From Rubens to Rembrandt



IT IS surprising that in so small a segment of Europe as the Netherlands two such diverse cultures developed as the Flemish and the Dutch, two faiths so uncongenial as Catholicism and Calvinism, two artists so opposed in mood and method as Rubens and Rembrandt, as Vandyck and Hals.

We cannot explain the contrast through language, for half of Flanders,I like all the United Provinces, spoke Dutch. Some of the difference may have derived from the proximity of Holland to Protestant Germany, of Flanders to Catholic France. Part of it came from the closer association of Catholic, royalist, aristocratic Spain with Brussels and Antwerp. Flanders inherited medieval religion, art, and ways, while Holland was yet too poor to have a culture of its own. Possibly the greater sunshine in the southern provinces inclined their population to a sensual, morally easy life and an indulgent Catholicism, while the mists and hardships of the north may have encouraged a stern and stoic faith. Or was it, rather, that the Spanish armies won in the south and, harassed by intervening rivers and Dutch money, lost in the north?

Antwerp must have been beautiful when its cathedral was complete in all its spires, façade, and decorative art, while nearby the Bourse throbbed with all the vitality and chicanery of commerce, and the waters danced with the shipping of the world. But then war came: Alva’s fury and the Inquisition drove Protestant artisans and merchants into Holland, Germany, and England, the Calvinist Fury gutted the churches, the Spanish Fury rifled the homes and burned the palaces, the French Fury drowned its failure in blood, and the fourteen months’ siege by Farnese starved Catholics and Protestants impartially. At last the Catholics joined the Protestants in exodus, and Antwerp’s trade passed to Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Haarlem, Hamburg, London, and Rouen.

But man’s ferocity is intermittent, his resilience endures. It is a consolation to note how quickly some nations and cities have recovered from the destructiveness of war. So it was with Flanders after 1579. The textile industry survived, Flemish lace was still in demand, the rains still nourished the land, and the toil of the people supplied the splendor of the court. Under the archdukes, luxury-loving but humane, Antwerp and Brussels enjoyed a remarkable resurrection. Flanders returned to its cathedrals, its religious festivals, its pagan kermis. Perhaps Rubens exaggerated this in the wild Kermis of the Louvre, but hear the report of the Cardinal Infante Ferdinand from Antwerp to Philip IV in 1639: “Yesterday they held their great festival … a long procession moved out to the countryside with many triumphal cars. After the parade they all went to eat and drink, and in the end they were all drunk; for without that they do not think it a festival.”1 The Cardinal himself, when he came from Spain to Brussels (1635), had been received with several days of pageantry, amid gorgeous decorations designed by Rubens himself. The Flemish towns, before the revolt, had been described by an Italian visitor as having “a constant succession of gay assemblies, nuptials, and dances, while music, singing, and cheerful sounds prevailed in every street”;2 and not all of that spirit had yielded to the war. The games that Brueghel had pictured were still played in the streets, and the churches heard again such polyphonic Masses as had once made Flemish singers the desired of every court. Flanders entered its most brilliant age.

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