The heroic age of Dutch painting had passed. The new clients were more numerous but less wealthy; they asked for small pictures that would let them see their own daily life in a distilled and refined extract, reproduced with a realism that aroused the pleasure of recognition, or touched with some delicate but homely sentiment, or inviting the soul into a landscape’s liberating view. The Dutch painters met this demand with a refinement of line and light and color that crowded meticulous artistry into a little space. These artists are known throughout Europe and America, for their desperate competition with one another led them to pour forth a quick profusion of small pictures at low prices, and now there is hardly a museum that does not hang them. Letting a lazy footnote attest their abundance,* we must look more leisurely at the unfortunate but joyful Jan Steen, and the greatest of the genre painters, Jan Vermeer, and the greatest of Dutch landscape painters, Jacob van Ruisdael.
Steen was a brewer’s son in Leiden, worked in The Hague, Delft, and Haarlem, and ended as a tavernkeeper in Leiden; in between he made himself the best figure painter, barring Rembrandt, in Dutch art. At twenty-three (1649) he married Margarete, daughter of the painter Jan van Goyen; her face and figure were her only dowry, but they served him as inspiring models for a time. He was so poorly paid for his pictures that in 1670 an apothecary attached all the paintings he could find in Steen’s house, and auctioned them off to cover a debt of ten gulden. His early pictures record the pleasures or penalties of intoxication. An excellent example, Dissolute Life, 17 shows one woman drowsy, another asleep, with liquor; seizing the moment, a child steals from a cupboard; a dog eats from the table; a nun, entering, launches into a homily on the sinfulness of rum; everything here, though picturing chaos, is composed and drawn with the order and harmony of art. A lovelier theme animates the misnamed Menagerie:18 a little girl feeds milk to a lamb, garden fowl prance about, a peacock dangles his tail from a blasted tree; pigeons perch aloft, a dove soars in from the street: this is an idyl that makes all the problems of philosophy seem meaningless; it is life, each part with its own sufficient reason, ignoring ultimates. When Steen bypassed the tavern he gave bright views of Dutch civilization: pleasant interiors, music lessons, concerts, festivals, happy families, and the artist himself, smoking in The Merry Company, 19 or playing the lute. 20 Then, discouraged by the unappreciative prices paid for his work, he returned to selling beer, drank forgetfully, and died at the age of fifty-three, leaving four hundred paintings unsold.
One glance at a single picture by Jan Vermeer, The Head of a Girl, 21 reveals a world and an art almost antipodal to Steen’s. This pearl beyond price was auctioned away in 1882 for two and a half gulden; a good critic now ranks it as “one of the dozen finest pictures in the world.” 22 The young lady obviously comes of a good home and family; her eyes are clear of fear, unclouded with even the normal wonderment of youth; she is quietly happy, and alert to the music of life; and she is given to us with a careful craftsmanship of color, line, and light that make the brush an astonishing vehicle of understanding and sympathy.
Vermeer was born at Delft in 1632, lived there, so far as we know, all his life, and ended there (1675) at the age of forty-three; he was an almost exact contemporary of Spinoza (1632–77). He married at twenty, and had eight children; he received good prices for his paintings, but he toiled at them with such time-consuming care, and spent so much money in buying pictures, that he died in debt; his widow had to apply for aid to the court of bankruptcy. Yet his thirty-four surviving works suggest a background of middle-class comfort. One of them 23 shows him in his studio, with fluffy cap and particolored jerkin, stockings, rumpled but of silk, his buttocks bulging with prosperity. Doubtless he lived in one of the better quarters of Delft, perhaps in the outskirts from which he could have aView of Delft; 24 we feel, in that famous picture, his fondness for his native town. He seems to have been more contentedly domesticated than the artists of our time. Love of the home shines out in most Dutch painting, but in Vermeer the home becomes a little temple, and the housewife is proud of her ministrations; in his Christ with Mary and Martha25 the latter shares the pedestal with Mary. His women are no longer the heavy bundles of flesh sometimes seen in Dutch art; they are of some refinement and sensitivity; they may even, like the seated lady in Mistress and Maid, 26 be expensively robed, delicately featured, carefully coiffured, or be rich in silk and musical instruments, like the Lady Seated at the Virginals. 27 Vermeer makes an epic of family life, or a lyric of simple and normal domestic moments; not group scenes of confused and multiple activity, but at his best one woman alone, quietly reading a letter, 28 or intent on her sewing, 29 or adorning herself with a necklace, or asleep at her sewing, 30 or just a girl and her smile. 31Vermeer recorded with perfect art his gratitude for a good woman and a happy home. In the eighteenth century he was almost forgotten; his little masterpieces were ascribed to de Hooch, Terborch, or Rembrandt; only in 1858 was he disinterred. Now his name stands only after those of Rembrandt and Hals in Dutch painting.
One thing is missing in these genre painters—the life of nature that surrounded the interloping towns. Italy, and Poussin in Italy, had caught some of the fresh air and open fields; England would discover them in the next century; now Dutch painters, leaving for a while their chaste or hilarious interiors, placed their easels to capture the lure of rippling streams, silent and leisurely windmills, burgeoning farms, trees shaming our hectic transiency, exotic vessels swaying in crowded ports, clouds kaleidoscoping the sky. All the world knows the Middelharnis Road of Meindert Hobbema—perspective vanishing into endless space; but far more beautiful is his Water Mill with the Great Red Roof. 32 Aelbert Cuyp found his inspiration in plump kine wading in lush marshes, 33 horses halting thirsty at an inn, sails disappearing on the sea. 34 Salomon van Ruisdael marveled at the tremor of waters reflecting and inverting boats and trees (Canal and Ferry35), and taught his nephew to surpass him.
Jacob van Ruisdael grew in Haarlem, and left us a View of Haarlem36 quite as impressive as Vermeer’s Delft, and better conveying the vast yet huddled complexity of a great city. Moving to Amsterdam, he became a member of the Mennonite Brethren, and perhaps their mysticism helped his poverty to make him feel the tragic side of the nature in which he loved to lose himself. He knew that those fields, woods, and skies that promised peace could also destroy, that nature had moods of wrath in which even the proudest, sturdiest trees could be shorn by mad winds and torn from their roots, that deadly clefts could form in the good earth, that lightning could wreak its lethal fire upon every form of life with playful indifference. No idyl is The Waterfall on the Cliff, 37 but the furious surge of the sea upon rocks that it has vowed to shatter and submerge or wear away; The Storm38 is the sea beating in rage against its enemy the land; The Beach39 is no pleasure strand but a shore disordered by a mounting surf under a lowering sky;Winter40 is no skating frolic, but a poor cottage shivering under threatening clouds; and the masterly etching of Oak Trees despoils them of their dignity to show their branches disheveled or bare, their trunks wounded and distorted by inclement time. The Jewish Cemetery41 is itself an image of death—ruined walls, a dying tree, flood waters running over tombs. Not that Ruisdael was always gloomy; in The Wheat Field42 he rendered with deep feeling the quiet of a country road, the blessing of rich crops, the exhilaration of expanding space. The Dutch seem to have felt their land and clime maligned in Ruisdael’s pictures; they paid for these with a pittance, and let their author die in a poorhouse. Today some would rank him only after Poussin among the landscape painters of all time. 43
Infinite riches in a little room—Rembrandt and Hals, Vermeer and Ruisdael, Spinoza and Huygens, Tromp and de Ruyter, Jan de Witt and William III, all at the same time within close frontiers, laboring precariously behind the dunes, keeping alive the arts of peace amid the alarms of war: this is Holland in the seventeenth century. “Size is not development.”