What do I think of the master now...

What do I think of the master now, after so many years?

Come with me, reader, let us look together at the strongest expression of Rembrandt's art, viz., his picture "The Night Patrol."

Our way leads us now to the Ryksmuseum, and we sit down in the newly built "Rembrandt room," with our backs to the light, so as to obtain a full view of the picture, and we try to forget all about the struggle it cost to erect this temple of art.

At first sight, we are struck by the grand movements of light and shade, which seem to flood the canvas as if with waves of coloured harmonies. Then, suddenly, two men seem to step out from the group. The one is dressed in sombre-coloured clothes, whilst the other is resplendent in white. That is Rembrandt all over, not afraid of putting the light in bold contrast against the dark. So as to maintain the harmony between the two he makes the dark man lift his hand as if he were pointing at something, and in doing so, he casts a softening shadow on his brilliant companion. Genius finds a way where ordinary mortals are at a loss how to help themselves. Clearly these men are in earnest conversation with each other, and it is quite evident that they are the leaders of the company.

But when everything was put on the canvas that he intended to put there, the master stood in front of it and shook his head.

To him these two leaders did not stand out sufficiently from the rest. So he took up his palette again, and again he dipped his broadest brushes deep in paint and with a few mighty strokes he transformed these two figures; a little more depth here, some more light there. He tried every means to give the scene more depth, and a fuller meaning. Then he saw that it was all right and left it.

The likeness of his patrons was, perhaps, not very exact and most likely some murmurs were raised at the want of minutely finished detail; but he did not heed such matters. To him the main point was to make his figures live and breathe and move; and see how he succeeded! From the plumes of their hats to the soles of their feet everything is living, tangible. How full of energy and character are their heads! Their dress, the steel gorget, the boots of the man in white; everything bears witness to the wonderful power of the master.

And look at the man in black, with his red bandolier, his gloves, and his stick. This does not strike one as anything out of the common, because the composition is so true, so perfectly natural and simple. I cannot remember having seen a single picture in which the peculiar style and picturesqueness of those days is so vividly expressed, as in the figures of these two men calmly walking along on the giant canvas.

Now let us turn to the right and have a look at the perspiring drummer. His pock-marked face, overshadowed by a frayed hat, is of the true Falstaff type. The swollen nose, the thick-lipped mouth, every detail is carried out with the daring of the true artist which characterises all the master's work. Look at him, drumming away as if he wanted to make it known that he himself is one of the most magnificent specimens of the work of the genius whom men call Rembrandt.

On looking at this man I can understand why Gerard de Lairesse exclaimed in his great book on painting: "In Rembrandt's pictures the paint is running down the panel like mud!" But it was only his conscientious narrow-mindedness which made him say it. Genius never fails to get into conflict with narrow thought.

But now let us turn our attention to the left-hand corner. There we see that pithy soldier all in red. Rembrandt, with his intuitive knowledge of chiaroscuro, was not afraid of painting a figure all in red. He knew that the play of light and shade on the colour would help him out. Here part of the red is toned down by a beautiful soft tint, which makes the whole figure blend harmoniously with the greyish-green of the others. This man in red, too, has been treated in the same masterly manner of which I spoke above. If one looks at him attentively, it seems as if the man, who apparently might step out of the canvas at any rate, had been painted with one powerful sweep of the brush. How firm is the treatment of the hand loading the gun; how true the shadows on the red hat and jerkin. There the figure stands, alert, living, full of movement, rich in colour.

In this marvellous picture we come across something striking at every turn. How life-like is the halberdier looking over his shoulder; and the man who is inspecting his gun, just behind the figure in white; observe the wonderful effect of the laughing boy in the grey hat against the dark background. Even the pillar which serves as a background to the man with the helmet adds to the harmony of the whole.

But here we meet with something peculiar! What is that quaint little girl doing among all those men?


In the Louvre

Numbers of critics have racked their brains about the meaning of different details. But if Rembrandt could have heard them, he would have answered with a laugh, "Don't you see that I only wanted this child as a focus for the light, and a contrast with all the downward lines and dark colours?"

The man with the banner in the background, the dog running away, all these details help each other to carry out the effect of line and colour. There is not a square inch in this canvas which does not betray a rare talent. This is a case in which the assertion, "Cut me a piece out of a picture and I will tell you if it is by an artist," could successfully be applied.

Now, I hope my readers won't object to accompanying me a little further, and stopping with me before the "Syndics." There it hangs, the great simple canvas, quite different in character from the "Night Patrol."

Everything here is dignified and stately. The whole picture is a glorious witness to the consummate knowledge the master possessed of expressing the individual soul in the human face. Here they sit, those old Dutch fathers, assembled in solemn conclave, debating about their trade, with the books on the table in front of them; and Rembrandt has painted these heads so true to life that in the course of years they have become like old friends; yes, old friends, though they lived hundreds of years before we were dreamt of.

How long have I known that man on the left, with his hand on the knob of his arm-chair, and the fine grey hair on his broad wrinkled brow showing from under the high steeple-hat? The flesh tints in the face, whether catching the full light, or partly veiled by shadows, display an endless variety of shades, and the neutral greens and reds, greys and yellows, are put against each other in such a wonderful manner that an effect has been attained which strikes us dumb with admiration. The way in which he is made to stand out from the background is in itself marvellous, but just look at the man! how full of life and understanding is the look in those eyes. It is something quite unique, something Rembrandt himself has never surpassed.

And then there are the other figures; the man who is leaning forward; the one sitting right in front of the book, his neighbour; even the fifth merchant on the right, with his servant behind him—one and all are full of life and light.

The background is such as Rembrandt only, with his understanding of lines, could have devised. The wall and the panelling shut in the composition in such a way that one cannot possibly imagine it ever having been otherwise. And even this skilful touch is made subordinate to the warm red colour of the tablecloth, which lends the picture an additional depth.

I don't know whether this picture was very much discussed by Rembrandt's contemporaries when it was finished. But to us, who have seen so much of the art of the great Italians, Germans, and Spaniards, these heads are the highest achievement of the art of painting.

When I was in Madrid, where I was charmed by Velasquez' work, our party was one day walking through the broad streets of the capital. Passing a large, picturesque building, our attention was attracted by a gaudy poster informing us that an exhibition of the works of modern Spanish artists was being held within. Our curiosity being aroused, we entered, and found that in this country, where so many famous artists lived and worked, there are among the modern artists many studious, highly talented men, who serve their art with true love and devotion. But suddenly it seemed as if we had been carried by magic from Spain back to Amsterdam. We had come face to face with a copy of the "Syndics," painted by a Spanish artist during a stay in Amsterdam.

Was it national prejudice, or was it conviction? I don't know; but this copy spoke to us of a spirit of greater simplicity, of a truer conception of the nature and dignity of mankind than anything we had admired in the Prado. Yes; this picture even kills its own Dutch brothers. It makes Van der Helst look superficial, and Franz Hals unfinished and flat. So much thoroughness and depth combined with such freedom and grace of movement is not to be found anywhere else.

These people have lived on the canvas for centuries, and they will outlive us all. And the man who achieved this masterpiece was at the time of its production a poor, struggling burgher living in an obscure corner of the town where his tercentenary festival was lately celebrated.