Many years ago I went to Amsterdam...

Many years ago I went to Amsterdam as an art student, to be trained under the auspices of the then famous portrait painter Kruseman. Very soon I was admitted to the master's studio, and beheld with admiration the portraits of the distinguished personages he was painting at the time.

The pink flesh-tints of the faces, the delicate treatment of the draperies and dresses, more often than not standing out against a background of dark red velvet, attracted me immensely.

When, however, I expressed a desire to be allowed to copy some of these portraits, the master refused my request. "No," he said; "if you want to copy, go to the museum in the 'Trippenhuis.'"[1]

I dared not show the bitter disappointment this refusal caused me. Having come fresh from the country, the old masters were a sealed book to me. I failed to discover any beauty in the homely, old-fashioned scenes of dark landscapes over which people went into ecstasies. To my untrained eyes the exhibition in "Arti"[2] seemed infinitely more beautiful; and Pieneman, Gallait, Calame, and Koekoek especially excited my admiration.

I was not really lacking in artistic instinct any more than my fellow-students, but I had not yet gained the experience and practice, which are indispensable to the true understanding of the quaint but highly artistic qualities of the old Dutch masters. I maintain that however intelligent a man may be, it is impossible to appreciate old Dutch art to the full, or even to enjoy it, unless one has become thoroughly familiar with it, and has tried to identify oneself with it. In order to be able to sound the real character and depth of manifestations of art, the artistic sensibility has to be trained and developed.

It was long before I could summon up sufficient courage to enter this Holy of Holies armed with my colours and brushes. Indeed I only started on this venture after a long spell of hard work, out-of-doors as well as in the studio, and after having made many studies from the nude, and many more still-life studies; then a light broke in upon my darkness.

I began to understand at last that the true aim of art does not consist in the smooth and delicate plastering of the colours. I realised that my chief study was to be the exact value of light and shade, the relief of the objects, and the attitude, movements, and gestures of the figures.

Having learned to look upon art from this point of view, I entered the old "Trippenhuis" with pleasure. Little by little the beauty and truth of these admirable old masters dawned upon me. I perceived that their simple subjects grew rich and full of meaning through the manner in which they were treated. The artists were geniuses, and the world around them either ignored the fact, or did not see it until too late.

Knowing little of art, I chose for my first copy a small canvas, a "Hermit" by Gerard Dou, not understanding that, though small, it might contain qualities which would prove too difficult for me to imitate. I had to work it over and over again, for I could not get any shape in the thick, sticky paint. Then I tried a head by Van der Helst, and succeeded a little better.


This portrait may be seen to-day in the Pitti Palace at Florence. It is said to be one of Rembrandt's portraits of himself, painted about 1635.

At last I stopped before one of the heads in the "Syndics of the Cloth Merchants' Guild." The man in the left-hand corner, with the soft grey hair under the steeple-hat, had arrested my fancy. I felt that there was something in the portrait's beauty I could grasp and reproduce, though I saw at once that the technical treatment was entirely different from what I had attempted hitherto. However, the desire to reproduce this breadth of execution tempted me so much that I resolved to try my hand at it. I forget now what the copy looked like; I only remember that for years it hung on my studio wall.

So I tried to grasp the colour scheme, and the technique of the different artists, until the beauties of the so-called "Night Patrol" and the "Syndics" took such hold of me that nothing attracted me but what had come from the hand of the great master, the unique Rembrandt. In his work I found something which all the others lacked. Freedom and exuberance were his chief attractions, two qualities utterly barred and forbidden in the drawing class and in my teacher's studio.

Although Frans Hals impressed me more than any other painter with the power with which he wielded the brush, even he was put in the shade by Rembrandt's unsurpassable colour effects.

When I had looked at Rembrandt's pictures to my heart's content, I used to go down to the ground floor in the "Trippenhuis" to the print cabinet. Here I found his etchings beautifully arranged. It was a pleasant room overlooking a garden, and in the centre stood a long table covered with a green cloth, on which one could put down the portfolio and look at the gems they contained at leisure.

I often sat there for hours, buried in the contemplation of these two hundred and forty masterpieces. The conservator never ceased urging me to be careful when he saw me mix them up too much in my efforts to compare them. How astonished I was to find in the painter who, with mighty hand, had modelled in paint the glorious "Night Patrol," an accomplished engraver, not only gifted with the power and freedom of a great painter, but thoroughly versed in all the mysteries of the use of the etching needle on the hard, smooth copper.

Still it was not the extraordinary skill which attracted me most in these etchings. It was rather the singular inventive power shown in the different scenes, the peculiar contrast between light and shade, and the almost childlike manner in which the figures had been treated. The artist's soul not only spoke through the choice of subject, but it found an expression in every single detail, conveyed by the delicate handling of the needle.

Many Biblical subjects are represented in the Amsterdam collection; they are full of artistic imagination and sentiment in their composition in spite of their seeming incongruity. The conception is so highly original, and at the same time betrays such a depth of understanding, that other prints, however beautifully done, look academic and stilted beside them.

Among those etchings were excellent portraits, wonderfully lifelike heads of the painter's friends and of himself; but when one has looked at the little picture of his mother, he is compelled to shut the portfolio for a moment, because the unbidden tears rise to the eyes.

It is impossible to find anything more exquisite than this engraving. Motherly kindness, sweetness, and thoughtfulness are expressed in every curve, in the slightest touch of the needle. Each line has a meaning; not a single touch could have been left out without injury to the whole.

Hokusai, the Japanese artist, said that he hoped to live to be very old that he might have time to learn to draw in such a way that every stroke of his pencil would be the expression of some living thing. That is exactly what Rembrandt has attained here, and, in this portrait, he realised at the age of twenty-four the ideal of the old Japanese; it is one of his earliest etchings.

I re-open the portfolio to have a look at the pictures of the wonderful old Jewish beggars. They were types that were to be found by the score in the Amsterdam of those days, and Rembrandt delighted to draw them. One is almost inclined to say that they cannot be beggars, because the master's hand has endowed them with the warmth and splendour with which his artistic temperament clothed everything he looked at.

When I had looked enough at the etchings, I used to go home through the town, and it seemed to me as if I were meeting the very people I had just seen in the engravings. As I went through the "Hoog Straat" and "St. Anthony's Breestraat" to the "Joden Breestraat," where I lived a few doors from the famous house where Rembrandt dwelt and worked so long, I saw the picturesque crowd passing to and fro; I saw the vivid Hebrew physiognomies, with their iron-grey beards; the red-headed women; the barrows full of fish or fruit, or all kinds of rubbish; the houses, the people, the sky. It was all Rembrandt—all Rembrandtesque. A great deal has been changed in those streets since the time of which I have been writing, yet, even now, whenever I pass through them I seem to see the colours, and the kind of people Rembrandt shows us in his works.

In the meantime I had found a third manifestation of Rembrandt's talent, viz., his drawings. To a young painter, who himself was still groping in the dark for means of expressing his feelings, these drawings were exceedingly puzzling, but at the same time full of stimulus.

Less palpably living than his etchings, it was some time before I could properly appreciate them, but when I understood what I firmly believe still, namely, that the master did not draw with a view to exhibiting them or only for the pleasure of making graceful outlines I felt their true meaning. They were simply the embodiments of his deeper feelings; emanations from the abundance of his fertile imagination. They have been thrown on the paper with an unthinking, careless hand; the same hand that created masterpieces, prompted by the slightest impulse, the least sensation. When I looked at them superficially they seemed disfigured by all sorts of smudges and thick black lines, which cross and recross in a seemingly wild and aimless sort of way; but when looked into carefully, they all have a meaning of their own, and have been put there with a just and deep felt appreciation of light and shade. The greater compositions crowded with figures, the buildings, the landscapes—all are impregnated with the same deep artistic feeling.


This famous portrait of an old lady unknown is in our National Gallery. It is on canvas 4 ft. 2¾ in. by 3 ft. 2 in.

One evening one of my friends gave us a short lecture on art and showed us many drawings by ancient and modern artists, most of them, however, being by contemporaries who had already become famous. Among them was one drawing by Rembrandt, and it was remarkable to notice the peculiar effect it produced in this collection. The scene represented on the old smudgy piece of paper was so simple in execution, so noble in composition, done with just a few strokes of the pencil, that all the other drawings looked like apprentice-work beside it. Here was the master, towering above all.

Thus I saw Rembrandt, the man who could tell me endless stories, and could conjure them up before my eyes with either brush, pencil, or etching needle. Whether heaven or earth; the heroes of old; or only a corner of old Amsterdam—out of everything he made the most beautiful drawings. His pictures of lions and elephants are wonderfully naïve. His nude figures of female models are remarkable, because no painter dared paint them exactly as he saw them in his studio, but Rembrandt, entranced by the glow and warmth of the flesh tints, never dreamt of reproducing them otherwise than as he saw them. It was no Venus, or June, or Diana he wanted. He might, perhaps, even take his neighbour's washerwoman, make her get up on the model throne, and put her on the canvas in all the glory of living, throbbing flesh and blood.

And the way in which he put his scrawls and strokes is so wonderful that one can never look too long at them. All his work is done with a light-heartedness, a cheerfulness, and firmness which preclude at once the idea of painful study and exertion.