Open main menu

Page:Littell's Living Age - Volume 134.djvu/705

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

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