Friday, December 8, 2023

Benjamin Moser on What We Can Learn from Failed Dutch Painters

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When I was 25, I moved to the Netherlands from London. The reasons were two. I wanted to be with my Dutch partner, and I wanted to have a go at writing. Moving abroad, starting a new life with someone, leaving my job in publishing, stepping into the void of a writing career: it was the kind of leap that you only take when you’re young. But even if you muster the courage, there’s still nobody to tell you what you’re doing right – and, more to the point, what you’re doing wrong.

Writing was hard enough. But what really daunted me was turning writing into a profession, into “being a writer.” This seemed strangely unconnected to writing. I had no idea how to go about it. I wanted someone to say: Do this. Don’t do that. But nobody did – until I discovered the spectacular museums of my new country. I became infatuated with Dutch art, for its beauty, for its range, for its strangeness – but also for the way its makers, though dead for centuries, seemed to be the guides I had been looking for. They had been asking exactly the same questions that I was. Why do we make art, and why do we need it? What does it mean to have talent, and how can one develop whatever one has been given? And, above all: How can you avoid becoming a failure?

We like to remind ourselves of the achievements of the Golden Age, as blockbuster exhibitions of its masters affirm (from Vermeer at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum earlier this year to Frans Hals at London’s National Gallery this autumn). Rarely do we dwell on the period’s failures – yet so many talented artists of the era became just that. Over the years, I’ve developed something of a morbid interest in the subject, because I believe these painters – who either struggled to win critical recognition in their lifetimes or beyond, or sometimes even gave up on their profession entirely – have just as much to teach us. And when I was starting out as a writer, I became fascinated by the question of how artists get things wrong. Maybe I thought that if I could find the answers, I could avoid such a fate myself.

The most poignant stories, it seemed to me, were of artists who had begun with talent but never quite lived up to their potential. This was the case of Jan Lievens, Rembrandt’s neighbour, friend, and rival when both were boys in Leiden. Lievens was a celebrity by the age of 12; his works were commissioned or purchased by the princes of Orange and the king of England; and he was invited to participate in every major Dutch decorative project of his day – which Rembrandt, who had a thorny reputation, was not.

Yet centuries after his death in 1674, a whiff of failure clings to Lievens. To survey his work is to see his undoubtedly great talent turn against him. Perhaps he had too much of it, and could do too many things too well: he was not forced to make the difficult choices that give direction to an artistic personality. His early promise curdles. Some of his paintings make you uncomfortable: not because some are better than others, since you can say that of any artist, including Rembrandt and Vermeer. The difference is that occasional missteps don’t matter in their case, because the great works are so great that they make the ugly works trivial. In Lievens’s case, the reverse is true. Because there is not a core of personality, the ugly works reproach the great works, and make one wonder whether one was right to admire them. Which is the exception, and which is the rule?

Lievens loves showing the toll that life has taken on old people, for example. But while some of his paintings of the elderly are beautiful, some land on the wrong side of the fine line that divides frank or naturalistic description from the repellent. The hands of one Penitent Magdalene, for example, seem to be made almost entirely of swollen veins. Looking at them, one suspects that he just didn’t know when to stop. Knowing when to put the brush down is a talent, too.

Other artists did everything right – only to fall victim to changing fashions. Rembrandt’s students Govert Flinck and Ferdinand Bol were wildly successful in their lifetimes, turning out graceful, elegant, morally uplifting paintings, classicizing subjects shown with smoothly executed brushstrokes.

These pictures were a lot more pleasant to look at than Rembrandt’s, whose work is packed with more scenes of murder, cruelty, torture, rape, betrayal, malediction, and death than any other Dutch painter’s. Most people agreed that these pictures (of a girl hung on a gibbet, of a flayed ox, of sliced-up criminals) were not the sort of thing you wanted to look at every day – or, for that matter, ever. To make things worse, Rembrandt’s paint, one critic wrote, slithered down the canvas “like crap.”

After studying these failed painters, I decided that the only thing that mattered  was just to do the work you felt was most important – and to keep doing it.

This was how things stood until the early 19th century, when the English Romantics created different criteria for art. Byron, whose own fiery personality was in many ways similar to Rembrandt’s, defined poetry as “the expression of excited passion.” Art that lacked it, the Romantics believed, was nothing more than décor. One who followed fashion rather than the divine impulse – no matter how mechanically skilled – was hardly worth the title of artist. 

Rembrandt had excited passion. Bol and Flinck didn’t.

Nobody asked them to. But the very qualities – prettiness, adaptability – that made them so successful in their lifetimes came to be wielded against them. It was not merely that people came to prefer other artists. It was that they became anti-artists, and to read the bad reviews to which they have been subjected is to see an astonishing amount of vitriol. Flinck had been dead for centuries, yet in 1983, a prominent art historian could call him “hardly an artist at all”.   

If it’s hard enough to guess what your contemporaries will appreciate – and believe me: most artists try – you certainly can’t worry too much about people centuries in the future. This is especially true for writers. Cyril Connolly wondered at that rare book that could last a full ten years, since by that point almost every book is forgotten. If it’s discouraging not to be able to predict what others like, now or in the future, that realization can also free you up not to care. After studying these failed painters, I decided that the only thing that mattered  was just to do the work you felt was most important – and to keep doing it.


But how long do you need to keep at it? When I felt pressure to write (because someone is always more productive, more talented, more successful than you) I remembered another painter of the Dutch Golden Age – much overlooked in his time – Meindert Hobbema, who in his middle-age simply decided to put down his brushes once and for all. His Avenue at Middelharnis (1689) is one of the glories of the National Gallery. It’s a mysterious painting. It’s so beautiful, first of all. No photograph can capture its balletic sway of trees. In the picture, besides the poplars and the sky, there’s a hunter, some dogs, a man and a woman talking, and a man pruning his orchard. But no written description accounts for how such commonplace elements can come together to make a work of such majesty.

The painting is made more mysterious by its date, 1689. Around three decades before, Hobbema – an orphan from Amsterdam – painted a series of brilliantly accomplished landscapes that bore the promise of great future achievement. The landscapes from Hobbema’s heroic period can be so overwhelming that one can imagine building an entire mansion, designing an entire garden, around a single example. Like Lievens’s early works, these are the paintings of an impatient virtuoso.

And as with Carel Fabritius or Paulus Potter or Gabriël Metsu or the countless other painters who died in their twenties or thirties, one irresistibly speculates about what maturity would have made of Hobbema. But his case is different. When he was 30, in 1668, he married, and eventually had five children. He kept painting for a couple of years, but his production soon ground to a halt. He got a job measuring imported alcohols. And though he lived another 41 years, he never painted again.

Or almost never again. For nearly 20 years, he busied himself gauging wines in Amsterdam. Then, suddenly, he appeared on the southwestern island of Goeree-Overflakkee – of all places – to create a work of art that would assure the permanence of his name. And then, in the two decades that remained to him, he would never, as far as we know, paint again.

The romantic explanations begin here. Was his personality torn between the imperatives of the artist, thirsting for freedom, and those of the regular man, longing for comfort and security? “Two souls live, ach, inside my breast!” he may have emoted, like Goethe’s Faust, before finally laying down his brushes. And then, decades later, he shows up in the island’s small town of Middelharnis, and paints a single picture. It is a great one, as he surely knew. Then he lays down those brushes once again, this time for good.

Why this place, and why this painting? It hung in the town hall of Middelharnis until the early 19th century, which suggests a local commission. But such clues lead only to a chain of maybes. Maybe some patriotic citizen came across a token of the artist’s youthful glory, sought out the aging Hobbema and tried to lure him, with a generous fee, to the island. Maybe Hobbema needed the money. Maybe he hesitated, fearing that his style was outmoded, and he himself out of practice. Or maybe he had kept working in private, fantasizing about getting back to painting when his kids were older, or once he had saved a bit more money. We don’t know. We don’t know what he felt while he was painting. Maybe the picture came to him in an ecstatic rush. Maybe it was a slog, a reminder that the work of which he’d dreamed during his bureaucratic days was – at least on most days – as tedious and routine as any other.

In this story, or lack of story, you could see even more questions. Was it a tragedy that Hobbema stopped painting? Maybe, for him, it wasn’t. Maybe a steady job offered him a security that art never does. Maybe he had willingly chosen that security, and maybe, when he no longer painted, he still thought of himself as an artist. How much do you have to produce in order to claim that title? Did his great talent impose an obligation to produce more? Is one allowed to give up—or do you have to go all the way to the end? After he created his final painting, he returned home, another obscure old man bound for a pauper’s grave.  Did he recall his neighbour in the Rozengracht, Rembrandt, who, 40 years before, had died in the same circumstances, on the same canal, having pursued his vocation to the bitter end?

Whose was the greater courage? 

And if you painted The Avenue at Middelharnis, did it matter?


The Upside-Down World: Meetings with the Dutch Masters by Benjamin Moser is available from Liveright.

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