Dora B. Montefiore 1902

Some Notes on the Early Flemish Painters

Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. VI No. 11 November 1902, pp. 368-371;
Transcription: Ted Crawford.
HTML Markup: Brian Reid.
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It is pleasant to welcome back amongst our contemporaries L’ Humanité Nouvelle, the work of which, under the able editorship of Monsieur Hamon, had been temporarily suspended in consequence of trouble that had arisen with the publishers, Schleicher Frères. The Revue, which covers ground not covered by any other publication, opens its columns to the advanced thinkers of every country, whose cause is the cause of humanity, irrespective of race, colour or sex. The resuscitated Revue opens with articles that range in subject from Trusts, the Military Question in Finland, and the Political Situation in France, to the subject of Law in Psychology, and the recent Exhibition of Primitive Painters in Bruges; besides containing many interesting reviews and criticisms of current literature by Emile Vandervelde, Elisée Raclus, Lawrence Jerrold and others. It is to the article on Early Flemish Painters, by Jules Coucke, that I should like to call the attention of Social Democrats, for a unique exhibition of the works of these marvellous craftsmen has been held this year in Bruges, where so many of them lived and worked, and where some of the most characteristic specimens of the art of Memling may still anyday be seen and studied in the quaint old Hôpital de St. Jean. The reason that the “Primitives,” as the French call them, are of special interest to us Social-Democrats is, that at the time they worked and painted, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the power of the Guilds (those Labour organisations whose solidarity, combined with minuteness, still excites our admiration) was at its height; and that all these painters, whose work still persists and will persist, when the materials in which most modern art is executed are crumbled to dust, were members of various guilds, by whose rules they were bound to use only the tools, mediums and materials sanctioned by the corporate body to which they belonged. “In this unrivalled school of social solidarity, and of collective labour,” writes Jules Coucke, “every active force of the whole being was exercised and prepared for use, till they vibrated in unison, and acquired their maximum of intensity and of suppleness; in that school the mind refined its own native qualities, opened out latent faculties, and set all the springs of its inner mechanism, so that it was able at any given moment to obtain an easy and harmonious equilibrium of working, through the normal and regular movement of its machinery. It is this which gives the finishing touch and the characteristic form to that which stamps the Flemish soul; a genius that is industrious and practical, rude in its exterior, and brusque in its expression, turbulent but discreet, pressing obstinately towards its goal, desperate in struggle, tenacious in success, unconquerable in defeat, triumphing in the end over all obstacles, reverses and adversity, through dint of patient energy, of quiet audacity, and of invincible obstinacy.” Is not this the gospel of art labour, which Ruskin preached so strenuously during the mature years of his life, and which Frederic Harrison has summed up for us in his recent life of Ruskin as being that writer’s conviction that Art in all its forms was but a manifestation of a sound personal and social life—that the life of the body politic was the dominant problem for us all?

The principal representative of these carefully trained craftsmen, who, after a long period of apprenticeship, during which they studied with extreme thoroughness the metier and the technique of their art, are the two Van Eycks, Van der Weden, Van de Goes, Memling and Gerard David, contemporaries of Fra Angelico, Lippo Lippi, Botticelli, and Ghirlandaio in Italy. Though some of these early Flemish masters journeyed to Italy, the schools of painting of Florence and of Siena had but little influence on their art; and in some respects, such as in purity of colour, and in exquisite finish, the Flemish Primitives have no rival.

Jules Coucke in his article joins in the general regret that the masterpiece of the brothers Van Eycks, “The Adoration of the Lamb” was not exhibited in its entirety at Bruges. This marvellous picture was originally painted for the Church of St. Bavon, at Ghent, where it hung in one of the side chapels. It consisted of a central panel and six wings, all crowded with multitudes of lifelike and animated figures of exquisite colour and finish. At the time of the French invasion of Belgium the panels were removed and placed in the Louvre. After the fall of Napoleon and the victory of the Allies, these panels were restored to their place in the church, but soon afterwards, on October 19, 1816, some member of the chapter sold them clandestinely, through a dealer, for 5,000 florins, and the panels, painted with angels, found their way into the Berlin Museum. It was in vain that the Commune of Ghent protested against this slur cast an the honour of a whole town; it was impossible to buy back the panels that had crossed the border; though the “Adam and Eve” panels, which had not yet left the dealer’s hands were repurchased for the Brussels Museum, where they now hang. These magnificent specimens of the nude, with their warm flesh tints and simple realism were on view at the Bruges Exhibition, and were the only specimens of this unique masterpiece of which the exhibition could boast, though the Van Eycks were well represented from other galleries and from private collections. It is of interest to note in passing that we possess in our own National Gallery a very fine specimen of the art of Jan van Eyck in the portraits of a Flemish burgher and his wife, and a little dog; whilst in the Louvre Gallery in Paris (which is, in these days of cheap excursions, accessible to many at holiday times) there is to be seen, by the same artist, one of the loveliest pictures, perhaps, in the world, a Madonna and the Donor; it would be difficult to surpass the technique displayed in the figure-painting in this picture, or in the tenderness of the landscape, bathed in the opal lights of the setting sun. Doubtless, as Jules Coucke says, it was the illumination of a faith, “tranquil, undoubting, and serene,” which inspired these early Gothic masters, who worked during the same period as that in which were built the great churches and cathedrals of Europe, “a faith, grave and profound in Van Eyck, more minute in Memling, more all-embracing and enveloping in Gerard David, and more profane in Mabuse.” It is not, however, only in sacred subjects that these artists excel; some of their portraits and interiors are amongst the finest that have ever been painted, whilst Memling, the chronicler in painting of St. Ursula and her ten thousand virgins, yields the palm to none in his portraiture of his contemporaries. “Let me cite amongst his portraits,” says Jules Coucke, “those of G. Moreel and his wife and children; of Martin van Nieuwenhove, and of Marie Portunare; that of Sibylle Sambetha, and finally that of the ‘young man,’ slight and erect, with bared neck, with the rapid subtle glance, with the energetic and intelligent head, framed in thick silky hair, which falls gracefully over the collar; a radiant whole, in which the original delicacy and natural distinction of the sitter are nervously and faithfully translated.”

But after the first early masters, we begin to note in their followers traces of the decay of primitive faith, till in Gerard David art becomes softer in its expression, it might almost be said less Gothic, without losing anything of its greatness or of its primitive simplicity. The economic greatness of Flanders at the dawn of the Renaissance, when Bruges was a second Venice, and a mart for all the finest products of the East and of the West, was reflected in the art of the country; and one observes a more positive, a clearer, and a more precise spirit taking the place of the vague and mystic reveries of Memling and his contemporaries. “In painting this spirit shows itself by a closer observation and study of human anatomy …. The lines …. cling more lingeringly to forms, which before were flaccid and floating; bosoms appear more rounded, waists are longer and more attenuated, hips more accentuated; and the whole body leaves its ascetic straight waistcoat, and shows as a tempting fruit, with lovely exterior of delicate fair flesh.” This transformation in painting, which was initiated by David, is amplified and accentuated by Quentin Matsys, the blacksmith and iron-worker of Antwerp. This painter is another glowing example of the early guild worker and craftsman; the artist who could ennoble his art through his craft, and his craft through his art. Visitors to Antwerp will remember near the cathedral the exquisitely wrought-iron canopy to a well, the work of this master; and will have been told the tradition of his being induced, by his love for the daughter of a painter, to add to the craft which he already practised with such marvellous skill, a knowledge of painting; in which art he soon became proficient.

Another interesting personality among painters of this period is that of Hugo Van de Goes, an artist of rare merit, but of whose life little is known. He seems to have been the victim of a too highly strung nervous temperament, which at times induced fits of intemperance, and at other times of black melancholy. When these fits shook his life to its foundations he used to take refuge with the monks of Rouge Cloître, near Ghent, who, tradition says, soothed his troubled moods with the strains of rare and tender music, and gradually nursed him back to life and to art. The good old monks seemed to have practised even in those days what scientists are experimenting in now, the “ministering to minds diseased” through soothing external influences; and it is good to know that, in spite of the vulgar attack of the Times, music has its share in the cure of those afflicted ones who are forced to sojourn in our county asylums. Van de Goes is believed to have been a pupil of the Van Eycks, but until late years many of his canvases remained unrecognised. He is represented in the Bruges exhibition by a masterpiece, “The death of the Virgin.”

“Quentin Matsys is the last of the great line of Flemish painters, known as ‘Primitives.’ …. Those that succeed him are painters of the transition period; Gossart, better known under the name of Mabuse, Pourbus, Van Orley, and Lancelot Blondeel.” Of these Gossart is by far the most charming, more especially because of the exquisite quality of his blues which possess a vivid sobriety all his own. Both England and Scotland lent of their best to do honour to this fascinating painter, with the result that the exhibition of his works, both in number and quality, was almost unique.

“The Stones of Venice,” Ruskin wrote in the last volume of “Fors,” “taught the laws of constructive art, and the dependence of all human work or edifice for its beauty on the happy life of the workman.” And, later on, when lecturing at Oxford, he contended that “neither sound art, policy, nor religion, can exist in England until, neglecting, if it must be, your own pleasure gardens and pleasure chambers, you resolve that the streets which are the habitation of the poor, and the fields which are the playgrounds of their children, shall be restored to the rule of the spirits, whosoever they are, in earth and heaven, that ordain and reward, with conscious and constant felicity, all that is decent and orderly, beautiful and pure.” It was long and earnest meditation on the works of the Italian Gothic masters, and strenuous heart-searchings for the collective soul that inspired their work, that gave John Ruskin the fulminating social gospel which he preached so long and ardently. “The happy life of the workman”—happy because he possesses an active reverence for a dominant moral ideal and builds, or paints, or chisels that dominant ideal into the work that he has in hand; this is the message that these primitive craftsmen whisper to us as we commune with the souls that speak through the eyes of their contemporaries, their saints or their Madonnas, whom they have reproduced for us on canvas. “Read,” says Frederic Harrison in the life of John Ruskin before quoted, “read all these glancings of a keen and pure soul from heaven to earth on a multitude of things social and humane, and you will recognise how truly John Ruskin forty years ago was a pioneer of the things which to-day the best spirits of our time so earnestly yearn to see. He is forgotten now, because he went forth into a sort of moral wilderness and cried, ‘Repent and reform for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’ The kingdom of Heaven is not yet come on us, perhaps is yet far off; but John was the forerunner of that which will some day come to pass. He was not as the mocking crowd, said ‘a reed shaken with the wind.’ Has he not taught us among other things to attempt, as Jules Coucke so sympathetically puts it, to search into the intimate thought, to penetrate the inner life, to reconstitute the moral atmosphere of these upright artists of the Gothic age, who have left us documents of such imperishable beauty?”