Holland, as is well known, is a country built upon marshes, which have been drained and filled in by the patient industry of many generations of workers. The land is consequently very low, almost perfectly level, and is covered by a network of canals. It lacks many of the features which make up the natural scenery of other countries,—mountains and ravines, rocks and rivers,—but it is, nevertheless, a very picturesque country. Artists love it for the quiet beauty of its landscape. Though this is not grand and awe-inspiring, it is restful and attractive.

We may well believe that the artistic nature of Rembrandt was sensitive to the influences of his native Dutch scenery. Though his great forte in art lay in other directions, he paused from time to time to paint or etch a landscape.

Even in this unaccustomed work he proved himself a master. He treated the subject much as he did a portrait,—trying to bring out the character of the scene just as he brought out the character in a face. How much of a story he could tell in a single picture we see in this famous etching called The Three Trees.

One can tell at a glance that this is Holland. We look across a wide level stretch of land, and the eye travels on and on into an almost endless distance. Far away we see the windmills of a Dutch town outlined against the sky,—a sign of industry as important in Holland as are factory chimneys in some other parts of the world. Beyond this, another endless level stretch meets the sky at the horizon line. It is hard to distinguish the land and water, which seem to lie in alternate strips. The pastures are surrounded by canals as by fences.

THE THREE TREES Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Here and there are cows grazing, and we are reminded of the fine dairy farms for which Holland is noted, the rich butter and cheese, which are the product of these vast flat lands, apparently so useless and unproductive. Directly in front of us, at the left, is a still pool, and on the farther bank stands a fisherman holding a rod over the water. A woman seated on the bank watches the process with intense interest. There are two other figures near by which can hardly be discerned.

The wide outlook of flat country is the setting for the little tree-crowned hill which rises near us at the right. It would seem a very small hillock anywhere else, but in these level surroundings it has a distinct character. It is the one striking feature which gives expression to the face of the landscape. The eye turns with pleasure to its grassy slopes and leafy trees. The trees have the symmetrical grace so characteristic of Dutch vegetation. Nothing is allowed to grow wild in this country. Every growing thing is carefully nurtured and trained. We see that the distances between these trees were carefully spaced in the planting, so that each one might develop independently and perfectly without injury to the others. The branches grow from their straight trunks at the same height, and they are plainly of the same age. Their outer branches interlace in brotherly companionship to make a solid leafy arbor, beneath which the wayfarer may find a shady retreat. On the summit of the hill, outlined against the sky, is a hay wagon followed by a man with a rake. At a distance, also clearly seen against the sky, on the ridge of the hill, sits a man, alone and idle.

The sky is a wonderful part of the picture. Rembrandt, it appears, almost never ventured to represent the clouds. He had the true artist's reverence for subjects which were beyond his skill, and preferred to leave untouched what he could not do well. Now in this case, lacking the experience to draw a sky as finished in workmanship as his landscape, he suggested in a few lines the effect which he wished to produce. At the left a few diagonal strokes show a smart shower just at hand. A whirl of dark-colored clouds comes next, and in the upper air beyond, a stratum of clouds is indicated by a mass of lines crossing and recrossing in long swirling curves.

With these few lines Rembrandt conveys perfectly the idea that a storm is approaching. The clouds seem to be in motion, scurrying across the sky in advance of the rain. One imaginative critic has thought that he could discern in the cloud-whirl a dim phantom figure as of the spirit of the on-coming storm. Like the clouds we often see in nature, it takes some new fantastic shape every time we look at it. Altogether the impression we receive is that of vivid reality. The artist's few lines have produced with perfect success an effect, which might have been entirely spoiled had he tried to finish it carefully.

We look once more at the landscape to see what influence the coming storm has upon it. The fisherman pays no heed. The clouding of the sky only makes the fish bite better, and absorbed in his sport he cares nothing for weather. The haymaker on the hilltop has a better chance to read the face of the sky, and starts up his wagon. The three trees seem to feel the impending danger. Their leafage is already darkening in the changed light, and they toss their branches in the wind, as if to wrestle with the spirit of the storm.