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Imaginary portraits, p.11

Imaginary Portraits, page 11


Imaginary Portraits

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  [81] It was a winter-scene, by Adrian van de Velde, or by Isaac vanOstade. All the delicate poetry together with all the delicate comfortof the frosty season was in the leafless branches turned to silver, thefurred dresses of the skaters, the warmth of the red-brick house-frontsunder the gauze of white fog, the gleams of pale sunlight on thecuirasses of the mounted soldiers as they receded into the distance.Sebastian van Storck, confessedly the most graceful performer in allthat skating multitude, moving in endless maze over the vast surface ofthe frozen water-meadow, liked best this season of the year for itsexpression of a perfect impassivity, or at least of a perfect repose.The earth was, or seemed to be, at rest, with a breathlessness ofslumber which suited the young man's peculiar temper. The heavysummer, as it dried up the meadows now lying dead below the ice, setfree a crowded and competing world of life, which, while it gleamedvery pleasantly russet and [82] yellow for the painter Albert Cuyp,seemed wellnigh to suffocate Sebastian van Storck.

  Yet with all his appreciation of the national winter, Sebastian was notaltogether a Hollander. His mother, of Spanish descent and Catholic,had given a richness of tone and form to the healthy freshness of theDutch physiognomy, apt to preserve its youthfulness of aspect farbeyond the period of life usual with other peoples. This mixedexpression charmed the eye of Isaac van Ostade, who had painted hisportrait from a sketch taken at one of those skating parties, with hisplume of squirrel's tail and fur muff, in all the modest pleasantnessof boyhood. When he returned home lately from his studies at a placefar inland, at the proposal of his tutor, to recover, as the tutorsuggested, a certain loss of robustness, something more than thatcheerful indifference of early youth had passed away. The learned man,who held, as was alleged, the doctrines of a surprising new philosophy,reluctant to disturb too early the fine intelligence of the pupilentrusted to him, had found it, perhaps, a matter of honesty to sendback to his parents one likely enough to catch from others any sort oftheoretic light; for the letter he wrote dwelt much on the lad'sintellectual fearlessness. "At present," he had written, "he isinfluenced more by curiosity than by a care for truth, according to thecharacter of the [83] young. Certainly, he differs strikingly from hisequals in age, by his passion for a vigorous intellectual gymnastic,such as the supine character of their minds renders distasteful to mostyoung men, but in which he shows a fearlessness that at times makes mefancy that his ultimate destination may be the military life; forindeed the rigidly logical tendency of his mind always leads him outupon the practical. Don't misunderstand me! At present, he isstrenuous only intellectually; and has given no definite sign ofpreference, as regards a vocation in life. But he seems to me to beone practical in this sense, that his theorems will shape life for him,directly; that he will always seek, as a matter of course, theeffective equivalent to--the line of being which shall be the propercontinuation of--his line of thinking. This intellectual rectitude, orcandour, which to my mind has a kind of beauty in it, has reacted uponmyself, I confess, with a searching quality." That "searchingquality," indeed, many others also, people far from being intellectual,had experienced--an agitation of mind in his neighbourhood, oddly atvariance with the composure of the young man's manner and surrounding,so jealously preserved.

  In the crowd of spectators at the skating, whose eyes followed, sowell-satisfied, the movements of Sebastian van Storck, were the mothers[84] of marriageable daughters, who presently became the suitors ofthis rich and distinguished youth, introduced to them, as now grown toman's estate, by his delighted parents. Dutch aristocracy had putforth all its graces to become the winter morn: and it wascharacteristic of the period that the artist tribe was there, on agrand footing,--in waiting, for the lights and shadows they liked best.The artists were, in truth, an important body just then, as a naturalconsequence of the nation's hard-won prosperity; helping it to a fullconsciousness of the genial yet delicate homeliness it loved, for whichit had fought so bravely, and was ready at any moment to fight anew,against man or the sea. Thomas de Keyser, who understood better thanany one else the kind of quaint new Atticism which had found its wayinto the world over those waste salt marshes, wondering whether quiteits finest type as he understood it could ever actually be seen there,saw it at last, in lively motion, in the person of Sebastian vanStorck, and desired to paint his portrait. A little to his surprise,the young man declined the offer; not graciously, as was thought.

  Holland, just then, was reposing on its laurels after its long contestwith Spain, in a short period of complete wellbeing, before troubles ofanother kind should set in. That a darker time might return again, wasclearly enough felt by Sebastian the elder--a time [85] like that ofWilliam the Silent, with its insane civil animosities, which woulddemand similarly energetic personalities, and offer them similaropportunities. And then, it was part of his honest geniality ofcharacter to admire those who "get on" in the world. Himself had been,almost from boyhood, in contact with great affairs. A member of theStates-General which had taken so hardly the kingly airs of FrederickHenry, he had assisted at the Congress of Munster, and figuresconspicuously in Terburgh's picture of that assembly, which had finallyestablished Holland as a first-rate power. The heroism by which thenational wellbeing had been achieved was still of recent memory--theair full of its reverberation, and great movement. There was atradition to be maintained; the sword by no means resting in itssheath. The age was still fitted to evoke a generous ambition; andthis son, from whose natural gifts there was so much to hope for, mightplay his part, at least as a diplomatist, if the present quietcontinued. Had not the learned man said that his natural dispositionwould lead him out always upon practice?

  And in truth, the memory of that Silent hero had its fascination forthe youth. When, about this time, Peter de Keyser, Thomas's brother,unveiled at last his tomb of wrought bronze and marble in the NieuweKerk at Delft, the young Sebastian was one of a small company [86]present, and relished much the cold and abstract simplicity of themonument, so conformable to the great, abstract, and unuttered force ofthe hero who slept beneath.

  In complete contrast to all that is abstract or cold in art, the homeof Sebastian, the family mansion of the Storcks--a house, the front ofwhich still survives in one of those patient architectural pieces byJan van der Heyde--was, in its minute and busy wellbeing, like anepitome of Holland itself with all the good-fortune of its "thrivinggenius" reflected, quite spontaneously, in the national taste. Thenation had learned to content itself with a religion which told little,or not at all, on the outsides of things. But we may fancy thatsomething of the religious spirit had gone, according to the law of thetransmutation of forces, into the scrupulous care for cleanliness, intothe grave, old-world, conservative beauty of Dutch houses, which meantthat the life people maintained in them was normally affectionate andpure.

  The most curious florists of Holland were ambitious to supply theBurgomaster van Storck with the choicest products of their skill forthe garden spread below the windows on either side of the portico, andalong the central avenue of hoary beeches which led to it. Naturallythis house, within a mile of the city of Haarlem, became a resort ofthe artists, then mixing freely in great society, giving and receiving[87] hints as to the domestic picturesque. Creatures of leisure--ofleisure on both sides--they were the appropriate complement of Dutchprosperity, as it was understood just then. Sebastian the elder couldalmost have wished his son to be one of them: it was the next bestthing to being an influential publicist or statesman. The Dutch hadjust begun to see what a picture their country was--its canals, andboompjis, and endless, broadly-lighted meadows, and thousands of milesof quaint water-side: and their painters, the first true masters oflandscape for its own sake, were further informing them in the matter.They were bringing proof, for all who cared to see, of the wealth ofcolour there was all around them in this, supposably, sad land. Aboveall, they developed the old Low-country taste for interiors. Thoseinnumerable genre pieces--conversation, music, play-
-were in truth theequivalent of novel-reading for that day; its own actual life, in itsown proper circumstances, reflected in various degrees ofidealisation, with no diminution of the sense of reality (that is tosay) but with more and more purged and perfected delightfulness ofinterest. Themselves illustrating, as every student of their historyknows, the good-fellowship of family life, it was the ideal of thatlife which these artists depicted; the ideal of home in a countrywhere the preponderant interest of life, after all, could not well beout of doors. Of the earth earthy--[88] genuine red earth of the oldAdam--it was an ideal very different from that which the sacred Italianpainters had evoked from the life of Italy, yet, in its best types, wasnot without a kind of natural religiousness. And in the achievement ofa type of beauty so national and vernacular, the votaries of purelyDutch art might well feel that the Italianisers, like Berghem,
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