclusive profit of great populations and areas. The gigantic power of such armaments as Napoleon was the first to bring into fashion would now crush small centres of light such as the Greek and Italian republics, and the seventeen United Provinces, before they would have time to collect men and money enough to resist. Whether this advance of brute force can be called civilization may be a question. "God" certainly seems now to be "du côte des gros bataillons" in Napoleon’s sense, but a better mode of adjusting our differences must surely some time be found than for one nation to hammer another into subjection at the greatest possible cost to itself of blood and treasure, as in the Franco-German war. The horror expressed at the Bulgarian atrocities (both real and feigned) shows an advance in public opinion. Every important place in the Low Countries suffered as great horrors again and again in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, while Europe looked calmly on. Let any one read again the sieges of Antwerp, Haarlem, and Leyden, and say whether even the fiendish cruelties exercised on the poor Bulgarian peasants were worse than the wholesale barbarities inflicted on the unoffending inhabitants of great civilized cities, and continued for years by Christian soldiers, led by "officers and gentlemen," representatives of the "Most Catholic King," and belonging to a State such as Spain then was, standing at the head of the European nations of the period. It proves at least that the ideal of what may be permitted, even in war, has greatly changed for the better.
It is sometimes said that individual influence is at an end in the world, that we now work only by committees, parliaments, associations, and unions — vestries, in short, big and little. In the days when Bismarck and Moltke are still alive, and Cavour for good, and "Napoleon the Little" for evil, are scarcely cold in their graves, this can only be considered partially true. Yet standing among the trees of the Plein (Place) at the Hague, and looking at the statue of "the Taciturn" (as he is often written and spoken of "for shortness" in a sort of affectionate familiarity) as he stands bare-headed, in his long robe, trunk hose, and great ruff — sagacious, long-suffering, wary, indomptable, one cannot but feel that the whole of Holland might now slip into the sea with less effect upon the fate of Europe than had the death of that one great man under the hands of an obscure assassin. The whole country seems full of him — with his memory are connected all the most stirring incidents in that most stirring epoch of her history; he is the incarnation of the best spirit of Holland in her best days.
The period of development, the flowering times in art and literature of a nation, are even curiously incalculable. The most unheroic age of Louis Quatorze brought out the full bloom of the talent of France. Here, amid war, misery, famine, bloodshed, and torture, grew up the great days of Holland, producing these unlikely results. Among these sleepy canals, brooded over by the heavy still damp of the encroaching sea, the black, stagnant waters, the raw greens of the grass and trees, arose the brilliant Dutch and Flemish art, one of the only two schools of color that have ever existed in the world, as far as we know it, Greek pictures having utterly perished.
The gorgeous acres of canvas covered by Rubens, the magnificent Rembrandts, the little jewels of color by Terburg, Wouvermans, Gerard Dow, Ostade, Mieris, and Both; the wondrous portraits where Van der Helst, Frank Hals, Mireveldt, and Vandyke represented their men and women, the landscapes at which Ruysdael and Hobbima, Cuyp, P. Potter, Berghem, labored so industriously (though with such apparently unpicturesque surroundings as straight canals, stiff trees, and square fields), all fill one with wonder at the quantity, as well as the quality, of their beautiful work. There is not a gallery in Europe, public or private, of any renown, which does not contain many specimens of each good Dutch master. England is peculiarly rich in such treasures, and here many of the best pictures of the school out of Holland are to be found. We may claim the merit, at least, of having discovered their value at a time when it was lowest among their own countrymen, and perfect gems of art were bought for mere trifles, which would now be recovered, if possible, at almost any price. The city of Antwerp has just given £4,000 for a picture by Hobbima, not two feet square. Why has all this power passed away? why cannot the city cause a new picture to be painted equal to the old?
In literature they stood nearly as high. Erasmus was certainly the leading philosophical thinker of the Reformation. Grotius, the “miracle of Holland," the “rising light of the world," as he was termed; Descartes, though not born among them yet who certainly must be ranked among their great men; Spinoza, “great among the greatest as a thinker," the “God-intoxicated man," as he was called by the Catholic Novalis, — who was anathematized by orthodox Jew and Christian alike, but whose reputation has survived the reprobation; and Boerhaave, “the physician of Europe" were a few typical names among them; while printing, whose delicate clearness and beauty has never been excelled, amounting indeed to an art, was carried on by the family of the Elzevirs, at Leyden and elsewhere. In etching, Rembrandt himself has no rival, in power and delicacy alike, and in the effects of color produced, though in mere black and white, by the magic of his light and shade. The etchings, however, which bear his signature are of very various merit, and the backgrounds, foregrounds, and draperies are now believed to have been often worked in by his many pupils. Ferdinand Bol, himself an excellent painter, is also supposed to have filled in sketches made by Rembrandt himself. As far as mere mechanical power goes, Hollar’s touch seems to be hardly inferior to that of the great master; but the genius of invention behind it is lacking in his case, and the satins and furs, the ruffs and lace, so marvellously rendered, continue mere “furniture," without the wondrous application by which Rembrandt imparts to them such surpassing interest.
Presently we passed the low earthworks of Breda, which look so weak and insignificant that they would seem impossible to defend; but their “surrender" was deemed such an important triumph that it was immortalized by Velasquez, in the great picture of the Madrid Gallery, so bristling with uplifted lances that it is technically called “Las Lanzas." To us a far more interesting incident is the surprise of the town in 1590, while in the possession of the Spaniards, by a devoted band of soldiers, headed by a captain of Prince Maurice’s army. Seventy men hid themselves in the bold of a barge, under a load of turf, which was going into the town for the supply of the troops. The voyage was only of a few leagues, but the winter wind blew a gale down the river, bringing with it huge blocks of ice, and scooping the water out of the dangerous shallows, so that the vessel could not get on. From Monday till Saturday these brave men lay packed like herrings in their little vessel, suffering from hunger, thirst, and deadly cold. Only once did they venture on shore to refresh themselves. At length, on Saturday evening, they reached Breda, the last sluice was passed, the last boom shut behind them.
An officer of the guard came on board, talked to the two boatmen, and lounged into the little cabin, where he was only separated by a sliding door from the men; a single cough or sneeze would have betrayed them, when every one of these obscure heroes would have been butchered immediately. As they went up the canal the boat struck on some hidden obstacle and sprung a leak; they were soon sitting up to their knees in water, while pumping hardly kept the barge afloat. A party of Italian soldiers came to their help, and dragged the vessel close up to the guardhouse of the castle. The winter had been long and cold, and there was a great dearth of fuel. An eager crowd came on board, and began carrying off the cargo much faster than was safe for the hidden men. The hardships they had endured and the thorough wetting had set the whole party coughing and sneezing; in particular the lieutenant, Held, unable to control his cough, drew his dagger, and implored his neighbor to stab him to the heart, lest the noise should betray them. The skipper and his brother, however, went on working the pumps with as much clatter as possible, shouting directions to each other so as to cover the sounds within. At last, declaring that it was now dark, they with difficulty got rid of the customers. The servant of the captain of the guard lingered still, complaining of the turf, and saying his master would never be satisfied with it. “Oh," said the cool skipper, “the best part of the cargo is underneath, kept expressly for the captain; he will be sure to get enough of it to-morrow."
The governor, deceived by false rumors, had suddenly gone to Gertruydenberg, leaving his nephew in charge — a raw, incompetent lad. Just before midnight the men stole out; one half marched to the arsenal, the other to the guard-house. The captain of the watch sprang out, and was struck dead at one blow, while the guard were shot through the doors and windows. The other band were equally successful; the young governor made a rally, but was driven back into a corner of the castle, while the rest of the garrison, belonging to Spinola’s famous Sicilian legion, fled helter-skelter into the town, not even destroying the bridge behind them. A body of picked troops and Maurice himself soon arrived, the palisade was beaten down, and they entered by the same way as the fatal turf-boat. Before sunrise the city and the fort had surrendered "to the States-General and his Excellency." The capture was not only important in itself, but was the beginning of a series of Dutch victories, the turn in the tide after the Spanish triumphs of previous years.
Next came Dort, with its bright little gardens, houses, churches, ships, canals, windmills, and river, — all seeming inextricably mixed, — and a savor of the Synod collected here to settle the Calvinistic, Lutheran, and Arminian disputes of Protestant countries, not very satisfactory in its results, as it settled nothing. The place was a favorite subject with Cuyp, and the numerous "views," two of which were to be seen in the last Loan Collection, the "Landing of Prince Maurice at Dort," in the Bridgewater Gallery, with Mr. Holford’s "View of Dart," are at least a much more beautiful consequence due to the existence of the town.
There is a curious romance about this picture; it was very long and narrow, and was cut in two by an unscrupulous dealer, thus utterly ruining the composition and balance of color, particularly in the sky. The two halves remained apart for years and were called "Morning" and "Evening" in the strange ignorance of both buyers and sellers of what constituted early light. At length the true relation of the parts was discovered, they have been once again married, and shine in the full glow of their warm beauty on Mr. Holford’s walls: one can hardly help feeling that they rejoice in their reunion. The luminous effect of the evening light on sky and river, hot and still, with the town and its windmills, and the summer morning effect of the "Landing," are equally admirable. The atmospheric effects in Holland are certainly very peculiar. When the landscape is not blotted out by the mists, the fog, and the rain, its extreme flatness (as at sea) allows long perspectives of light to be seen under the clouds down to the very low level of the horizon. This often produces wonderful beauty of light and shade, when the sun is shining on any point in the great sweeps of country generally there in sight. The chances of variety are also much greater with such an immense arch of sky, than when the lower circle is cut off all round by trees and undulations, more or less high, as is usually the case elsewhere. There is also a singular clearness in the air over great expanses of water or watery land, and of vivid color when the cloud-screens lift, which is infinitely attractive; while the reflected light from the plains of bright water gives a remarkable luminousness — which has certainly passed on to the canvas of the Dutch artists.
Further down the Maas comes Rotterdam, which is now the entrepôt for the trade between Java and Germany. It looks busy and full of life, with its forests of masts on the broad, muddy, vapid river, washing away a bit of land on one side, piling it up further on, on the ever-changing morasses formed where the Maas reaches the sea. Here first one sees that strange combination of dark red brick houses, trees, and canals, most picturesque, and strikingly unlike anything else in the world. Even Venice, to which it is so often compared, resembles it in the words of a description far more than in reality. The Dutch towns, with their deep sombre tones of color, do not in the least remind one of their brilliant Italian cousin.
The Hague is certainly the pleasantest and most peaceful-looking capital existing — "umbrageous" is the only word expressive of it, such is the amount of trees in every direction. "Trim retired leisure" is the general impression of the place, where women have time to squirt water at the fronts of their houses, and where the railway station is so clean that one might almost eat off the bricks. Still there is a busier and dirtier side to the town, connected with the trade to the sea. We looked down canal after canal, with long perspectives of bridges, men punting heavy barges with long poles thrust into the muddy black water or against the brick sides, leaning over so far that, at sharp turnings of the canals, it seemed as if they must overtopple themselves and fall. The boats were full of green cabbages and yellow carrots, baskets, mats hung up in rows, peat in neat little square cakes, the best from Gueldreland. In many of them women and children were living in the small cabins, half under and half upon the deck, and were sitting about in picturesque heaps. Some of the canals are now filled up and turned into streets, but the waterways, with bright lights and chequered shadows from the avenues of trees thrown on the brick houses and the black-green water, are far more pleasant to look at. The stirring of the boats prevents the stagnant look which in out-of-the-way, little-used corners, appears in a coating of green slime, and seems as if it ought to bring fever, but does not. Here is a very Dutch picture: two women harnessed to a boat by a long rope, pushing against the collar like beasts of burden; a bit of red color on a wherry under the distant bridge then a green hull and a mass of black barge, and the blue of the men's shirts, punting among the trees with their long poles, carrying the color from a bright sky. Nature gets the blue required for her gamut often from above, and the reflections of the trunks and houses in the water, wherever it was still, doubled and inverted the lines with admirable effect.
Next a more open view out of our windows, where the canal (always a necessary foreground here) is backed by the park. The trees, particularly the oaks, grow very straight, showing that there is no stony, gravelly obstacle to their tap roots in the easy soil; peat (of an inferior quality) is reached wherever a foundation is dug or a garden cultivated, even in the best quarters of the town. Endless barrows, with all sorts of produce, are passing by, — grapes, blue, green, and orange faïence, a red box with "Koffee, Thee," on it — the last as national a beverage here as in England; a boy in a blouse and sabots, with two great baskets slung to a yoke, and an enormous cauliflower in each; some women marketing, with queer skull-caps of very thin beaten gold, hiding the hair completely, a costume from Zeeland others with lace lappets, and small curly gold horns projecting four or five inches on the side of the head, heirlooms in a north-Holland family, a white jacket, pink apron, and ‘‘sabots’‘, cold coloring; the peasants looking substantial in every sense; odd, old-fashioned country carts, with a curious horn jutting out in front; two wicked little boys, certainly not twelve years old, smoking; several more in wooden shoes and red stockings, stones to bring down the horse-chestnuts, with an amount of diligence, patience, and skill, which would make them model boys if they do those lessons as earnestly for which they will certainly be too late this morning. No "guardians of order" interfering; apparently order takes care of itself in this well-conducted population. The schools are said to be remarkably good and well attended; the religious education is kept separate from the secular, the hot Protestant and Catholic feuds making any other arrangement impossible, if the children are to be taught together; and there seems to be no difficulty there at least in carrying out the details.
We drove to the "Maison du Bois," through a thick grove of tall trees, remnants of the ancient forest which once girt the whole territory of the Netherlands, another portion of which is still to be found near Haarlem, and which long enabled the savage inhabitants of the quicksands and thickets of Batavia to withstand even the Romans; while the tangled bushes into which the sand was blown on the shore of the North Sea are believed to be the origin of the dunes. The trees grow so close as to spoil each other sadly, but if once the sharp sea winds are admitted the destruction is great. Tall beech trunks, here and there, thrust their heads high into the air, pine and elm, hornbeams and horse-chestnuts, crossed and mingled their branches, with a great variety of foliage. In the midst of the wood we came upon a dark-green, clear pool, looking very weird and strange, and one sees where Ruysdael got the black greens, the sombre, sunless shadows, of his pictures. The deep seclusion of the place is very striking, though within a mile or two of the town; the road wound and twisted through the thick forest, closing in on every side and over our heads, when, without any preparation, we came suddenly on the old red brick palace with a high perron and steps in front, literally planted in the very heart of the mystery. Certainly this is the very place where the belle au bois dormante must have lived, and probably these are the princes her descendants, only the queen, one of the cleverest women in Europe, does not look as if much of the sleep had come down upon her. The house is a show-place, full of Javanese and Japanese curiosities, and Mr. Motley’s portrait figures there, hanging in a room full of the most precious of the monsters. He has certainly merited the rarest place in the kingdom, for his canonization of its heroes and his vivid pictures of the great struggles of its people.
A poetic little garden behind, full of roses, was framed with wreaths of westeria as we looked out of a central hall, the cupola and walls of which are painted by scholars of Rubens in memory of the great deeds of some Prince of Orange, by order of his wife, who sits at the top and admires her own work in her husband's honor.
The gallery at the Hague is very small, but full of pictures of great interest: not by any means, however, those which are most talked about. The big bull is a disappointment; we have been satiated with beast-painting, and the hairs of his head and the droppings from his nose, wonderful as they are, are too realistic and prosaic to excite any great warmth of enthusiasm. The sleepy sheep, too, are so Poorly painted that they seem as if not by Paul Potter's own hand. Rosa Bonheur's "Horse Fair" is a far higher kind of art.
Here, too, is a fine portrait of Prince Maurice, by Mireveldt, in armor, with a high narrow forehead and peaked beard. There is more even than his father's statesmanlike power in the face, but far less of the benignity. The features of the family of the Nassaus are well worth study. William the Silent and his three brothers had already laid down their lives for the sake of their country, and his son and nine more of the race were devoting their blood, their property, and every energy and talent they possessed to the service of the cause at the time this picture was painted. Few lands, indeed, owe more to one great family than Holland to the race of William.
The bevy of doctors surrounding a subject about to be dissected, foreshortened in a marvellous manner, is not so unpleasant as it sounds, and is a splendid effort of portrait-grouping, natural and lifelike, and of light and shade, but it is not a picture on which one can like to dwell. The portraits of Rubens' first and second wives are full of color, life, and brilliant light; "But I don't know which I should like least for my own wife of those two coquettish ladies," said our companion. There is no good picture of William the Silent; probably he was far too busy with greater interests to remember to be painted; but though the omission seems to be in character with the man, it is not the less to be regretted. The statue on the P1ein is not bad, but it is only a late production; by his side the little dog is immortalized which saved his life, when lying asleep in his tent, by barking so violently that it awakened the prince, on one of the many occasions when his assassination was attempted by order of Philip II.
Two or three lovely little landscapes, full of air and sunshine and distance, with much sky, make one feel as if a hole in the wall were opened admitting the real view. One of these gives that mixture of ships and trees common in Holland, and another the distant sight of a town amidst formal trees and wide meadows, whose realization we soon came upon in Leyden itself, near a small branch of the Rhine, where a great church rising among the trees and red houses has a sort of simulated look of the hull of a ship reversed, very characteristic of its position.
Leyden is now the quietest and most stagnant of learned universities, but with a story to it of the siege by the Spaniards in 1573, than which nothing more moving has happened in the story of our race. The heroic manner in which the inhabitants held out long after any wholesome provisions had been consumed, how they ate horses and dogs, and cats and rats were luxuries; how they dug up the very weeds in the market-place; and even when pestilence broke out from the privations endured by the inhabitants, and carried off thousands of them, still the remainder held out, — is not this written in Mr. Motley's great chronicle of their race?
At length, as the last chance of relieving the city, William the Silent resolved upon opening the great dykes to the sea, and flooding the country so as to drown out the Spaniards and send food to the besieged. The damage to the fields, standing crops, and villages, in July was emormous; it was a measure only to be taken as a last resort, but the danger was imminent, and if Leyden fell the rest of the country must follow. The Estates consented to the risk: "Better a drowned land than a lost land," cried the patriots, and a large capital was subscribed to carry out the work of destruction, as if it had been a commercial enterprise, while the ladies gave their plate and jewellery towards it. The besieged had written to the prince that everything was gone but the malt-cake, and that after four more days nothing but starvation would be left to them. William was lying at Rotterdam so ill with a violent fever, brought on by fatigue and anxiety, that his life was despaired of, but he caused letters to be sent off, which, without mentioning his illness, told them that the dykes were already pierced and that the water was beginning to rise. Great rejoicings took place within the wretched town, cannon were fired, and the Spaniards were surprised at the sounds of music; but Leyden was fifteen miles from the sea dyke, and the flotilla of two hundred vessels, with guns and two thousand five hundred veterans on board, was only able to get as far as a second dyke, still five miles from Leyden. Within this lay a chain of sixty-two forts, occupying the land held by the Spaniards, who were four times the number of those coming to the rescue; a sanguinary and desperate action took place, but after breaking through these obstacles a third dyke still kept out the water. At length after a series of violent "amphibious skirmishes" this defence was carried and the dyke broken down; but again they were doomed to disappointment, the wind was east, and the water spreading over so large a surface was reduced to a mere film of nine inches, too shallow for the ships — which required from eighteen to twenty — to sail over, and the fleet remained motionless.
William had by this time somewhat recovered, and as soon as he was able to stand he came on board, when the mere sight of him revived the spirits of the forces. The besieged were now at their last gasp; they knew that the fleet had sailed, and guessed at its progress by the burning villages, but they knew also that the wind was contrary and that it could not advance to their help. Bread, malt-cake, and horseflesh had disappeared, even the leaves were stripped from the trees and eaten; mothers dropped down dead with dead children in their arms; a dreadful disorder like the plague carried off from six thousand to eight thousand persons; yet still the people resolutely held out. At last a party of the most fainthearted surrounded the burgomaster, Adrian van der Wirt, and demanded a surrender. "My life is at your disposal," said the heroic chief; "I can die but once, but I tell you I have made an oath to hold the city. It is a fate more horrible than famine to fall into the hands of the Spaniards. Take my body if it can be of any use to you, but expect no surrender while I am alive." The discontent was stayed, but still there seemed no hope of relief. "It were as easy to pluck the stars out of heaven as Leyden out of our hands," cried the Spaniards, jubilantly.
But the Lord sent a great wind, and it blew the waves furiously on the shore and across the ruined dykes, and the floods rose on the panic-stricken Spaniards, a thousand of whom were drowned, and the flotilla of barges sailed in at midnight over the waves amidst the storm and darkness. A fierce naval battle was fought amongst the branches of the great orchards and the chimney-stacks of half submerged farmhouses; the enemy's vessels were soon sunk, and on swept the fleet; and when they approached some shallows, the Zeelanders dashed into the sea and by sheer strength shouldered every vessel through. Before they could reach the town, however, there still remained the great fortress of Lammen, swarming with soldiers and bristling with artillery, which could not be left behind, while the town might still be starved before it could be reduced. At dead of night, however, the panic-stricken Spaniards fled, and to the surprise of the patriots, in the morning all were gone; and the fleet rowed in through the canals, the quays lined with the famishing people to whom bread was thrown as they passed along amidst the tears of the population. As soon as the brave admiral Borson stepped on shore, a solemn procession repaired to the great church, nearly every living soul within the walls joining, where after a prayer had been offered up the whole vast multitude joined in a great thanksgiving hymn. But the emotion was too deep; they soon broke down, and the multitude wept like children. And on the day following the relief, when the north-west wind had done its work, behold, it shifted suddenly to the east, and again a tempest arose and blew back the waves whence they came, so that the land had rest, and the people were able once more to rebuild their dykes and restore the drowned fields. The whole story reads like a chapter in the history of the "chosen people."
The prince, though still scarcely convalescent, appeared in the town next day; and as one proof of the gratitude of Holland for the heroism of its people, the University was then founded at Leyden.
We had passed the spire of an insignificant village on the right — "Ryswyk, where the Treaty was signed between the Empire, England, France, Holland, and Spain in 1697," said the guide-book oracularly. What was the treaty about? I know that we knew once, but this does not much mend the matter. I feel as if I were being examined in Russell's "Modern Europe" and my information found very shaky. "What was the treaty to settle?" I appeal to the "intelligent man," of whom one is perennially in search in any new place, but here even he is at fault. "Madame, je ne puis vous en rien dire, je n'ai pas été à Ryswyc." What a comfort it would be if the not having been at a place would honorably clear one at an examination! "What are the dates of the two sieges of Vienna?" "Sir, I cannot say; I have never been at Vienna." "What were the bases of the treaty of Utrecht?" "Mr. Professor, how should I know? I have never visited Utrecht." And with a vague notion that it was "something wherein William III figured" we swept on.
As Haarlem came in sight we passed over the fields wherein hyacinths, tulips, etc., blue, pink, yellow, and rainbow-colored, are grown by the million, and make the country look like a garden pirterre in spring. The alluvial soil when the peat is peeled off is found particularly productive for "roots."
"Are there any manufactures at Haarlem?" we ask of our last edition of the "intelligent man" on our road to the great organ. "Yes, madame," replied he, "the manufacture of onions" (bulbs).
The siege of this town preceded that of Leyden by a few months, and quite equalled it in heroism, but the end was far more painful. Indeed, the courage of Leyden must be estimated by the fact that she knew of the dreadful fate of her sister city and yet was not afraid.
The position of the town was a most important one, on a narrow neck of land between the Zuyder Zee and the ocean, scarcely five miles across with its fall the province would have been cut in two, and the difficulty of resistance greatly increased. On the other side lay the Haarlem Lake, covering seventy square miles of surface, very shallow but liable to great storms. The city was one of the largest and most beautiful in the Netherlands, but also one of the weakest; the walls were low, in bad order, and required a large garrison, instead of which they could only muster three thousand men, while thirty thousand Spaniards were encamped around it. It was winter, which at first gave the Hollanders some advantage, by enabling them to fight on their native ice, but after the first "rapid, brilliant, and slippery skirmishes," when, Alva's troops being worsted he declared that "such a thing was never heard of till to-day," he ordered seven thousand pairs of skates, on which his soldiers were immediately made to practise their evolutions, and the balance was restored against the Netherlanders.
Again and again the indefatigable Orange sent in men, provisions, and ammunition, across the ice of the Haarlem Lake on sledges, often impelled by women and even children; every citizen became a soldier, and even the women took arms; and a corps of fighting women, all of respectable character, armed with swords, daggers, and muskets, did very efficient service in many fiercely-contested actions, within and without the walls.
The women in Holland have borne a distinguished part in the history of the country ever since the time when "the Gaul was assisted in a struggle by his blue-eyed wife, gnashing her teeth and brandishing her vast and snowy arms," as a soldier who fought under the emperor Julian describes. But in spite of the desperate resistance of the burghers, "who fought as well as the best soldiers in the world could do," wrote Alva, the iron circle gradually closed in on the devoted city. They repelled three fierce assaults, defeating the enemy with great loss; they sallied forth with brilliant success, bringing in provisions and cannon, and killing almost a man apiece of the Spaniards they built up the walls again as fast as the cannonade destroyed them, or when they were blown up by mines. Horrible barbarities were committed by the Spaniards on the few prisoners taken, but at length Alva introduced a fleet of war-boats on the lake, and all the provisions in the town having been exhausted, the townfolk could do no more. As they could get no quarter they determined on cutting their way through the camp, with the women and children in the midst of a square. "It was a war such as had never been seen or heard of in any land on earth," wrote Alva to Philip II. The general, Don Frederic Alva, would willingly have abandoned the siege, but his father threatened to renounce him if he did so. At last, fearing that the desperate citizens would
set fire to the town, he offered ample forgiveness to the place, having all the time in his pocket a letter from Alva ordering him "not to let a soldier remain alive," and to execute a large number of the citizens. Haarlem yielded, and the people laid down their arms. As soon as they were no longer to be feared, the massacre began, and for many days five executioners and their attendants were kept at work till they were exhausted, when the remaining prisoners were tied back to back, two and two, and drowned in the lake. Two thousand three hundred persons were thus murdered in cold blood, including the Calvinist ministers and most of the principal inhabitants of the place. But the heroic resistance had not been in vain; it exhausted the strength of the besieging army to such a degree that "it was clear the Spanish empire could not sustain many such victories." Twelve thousand men had perished of their choicest troops, and the expenditure of treasure had been enormous, while in four years' time the city was once again lost to the Netherlanders, whose constancy nothing could subdue.
What then was the lake of Haarlem is now green with fields and young trees, and spotted with new red farmhouses, lying twelve feet below the level of the surrounding low country. Another large space is being reclaimed, laid bare by the line of the new great ship-canal from Amsterdam to the sea, on the other side of the railroad.
The struggle between man and water in this marvellous country, only protected from being swallowed up in the high tides of every autumn by the line of low dunes and the artificial dykes, which are little more than wattles and sand bound together by the roots of the grass, almost haunts one. It is as if the voice of the sea was ever sounding in their ears, "Watch, work, strengthen your dykes, or you will all be drowned!" The details of the draining of the Haarlem Lake are extremely curious; a circular canal was first made round the district to be operated on, built up like the levées of the Po. Into this the water was (and is) pumped by four great steam-engines; it thence flows into a wider straight canal, ending with great sluices on the sea. These at low tide are opened, and the water runs away; but if the wind be strong on shore, and the tide high, whole days may elapse before the gates can he opened, and the water must wait with what patience it may, while the overgorged canals become full almost to overflowing.
Whole regiments of windmills are continually at work, keeping the balance, even between the inland and outward waters, pumping up that of the low levels sufficiently high to enable it to find an exit into the sea. Beside this, they saw wood, grind flour, crush linseed, etc., etc., so that it is no wonder that they hold so honorable a place in Dutch art. It is found that they only raise the water profitably to a height of three or four feet, so that when ten or twelve feet have to be accomplished, three mills, in steps one above another, are employed, each to do its own share of the work. There are said to be nine thousand of these industrious slaves in Holland. And Amsterdam would seem to be the very centre of the battalion. There is one in each angle of the now useless fortifications, and they are sprinkled up and down all along the outer canal. The town is the crown of wonder of engineering skill, patient labor, and untiring struggles with water, weather, and wind,
fur the whole place is below the level of the sea. It has struck its roots deep below, like a great, patient oak, and there is almost as much material sunk beneath the feet as is to be seen above the heads of the inhabitants. The ugly palace alone is built upon more than seventy thousand piles.
H—— went to look at the building of an ordinary house in an ordinary street; he found that they came to water, or rather mud, as soon as they began to dig; in a space about thirty feet by twenty-five feet, eighteen piles, six inches square and thirty or forty feet long, were being driven by steam-hammers, about two to the yard. Over the crossing beams and the flooring, Portland cement is generally laid, and the houses do not appear to be damp. But in the smaller streets, where the water is stirred by the long poles used to punt the barges, or by dredging, the smell was frightful, as there can be no outfall, and the drainage must all be laboriously pumped up out of the canals before it can run into the sea. Yet there is little fever; perhaps the liberal allowance of clean rain, perpetually pouring down from heaven, keeps them going. Still it was highly immoral thus to sin against every law of hygiene and not to suffer, and H—— held his nose in virtuous indignation as he passed along.
Nothing can be more picturesque than the infinite variety of queer gables and pediments, the ogees, scrolls, and dormer windows of the houses in the canal streets, each with a projection to which a crane can be attached, jutting out from the topmost twist of the mouldings, like a unicorn's horn out of his forehead. The lines of the windows, varying in each house from those of its neighbor, give them the charm of individuality, even in a street, which we so sorely miss in London. There is a trottoir and generally a row of trees by each canal, which introduces another element unlike Venice.
We could see from our windows the large ships that enter through a drawbridge into the wider canals, with strange quaint varieties of stem and stern, the rigging and sails of different cuts and colors, many of their masts being unshipped to pass under the low side bridges. Here is a mass of hay, as large as a house, floating past on an almost invisible flat boat, and projecting far on each side of it; there comes an immense vegetable cargo; barrels of herrings, coals, cheese, butter, every kind of produce, were passing up and down, and a vast flotilla of wood, many hundred feet in length, which had come down the Rhine from the Black Forest or the Jura, with a little hut at each end, and piloted by a couple of families, who must have been months on their slow way. The opening of the great canal to the North Sea, which saves the long and dangerous passage round by the sandbanks of the Zuyder Zee, has greatly increased the commerce of the town, and it is said now to be rivalling or even cutting out that of Rotterdam. The harbor at the end of the canal just completed by English engineers, at the opening to the stormy ocean, is well worth studying. It cost millions of money, and both canal, sluices, and harbor are miracles of skill.
There was much talk of the scheme for drying up part of the Zuyder Zee; a dyke twenty-five miles long is to be thrown across its narrowest part, when a county about the size of Surrey would be added to the kingdom. The preparations for this embankment under water are such as would only be dreamt of in Holland. A raft of brushwood is made, on which, as no natural stone is to be had, square masses made of sand and shingle, bound together by cement, are piled. These are towed out to their proper situation, when they are sunk, and another layer then brought and laid on the top of the first, the workmen in a diving-bell directing the operations.
A statue of Rembrandt adorns one of the numerous "places," but of Spinoza, as is not perhaps unnatural, no notice was taken in his native country till this year, when, two hundred years after his death, a statue of him was raised at the Hague. The account of an excommunication by the synagogue, when he left the communion, is so singular that it may well be given as a "picture" of the Jews of Amsterdam about 1656. A large and agitated congregation collected when it was known that the heretic refused to return into the fold, black wax candles were lighted, while the chanter chanted the dreadful words of the interdict. He was declared "accursed by the same curse wherewith Elisha cursed those wanton and insolent children," etc., etc., "by all the curses, anathemas, interdictions, and excommunications fulminated from the time of Moses, our master, to the present day." "In the name of the Lord of Hosts, Jah, and in the name of the globes, wheels, mysterious beasts," etc., "let him be cursed in heaven and earth, by the very mouth of the Almighty God," "by the mouth of the Seraphim and Opanim, and ministering angels," etc. He was cursed "by the seven angels who preside over the seven days of the week, and by the mouth of the seven principalities." "If he was born in March, the direction of which is assigned to Uriel, let him be cursed by the mouth of Uriel," and so on through all the months. "Let him be cursed wherever he turn; may he perish by a burning fever, by a consumption and leprosy; may oppression and anguish seize him; … may he drink the cup of indignation, and curses cover him as with a garment; … let his sins never be forgiven and let God blot him from under the heavens;" thus it runs on through four octavo pages of fierce and passionate denunciation, which do not, however, appear to have all been used on this occasion.
These terrific objurgations were accompanied from time to time by the thrilling sounds of a trumpet; at length the black candles were melted drop by drop into a huge tub of blood, and as the lights were suddenly extinguished, the shuddering spectators, with a cry of execration, shouted "Amen." The end of the candles in the blood is also said to have been omitted in Spinoza's case.
The pleasures of persecution must indeed be great, when it is remembered how many of the Jews present had themselves sought refuge from the terrors of the Inquisition in free Holland, or were descended from those who had escaped from Spain, Portugal, and other Catholic countries, and who used the liberty they had thus gained to denounce their brethren.
The Jews of Amsterdam are now a large and important body, with much of the trade of the town in their hands; particularly the special one of the cutting of diamonds, which is chiefly confined to this place.
"Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink," one cannot help saying like the Ancient Mariner. There is great difficulty in getting any good enough for the purpose, and strangers are warned against the ordinary supply as against poison; but some has been found of late, purified by the natural filter of the sands of the dunes. To a Dutchman it would seem impossible to have enough of it about his house, whether in town or country. With a canal in front and another on each side, he will add an artificial pond in his small garden, as a finish quite necessary for his comfort and pleasure; and the smoking-houses and gazebos hang by preference over a canal.
The pictures are everywhere a continual feast, especially the portraits, which adorn the walls of buildings in what would be only second-rate country towns in another land. Such great masters as Van der Helst and Frank Hals are not sufficiently known and appreciated in England. There was a wonderful picture of a lady in a ruff by Hals in the Loan Collection this year, and an Admiral Van Tromp in the Spencer gallery, still at South Kensington, which are perfectly marvellous in their vivid life his later pictures are very inferior, however, and degenerate into coarseness. It is singular that no specimens of the works of so important an early painter as Antonio Moro are to be found in his own country; they must be sought for in England and Spain, where he chiefly worked. There is a Queen Mary among Lady Ashburton's pictures, sent by the queen herself to Philip II. before her marriage, and a portrait of a lady in the National Gallery, about 1585, very remarkable in themselves, and for the history of the art in the Low Countries.
When portraits are by a master-hand there can be no claps of painting more truly interesting. The real presentment of a great man by a great artist will be allowed by every one to be unsurpassable in value, as a combination of history, study of character, psychological and phrenological, as far as the form of the skull, well worth study. But even more than this, the likenesses of perfectly unknown and even commonplace men and women, immortalized by such men as Rembrandt, Van der Helst, Rubens, in the north, and Morone, Giorgione, and Titian in the south, are themselves of the deepest interest.
To see before you a real human being, whose "mind can be read behind his face," as Tennyson puts it, bearing the traces of the joys and sorrows, the feelings and sympathies, common to all our race, must always have a charm which no pictures of gods and goddesses however good, not even "ideal" apostles and martyrs, can ever possess. Of course there are exceptions to this, but only in the very highest class of imaginative works, such, for instance, as the great "Descent from the Cross" by Rubens at Antwerp.
It must always be an event in any one's life first to make acquaintance with that mighty picture, for, though the lines of the composition may be known by heart from prints and photographs, every person must then feel that he first obtains any real idea of the work. Indeed the light and shade of prints and photographs is often so utterly unlike that of the originals, that they are confusing more than helping, in their very meagre and inaccurate translation of a master. Color too here takes a new value, even with those who have loved it best, in looking at this its perhaps greatest achievement. It is not merely that the extreme glow and richness enhance infinitely the wonderful breadth of light and shade, and glorious harmony of lines, but here its element seems required to tell the story completely. It is itself a factor, necessary to the expression of the scene, not a mere enhancement of the rest — not only pleasure to the eye, but is felt to be part of the explanation of the meaning of the whole.
Where every quality is thus complete, there is a feeling of utter satisfaction in sitting opposite the picture, which is indescribable in its repose.
Once only in his life did Rubens reach that supreme height. The other pictures of his at Antwerp, which one is called on to admire, are miracles of facile skill in adventurous drawing, like the "Elevation of the Cross" in the opposite transept of the cathedral — triumphs of sleight of hand in the art of hues; but here only has he attained to the passion of inspiration in religious thought and feeling. It is like a great oratorio by Handel; the youngest and most ignorant can understand enough to enjoy, the most learned and experienced are lost in wonder and admiration at the treasures of his genius. It seems strange that he never should have attained to anything approaching the sublimity of this work. The gallery at Antwerp is full of pictures of his, enormous in size, and considered "very fine" — that "rollicking" piece of color, "La Vierge au Perroquet" among others, — but one can hardly believe them to be by the same head and heart as the one great piece framed in its appropriate setting of the grand cathedral. There is an immense charm in the contrast of the two sides of the Predella with the centre the almost pastoral "sweetness and light" of the young peasant mother, in her great shading Flemish hat, mounting the rude steps to greet Elizabeth, on one side, with a deep blue landscape seen below the arch; on the other side she is stretching out her arms a little anxiously for the babe who is held up in Simeon's hands. "A sword shall pierce thine own side," he may be saying - a first tender note of sorrow, a hint of the coming woe.
The feeling of "contrary motion" (as it would be called in music), the contrast of these two with the sombre magnificence of the deep tragedy of the great central picture must be seen to be understood at its full value, and for this engravings are scarcely any help. All the pictures are plays upon the word "Cristofero," who was the patron saint of the guild of arquebusiers, from whom Rubens bought a piece of land for a house. They stipulated for a picture of St. Christopher in payment, and in his princely magnificence he presented them with five altogether for the backs of the two flaps are painted also.
Color as a means of expression takes new character in the Netherlands it is like a new language, or rather like a new mode of expression, by symphonies of harmonious hues.
In Rembrandt this is arrived at by contrast, almost by negations, and a brilliant piece of harmony is produced almost without positive hues at all the warm glow of a deep, dark background makes a blue or green appear so by juxtaposition; a dull red tells like a jewel on a neutral tint or the flesh-tints, those most indescribable of hues, become living, in the great chefs d'œuvre of portrait-painting, the "Five Syndics," or the "Burogomaster Six" and his wife.
Color, however, seems to be an instinct more than a science; a half-naked Hindoo squatting among his piles of wool, dyeing them with herbs chosen by himself, and not knowing any reason why, will compose a marvel of harmony which all the kingdoms of Europe, with all their art-schools combined, cannot approach. Here and there a single painter arises, in an isolated place, some Sir Joshua, with his almost magic loveliness of delicate harmonies some Gainsborough, old Crome, or Turner, but it is not carried on. In France the specimens are quite as rare. Meissonier is too artificial. E. Frere is very tender and charming, though a little dim in his key of hues. Color, however, is now as dead in the Low Countries as in the wretched daubs of modern Italy, and the painful cold greys of the German modern school. The secret, the knack, the feeling, has died out with them of the old time, as may be seen almost more distinctly in the painted glass the magnificent walls of color, as they may almost be called, thirty and forty feet high, which adorn quite insignificant churches in both Belgium and Holland. Comparing them with the much-cried-up Munich windows at Cologne, or the horrors perpetrated at Westminster Abbey and some other of our cathedrals, it seems almost inexplicable how, with the old models before the eyes of those who seek, the poverty, the rawness which sets one's teeth on edge in most modern glass could have been perpetrated.
At Gouda, a few miles from the Hague, are some gorgeous specimens equal to those given by Charles V. and his sisters to St. Gudule at Brussels, splendid in design as in richness of dark hues. All these form pictures in stained glass, which theoretically hardly appears to be its legitimate province of work, intended as it is to be seen against the light and therefore semi-transparent, but the effect is too grand to think of anything but such a result.
When we steamed away from Amsterdam the flat world was blotted out by rain and mist — nothing was to be seen but perspectives of straight lines of earth, trees, and water, each cut short by fog. Every field was not only like a sponge full of water, but looked so rotten with ooze that it seemed as if the cows must sink down through the bogs towards the centre of the earth. They were on the point of being taken under shelter for the winter, as it would be impossible for cattle to live in the open in such a climate; yet they thrive and give ample produce. Both men and beasts, indeed, look healthy and well-doing all over a country which feels like a raft, floating only just so as to keep its head above that water which it requires the almost superhuman efforts of its inhabitants to resist and make use of.
It is a grand thing to see the theatre where such great deeds, both moral and material, have been performed by man, but it must require the constitution of a Dutchman to be able to live there in bad weather.F. P. Verney.
- ↑ There is a short prosaic way to the straight bare high road on the other side the palace, this may be quite ignored.