The court and the Church, the nobles and the burghers, co-operated to finance the revival of Flemish art. Albert and Isabel supported many artists besides Rubens; for a time Antwerp was the art center of Europe. Brussels tapestries regained their excellence, aided by Rubens’ heroic designs. Venetian glassmakers had brought their art to the Netherlands in 1541; now native artisans reproduced the fragile miracles, some so cherished that they have survived centuries of turbulence. Workers in metal fashioned marvels of their own, like the magnificent reliquaries that may still be found in the Catholic churches of Belgium. The merchant aristocracy ordered objects of art, sat for pictures, and built princely palaces and town halls—such as that which Cornells de Vriendt raised to the glory of Antwerp (1561–65) before the storm. When fanaticism had denuded the churches of their art, they became eager patrons of the studios, demanding statues and pictures to visualize the creed for the people.
Sculpture struck no spark here, for François Duquesnoy of Brussels did most of his work in Rome, where he carved a mighty St. Andrew for the interior of St. Peter’s. Very few tourists who make it a point to see “the oldest citizen of Brussels,” the fountain of theManneken-Pis (1619)—the bronze boy who adds to the city’s water out of his own resources—know that this is the most enduring of Duquesnoy’s creations.
But of Flemish painters there is no count. Apparently every house in the Netherlands had to have some original picture; a thousand artists were kept busy in a hundred studios painting portraits, landscapes, animals, victuals, mythologies, Holy Families, Crucifixions, and, as their distinctive contributions to the history of art, group pictures of municipal bodies and genre pictures of domestic or village life. At first these painters submitted to the prestige of Italian modes. Italian ships sailed every day into Antwerp, Italian traders set up shops there, Italian artists came to scoff and remained to paint. Many Flemish painters went to study in Italy; some settled there; so Justus Sustermans of Antwerp became a favorite portrait painter for the grand dukes of Tuscany; some of the finest portraits in the Pitti Palace are by this lusty Fleming. Frans Floris, returning from his studies with Michelangelo in Rome, called himself frankly a “Romanist,” relished anatomy, and subordinated color to line. For a generation (1547–70) his studio at Antwerp was the center and summit of Flemish painting. It is almost worth going to Caen to see in its museum his jolly mountainous Wife of the Falcon Hunter. Frans lived in wealth, built himself a palace, gave and drank freely, and died in poverty. Cornells de Vos was the ablest in a large family of painters; when too many notables begged to sit for Rubens he sent some of them to Vos, assuring them that they would fare just as well. We can still see Cornells, his wife, and two pretty daughters, hanging comfortably in the Brussels Museum.
Toward the end of the sixteenth century the Italian infatuation faded, and Flemish artists resumed native themes and ways. David Teniers the Elder, though he studied in Rome, returned to Antwerp to paint a Dutch Kitchen and a Village Kermis,3 and then taught his son to surpass him. The descendants of Old Droll Peasant Pieter Brueghel formed a dynasty of painters devoted to local landscapes and village scenes: his sons Pieter “Hell” Brueghel and Jan “Velvet” Brueghel, his grandsons Jan II and Ambrose, his great-grandson Abraham, his great-great-grandson Jan Baptist Brueghel—they run over two centuries (1525–1719), but let us clear the slate of them here. They took from their powerful ancestor a flair for rural prospects and village festivities, and some of them painted landscape backgrounds for busy Rubens.
The artists of the Netherlands brought art out of the church and the monastery into the home, the fields, and the woods. Daniel Seghers painted flowers and fruit in loving detail, devoted his pictured wreaths to the Virgin, and joined the Jesuits. Frans Snyders gave life and fragrance to a score of museums with exciting, sometimes gory, hunting scenes, and many a dish of venison and fruit; he still remains, as Rubens ranked him, the greatest painter of animals; no one has rivaled him in catching the play of light upon the fur of beasts or the plumage of birds.
Adriaen Brouwer returned to Brueghel’s peasants and pinned them on his brush as they dined, drank, sang, danced, played cards, cast dice, fought, caroused, and slept. Adriaen himself, in his thirty-two years, sampled many lives: studying for a while with Hals in Haarlem; then, aged twenty-one, already a registered master in the painters’ guild at Antwerp; spending beyond his income, and soon entangled in debt; imprisoned by the Spaniards for causes now unknown, but living sumptuously in jail; achieving freedom and paying his debts with little pictures so full of life, so technically excellent in sensitive drawing and subtle play of light, that Rubens bought seventeen of them and Rembrandt eight. His peasants seem never happy except when stupefied with strong tobacco or cheap drink, but Brouwer preferred a peasant singing in his cups to a silken hypocrite flattering a prince. In 1638, aged thirty-two, he was found dead outside a tavern door.
Jacob Jordaens was a soberer man, who inscribed upon one of his pictures a warning to his thirst: Nihil similius insano quam ebrius—”Nothing is liker to a lunatic than a drunkard.” He chose to picture people who could drink without drooling and women who could rustle silk majestically. Born in 1593, he lived to the sensible old age of eighty-five. He pictured himself for us in The Artist and His Family:4 a man erect, self-confident, handsome, prosperous, holding a lute; a wife at ease in her choking ruff; a pretty daughter just beginning to bloom Flemishly; and a little girl happy in a comforting home and creed—see her pendant cross. Jordaens was converted to Protestantism, but only at sixty-two. He painted several religious pictures, but he preferred genre and mythologies, where he could bring out the powerful heads and effulgent breasts of the men and women he had seen in Antwerp homes, as in The King Drinks5 or, better, in The Allegory of Fertility;6 here, amid fruit (painted by Jacob’s friend Snyders) and satyrs, we are startled by a magnificent nude, seen only in rear elevation but in all the grace of youth; where in Rubens’ Flanders did Jordaens find so slender a model?