Page images
PDF
EPUB

With the exception of Italy, there is no country in which the churches contain so many good pictures as Belgium ; and the churches of Antwerp excel, in this respect, the churches of the other towns in Belgium. This is not to be wondered at, when it is remembered that the palmy days of art in Antwerp followed the suppression of the revolts of the sixteenth century, and that under Spanish and Austrian rule the supremacy of the Church of Rome was maintained, to the exclusion of every other form of Christianity. The religious character of Antwerp is stamped upon every street, at least in the older parts of the city, where almost every corner was ornamented, if that term be not mis-applied, with a brightly painted wooden image of the Virgin, or of a saint. Many of these images still remain, and before some of them a lamp is kept burning. But the passersby do not as a rule take notice of these relics of former times, though a priest or clerical student will raise his hat, and a pious old woman devoutly cross herself as she turns the corner.

The artistic treasures of Antwerp are not, however, confined to the churches. The Museum, or Académie des Beaux Arts, possesses a large and valuable collection of pictures, many of which have been obtained from suppressed churches and monasteries. The Academy consists of not more than twenty-five members, and may be regarded as the successor of the famous Guild of St. Luke, founded in the fifteenth century, by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. The museum is established in the church of the old Franciscan monastery, and contains nearly 700 pictures. In the centre of the Place or square, in front of the building, is a fine statue of Van Dyck, and the entrance hall is furnished with busts of Rubens and other masters. The frescoes on the walls of this hall were painted by De Keyser, and include portraits of no less than 136 artists connected with the city. It is of course impossible, within the limits of this work, to mention many of the pictures; but the Flemish school is well represented, and the collection includes works by Italian and German masters, as well as specimens of the Dutch school. Two at least of Rubens' works must be named : “ Christ Crucified between Two Thieves," a bold and striking painting, and the “ Adoration of the Magi,” which covers a large canvas, and is said to have been designed and completed in a fortnight. Van Dyck's “ Christ on the Cross," and the “Entombment,” are noble works. A curious story is told about a large picture, the “ Fall of the Wicked Angels," by F. Floris. It is said that Quentin Matsys wooed his daughter, but her father was unwilling to consent to their betrothal until the lover could prove his artistic abilities. One day Matsys went into Floris's studio, and saw this picture. Taking up a brush, he painted a large fly on the leg of one of the figures, and so well, that he was accepted as a son-in-law as soon as Floris saw what he had done. Whether the story be true or unfounded, a large fly is visible to this day, in the place where Matsys is said to have painted it.

Two great artistic names of world-wide fame are inseparably connected with Antwerp, Rubens and Van Dyck. Peter Paul Rubens was born at Siegen, in Westphalia, on the feast of SS. Peter and Paul (June 29, 1577), though it is usually supposed that he was a native of Cologne, to which city his family removed when he was about a year old. There they remained for ten years, until the death of Rubens' father, and in 1588 his mother returned to Antwerp, her own and her husband's birthplace. Peter Paul's education was carried on by the Jesuits, who were the only teachers tolerated at that time in the city. He seems to have been an apt scholar, and is said to have spoken seven languages. At the age of thirteen he became a pupil of Tobias Verhaeght, a painter of some note, and afterwards entered the studio of Adam van Oort, with whom he remained four years. Subsequently he studied under Otto van Veen, better known under the Latinised form of his name as Otto Venius, an artist of eminence, whose pictures are to be found in many galleries. In 1599 Rubens was admitted into the Guild or Brotherhood of St. Luke, the patron saint of art, and in the next year he travelled to Italy to study the great works of the Italian schools of painting. We know that he visited Venice, Mantua, and Rome, and that he held some position at the Court of the Duke of Mantua, on whose behalf he seems to have visited Spain, in 1603, partly on an artistic mission, and possibly to combine diplomacy with painting. In 1608 he set out on his homeward journey to Flanders, whither he had been recalled in consequence of his mother's illness, but he did not arrive in time to see her alive. He owed almost everything to his mother, for his father proved a worthless fellow, and he bitterly lamented her death, spending some months after his return in almost absolute seclusion. He was now in his thirty-second year, a man of handsome presence, dignified in manner, and improved by travel and experience of the world. A well-known picture of himself, now at Munich, places the artist and his first wife, Isabella Brandt, clearly before us, and gives a good idea of dress generally worn by well-to-do citizens of Antwerp, in the early years of the seventeenth century. In those times men dressed more expensively than their wives, just as, sixty years later, in England, we find Samuel Pepys spending more on his own clothes than he allowed Mrs. Pepys for hers. In 1609 Rubens was nominated Court painter to the Archduke Albert and the Infanta Clara Eugenia Isabella, who at that time ruled the Spanish Netherlands, and were doing their best to efface the disastrous effects of the unhappy wars of the preceding century. They could not, however, restore the former prosperity of the country, but they were liberal patrons of art, and Rubens was not the only painter benefited by their patronage. He was now the undoubted head of the Flemish school, and painted a vast number of pictures, which are to be seen in almost every important gallery in Europe. It is needless to say that he could not have painted with his own hand all the pictures attributed to him. In many cases he only sketched the outlines, and perhaps put a few finishing touches to the work of his pupils and assistants. But, making every allowance for the help he received, his own energy and industry were prodigious.

Though after his return to Antwerp, in 1609, he never resided permanently elsewhere, he visited Spain, Paris, and Holland, on artistic errands, and stayed for some months in England in 1629. He was knighted by Charles I., and during his visit painted several pictures, including “Peace and War," in the National Gallery, and Charles I. and Queen Henrietta, as St. George and Cleolinde, at Windsor Castle. He also received a commission from the king to decorate the ceiling of Inigo Jones's banqueting house, now the Chapel Royal at Whitehall. The subject was to be the apotheosis of James I., and the pictures, painted on canvas, to be afterwards nailed on to the ceiling, were sketched in England, and painted after Rubens' return to Antwerp. They arrived in 1635, some delay having occurred in consequence of the king's unwillingness to pay the export duties, and were immediately placed in the position for which they were intended, where they may still be seen by the visitor to the Chapel Royal who is willing to run the risk of dislocating his neck. They have been frequently renovated since they were first put up. Rubens received £3,000 for them; but the payments, which were made by instalments, were not completed until 1638.

After a married life of sixteen years, Rubens lost his wife, who left two sons, one twelve, and the other eight years old. She was buried, with much pomp, in the Abbey Church of St. Michael, beside his mother. It was about this period that he made the journey into Holland already mentioned. In 1630 he married his second wife, Helena Fourment, then a girl of sixteen, who often appears in his pictures, and in the following years he filled the office of Dean of the Guild of St. Luke, of which he had long been the most eminent member; and his English knighthood was confirmed at Madrid, on the recommendation of the Supreme Council for Flanders. He continued to paint, and to serve his country as a diplomatist, until the year 1640, when he died, mourned by the people as the greatest citizen of Antwerp. He was buried in a vault belonging to the Fourment family, in the Church of St. James, and his funeral was attended by a vast concourse of people. Two years afterwards his body was removed to a special chapel built at the east end of the church, where it still rests.

The statue of Rubens (see Vol. I., p. 9), in the Place Verte near Notre Dame, was cast in bronze, and erected in 1840, from a design by W. Geefs, the well-known Belgian artist. The figure is 13 feet high, and stands on a pedestal about 20 feet' high. The house of Rubens, in the Place de Meir, was built from his own designs in 1611, but has been twice restored and altered since its erection. In 1877 the people of Antwerp celebrated the tercentenary of the birth of their famous fellow-citizen.

Antoon, or Anthony van Dyck, was born in Antwerp on the 22nd of March, 1599, where his father was a well-to-do manufacturer of silk and woollen stuffs. ' Like his eminent fellow-citizen Rubens, whose pupil he afterwards became, he seems to have owed much to his mother, who undertook his education during his early boyhood. She died, however, before her son had attained his ninth year ; but his father arranged that the boy should continue the artistic studies he had already begun, and in which his progress was such that in 1609 he entered the studio of Hendrik van Balen, where, it is said, he quickly surpassed all his compeers. He was about five years the pupil of Van Balen, and then studied under Rubens. It is said that on one occasion Rubens left in his studio a painting which was unfortunately injured by his pupils during their master's absence. Great was the consternation of the young men, and it was proposed by one of them that Van Dyck should endeavour to repair the damage. He set to work accordingly, and succeeded so well that when Rubens came to the picture next day he remarked, “ This throat and chin (the part restored by Van Dyck] is not the worst piece of painting I did yesterday.” A closer examination, however, disclosed the work of a strange hand; but on the culprits confessing the circumstances Rubens forgave them. The story is, perhaps, fictitious; but Van Dyck's abilities were such that he was admitted as a master into the Guild of St. Luke before he was twenty, an honour altogether unprecedented. Rubens, who had profited so much by his own Italian travels, strongly advised his pupil to visit Italy; but the journey was postponed

in consequence of an invitation from the Earl of Arundel to come to England. On his arrival in London, in 16:20, he received a pension of £100 a year from the king; but it seems doubtful whether the payments were regularly made. He soon left this country, and after a visit to Holland returned to Antwerp in 1622, just in time to receive the dying request of his father to paint a picture for the chapel of the Dominican sisters, who had nursed him through his last illness. The promise was made, but the performance was tardy, for it was not until 1629 that the artist completed a great picture of the Crucifixion, which remained in the chapel until 1785, when it was sold to the Academy of Antwerp for 6,000 florins. It is now in the Museum. A second and even finer picture of the same subject is in the Cathedral of Malines, which also contains several other works by Van Dyck. In 1623 the long-postponed journey to Italy was undertaken, though it is said he was detained on the road by the attractions of a young lady of the Court of the Infanta Isabella. However, he reached Italy at last, and spent some time in Venice, Genoa, and Rome. After an absence of three years he returned home, the first of living portrait-painters. In 1629 he again visited England for a short time, and in 1632 finally settled in London, where he died, in 1641, in his house in Blackfriars. He was buried in old St. Paul's, close to the tomb of John of Gaunt, and there was a certain appropriateness in the selection of the spot. The body of the great Flemish painter rested near that of a famous English prince who owed his name to his birth in the famous Flemish city of Ghent.

We have seen how painting flourished in Antwerp in the days of her great masters. Another and a more useful art was at the same time carried on with great success. In 1555 the famous printing-press of Christopher Plantin was set up in the city. Plantin was a scholar as well as a printer, and the works produced by him rivalled those of Aldus Manutius and the Elzevirs. His printing-office was esteemed one of the wonders of Europe. After his death the business was carried on by his son-in-law Moretus, and subsequently by his family. The house of Plantin was purchased by the Corporation of Antwerp in 1875, and, being carefully maintained in its original condition, presents a unique specimen of the dwelling-house and business premises of a well-to-do Flemish tradesman of former times. Numerous fine examples of books, woodcuts, copper-plates, as well as autographs are preserved, and although the mechanical art of printing has greatly advanced since the days of Plantin, it must be confessed that in clearness and beauty of type the modern printer canyot surpass, if he even equals, the work of the famous old press of the great Antwerp printer.

There are few open spaces of any size in the older parts of the city. The Place Verte on the south side of Notre Dame is the largest, and is planted with trees, which afford a pleasant shade in summer. The Grand Place, to the north of the Cathedral, is surrounded by old houses of characteristic Flemish style, and has the Hôtel de Ville on one side. This large building cannot be compared with the town halls of many cities of Belgium ; but the exterior, though plain, does not lack dignity; and the great hall, which is well proportioned, is adorned with several good pictures. The Bourse, in the Rue Longue Neuve, occupies the site of an older building, which was destroyed by fire in 1859. It is in the same style as its predecessor, though rather larger. It will be remembered that Sir Thomas Gresham built the first Royal Exchange of London on the model of the Antwerp Bourse. The present building is 56 yards long by 44 wide, and has a glass roof. During the hours of business it presents an animated scene, and the merchants and other traffickers scem for awhile to throw off the traditional sluggishness of the Flemish people.

With the exception of the Place de Meir, which is a street, and not a square, as the name would suggest, it must be admitted that the streets of Antwerp are narrow and uninteresting. The Avenue de Commerce and Avenue des Arts, which occupy the site of the ancient wall, are wide boulevards planted with trees. The quays of Antwerp are similarly adorned, and present much the same appearance as they did 200 years ago, when they excited the admiration of our fellow-countryman, John Evelyn. The docks on the east side of the city are large, and have been greatly extended of late years. Some of the warehouses are enormous, and suggest reminiscences of Liverpool. The small park, on the site of an ancient fort, is well laid out, and contains a statue of the painter Leys. The Zoological Gardens, near the railway station, are small, but the collection of animals is very good, and the Natural History Museum is one of the best in the world.

BRUGES.

WORDSWORTH, writing more than sixty years ago, declared that the spirit of antiquity was enshrined at Bruges; and, saving such modern innovations as gas and the railway, the statement holds good to-day. Never was such a quiet, sleepy place. In no other town is there so large a proportion of paupers ; yet they are not obtrusive. Nowhere else are so many large houses vacant, or to be had at so low a rent. Living is very cheap, and many poor gentlefolk settle in a place so suitable to departed greatness. The tide of prosperity, which has been gradually extending over the Kingdom of Belgium, has not reached Bruges. The streets, overgrown in many places with grass, echo to the footsteps of the traveller. Though the population amounts to nearly fifty thousand, and there is house-room for many more, it is rare to see any indication of such a number, except in the market-place or at the railway station. The decay of the city has been gradual. In the fourteenth century merchants from seventeen nations had their settled domiciles at Bruges, besides strangers from almost unknown countries who repaired thither. Ghent was more populous, but Bruges, though in circuit only half the size of the former, was more splendid in its buildings, and was the seat of far more trade. The quays of the harbour, which was and still is connected with the North Sea by a deep canal, were crowded with vessels from the Mediterranean, France, England, and the towns of the Hanseatic League. The cloth of Flanders was used everywhere, and Bruges was the place whence it was exported to foreign countries. The unfortunate outburst of a fierce democratic spirit, and the quarrels between the Counts of Flanders and the people, contributed to the ruin of the city. Trade flowed into other channels, and Bruges gradually sank into its present insignificance.

The city is, however, glorious in her decay, and possesses much that is of interest to the student of art, or to the man who, wearied with the cares of business, desires to end his days in peace. It is said to be a favourite place of residence for Belgians who have acquired a moderate fortune, and many English families settle here, as education is at once good and cheap, and a small income goes a great deal farther than in England. There is an English

« PreviousContinue »