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Imaginary portraits, p.12

Imaginary Portraits, page 12


Imaginary Portraits

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Boll,and Jan Weenix went so far afield in vain.

  The fine organisation and acute intelligence of Sebastian would havemade him an effective connoisseur of the arts, as he showed by thejustice of his remarks in those assemblies of the artists which hisfather so much loved. But in truth the arts were a matter he could butjust tolerate. Why add, by a forced and artificial production, to themonotonous tide of competing, fleeting existence? Only, finding somuch fine art actually about him, he was compelled (so to speak) toadjust himself to it; to ascertain and accept that in it which shouldleast collide with, or might even carry forward a little, his owncharacteristic tendencies. Obviously somewhat jealous of hisintellectual interests, he loved inanimate nature, it might have beenthought, better than man. He cared nothing, indeed, for the warmsandbanks of Wynants, nor for those eerie relics of the ancient Dutchwoodland which survive in Hobbema and Ruysdael, still less for thehighly-coloured [89] sceneries of the academic band at Rome, in spiteof the escape they provide one into clear breadth of atmosphere. Forthough Sebastian van Storck refused to travel, he loved thedistant--enjoyed the sense of things seen from a distance, carrying us,as on wide wings of space itself, far out of one's actual surrounding.His preference in the matter of art was, therefore, for those prospectsa vol a'oiseau--of the caged bird on the wing at last--of which Rubenshad the secret, and still more Philip de Koninck, four of whosechoicest works occupied the four walls of his chamber; visionaryescapes, north, south, east, and west, into a wide-open though, it mustbe confessed, a somewhat sullen land. For the fourth of them he hadexchanged with his mother a marvellously vivid Metsu, lately bequeathedto him, in which she herself was presented. They were the soleornaments he permitted himself. From the midst of the busy andbusy-looking house, crowded with the furniture and the pretty littletoys of many generations, a long passage led the rare visitor up awinding staircase, and (again at the end of a long passage) he foundhimself as if shut off from the whole talkative Dutch world, and in theembrace of that wonderful quiet which is also possible in Holland atits height all around him. It was here that Sebastian could yieldhimself, with the only sort of love he had ever felt, to the supremacyof his difficult [90] thoughts.--A kind of empty place! Here, youfelt, all had been mentally put to rights by the working-out of a longequation, which had zero is equal to zero for its result. Here onedid, and perhaps felt, nothing; one only thought. Of living creaturesonly birds came there freely, the sea-birds especially, to attract anddetain which there were all sorts of ingenious contrivances about thewindows, such as one may see in the cottage sceneries of Jan Steen andothers. There was something, doubtless, of his passion for distance inthis welcoming of the creatures of the air. An extreme simplicity intheir manner of life was, indeed, characteristic of many adistinguished Hollander--William the Silent, Baruch de Spinosa, thebrothers de Witt. But the simplicity of Sebastian van Storck wassomething different from that, and certainly nothing democratic. Hismother thought him like one disembarrassing himself carefully, andlittle by little, of all impediments, habituating himself gradually tomake shift with as little as possible, in preparation for a longjourney.

  The Burgomaster van Storck entertained a party of friends, consistingchiefly of his favourite artists, one summer evening. The guests wereseen arriving on foot in the fine weather, some of them accompanied bytheir wives and daughters, against the light of the low sun, fallingred on the old trees of the avenue and the [91] faces of those whoadvanced along it:--Willem van Aelst, expecting to find hints for aflower-portrait in the exotics which would decorate thebanqueting-room; Gerard Dow, to feed his eye, amid all that glitteringluxury, on the combat between candle-light and the last rays of thedeparting sun; Thomas de Keyser, to catch by stealth the likeness ofSebastian the younger. Albert Cuyp was there, who, developing thelatent gold in Rembrandt, had brought into his native Dordrecht a heavywealth of sunshine, as exotic as those flowers or the eastern carpetson the Burgomaster's tables, with Hooch, the indoor Cuyp, and Willemvan de Velde, who painted those shore-pieces with gay ships of war,such as he loved, for his patron's cabinet. Thomas de Keyser came, incompany with his brother Peter, his niece, and young Mr. Nicholas Stonefrom England, pupil of that brother Peter, who afterwards married theniece. For the life of Dutch artists, too, was exemplary in matters ofdomestic relationship, its history telling many a cheering story ofmutual faith in misfortune. Hardly less exemplary was the comradeshipwhich they displayed among themselves, obscuring their own best giftssometimes, one in the mere accessories of another man's work, so thatthey came together to-night with no fear of falling out, and spoilingthe musical interludes of Madame van Storck in the large back parlour.[92] A little way behind the other guests, three of them together, son,grandson, and the grandfather, moving slowly, came theHondecoeters--Giles, Gybrecht, and Melchior. They led the party beforethe house was entered, by fading light, to see the curious poultry ofthe Burgomaster go to roost; and it was almost night when thesupper-room was reached at last. The occasion was an important one toSebastian, and to others through him. For (was it the music of theduets? he asked himself next morning, with a certain distaste as heremembered it all, or the heady Spanish wines poured out so freely inthose narrow but deep Venetian glasses?) on this evening he approachedmore nearly than he had ever yet done to Mademoiselle van Westrheene,as she sat there beside the clavecin looking very ruddy and fresh inher white satin, trimmed with glossy crimson swans-down.

  So genially attempered, so warm, was life become, in the land of whichPliny had spoken as scarcely dry land at all. And, in truth, the seawhich Sebastian so much loved, and with so great a satisfaction andsense of wellbeing in every hint of its nearness, is never far distantin Holland. Invading all places, stealing under one's feet,insinuating itself everywhere along an endless network of canals (by nomeans such formal channels as we understand by the name, butpicturesque rivers, with sedgy banks and [93] haunted by innumerablebirds) its incidents present themselves oddly even in one's park orwoodland walks; the ship in full sail appearing suddenly among thegreat trees or above the garden wall, where we had no suspicion of thepresence of water. In the very conditions of life in such a countrythere was a standing force of pathos. The country itself shared theuncertainty of the individual human life; and there was pathos also inthe constantly renewed, heavily-taxed labour, necessary to keep thenative soil, fought for so unselfishly, there at all, with a warfarethat must still be maintained when that other struggle with theSpaniard was over. But though Sebastian liked to breathe, so nearly,the sea and its influences, those were considerations he scarcelyentertained. In his passion for Schwindsucht--we haven't the word--hefound it pleasant to think of the resistless element which left, onehardly a foot-space amidst the yielding sand; of the old beds of lostrivers, surviving now only as deeper channels in the sea; of theremains of a certain ancient town, which within men's memory had lostits few remaining inhabitants, and, with its already empty tombs,dissolved and disappeared in the flood.

  It happened, on occasion of an exceptionally low tide, that someremarkable relics were exposed to view on the coast of the island ofVleeland. A countryman's waggon overtaken [94] by the tide, as hereturned with merchandise from the shore! you might have supposed, butfor a touch of grace in the construction of the thing--lightly wroughttimber-work, united and adorned by a multitude of brass fastenings,like the work of children for their simplicity, while the rude, stiffchair, or throne, set upon it, seemed to distinguish it as a chariot ofstate.

  To some antiquarians it told the story of the overwhelming of one ofthe chiefs of the old primeval people of Holland, amid all his galaarray, in a great storm. But it was another view which Sebastianpreferred; that this object was sepulchral, namely, in its motive--theone surviving relic of a grand burial, in the ancient manner, of a kingor hero, whose very tomb was wasted away.--Sunt metis metae! There camewith it the odd fancy that he himself would like to have been dead andgone as long ago, with a kind of envy of those whose deceasing was solong since over.<
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  On more peaceful days he would ponder Pliny's account of those primevalforefathers, but without Pliny's contempt for them. A cloyed Romanmight despise their humble existence, fixed by necessity from age toage, and with no desire of change, as "the ocean poured in its floodtwice a day, making it uncertain whether the country was a part of thecontinent or of the sea." But for his part Sebastian found somethingof poetry in all that, [95] as he conceived what thoughts the oldHollander might have had at his fishing, with nets themselves woven ofseaweed, waiting carefully for his drink on the heavy rains, and takingrefuge, as the flood rose, on the sand-hills, in a little hutconstructed but airily on tall stakes, conformable to the elevation ofthe highest tides, like a navigator, thought the learned writer, whenthe sea was risen, like a ship-wrecked mariner when it was retired.For the fancy of Sebastian he lived with great breadths of
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