THE century from 1555 to 1648 had seen the heroic defense of the Netherlands against the world-embracing empire of Spain; the period from 1648 to 1715 saw the magnificent defense of the Dutch Republic against the swelling navy of England and the unprecedented armies of France. In each case the tiny state maintained itself with a courage and success that claim a high place in history. And amid these burdens and assaults it continued its development of commerce, science, and art; its cities offered havens of refuge to harassed thought; and its republican institutions flung an inspiring challenge to encompassing and powerful monarchies.
The southern or Spanish Netherlands continued till 1713 under Spanish rule. Their ethnically diverse peoples were overwhelmingly Catholic, and they preferred to be subject to a distant and weakened Spain rather than to the Protestants north of them, or to a neighboring France that threatened at any moment to engulf them. The Peace of the Pyrenees (1659) gave most of Artois to France; the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle (1668) gave her Douai and Tournai; the Peace of Nijmegen (1678) gave her Valenciennes, Maubeuge, Cambrai, St.-Omer, and Ypres. And the Dutch Republic was as merciless as the French monarchy. By the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) Spain, eager to free its armies for continued war with France, not only ceded to the United Provinces the districts that they had captured in Flanders, Limburg, and Brabant, but agreed that the River Scheldt should be closed to foreign trade. This stifling humiliation crippled Antwerp and the whole economy of the Spanish Netherlands. La politique n’a pas d’entrailles.
Within such hostile walls what we now call Belgium cherished its traditional culture, welcomed the Jesuits, and followed the intellectual lead of Louvain. When the French bombarded Brussels (1695) a large section of the city was turned into debris; all the lovely architecture of the Grand’ Place was destroyed except a guild hall and the noble Hôtel de Ville. The Maison du Roi (in which the royal address was read to the States-General) was rebuilt in ornate Gothic (1696); this and the Hôtel de Ville are among the most beautiful structures in Europe today. Sculptors lavished their art in adorning the façades of churches and civic buildings, and the pulpits, confessionals, and tombs in church interiors. Brussels continued to make fine tapestries. 1
Flemish painting declined sharply after Rubens and Vandyck, as if those two lives had exhausted the pictorial genius of a century. The rise of France in art and wealth drew many Flemish painters, like Philippe de Champaigne. A greater man, David Teniers the Younger, stayed. Taught by his father, he became a “master” in the Guild of St. Luke by the age of twenty-three; and four years later (1637) he sealed his success by marrying Anne, daughter of Jan “Velvet” Brueghel and ward of Rubens himself. In 1651 the Archduke Leopold William summoned him from Antwerp to Brussels to be court painter and curator of the royal museum; one of Teniers’ canvases shows the Archduke and himself among the pictures of this gallery. 2 He painted with reluctant skill old themes likeThe Prodigal Son3 and The Temptation of St. Anthony, 4 but like his Dutch contemporaries he preferred to catch within small frames the life of the peasantry, not reducing the peasantry to brutes as in Pieter Brueghel, but joining with them in their recreations and festivals. He showed himself acquainted in detail with the Interior of a Cabaret, 5 but he could also paint rural landscapes transfigured by an ever-changing sky. He loved light as Rembrandt loved shade, and he caught it on his brush with a sensitive delicacy that has not been surpassed.