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“Why is it, probably, that Pictures exist in the world, and to what
end was the divine art of Painting bestowed, by the earnest gods, upon poor mankind ? I could advise once, for a little ! To make this poor authentic earth a little memorable for us. Flaying of St. Bartholomew, Rape of Europa, Rape of the Sabines, Piping and Amours of goat-footed Pan, Romulus suckled by the Wolf: all this and much else of fabulous, distant, unimportant, not to say impossible, ugly and unworthy shall pass. But I say, Herewithal is something not phantasmal; of indisputable certainty, home-grown" (CARLYLE : Friedrich, bk. iv. ch. vi.,
slightly altered). The Early Flemish and German schools are by no means so completely represented as the nearly contemporary schools of Italy ; but there are enough pictures to bring out the characteristics of the northern art. Nothing can be more instructive, and convincing of the value of art as a means of national autobiography, than to compare the early pictures in this room en bloc with those in any of the Italian rooms (say Gallery VI.) No one can fail to be struck at once by the contrast between what Mr. Ruskin has called “the angular and bony sanctities of the North," and “the drooping graces and pensive pieties of the South,” This is the first distinguishing character of the early northern art : there is no feeling, or care, for beauty as
Stim, unr precise, kably i
such. Look round the room, and see whether there is a single face which will haunt you for its beauty. Look at the pictures which interest you most, choose out the brightest and the most exquisitely finished : and see if it is not an almost defiant absence of beautiful feature that characterises them. What, then, is it that gives these pictures their worth and has caused their painters to be included amongst the great masters of the world ? Look at some of the best, and the more you look the more you will see that their goodness consists in an absolute fidelity to nature—in dress, in ornaments, and especially in portraiture. Here are unmistakably the men and women of the time, set down precisely in their habit as they lived. In this grim, unrelenting truthfulness these pictures correspond exactly to the ideal which Carlyle-himself a typical northerner—lays down, in the passage above quoted, for the art of painting.
Look at these pictures and at the Italian again, and another obvious difference is apparent. The Flemish pictures are on the whole much smaller. This is a fact full of significance. In the sunny South the artists spent their best energies in covering large spaces of wall with frescoes; in the damp climate of the North they were obliged to paint chiefly upon panels. The conditions of their climate were no doubt what led to the discovery of the Van Eyck method (described under 186, p. 275 11.), the point of which was a way of drying pictures rapidly without the necessity of exposure to the sun. It was a method only applicable to work on a small scale, but it permitted such work to be brought to the highest finish. This precisely suited the painstaking, patient men of the Low Countries. Hence the minuteness and finish which characterise their work. Moreover, “every charm that can be bestowed upon so small a surface is requisite to intensify its attractive power; and hence Flemish painters developed a jewel-like quality of colouring which remained peculiar to themselves.” . . . Further, the Van Eyck method, requiring absolute forethought and forbidding any alterations, tended to a set of stock subjects treated more or less in the same way. “Thus the chief
qualities of the Flemish School may be called Veracity of Imitation, Jewel-like richness of Colour, perfection of Finish, emphasis of Character, and Conservatism in design. These indeed are virtues enough to make a school of art great in the annals of time, even though they may never be able to win for it the clatter of popular applause. The paintings of Flanders were not, and were not intended to be, popular. Flemish artists did not, like the Italians, paint for the folk, but for the delight of a small clique of cultured and solid individuals. They painted as their employers worked, with energy, honesty, and endurance; they cared not for beauty of the more palpable and less enduring kind, but they cared infinitely for Truth ”l
Such are the general characteristics of the Early Flemish School. Passing now to its historical development and to its relations with the schools of Germany, we may distinguish three successive periods. (1.) The birthplace of painting as a separate art in the North was on the Lower Rhine, at Maastricht and Cologne. Of this school of the Lower Rhine the only specimen in the Gallery is 687, p. 265. It is properly grouped with the Early Flemish School, because in the fourteenth century most of the Flemish artists were Germans from the valley of the Rhine. (2.) Later on, however, the great development in the prosperity and wealth of the Low Countries—the land of the Woolsack and the Golden Fleece, led to the growth of a native art. Just as at Venice (see p. 126) the people, busy with their trade, preferred for a long time to buy rather than produce their works of art, but afterwards settled down and made works for themselves, so in Flanders the German art came to be superseded by a native Flemish art. The Early Flemish School, covering roughly the period 1400-1500, was the result, the most important masters being Van Eyck, Van der Weyden, Bouts, David, and Memling. (3.) It was now the turn of this school to influence that of Germany. The Flemish masters were great travellers, and the German masters were no doubt attracted to Flanders by the great technical skill there
1 W. M. Conway: Early Flemish Artists and their Predecessors on the Lower Rhine, 1887, ch. iii., hereafter referred to as Conway.
in vogue. Hence we now come to a second period in German painting—marked by Flemish influence. There is less of the mysticism and more realism; but with the realism there is an element of brutality and ugliness. 707 and 1049 are typical German pictures of this period (see pp. 271, 266).
Finally, it will be noticed, as the visitor goes round the room, that many of the pictures are either altogether “unknown” or are attributed to artists whose names are not given, and who are merely described as the “master” of such and such other pictures. This is an interesting and characteristic point. Of individual painters of the Early German School, and for the most part of those of the Early Flemish, very little is known. They seldom signed their names, and the works of the fifteenth century were in the next two centuries treated with neglect. Hence both the attribution of these pictures, and the lives of the painters to whom they are attributed, are still very uncertain. A second reason for this uncertainty is to be found in the Guild system, which was very strict amongst the northern artists. Painting, to the mediæval mind, was a craft like any other, and was subject to the same rules. The Guild educated the artist and bought his materials, and even when he emerged into mastership, stood in many ways between him and his patron. Hence pictures were often regarded as the work not of this or that individual, but of this or that Guild. Hence too the quiet industry and the uncompetitive patience of these Early Flemish painters. “It was not merely the result of chance that the brothers Van Eyck invented their peculiar method of painting by which they were enabled to produce pictures of almost unlimited durability and of unsurpassable finish, provided sufficient care were bestowed upon the work. The spirit of the day and the method of the day were reflections one of another. . . . Take any picture of this old Flemish School, and regard it carefully, you will
1 The letters often found on pictures, which for a long time excited the curiosity and imagination of critics, are now fully explained as the initials not of the painters but of the patrons (see Wauters: The Flemish School, p. 61).
find that only so do its beauties strike you at all. ... The old Flemish artists did always the thing that was within their powers, striving indeed by daily industry to increase the strength of those powers, but never hoping either by luck or momentary insanity to attain anything unattainable by patient thought and long-continued labour. “Patient continuance in well-doing 'was the open secret of their success”(Conway, ch. ii.) 1094. PORTRAIT OF A MAN.
Sir Antonio More (Flemish : 1512-1578). Antonij Moro (commonly known in this country as Sir Antonio More, although, when and by whom he was knighted does not appear) succeeded Holbein as the principal portrait painter settled in England. He was in Queen Mary's service 1554-1558. “More's style,” it has been said, “ so much resembles that of Holbein as to frequently create a doubt to which of them a portrait is to be attributed ; but he is not so clear and delicate in his colouring, perhaps from having painted so much in Spain, as that master.” Finally he settled at Brussels. He studied first under Schoorel (720, p. 270) and afterwards in Italy. 1231. PORTRAIT OF A GENTLEMAN.
Sir Antonio More (Flemish : 1512-1578). “A man in the prime of life, attributed to Sir Antonio Moro; the signature is perhaps apocryphal. There is little doubt, however, that the attribution is correct; the manipulation shows all the prodigious power of Moro. His capacity for seizing character and the fine tone of his flesh colour are all here. The execution suggests the brilliant study of Hubert Goltzius, by Moro, in the Brussels Gallery. That masterpiece was stated to have been painted in an hour; the present head bears every indication of almost equally rapid brush work. Probably the master's hand is to be found only in the head, the dress bearing strong signs of modern method of execution” (Times, September 19, 1887). 195 A MEDICAL PROFESSOR.
Unknown (German School). The interest of this picture lies in the history of its purchase. It was bought by the trustees in 1845, on the advice of the then Keeper, as a Holbein. «The veriest tyro might well have been ashamed of such a purchase" (Arrows of the Chace, i. 65); and very much ashamed the trustees were, when im