Little Journeys To the Homes of the Great, Volume 4 (of 14)
Little Journeys To The Homes Of Eminent Painters
Printed and made into a Book by The Roycrofters, who are in East Aurora, Erie County, New York
MICHELANGELO 3 REMBRANDT 39 RUBENS 79 MEISSONIER 117 TITIAN 145 ANTHONY VAN DYCK 171 FORTUNY 199 ARY SCHEFFER 223 FRANCOIS MILLET 257 JOSHUA REYNOLDS 285 LANDSEER 309 GUSTAVE DORE 327
How can that be, lady, which all men learn By long experience? Shapes that seem alive, Wrought in hard mountain marble, will survive Their maker, whom the years to dust return! Thus to effect, cause yields. Art hath her turn, And triumphs over Nature. I, who strive with sculpture, Know this well: her wonders live In spite of time and death, those tyrants stern. So I can give long life to both of us In either way, by color or by stone, Making the semblance of thy face and mine. Centuries hence when both are buried, Thus thy beauty and my sadness shall be shown, And men shall say, "For her 'twas wise to pine."
—Sonnets of Michelangelo
"Call me by my pet name," wrote Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in one of those incomparable sonnets of which the Portuguese never heard. And the task yet remains for some psychologist to tell us why, when we wish to bestow the highest honor, coupled with familiar affection, we call the individual by a given name.
Young men and maidens will understand my allusion; and I hope this book will not suffer the dire fate of falling into the hands of any one who has forgotten the days of his youth.
In addressing the one we truly revere, we drop all prefix and titles. Soldiers marching under the banner of a beloved leader ever have for him a name of their own. What honor and trust were once compressed into the diminutive, "Little Corporal" or Kipling's "Bobs"; or, to come down to something even more familiar to us, say, "Old Abe" and "Little Phil"!
The earth is a vast graveyard where untold millions of men lie buried, but out of the myriads who pass into forgetfulness every decade, the race holds a few names embalmed in undying amber.
Lovers of art, the round world over, carry in their minds one character, so harmoniously developed on every side of his nature that we say twenty centuries have never produced his equal. We call him "Leonardo"—the one ideal man. Leonardo da Vinci was painter, poet, sculptor, architect, mathematician, politician, musician, man of science, and courtier. His disposition was so joyous, his manner so captivating, his form and countenance so beautiful, that wherever he went all things were his. And he was so well ballasted with brains, and so acute in judgment, that flattery spoiled him not. His untiring industry and transcendent talent brought him large sums of money, and he spent them like a king. So potent was his personality that wherever he made his home there naturally grew up around him a Court of Learning, and his pupils and followers were counted by the score. To the last of his long life he carried with him the bright, expectant animation of youth; and to all who knew him he was "Leonardo—the only Leonardo."
But great as was Leonardo, we call the time in which he lived, the age of Michelangelo.
When Leonardo was forty, and at the very height of his power, Michel Agnola Buonarroti, aged twenty, liberated from the block a marble Cupid that was so exquisite in its proportions that it passed for an antique, and men who looked upon it exclaimed, "Phidias!"
Michel Agnola became Michelangelo, that is to say, "Michel the Angel," in a day. The name thrown at him by an unknown admirer stuck, and in his later years when all the world called him "Angelo" he cast off the name his parents had given him and accepted the affectionate pet name that clung like the love of woman.
Michelangelo was born in a shabby little village but a few miles from Florence. In another village near by was born Leonardo. "Great men never come singly," says Emerson. And yet Angelo and Leonardo exercised no influence upon each other that we can trace. The younger man never came under the spell of the older one, but moved straight on to his destiny, showing not the slightest arc in his orbit in deference to the great luminary of his time.
The handsome Leonardo was social: he loved women, and music, and festivals, and gorgeous attire, and magnificent equipage. His life was full of color and sweeping, joyous, rainbow tints.
Michelangelo was homely in feature, and the aspect of his countenance was mutilated by a crashing blow from a rival student's mallet that flattened his nose to his face. Torrigiano lives in history for this act alone, thus proving that there are more ways than one to gain immortality.
Angelo was proud, self-centered, independent, and he sometimes lashed the critics into a buzzing, bluebottle fury by his sarcastic speech. "He affronted polite society, conformed to no one's dictates, lived like an ascetic and worked like a packmule," says a contemporary.
Vasari, who among his many other accomplishments seems to have been the Boswell of his time, compares Leonardo and Michelangelo. He says, "Angelo can do everything that Leonardo can, although he does it differently." Further, he adds, "Angelo is painter, sculptor, engineer, architect and poet." "But," adds this versatile Italian Samuel Pepys, somewhat sorrowfully, "he is not a gentleman."
It is to be regretted that Signor Vasari did not follow up his remarks with his definition of the term "gentleman."
Leonardo was more of a painter than a sculptor. His pictures are full of rollicking mirth, and the smile on the faces of his women is handed down by imitation even to this day. The joyous freedom of animal life beckons from every Leonardo canvas; and the backgrounds fade off into fleecy clouds and shadowy, dreamy, opiate odor of violets.
Michelangelo, however, is true to his own life as Leonardo was to his—for at the last the artist only reproduces himself. He never painted a laugh, for life to him was serious and full of sober purpose. We can not call his work somber—it does not depress—for it carries with it a poise and a strength that is sufficient unto itself. It is all heroic, and there is in it a subtle quality that exorcises fear and bids care begone.
No man ever portrayed the human figure with the same fidelity that Angelo has. The naked Adam, when the finger of the Almighty touched him into life, gives one a thrill of health to look upon, even after these four hundred years have struggled to obliterate the lines.
His figures of women shocked the artistic sense of his time, for instead of the Greek idealization of beauty he carved the swelling muscles and revealed the articulations of form as no artist before him had ever dared. His women are never young, foolish, timid girls—they are Amazons; and his men are the kind that lead nations out of captivity. The soft, the pretty, the yielding, were far from him. There is never a suggestion of taint or double meaning; all is frank, open, generous, honest and fearless. His figures are nude, but never naked.
He began his artistic work when fourteen years old, and he lived to be eighty-nine; and his years did not outlast his zeal and zest. He was above the medium size, an athlete in his lean and sinewy strength, and the whipcord quality of his body mirrored the silken strength of his will.
In his old age the King arose when Michelangelo entered the Council-Chamber, and would not sit until he was seated at the right hand of the throne; the Pope would not allow him to kneel before him; when he walked through the streets of Rome the people removed their hats as he passed; and today we who gaze upon his work in the Eternal City stand uncovered.
* * * * *
Michelangelo was the firstborn in a large family. Simone Buonarroti, his father, belonged to an ebbtide branch of the nobility that had lost everything but the memory of great ancestors turned to dust. This father had ambitions for his boy; ambitions in the line of the army or a snug office under the wing of the State, where he might, by following closely the beck and nod of the prince in power, become a magistrate or a keeper of customs.
But no boy ever disappointed a proud father more.
When great men in gilt and gold braid, with scarlet sashes across their breasts, and dangling swords that clicked and clanged on the stone pavement, strode by, rusty, dusty little Michel refused to take off his cap and wish them "Long life and God's favor," as his father ordered. Instead, he hid behind his mother's gown and made faces. His father used to say he was about as homely as he could be without making faces, and if he didn't watch out he would get his face crooked some day and couldn't get it back.
Simone Buonarroti had qualities very Micawber-like mixed in his clay, and the way he cringed and crawled may have had something to do with setting the son on the other tack.
The mother was only nineteen when Michel was born, and although the moralists talk much about woman's vanity and extravagance, the theory gets no backing from this quarter. She was a plain woman in appearance, quiet and self-contained, with no nerves to speak of, a sturdy, physical endowment, and commonsense enough for two. When scarcely out of dresses the boy began to draw pictures. He drew with charcoal on the walls, or with a stick in the sand, and shaped curious things out of mud in the gutters.
It was an age of creative art, and most of the work being in the churches the common people had their part in it. In fact, the common people were the artists. And when Simone Buonarroti found his twelve-year-old boy haunting the churches to watch the workmen, and also discovered that he was consorting with the youths who studied drawing in the atelier of Ghirlandajo, he was displeased.
Painters, to this erstwhile nobleman, were simply men in blue blouses who worked for low wages on high scaffolds, and occasionally spattered color on the good clothes of ladies and gentlemen who were beneath. He didn't really hate painters, he simply waived them; and to his mind there was no difference between an artisan and an artist.
The mother, however, took a secret pride in her boy's drawings, as mothers always do in a son's accomplishments. Doubtless she knew something of the art of decoration, too, for she had brothers who worked as day laborers on high scaffolds. Yet she didn't say much about it, for women then didn't have so much to say about anything as now.
But I can imagine that this good woman, as she went daily to church to pray, the year before her first child was born, watched the work of the men on the scaffolds, and observed that day by day the pictures grew; and as she looked, the sun streamed through stained windows and revealed to her the miracles of form and color, and the impressions of "The Annunciation," "Mary's Visit to Elizabeth" and "The Babe in the Manger" filled her wondering soul with thoughts and feelings too great for speech. To his mother was Michelangelo indebted for his leaning toward art. His father opposed such a plebeian bent vigorously:
"Bah! to love beautiful things is all right, but to wish to devote all of one's time to making them, just for others—ouch! it hurts me to think of it!"
The mother was lenient and said, "But if our child can not be anything more than a painter—why, we must be content, and God willing, let us hope he will be a good one."
Ghirlandajo's was practically a school where, for a consideration, boys were taught the secrets of fresco. The master always had contracts of his own on hand and by using 'prentice talent made both ends meet. Young Michel made it his lounging-place and when he strayed from home his mother always knew where to find him.
The master looked upon him as a possible pupil, and instead of ordering him away, smiled indulgently and gave him tasks of mixing colors and making simple lines. And the boy showed such zest and comprehension that in a short time he could draw freehand with a confidence that set the brightest scholar in the background. Such a pupil, so alert, so willing, so anxious, is the joy of a teacher's heart. Ghirlandajo must have him—he would inspire the whole school!
So the master went to the father, but the father demurred, and his scruples were only overcome when Ghirlandajo offered to reverse the rule, and pay the father the sum that parents usually paid the master. A cash payment down caused pater to capitulate, and the boy went to work—aged fourteen.
The terms of his apprenticeship called for three years, but after he had been at work a year, the ability of the youth made such an impression on the master that he took him to Lorenzo, Lorenzo the Magnificent, who then ruled over Florence.
Lorenzo had him draw a few sketches, and he was admitted to the Academy. This "Academy" was situated in the palace of Lorenzo, and in the gardens was a rich collection of antique marbles: busts, columns, and valuable fragments that had come down from the days when Pericles did for Athens what Lorenzo was then doing for Florence. The march of commerce has overrun the garden, but in the Uffizi Gallery are to be seen today most of the curios that Lorenzo collected.
By introducing the lad to Lorenzo, Ghirlandajo lost his best helper, but so unselfish was this excellent master that he seemed quite willing to forego his own profit that the boy might have the best possible advantages. And I never think of Ghirlandajo without mentally lifting my hat.
At the Academy, Michelangelo ceased to paint and draw, and devoted all his energies to modeling in clay. So intent was his application that in a few weeks he had mastered technicalities that took others years to comprehend.
One day the father came and found the boy in a blouse at work with mallet and chisel on a block of marble. "And is it a stone-mason you want to make of my heir and firstborn?" asked the fond father.
It was explained that there were stone-masons and stone-masons. A stone-mason of transcendent skill is a sculptor, just as a painter who can produce a beautiful picture is an artist.
Simone Buonarroti acknowledged he had never looked at it just in that way, but still he would not allow his son to remain at the trade unless—unless he himself had an office under the government.
Lorenzo gave him the desired office, and took the young stone-mason as one of the Medici family, and there the boy lived in the Palace, and Lorenzo acted toward him as though he were his son.
The favor with which he was treated excited the envy of some of the other pupils, and thus it was that in sudden wrath Torrigiano struck him that murderous blow with the mallet. Torrigiano paid for his fierce temper, not only by expulsion from the Academy, but by banishment from Florence.
Michelangelo was the brightest of the hundred young men who worked and studied at the Medici palace.
But when this head scholar was eighteen Lorenzo died. The son of Lorenzo continued his father's work in a feeble way, for Piero de Medici was a good example of the fact that great men seldom reproduce themselves after the flesh. Piero had about as much comprehension of the beautiful as the elder Buonarroti. He thought that all these young men who were being educated at the Academy would eventually be valuable adjuncts to the State, and as such it was a good scheme to give each a trade—besides, it kept them off the street; and then the work was amusing, a diversion to the nobility when time hung heavy.
Once there came a heavy snowstorm, and snow being an unusual thing in Florence, Piero called a lot of his friends together in the gardens, and summoning Michelangelo, ordered him to make a snow image for the amusement of the guests, just as Piero at other times had a dog jump through a hoop.
"What shall it be?" asked Michelangelo.
"Oh, anything you please," replied Piero; "only don't keep us waiting here in the cold all day!"
Young Angelo cast one proud look of contempt toward the group and set to work making a statue. In ten minutes he had formed a satyr that bore such a close resemblance to Piero that the guests roared with laughter. "That will do," called Piero; "like Deity, you make things in your own image." Some of the company tossed silver coin at the young man, but he let the money lie where it fell.
Michel at this time was applying himself to the study of anatomy, and giving his attention to literature under the tutorship of the famous poet and scholar, Poliziano, who resided at the court.
So filled was the young man's mind with his work that he was blind to the discontent arising in the State. To the young, governments and institutions are imperishable. Piero by his selfish whims had been digging the grave of the Medici. From sovereignty they were flung into exile. The palace was sacked, the beautiful gardens destroyed, and Michelangelo, being regarded as one of the family, was obliged to flee for his life. He arrived in Bologna penniless and friendless, and applied to a sculptor for work. "What can you do?" the old sculptor asked. For answer, Michelangelo silently took a crayon and sketched a human hand on the wall. Marvelous were the lines! The master put his arms around the boy and kissed his cheek.
This new-found friend took him into his house, and placed him at his own table. Michelangelo was led into the library and workrooms, and told that all was his to use as he liked.
The two years he remained at Bologna were a great benefit to the young man. The close contact with cultured minds, and the encouragement he received, spurred his spirit to increased endeavor. It was here that he began that exquisite statue of a Cupid that passed for an antique, and found its way into the cabinet of the Duchess of Mantua.
Before long the discovery was made that the work was done by a young man only a little past twenty, and Cardinal San Giorgio sent a message inviting him to Rome.
* * * * *
Rome had long been the Mecca of the boy's ambitions, and he joyously accepted the invitation. At Rome he was lodged in the Vatican, and surrounded by that world of the beautiful, he went seriously about his life's work. The Church must have the credit for being the mother of modern art. Not only did she furnish the incentive, but she supplied the means. She gave security from the eternal grind of material wants and offered men undying fame as reward for noble effort.
The letter of religion was nothing to Michelangelo, but the eternal spirit of truth that broods over and beyond all forms and ceremonies touched his soul. His heart was filled with the poetry of pagan times. The gods of ancient Greece on high Olympus for him still sang and feasted, still lived and loved.
But to the art of the Church he devoted his time and talents. He considered himself a priest and servant to the cause of Christ.
Established at Rome in the palace of the Pope, Michelangelo felt secure. He knew his power. He knew he could do work that would for generations move men to tears, and in his prophetic soul was a feeling that his name would be inseparably linked with Rome. His wanderings and buffetings were things of the past—he was necessary to the Church, and his position was now secure and safe. The favor of princes lasts but for a day, but the Church is eternal. The Church should be his bride; to her and to her alone would he give his passionate soul. Thus mused Michelangelo, aged twenty-two. His first work at Rome was a statue of Bacchus, done it seems for an exercise to give Cardinal Giorgio a taste of his quality, just as he had drawn the human hand on the wall for his Bologna protector; for this fine and lofty pride in his power was a thing that clung to Michelangelo from rosy youth to hoary age.
The "Bacchus," which is now in the National Museum at Florence, added to his reputation; and the little world of art, whose orbit was the Vatican, anxiously awaited a more serious attempt, just as we crane our necks when the great violinist about to play awakens expectation by a few preliminary flourishes.
His first great work at Rome was the "Pieta." We see it today in Saint Peter's at the first chapel to the right as we enter, in a long row of commonplace marbles, in all its splendid beauty and strength. It represents the Mother of Christ, supporting in her arms the dead body just after it was lowered from the cross. In most of Michelangelo's work there is a heroic quality in the figures and a muscular strength that in a degree detracts from the spirit of sympathy that might otherwise come over us. It is admiration that seizes us, not sympathy. But this early work is the flower of Michelangelo's genius, round and full and complete. The later work may be different, but it is not better.
When this group was unveiled in Fourteen Hundred Ninety-eight it was the sensation of the year. Old and young, rich and poor, learned and unlearned, flocked to see it, and the impression it made was most profound. If the Catholic Church has figured on the influence of statuary and painting on the superstitious, as has been tauntingly said, she has reckoned well. The story of steadfast love and loyalty is masterly told in that first great work of Michelangelo. The artist himself often mingled with the crowds that surrounded his speaking marble, and the people who knelt before it assured him by their reverence that his hand had wrought well. And once he heard two able doctors disputing as to who the artist was. They were lavish in their praise, and one insisted that the work was done by the great sculptor at Bologna, and he named the master who had befriended Michelangelo. The artist stood by and heard the argument put forth that no mere youth could conceive such a work, much less execute it.
That night he stole into the church and by the wan light of a lantern carved his name deep on the girdle of the Virgin, and there do we read it today. The pride of the artist, however, afterward took another turn, for he never thereafter placed his name on a piece. "My work is unlike any other—no lover of the beautiful can mistake it," he proudly said.
He worked away with untiring industry and the Church paid him well. But many of his pieces have been carried from Rome, and as they were not signed and scores of imitations sprang up, it can not always be determined now what is his work and what not. He toiled alone, and allowed no 'prentice hand to use the chisel, and unlike the sculptors of our day, did not work from a clay model, but fell upon the block direct. "I caught sight of Michelangelo at work, but could not approach for the shower of chips," writes a visitor at Rome in the year Fifteen Hundred One.
* * * * *
Perfect peace is what Michelangelo expected to find in the palace of the Pope. Later he came to know that life is unrest, and its passage at best a zigzag course, that only straightens to a direct line when viewed across the years. If a man does better work than his fellows he must pay the penalty. Personality is an offense.
In Rome there was a small army of painters and sculptors, each eager and anxious for the sole favor of the powers. They quibbled, quarreled, bribed, cajoled, and even fair women used their influence with cardinals and bishops in favor of this artist or that.
Michelangelo was never a favorite in society; simpering beauty peeked at him from behind feather fans and made jokes concerning his appearance. Yet Walter Pater thought he found evidence that at this time Michelangelo was beloved by a woman, and that the artist reproduced her face and form, and indirectly pictured her in poems. In feature she was as plain as he; but her mind matched his, and was of a cast too high and excellent to allow him to swerve from his high ideals. Yet the love ended unhappily, and in some mysterious way gave a tinge of melancholy and a secret spring of sorrow to the whole long life of the artist.
Jealous competitors made their influence felt. Michelangelo found his work relegated to corners and his supplies cut short.
At this time an invitation came from Florence for him to come and make use of a gigantic block of marble that had lain there at the city gate, blackening in the dirt, for a century.
The Florence that had banished him, now begged him to come back.
"Those who once leave Florence always sigh to return," says Dante. He returned, and at once began work on the "David." The result was the heroic statue that stood for three hundred years at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, only a hundred feet from where Savonarola was hanged and burned. The "David" is now in the Belle d' Arte, and if the custodian will allow you to climb up on a ladder you will see that the top of the head shows the rough unfinished slab, just as it was taken from the quarry. Any one but a master would have finished the work.
This magnificent statue took nearly two years to complete. As a study of growing youth, boldly recognizing all that is awkward and immature, it has never ceased to cause wordy warfare to reign in the camp of the critics. "The feet, hands and head are all too large," the Athenians say. But linger around the "old swimmin'-hole" any summer day, and you will see tough, bony, muscular boys that might have served as a model for the "David."
The heads of statues made by the Greeks are small in proportion to the body. The "Gladiator" wears a Number Six hat, and the "Discobolus" one size smaller; yet the figures represent men weighing one hundred eighty pounds each. The Greeks aimed to satisfy the eye, and as the man is usually seen clothed, they reduced the size of the head when they showed the nude figure.
But Michelangelo was true to Nature, and the severest criticism ever brought against him is that he is absolutely loyal to truth. He was the first man ever to paint or model the slim, slender form of a child that has left its round baby shape behind and is shooting up like a lily-stalk. A nude, hardy boy six years old reveals ankle-bones, kneecap, sharp hips, ribs, collar-bone and shoulder-blade with startling fidelity. And why, being Nature's work, it is any less lovely than a condition of soft, cushioned adipose, we must let the critics tell, but Michelangelo thought it wasn't.
From Fourteen Hundred Ninety-six, when Michelangelo first arrived in Rome, to Fifteen Hundred Four, he worked at nothing but sculpture. But now a change came over his restless spirit, for an invitation had come from the Gonfaloniere of Florence to decorate one of the rooms of the Town Hall, in competition with Leonardo da Vinci—the only Leonardo.
He painted that strong composition showing Florentine soldiers bathing in the Arno. The scene depicts the surprise of the warriors as a trumpet sounds, calling them to battle with the enemy that is near at hand. The subject was chosen because it gave opportunity for exploiting the artist's marvelous knowledge of anatomy. Thirty figures are shown in various attitudes. Nearly all are nude, and as they scramble up the bank, buckling on their armor as they rush forward, eager for the fight, we see the wild, splendid swell of muscle and warm, tense, pulsing flesh. As an example of Michelangelo's consummate knowledge of form it was believed to be his finest work.
But it did not last long; the jealous Bandinelli made a strong bid for fame by destroying it. And thus do Bandinelli and Torrigiano go clattering down the corridors of time hand in hand. Yet we know what the picture was, for various men who saw it recorded their impressions; but although many of the younger artists of Italy flocked to Florence to see it, and many copied it, only one copy has come down to us—the one in the collection of the Earl of Leicester, at Holkham.
So even beautiful Florence could not treat her gifted son with impartiality, and when a call came from Pope Julius the Second, who had been elected in Fifteen Hundred Three, to return to Rome, the summons was promptly obeyed.
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Julius was one of the most active and vigorous rulers the earth has known. He had positive ideas on many subjects and like Napoleon "could do the thinking for a world."
The first work he laid out for Michelangelo was a tomb, three stories high, with walls eighteen feet thick at the base, surrounded with numerous bas-reliefs and thirty heroic statues. It was to be a monument on the order of those worked out by the great Rameses, only incorporating the talent of Greece with that of ancient and modern Rome.
Michelangelo spent nearly a year at the Carrara quarries, getting out materials and making plans for forwarding the scheme. But gradually it came over him that the question of economy, which was deeply rooted in the mind of Julius, forbade the completion of such a gigantic and costly work. Had Julius given Michelangelo "carte-blanche" orders on the treasury, and not meddled with the plans, this surpassing piece of architecture might have found form. But the fiery Julius, aged seventy-four, was influenced by the architect Bramante to demand from Michelangelo a bill of expense and definite explanation as to details.
Very shortly after, Michelangelo quit work and sent a note to the Pope to the effect that the tomb was in the mountain of Carrara, with many beautiful statues, and if he wanted them he had better look for some one to get them out. As for himself, his address was Florence.
The Pope sent couriers after him, one after another until five had been dispatched, but neither pleading, bribes nor threats could induce him to return.
As the scientist constructs the extinct animal from a thigh-bone, so we can guess the grandeur of what the tomb might have been from the single sample that has come down to us. The one piece of work that was completed for this tomb is the statue of "Moses." If the reputation of Michelangelo rested upon nothing else than this statue, it would be sufficient for undying fame. The "Moses" probably is better known than any other piece of Michelangelo's work. Copies of it exist in all important galleries; there are casts of it in fifty different museums in America, and pictures of it are numberless. There it stands in the otherwise obscure church of Saint Pietro in Vincolo today, one hand grasping the flowing beard, and the other sustaining the tables of the law—majesty, strength, wisdom beaming in every line. As Mr. Symonds has said, "It reveals the power of Pope Julius and Michelangelo fused into a Jove."
And so the messengers and messages were in vain, and even when the Pope sent an order to the Gonfaloniere Soderini, the actual ruler of Florence, to return the artist on pain of displeasure, the matter still rested—Michelangelo said he was neither culprit nor slave, and would live where he wished.
At length the matter got so serious that it threatened the political peace of Florence, and in the goodly company of cardinals, bishops and chief citizens, Michelangelo was induced to go to Bologna and make peace with the Pope.
His first task now was a bronze statue of Julius, made, it is stated, as a partial reproduction of the "Moses." Descriptions of it declare it was even finer than the "Moses," but alas! it only endured four years, for a mob evolved it into a cannon to shoot stones, and at the same time ousted Julius from Bologna.
Michelangelo very naturally seconded the anathematization of the Bolognese by Julius, not so much for the insult to the Pope as for the wretched lack of taste they had shown in destroying a work of art. Had they left the beautiful statue there on its pedestal, Bologna would now on that account alone be a place of pilgrimage. The cannon they made is lost and forgotten—buried deep in the sand by its own weight—for Mein Herr Krupp can make cannon; but, woe betide us! who can make a statue such as Michelangelo made?
Michelangelo now followed the Pope to Rome and began a work that none other dare attempt, but which today excites the jealous admiration of every artist soul who views it—the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Ghirlandajo, Perugino, Botticelli and Luca Signorelli had worked on the walls with good effect, but to lie on one's back and paint overhead so as to bring out a masterly effect when viewed from seventy feet below was something they dare not attempt. Michelangelo put up his scaffolds, drew designs, and employed the best fresco artists in Italy to fill in the color. But as they used their brushes he saw that the designs became enfeebled under their attempts—they did not grasp the conception—and in wrath he discharged them all. He then obliterated all they had done, and shutting out the ceiling from every one but himself, worked alone. Often for days he would not leave the building, for fear some one would meddle with the work. He drew up food by a string and slept on the scaffold without changing his clothes.
After a year of intense application, no one but the artist had viewed the work. The Pope now demanded that he should be allowed to see it. A part of the scaffolding was struck, and the delight of the old Pope was unbounded. This was in Fifteen Hundred Nine, but the completed work was not shown to the public until All Souls' Day, Fifteen Hundred Twelve.
The guides at the Vatican tell us this ceiling was painted in twenty-two months, but the letters of Michelangelo, recently published, show that he worked on it over four years.
It contains over three hundred figures, all larger than life, and some are fifteen feet long. A complete description of the work Michelangelo did in this private chapel of the Pope would require a book, and in fact several books have been written with this ceiling as a subject. The technical obstacles to overcome in painting scenes and figures on an overhead surface can only be appreciated by those who have tried it. We can better appreciate the difficulties when we think that, in order even to view the decorations with satisfaction, large mirrors must be used, or one must lie prone on his back. In the ability to foreshorten and give harmonious perspective—supplying the effect of motion, distance, upright movement, coming toward you or moving away—all was worked out in this historic chapel in a way that has excited the wondering admiration of artists for three hundred years.
When the scaffolding was at last removed, the artist thought for a time he had done his last work. The unnatural positions he had been obliged to take had so strained the muscles of his neck that on the street he had often to look straight up at the sky to rest himself, and things on a straight line in front he could not distinguish. Eyes, muscles, hands, refused to act normally.
"My life is there on the ceiling of the Chapel of Sixtus," he said.
He was then thirty-nine years old.
Fifty eventful years of life and work were yet before him.
* * * * *
When Pope Julius died, in Fifteen Hundred Thirteen, Leo the Tenth, a son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, was called to take his place. We might suppose that Leo would have remembered with pride the fact that it was his father who gave Michelangelo his first start in life, and have treated the great artist in the way Lorenzo would, were he then alive. But the retiring, abstemious habits of Michelangelo did not appeal to Leo. The handsome and gracious Raphael was his favorite, and at the expense of Michelangelo, Raphael was petted, feted and advanced. Hence arose that envious rivalry between these two great men, which reveals each in a light far from pleasant—just as if Rome were not big enough for both. The pontificate of Leo the Tenth lasted just ten years. On account of the lack of encouragement Michelangelo received, it seems the most fruitless season of his whole life.
Clement the Seventh, another member of the Medici family, succeeded Leo. Clement was too sensible of Michelangelo's merit to allow him to rust out his powers in petty tasks. He conceived the idea of erecting a chapel to be attached to the church of San Lorenzo, at Florence, to be the final resting-place of the great members of the Medici family. Michelangelo planned and built the chapel and for it wrought six great pieces of art. These are the statues of Lorenzo de Medici, father of Catherine de Medici (who was such a large, black blot on the page of history); a statue of Giuliano de Medici (whose name lives now principally because Michelangelo made this statue); and the four colossal reclining figures known as "Night," "Morning," "Dawn" and "Twilight." This chapel is now open to the public, and no visitor at Florence should miss seeing it.
The statue of Lorenzo must ever rank as one of the world's masterpieces. The Italians call it "Il Pensiero." The sullen strength of the attitude gives one a vague ominous impulse to get away. Some one has said that it fulfils Milton's conception of Satan brooding over his plans for the ruin of mankind.
In Fifteen Hundred Twenty-seven, while Michelangelo was working on the chapel, Florence was attacked and sacked by the Constable de Bourbon. The Medici family was again expelled, and from the leisurely decoration of a church in honor of the gentle Christ, the artist was called upon to build barricades to protect his native city. His ingenuity as an engineer was as consummate as his exquisite idea of harmony, and for nine months the city was defended.
Through treachery the enemy was then allowed to enter and Michelangelo fled. Riots and wars seem as natural as thunderstorms to the Latin people; but after a year the clouds rolled by, Michelangelo was pardoned, and went back to his work of beautifying the chapel of San Lorenzo.
In Fifteen Hundred Thirty-four, Pope Clement was succeeded by Paul the Third. Paul was seventy years old, but the vigor of his mind was very much like that of the great Julius. His first desire was to complete the decoration of the Sistine Chapel, so that the entire interior should match the magnificence of the ceiling, and to the task he summoned Michelangelo.
The great artist hesitated. The ceiling was his supreme work as a painter, and he knew down deep in his heart that he could not hope to surpass it, and the risk of not equaling it was too great for him to run. The matter was too delicately personal to explain—only an artist could understand.
Michelangelo made excuses to the Pope and declared he had forgotten how to use a brush, that his eyesight was bad, and that the only thing he could do was to carve.
But Paul was not to be turned aside, and reluctantly Michelangelo went back to the Sistine, that he had left over twenty years before.
Then it was that he painted "The Last Judgment" on the wall of the upper end of the chapel. Hamerton calls this the grandest picture ever executed, at the same time acknowledging its faults in taste. But it must be explained that the design was the conception of Julius, endorsed by Pope Paul, and it surely mirrors the spiritual qualities (or lack of them) in these men better than any biography possibly could.
The merciful Redeemer is shown as a muscular athlete, full of anger and the spirit of revenge—proud, haughty, fierce. The condemned are ranged before him—a confused mass of naked figures, suspended in all attitudes of agony and terrible foreboding. The "saved" are ranged on one side, and do not seem to be of much better intellectual and spiritual quality than the damned; very naturally they are quite pleased to think that it is the others who are damned, and not they. The entire conception reveals that masterly ability to portray the human figure in every attitude of fear or passion. A hundred years after the picture was painted, some dignitary took it into his head that portions of the work were too "daring"; and a painter was set at work robing the figures. His fussy attempts are quite apparent.
Michelangelo's next work was to decorate the Paolina Chapel. As in his last work on the Sistine, he was constantly interrupted and advised and criticized. As he worked, cardinals, bishops and young artists watched and suggested, but still the "Conversion of Saint Paul" and the "Crucifixion of Saint Peter," in the Paolina, must ever rank as masterly art.
The frescoes in the Paolina Chapel occupied seven years and ended the great artist's career as a painter. He was seventy-three years old.
Pope Paul then made him Chief Architect of Saint Peter's. Michelangelo knew the difficulties to be encountered—the bickerings, jealousies and criticisms that were inseparable from the work—and was only moved to accept the place on Pope Paul's declaration that no one else could do as well, and that it was the will of God. Michelangelo looked upon the performance as a duty and accepted the task, refusing to take any recompense for his services. He continued to discharge the duties of the office under the direction of Popes Paul, Pius the Fourth and Pius the Fifth. In all he worked under the pontificates of seven different popes.
The dome of Saint Peter's, soaring to the skies, is his finest monument. The self-sustaining, airy quality in this stupendous structure hushes the beholder into silence; and yet that same quality of poise, strength and sufficiency marks all of the work of this colossus, whether it be painting, architecture or sculpture. America has paid tribute to Michelangelo's genius by reproducing the dome of Saint Peter's over the Capitol at Washington.
Michelangelo died at Rome, aged eighty-nine, working and planning to the last. His sturdy frame showed health in every part, and he ceased to breathe just as a clock runs down. His remains were secretly taken to Florence and buried in the church of Santa Croce. A fine bust marks the spot, but the visitor can not help feeling a regret that the dust of this marvelous man does not rest beneath the zenith of the dome of Saint Peter's at Rome.
* * * * *
Sitting calmly in this quiet corner, and with closed eyes, viewing Michelangelo's life as a whole, the impression is one of heroic strength, battling with fierce passions, and becoming victor over them by working them up into art. The mold of the man was masculine, and the subdued sorrow that flavors his whole career never degenerates into sickly sentimentality or repining.
The sonnets of Michelangelo, recently given to the world, were written when he was nearly seventy years old. Several of the sonnets are directly addressed to Vittoria Colonna, and no doubt she inspired the whole volume. A writer of the time has mentioned his accidentally finding Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna seated side by side in the dim twilight of a deserted church, "talking soft and low." Deserted churches have ever been favorite trysting-places for lovers; and one is glad for this little glimpse of quiet and peace in the tossing, troubled life-journey of this tireless man. In fact, the few years of warm friendship with Vittoria Colonna is a charmed and temperate space, without which the struggle and unrest would be so ceaseless as to be appalling. Sweet, gentle and helpful was their mutual friendship. At this period of Michelangelo's life we know that the vehemence of his emotions subsided, and tranquility and peace were his for the rest of his life, such as he had never known before.
The woman who stepped out of high society and won the love of this stern yet gentle old man must have been of a mental and spiritual quality to command our highest praise. The world loves Vittoria Colonna because she loved Michelangelo, and led him away from strife and rivalry and toil.
The eyes and the mouth are the supremely significant features of the human face. In Rembrandt's portraits the eye is the center wherein life, in its infinity of aspect, is most manifest. Not only was his fidelity absolute, but there is a certain mysterious limpidity of gaze that reveals the soul of the sitter. A "Rembrandt" does not give up its beauties to the casual observer—it takes time to know it, but once known, it is yours forever.
Swimming uneasily in my ink-bottle is a small preachment concerning names, and the way they have been evolved, and lost, or added to. Some day I will fish this effusion out and give it to a waiting world. Those of us whose ancestors landed at Plymouth or Jamestown are very proud of our family names, and even if we trace quite easily to Castle Garden we do not always discard the patronymic.
Harmen Gerritsz was a young man who lived in the city of Leyden, Holland, in the latter part of the Sixteenth Century. The letters "sz" at the end of his name stood for "szoon" and signified that he was the szoon of Mynheer Gerrit.
Now Harmen Gerritsz duly served an apprenticeship with a miller, and when his time expired, being of an ambitious nature, he rented a mill on the city wall, and started business for himself. Shortly after he very naturally married the daughter of a baker.
All of Mr. Harmen Gerritsz's customers called him Harmen, and when they wished to be exact they spoke of him as Harmen van Ryn—that is to say, Harmen of the Rhine, for his mill was near the river. "Out West," even now, if you call a man Mister, he will probably inquire what it is you have against him.
Mr. and Mrs. Harmen lived in the mill, and as years went by were blessed with a nice little family of six children. The fifth child is the only one that especially interests us. They named him Rembrandt.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Ryn, he called himself when he entered at the grammar-school at Leyden, aged fourteen. His father's first name being Harmen, he simply took that, and discarded the Gerrit entirely, according to the custom of the time. In fact, all our Johnsons are the sons of John, and the names Peterson, Thompson and Wilson, in feudal times, had their due and proper significance. Then when we find names with a final ending of "s," such as Robbins, Larkins and Perkins, we are to understand that the owner is the son of his father. And so we find Rembrandt Harmenszoon in his later years writing his name Harmensz and then simply Harmens.
Mynheer Harmen Gerritszoon's windmill ground exceeding small, and the product found a ready market. There were no servants in the miller's family—everybody worked at the business. In Holland people are industrious. The leisurely ways of the Dutch can, I think, safely be ascribed to their environment, and here is an argument Buckle might have inserted in his great book, but did not, and so I will write it down.
There are windmills in Holland (I trust the fact need not longer be concealed) and these windmills are used for every possible mechanical purpose. Now the wind blows only a part of the time—except in Chicago—and there may be whole days when not a windmill turns in all Holland. The men go out in the morning and take due note of the wind, and if there is an absolute calm many of them go back to bed. I have known the wind to die down during the day and the whole force of a windmill troop off to a picnic, as a matter of course. So the elements in Holland set man the example—he will not rush himself to death when not even the wind does.
Then another thing: Holland has many canals. Farmers load their hay on canal-boats and take it to the barn, women go to market in boats, lovers sail, seemingly, right across the fields—canals everywhere.
Traveling by canal is not rapid transit. So the people of Holland have plenty of precedent for moving at a moderate speed. There are no mountains in Holland, so water never runs; it may move, but the law of gravitation there only acts to keep things quiet. The Dutch never run footraces—neither do they scorch.
In Amsterdam I have seen a man sit still for an hour, and this with a glass of beer before him, gazing off into space, not once winking, not even thinking. You can not do that in America, where trolley-cars whiz and blizzards blow—there is no precedent for it in things animate or inanimate. In the United States everything is on the jump, art included.
Rembrandt Harmens worked in his father's mill, but never strained his back. He was healthy, needlessly healthy, and was as smart as his brothers and sisters, but no smarter, and no better looking. He was exceedingly self-contained, and would sit and dream at his desk in the grammar-school, looking out straight in front of him—just at nothing.
The master tried flogging, and the next day found a picture of himself on the blackboard, his face portrayed as anything but lovely. Young Rembrandt was sent home to fetch his father. The father came.
"Look at that!" said the irate teacher; "see what your son did; look at that!"
Mynheer Harmen sat down and looked at the picture in his deliberate Dutch way, and after about fifteen minutes said, "Well, it does look like you!"
Then he explained to the schoolmaster that the lad was sent to school because he would not do much around the mill but draw pictures in the dust, and it was hoped that the schoolmaster could teach him something.
The schoolmaster decided that it was a hopeless case, and the miller went home to report to the boy's mother.
Now, whenever a Dutchman is confronted by a problem too big to solve, or a task too unpleasant for him to undertake, he shows his good sense by turning it over to his wife. "You are his mother, anyway," said Harmen van Ryn, reproachfully.
The mother simply waived the taunt and asked, "Do you tell me the schoolmaster says he will not do anything but draw pictures?"
"Not a tap will he do but make pictures—he can not multiply two by one."
"Well," said the mother, "if he will not do anything but draw pictures, I think we'd better let him draw pictures."
* * * * *
At that early age I do not think Rembrandt was ambitious to be a painter. Good healthy boys of fourteen are not hampered and harassed by ambition—ambition, like love, camps hot upon our trail later. Ambition is the concomitant of rivalry, and sex is its chief promoter—it is a secondary sex manifestation.
The boy simply had a little intuitive skill in drawing, and the exercise of the talent was a gratification. It pleased him to see the semblance of face or form unfold before him. It was a kind of play, a working off of surplus energy.
Had the lad's mind at that time been forcibly diverted to books or business, it is very probable that today the catalogs would be without the name of Rembrandt.
But mothers have ambitions, even if boys have not—they wish to see their children do things that other women's children can not do. Among wild animals the mother kills, when she can, all offspring but her own. Darwin refers to mother-love as, "that instinct in the mind of the female which causes her to exaggerate the importance of her offspring—often protecting them to the death." Through this instinct of protection is the species preserved. In human beings mother-love is well flavored with pride, prejudice, jealousy and ambition. This is because the mother is a woman. And this is well—God made it all, and did He not look upon His work and pronounce it good?
The mother of Rembrandt knew that in Leyden there were men who painted beautiful pictures. She had seen these pictures at the University, and in the Town Hall and in the churches; and she had overheard men discussing and criticizing the work. She herself was poor and uneducated, her husband was only a miller, with no recreation beyond the beer-garden and a clicking reluctantly off to church in his wooden shoes on Sunday. They had no influential friends, no learned patrons—the men at the University never so much as nodded to millers. Her lot was lowly, mean, obscure, and filled with drudgery and pettiness. And now some one was saying her boy Rembrandt was lazy; he would neither work nor study. The taunt stung her mother-pride—"He will do nothing but make pictures!"
Ah! a great throb came to her heart. Her face flushed, she saw it all—all in prophetic vision stood out like an etching on the blankness of the future. "He will do nothing but draw pictures? Very well then, he shall draw pictures! He will draw so well that they shall adorn the churches of Leyden, and the Town Hall, and yes! even the churches of Amsterdam. Holland shall be proud of my boy! He will teach other men to draw, his pictures will command fabulous prices, and his name shall be honored everywhere! Yes, my boy shall draw pictures! This day will I take him to Mynheer Jacob van Swanenburch, who was a pupil of the great Rubens, and who has scholars even from Antwerpen. I will take him to the Master, and I will say: 'Mynheer, I am only a poor woman, the daughter of an honest baker. My husband is a miller. This is my son. He will do nothing but draw pictures. Here is a bag of gold—not much, but it is all good gold; there are no bad coins in this bag; I've been ten years in saving them. Take this bag—it is yours—now teach my son to paint. Teach him as you taught Valderschoon and those others—my memory is bad, I can not remember the names—I'm only a poor woman. Show my boy how to paint. And when I am dead, and you are dead, men will come to your grave and say, "It is here that he rests, here—the man who first taught Rembrandt Harmenszoon to use a brush!" Do you hear, Mynheer Van Swanenburch? The gold—it is yours—and this is my boy!'"
* * * * *
The Van Swanenburches were one of the most aristocratic families of Leyden. Jacob van Swanenburch's father had been burgomaster, and he himself occupied from time to time offices of importance. He was not a great painter, although several specimens of his work still adorn the Town Hall of his native city.
Rembrandt was not very anxious to attend Swanenburch's classes. He was a hesitating, awkward youth, and on this account was regarded as unsocial. For a year the boy looked on, listened, and made straight marks and curves and all that. He did not read, and the world of art was a thing unknown to him.
There are two kinds of people to be found in all studios: those who talk about art, and the fellows who paint the pictures.
However, Rembrandt was an exception, and for a time would do neither. He would not paint, because he said he could not—anyway he would not; but no doubt he did a deal of thinking. This habit of reticence kept him in the background, and even the master had suspicions that he was too beefy to hold a clear mental conception.
The error of the Swanenburch atelier lay in the fact that quiet folks are not necessarily stupid. It is doubtless true, however, that stupid men by remaining quiet may often pass for men of wisdom: this is because no man can really talk as wisely as he can look.
Young Rembrandt was handicapped by a full-moon face, and small gray eyes that gave no glint, and his hair was so tousled and unruly that he could not wear a hat.
So the sons of aristocrats who cracked sly jokes at the miller's boy had their fun.
Rembrandt usually came in late, after the master had begun his little morning lecture. The lad was barefoot, having left his wooden shoon in the hallway "so as not to wear out the floor." He would bow awkwardly to the professor, fall over a chair or two that had been slyly pushed in his way, and taking his seat chew the butt end of a brush.
"Why are you always late?" asked the master one day.
"Oh, I was working at home and forgot the time."
"And what are you working at?"
"Me? I'm—I'm drawing a little," and he colored vermilion to the back of his neck.
"Well, bring your work here so we can profit by it," exclaimed a joker, and the class guffawed.
The next morning the lad brought his picture—a woman's face—a picture of a face, homely, wrinkled, weather-beaten, but with a look of love and patience and loyalty beaming out of the quiet eyes.
"Who did this?" demanded the teacher.
Rembrandt hesitated, stuttered, stammered, and then confessed that he did it himself—he could not tell a lie.
He was sure the picture would be criticized and ridiculed, but he had decided to face it out. It was a picture of his mother, and he had sketched her just as she looked. He would let them laugh, and then at noon he would wait outside the door and smash the boy who laughed loudest over the head with a wooden shoe—and let it go at that.
But the scholars did not laugh, for Jacob van Swanenburch took the boy by the hand and leading him out before the class told those young men to look upon their master.
From that time forth Rembrandt was regarded by the little art world of Leyden as a prodigy.
Like William Cullen Bryant, who wrote "Thanatopsis" when scarcely eighteen, and writing for sixty years thereafter never equaled it, or Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who wrote "The Blessed Damozel" at the same age, Rembrandt sprang into life full-armed.
It is probably true that he could not then have produced an elaborate composition, but his faces were Rembrandtesque from the very first.
Rembrandt is the king of light and shade. You never mistake his work. As the years passed, around him clustered a goodly company of pupils, hundreds in all, who diligently worked to catch the trick, but Rembrandt stands alone. "He is the only artist who could ever paint a wrinkle," says Ruskin. All his portraits have the warts on. And the thought has often come to me that only a Rembrandt—the only Rembrandt—could have portrayed the face of Lincoln. Plain, homely, awkward, eyes not mates, sunken cheeks, leathery skin, moles, uncombed hair, neckcloth askew; but over and above and beyond all a look of power—and the soul! that look of haunting sorrow and the great, gentle, compassionate soul within!
And so there is a picture of Rembrandt's mother which this son painted that must ever stand out as one of the world's masterpieces. Let who will, declare that the portrait by Richter in the Gallery at Cologne, of Queen Louise, is the handsomest portrait ever painted; yet the depth of feeling, the dignity and love in the homely old mother's face, pale not in comparison, but are things to which the proud and beautiful Queen herself paid homage.
Rembrandt painted nearly a hundred pictures of his mother that we can trace. In most of them she holds in her hands a little Bible, and thus did the son pay tribute to her devoted piety. She was a model of which he never tired. He painted her in court dress, and various other fantastic garbs, that she surely never wore. He painted her as a nun, as a queen, a court beauty, a plain peasant, a musician; and in various large pictures her face and form are introduced. And most of these pictures of his mother are plainly signed with his monogram. He also painted his sister as the Madonna, and this is signed; but although he doubtless painted his father's face, yet he did not sign such pictures, so their authenticity is a hazard. This fact gives a clue to his affections which each can work out for himself.
Rembrandt remained with Swanenburch for three years, and the master proved his faithful friend. He gave him an introduction into the aristocratic art world which otherwise might have barred its doors against so profound a genius, as aristocracy has done time and again.
The best artists are not necessarily the best teachers. If a man has too much skill along a certain line he will overpower and kill the individuality in his pupil. There are teachers who smother a pupil with their own personality, and thus it often happens that the strongest men are not the most useful as instructors. The ideal teacher is not the one who bends all minds to match his own; but the one who is able to bring out and develop the good that is in the pupil—him we will crown with laurel.
Swanenburch was pretty nearly the ideal teacher. His good nature, the feminine quality of sympathy in his character, his freedom from all petty, quibbling prejudice, and his sublime patience all worked to burst the tough husk, and develop that shy and sensitive, yet uncouth and silent youth, bringing out the best that was in him. A wrong environment in those early years might easily have shaped Rembrandt into a morose and resentful dullard: the good in his nature, thrown back upon itself, would have been turned to gall.
* * * * *
The little business on the city wall had prospered, and Harmen van Ryn moved, with his family, out of the old mill into a goodly residence across the street. He was carrying his head higher, and the fact that his son Rembrandt was being invited to the homes of the professors at the University was incidentally thrown off, until the patrons at the beer-garden grew aweary and rapped their glasses on the table as a signal for silence.
Swanenburch had given a public exhibition of the work of his pupils, at which young Rembrandt had been pushed forward as an example of what right methods in pedagogics could do.
"Well, why can not all your scholars draw like that, then?" asked a broad-beamed Dutchman.
"They certainly could, if they would follow the principles I lay down," answered the master severely.
But admiration did not spoil Rembrandt. His temperature was too low for ebullition—he took it all quite as a matter of course. His work was done with such ease that he was not aware it was extraordinary in quality; and when Swanenburch sold several of his sketches at goodly prices and put the silver in the lad's hand, he asked who the blockheads were who had invested.
Swanenburch taught his pupils the miracle of spreading a thin coat of wax on a brass plate, and drawing a picture in the wax with a sharp graver; then acid was poured over it and the acid ate into the brass so as to make a plate from which you could print. Etching was a delight to Rembrandt. Expert illustrators of books were in demand at Leyden, for it was then the bookmaking center of Northern Europe. The Elzevirs were pushing the Plantins of Antwerp hard for first place.
So skilfully did Rembrandt sketch, that one of the great printers made a proposition to his father to take the boy until he was twenty-one, and pay the father a thousand florins a year for the lad's services as an illustrator. The father accepted the proposition; and the next day brought around another Harmenszoon, who he declared was just as good. But the bookmaker was stubborn and insisted on having a certain one or none. So the bargain fell through.
It was getting near four years since Swanenburch had taken Rembrandt into his keeping, and now he went to the boy's parents and said: "I have given all I have to offer to your son. He can do all I can, and more. There is only one man who can benefit him and that is Pieter Lastman, of Amsterdam. He must go and study with the great Lastman—I myself will take him."
Lastman had spent four years in Italy, and had come back full to overflowing with classic ideas. His family was one of the most aristocratic in Amsterdam, and whatever he said concerning art was quoted as final. He was the court of last appeal. His rooms were filled with classic fragments, and on his public days visitors flocked to hear what he might have to say about the wonders of Venice, Florence and Rome. For in those days men seldom traveled out of their own countries, and those who did had strange tales to tell the eager listeners when they returned.
Lastman was handsome, dashing, popular. His pictures were in demand, principally because they were Lastman's. Proud ladies came from afar and begged the privilege of sitting as his model. In Italy, Lastman had found that many painters employed 'prentice talent. The great man would sketch out the pictures, and the boys would fill in the color. Lastman would go off about his business, and perhaps drop in occasionally during the day to see how the boys got on, adding a few touches here and there, and gently rebuking those who showed too much genius. Lastman believed in genius, of course; but only his own genius filled his ideal. As a consequence all of Lastman's pictures are alike—they are all equally bad. They represent neither the Italian school nor the Dutch, being hybrids: Italian skies and Holland backgrounds; Dutchmen dressed as dagoes.
Lastman was putting money in his purse. He closely studied public tastes, and conformed thereto. He was popular, and there is in America today a countryman of his, of like temperament, who is making much moneys out of literature by similar methods.
Into Lastman's keeping came the young man, Rembrandt Harmens. Lastman received him cordially, and set him to work.
But the boy proved hard to manage: he had his own ideas about how portraits should be painted.
Lastman tried to unlearn him. The master was patient, and endeavored hard to make the young man paint as he should—that is, as Lastman did; but the result was not a success. The Lastman intellect felt sure that Rembrandt had no talent worth encouraging.
Lastman produced a great number of pictures, and his name can be found in the catalogs of the galleries of Amsterdam, Munich, Berlin and Antwerp; and his canvases are in many of the old castles and palaces of Germany. In recent years they have been enjoying a vogue, simply because it was possible that Rembrandt had worked on them. All the "Lastmans" have been gotten out and thoroughly dusted by the connoisseurs, in a frantic search for earmarks.
The perfect willingness of Lastman to paint a picture on any desired subject, and have it ready Saturday night, all in the colors the patron desired, with a guarantee that it would give satisfaction, filled the heart of Rembrandt with loathing.
At the end of six months, when he signified a wish to leave, it was a glad relief to the master. Lastman had tried to correct Rembrandt's vagaries as to chiaroscuro, but without success. So he wrote an ambiguous letter certifying to the pupil's "having all his future before him," gave him a present of ten florins in jingling silver, and sent him back to his folks.
* * * * *
Rembrandt had been disillusioned by his stay in the fashionable art-world of Amsterdam. Some of his idols had crumbled, and there came into his spirit a goodly dash of pessimism. His father was disappointed and suggested that he get a place as illustrator at the bookmakers, before some one else stepped in and got the job.
But Rembrandt was not ambitious. He decided he would not give up painting, at least not yet—he would keep at it and he would paint as he pleased. He had lost faith in teachers. He moped around the town, and made the acquaintance of the painter Engelbrechtsz and his talented pupil, Lucas van Leyden. Their work impressed him greatly, and he studied out every detail on the canvases until he had absorbed the very spirit of the artist. Then, when he painted, he very naturally took their designs, and treated them in his own way. Indeed, the paucity in invention of those early days must ever impress the student of art.
In visiting the galleries of Europe, I made it my business to secure a photograph of every "Madonna and Babe" of note that I could find. My collection now numbers over one hundred copies, with no two alike.
The Madonna, of course, is the extreme example; but there are dozens of "The Last Supper," "Abraham's Sacrifice," "The Final Judgment," "The Brazen Serpent," "Raising of Lazarus," "The Annunciation," "Rebekah at the Well" and so on.
If one painter produced a notable picture, all the other artists in the vicinity felt it their duty to treat the same subject; in fact, their honor was at stake—they just had to, in order to satisfy the clamor of their friends, and meet the challenges of detractors.
This "progressive sketching" was kept up, each man improving, or trying to improve, on the attempts of the former, until a Leonardo struck twelve and painted his "Last Supper," or a Rubens did his "Descent From the Cross"—then competitors grew pale, and tried their talent on a lesser theme.
One of the most curious examples of the tendency to follow a bellwether is found in the various pictures called "The Anatomy Lesson." When Venice was at its height, in the year Fourteen Hundred Ninety-two—a date we can easily remember—an unknown individual drew a picture of a professor of anatomy; on a table in the center is a naked human corpse, while all around are ranged the great doctor's pupils. Dissection had just been introduced into Venice at that time, and in a treatise on the subject by Andrea Vesali, I find that it became quite the fad. The lecture-rooms were open to the public, and places were set apart for women visitors and the nobility, while all around the back were benches for the plain people. On the walls were skeletons, and in cases were arranged saws, scalpels, needles, sponges and various other implements connected with the cheerful art.
The Unknown's picture of this scene made a sensation. And straightway other painters tried their hands at it, the unclothed form of the corpse affording a fine opportunity for the "classic touch." Paul Veronese tried it, and so did the Bellinis—Titian also.
Then a century passed, as centuries do, and the glory of Venice drifted to Amsterdam—commercially and artistically. Amsterdam painters used every design that the Venetians had, and some of their efforts were sorry attempts. In Sixteen Hundred Twenty, following Venetian precedent, dissection became a fad in Leyden and Amsterdam. Swanenburch engraved a picture of the Leyden dissecting-room, with a brace of gallant doctors showing some fair ladies the beauties of the place. The Dutch were ambitious—the young men, Rembrandt included, drew pictures entitled, "The Lesson in Anatomy." Doctors who were getting on in the world gave orders for portraits, showing themselves as about to begin work on a subject. One physician, with intent to get even with his rival, had the artist picture the rival in the background as a pupil. Then the rival ordered a picture of himself, proud and beautiful, giving a lesson in anatomy, armed and equipped for business, and the cadaver was—the other doctor.
At the Chicago Fair, in Eighteen Hundred Ninety-three, there was shown a most striking "Anatomy Lesson" from the brush of a young New York artist. It pictures the professor removing the sheet from the face of the corpse, and we behold the features of a beautiful young woman.
Some day I intend to write a book entitled, "The Evolution and Possibilities of the Anatomy Lesson." Keep your eye on the subject—we are not yet through with it.
Swanenburch offered to give Rembrandt a room in his own house, but he preferred the old mill, and a wheat-bin was fitted up for a private studio. The fittings of the studio must have cost fully two dollars, according to all accounts; there were a three-legged stool, an easel, a wooden chest, and a straw bed in the corner. Only one window admitted the light, and this was so high up that the occupant was not troubled by visitors looking in.
Our best discoveries are the result of accident.
This single window, eight feet from the ground, allowed the rays of light to enter in a stream. On cloudy days and early in the mornings or in the evenings, Rembrandt noted that when the light fell on the face of the visitor the rest of the body was wholly lost in the shadow. He placed a curtain over the window with a varying aperture cut in it, and with his mother as model made numerous experiments in the effects of light and shade. He seems to have been the very first artist who could draw a part of the form, leaving all the rest in absolute blackness, and yet give the impression to the casual onlooker that he sees the figure complete. Plain people with no interest in the technique of art will look upon a "Rembrandt," and go away and describe things in the picture that are not there. They will declare to you that they saw them—those obvious things which one fills in at once with his inward eye. For instance, there is a portrait of a soldier, by Rembrandt, in the Louvre, and above the soldier's head you see a tall cockade. You assume at once that this cockade is in the soldier's hat, but no hat is shown—not the semblance nor the outline of a hat. There is a slight line that might be the rim of a hat, or it might not. But not one person out of a thousand, looking upon the picture, but would go away and describe the hat, and be affronted if you should tell them there is no hat in the picture. Given a cockade, we assume a hat.
By the use of shadows Rembrandt threw the faces into relief; he showed the things he wished to show and emphasized one thing by leaving all else out. The success of art depends upon what you omit from your canvas. This masterly effect of illusion made the son of the miller stand out in the Leyden art-world like one of his own etchings.
Curiously enough, the effect of a new model made Rembrandt lose his cunning; with strangers he was self-conscious and ill at ease. His mother was his most patient model; his father and sisters took their turn; and then there was another model who stood Rembrandt in good stead. And that was himself. We have all seen children stand before a mirror and make faces. Rembrandt very early contracted this habit, and it evidently clung to him through life. He has painted his own portrait with expressions of hate, fear, pride, mirth, indifference, hope and wrath shown on his plastic features.
There is also an old man with full white beard and white hair that Rembrandt has pictured again and again.
This old man poses for "Lot," "Abraham," "Moses," "A Beggar," "A King," and once he even figures as "The Almighty." Who he was we do not know, and surely he did not realize the honor done him, or he would have written a proud word of explanation to be carved on his tomb.
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In the Stuttgart Museum is a picture entitled, "Saint Paul in Prison," signed by Rembrandt, with the date Sixteen Hundred Twenty-seven. "The Money-Changers" in the Berlin Gallery bears the same signature and date. Rembrandt was then twenty years of age, and we see that he was doing good work. We also know that there was a certain market for his wares.
When twenty-two years of age his marvelous effects of light and shade attracted people who were anxious to learn how to do it. According to report he had sixteen pupils in Sixteen Hundred Twenty-eight, each of whom paid him the fixed sum of one hundred florins. This was not much, but it gave him an income equal to that of his father, and tended to confirm his faith in his own powers.
His energy was a surprise to all who had known him, for besides teaching his classes he painted, sketched and etched. Most of his etchings were of his own face—not intended as portraits, for they are often purposely disguised. It seemed to be the intent of the artist to run the whole gamut of the passions, portraying them on the human face. Six different etchings done in the year Sixteen Hundred Twenty-eight are to be seen in the British Museum.
His most intimate friend at this time was Jan Lievens. The bond that united them was a mutual contempt for Lastman of Amsterdam. In fact, they organized a club, the single qualification required of each candidate for admittance being a hatred for Lastman. This club met weekly at a beer-hall, and each member had to relate an incident derogatory to the Lastman school. At the close of each story, all solemnly drank eternal perdition to Lastman and his ilk. Finally, Lastman was invited to join; and in reply he wrote a gracious letter of acceptance. This surely shows that Lastman was pretty good quality, after all.
Rembrandt was making money. His pupils spread his praise, and so many new ones came that he took the old quarters of Swanenburch.
In Sixteen Hundred Thirty-one, there came to him a young man who was to build a deathless name for himself—Gerard Dou. Then to complete the circle came Joris van Vliet, whose reputation as an engraver must ever take a first rank. Van Vliet engraved many of Rembrandt's pictures, and did it so faithfully and with such loving care that copies today command fabulous prices among the collectors. Indeed, we owe to Van Vliet a debt for preserving many of Rembrandt's pictures, the originals of which have disappeared. With the help of Van Vliet the Elzevirs accomplished their wishes, and so made use of the talent of Rembrandt.
Rembrandt lived among the poor, as a matter of artistic policy, mingling with them on an absolute equality. He considered their attitudes simpler, more natural, and their conduct less artificial, than the manners of those in higher walks.
About Sixteen Hundred Twenty-nine, there came into his hands a set of Callot's engravings, and the work produced on his mind a profound impression. Callot's specialty was beggardom. He pictured decrepit beggars, young beggars, handsome girl-beggars, and gallant old beggars who wore their fluttering rags with easy grace.
The man who could give the phlegmatic Rembrandt a list to starboard must have carried considerable ballast. Straightway on making Callot's acquaintance he went forth with bags of coppers and made the acquaintance of beggars. He did not have to travel far—"the Greeks were at his door." The news spread, and each morning, the truthful Orles has told us, "there were over four hundred beggars blocking the street that led to his study," all willing to enlist in the cause of art. For six months Rembrandt painted little beside "the ragged gentry." But he gradually settled down on about ten separate and distinct types of abject picturesqueness.
Ten years later, when he pictured the "Healing Christ," he introduced the Leyden beggars, and these fixed types that he carried hidden in the cells of his brain he introduced again and again in various pictures. In this respect he was like all good illustrators: he had his properties, and by new combinations made new pictures. Who has not noticed that every painter carries in his kit his own distinct types—sealed, certified to, and copyrighted by popular favor as his own personal property?
Can you mistake Kemble's "coons," Denslow's dandies, Remington's horses, Giannini's Indians, or Gibson's "Summer Girl"? These men may not be Rembrandts, but when we view the zigzag course art has taken, who dare prophesy that this man's name is writ in water and that man's carved in the granite of a mountain-side! Contemporary judgments usually have been wrong. Did the chief citizens of Leyden in the year Sixteen Hundred Thirty regard Rembrandt's beggars as immortal? Not exactly!
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In Sixteen Hundred Thirty-one, Rembrandt concluded that his reputation in the art-world of Holland was sufficient for him to go to Amsterdam and boldly pit himself against De Keyser, Hals, Lastman and the rest. He had put forth his "Lesson in Anatomy," and the critics and connoisseurs who had come from the metropolis to see it were lavish in their praise. Later we find him painting the subject again with another doctor handling the tweezers and scalpel.
Rembrandt started for Amsterdam the second time—this time as a teacher, not as a scholar. He rented an old warehouse on the canal for a studio. It was nearly as outlandish a place as his former quarters in the mill at Leyden. But it gave him plenty of room, was secluded, and afforded good opportunity for experiments in light and shade.
He seemed to have gotten over his nervousness in working with strange models; for new faces now begin to appear. One of these is that of a woman, and it would have been well for his art had he never met her. We see her face quite often, and in the "Diana Bathing" we behold her altogether.
Rembrandt shows small trace of the classic instinct, for classic art is founded on poetic imagination. Rembrandt painted what he saw; the Greeks portrayed that which they felt; and when Rembrandt paints a Dutch wench and calls her "Diana," he unconsciously illustrates the difference between the naked and the nude. Rembrandt painted this same woman, wearing no clothes to speak of, lolling on a couch; and evidently considering the subject a little risky, thought to give it dignity by a Biblical title: "Potiphar's Wife." One good look at this picture, and the precipitate flight of Joseph is fully understood. We feel like following his example.
Rembrandt had simply haunted the dissecting-rooms of the University at Leyden a little too long.
The study of these viragos scales down our rating of the master. Still, I suppose every artist has to go through this period—the period when he thinks he is called upon to portray the feminine form divine—it is like the mumps and the measles.
After a year of groping for he knew not what, with money gone, and not much progress made, Rembrandt took a reef in his pride and settled down to paint portraits, and to do a little good honest teaching.
Scholars came to him, and commissions for portraits began to arrive. He renounced the freaks of costume, illumination and attitude, and painted the customer in plain, simple Dutch dress. He let "Diana" go, and went soberly to work to make his fortune.
Holland was prosperous. Her ships sailed every sea, and brought rich treasures home. The prosperous can afford to be generous. Philanthropy became the fad. Charity was in the air, and hospitals, orphanages and homes for the aged were established. The rich merchants felt it an honor to serve on the board of managers of these institutions.
In each of the guildhalls were parlors set apart for deliberative gatherings; and it became the fashion to embellish these rooms with portraits of the managers, trustees and donors.
Rembrandt's portraits were finding their way to the guilds. They attracted much attention, and orders came—orders for more work than the artist could do. He doubled his prices in the hope of discouraging applicants.
Studio gossip and society chatter seemed to pall on young Rembrandt. It is said that when a 'bus-driver has a holiday he always goes and rides with the man who is taking his place; but when Rembrandt had a holiday he went away from the studio, not towards it. He would walk alone, off across the meadows, and along the canals, and once we find him tramping thirty miles to visit cousins who were fishermen on the seacoast. Happy fisher-folk!
But Rembrandt took few play-spells; he broke off entirely from his tavern companions and lived the life of an ascetic and recluse, seeing no society except the society that came to his studio. His heart was in his art, and he was intent on working while it was called the day.
About this time there came to him Cornelis Sylvius, the eminent preacher, to sit for a picture that was to adorn the Seaman's Orphanage, of which Sylvius was director.
It took a good many sittings to bring out a Rembrandt portrait. On one of his visits the clergyman was accompanied by a young woman—his ward—by name, Saskia van Ulenburgh.
The girl was bright, animated and intelligent, and as she sat in the corner the painter sort of divided his attention between her and the clergyman. Then the girl got up, walked about a bit, looking at the studio properties, and finally stood behind the young painter, watching him work. This was one of the things Rembrandt could never, never endure. It paralyzed his hand, and threw all his ideas into a jumble. It was the law of his studio that no one should watch him paint—he had secrets of technique that had cost him great labor.