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Chapter 9

LETTER IX.

Malines.—Its Collection of Pictures.—Antwerp.—The Cathedral.—A Flemish Quack.—Flemish Names.—The Picture Gallery at Antwerp.—Mr. Wapper's Carvings in Wood.—Mr. Van Lankeren's Pictures.—The Boulevards at Brussels.—Royal Abodes.—Palace of the Prince of Orange.—Prince Auguste d'Ahremberg's Gallery of Pictures.—English Ridicule of America.


Dear ——,

After a consultation with François, I sent the carriage to get a set of entirely new wheels, Brussels being a coach-making town, and taking a voiture de remise, we drove down to Antwerp. While the horses rested, we looked at the pictures in Malines. The "Miraculous Draught of Fishes" is thought by many to be the chef-d'oeuvre of Rubens, but, after conceding it a hardy conception and magnificent colouring, I think one finds too much of the coarse mannerism of the artist, even for such a subject. The most curious part of the study of the different schools is to observe how much all have been influenced by external objects, and how completely conventional, after all, the beau idéal of an artist necessarily becomes. It would be impossible, for one who knew the several countries, to mistake the works of Murillo, Rubens, or Raphael, for the works of artists of different schools, and this without reference to their peculiar manners, but simply as Flemings, Spaniards, and Italians. Rubens, however, is, I think, a little apt to out-Dutch the Dutch. He appears to me to have delighted in the coarse, while Raphael revelled in the pretty. But Raphael could and often did step out of himself and rise to the grand; and then he was perfect, because his grandeur was chastened.

We reached Antwerp some time before dinner. The situation of the town was singular, the Dutch holding the citadel; the place, which was peopled by their enemies, as a matter of course, lying quite at their mercy. The road from Brussels is partly commanded by them, and we saw their flag rising out of the low mounds—for in Flanders the art of fortifying consists in burrowing as deep as possible—as we approached the town. Several Dutch gun-boats were in the river, off the town, and, in the reaches of the Scheldt below, we got glimpses of divers frigates and corvettes, riding at anchor. As an offset to the works of their enemies, the Belgians had made a sort of entrenched camp, by enclosing the docks with temporary ramparts, the defences of the town aiding them, in part, in effecting their object.

One of our first visits was to the cathedral. This beautiful edifice had escaped without material damage from the recent conflicts, though the garrison of the citadel have thrown a few shots at its tower, most probably with a view to drive curious eyes out of it, the great height enabling one to get a complete bird's-eye view of what is going on within their walls. The celebrated Rubenses were cased in massive timber to render them bomb-proof, and, of course, were invisible.

Processions of peasants were passing from church to church, the whole day, to implore succour against the cholera, which, by the way, and contrary to all rule for a low and moist country, is said to be very light here. The Flemings have the reputation of being among the most bigoted Catholics, and the most ignorant population of Europe. This accounts, in some measure, for the existence of the latter quality among the first inhabitants of New York, most of whom were from Flanders, rather than from Holland. I have found many of our names in Antwerp, but scarcely one in Holland. The language at home, too, is much nearer the Flemish than the Dutch; though it is to be presumed that there must have been some colonists from Holland, in a province belonging to that nation. I listened to-day to a fellow vending quack medicines and vilely printed legends, to a song which, tune and all, I am quite sure to have heard in Albany, when a schoolboy. The undeviating character and habits of the people, too, appear to be very much like those which existed among ourselves, before the influx of eastern emigration swallowed up everything even to the suppan. I remember to have heard this same quack singing this same song, in the very same place in June, 1828, when we first visited Antwerp. The effect was exceedingly ludicrous, for it seemed to me, that the fellow had been occupying the same spot, employed in the same pursuits, for the last five years, although the country had been revolutionized. This is also a little characteristic, for some of our own Communipaws are said to believe we are still the property of the United Provinces.

The Flemish language has many words that are French in the spelling, but which have entirely different meanings, representing totally different things or ideas. De is one. In French this word, pronounced der, without dwelling on the last letter, is a preposition generally meaning "of." Before a name, without being incorporated with it, it is an invariable sign of nobility, being even frequently affixed, like the German von, to the family name, on attaining that rank. In Flemish it is an article, and is pronounced precisely as a Dutchman is apt to pronounced the, meaning the same. Thus De Witt, means the White, or White; the Flemings using the article to express things or qualities in the abstract, like the French. Myn Heer De Witt is just the same as Monsieur le Blanc, or Monsieur Du Bois, in French; one of which means Monsieur White, and the other Monsieur Wood. So nearly does this language resemble the English, that I have repeatedly comprehended whole sentences, in passing through the streets. Now in New York, we used to think the Dutch had become corrupted by the English, but I fancy that the corruption has been just the other way.

We had made the acquaintance of a Flemish artist of extraordinary merit, at Paris; and this gentleman (Mr. Wappers) kindly called this morning to take us to see the gallery. The collection is not particularly large, nor is it rich in cabinet pictures, being chiefly composed of altar-pieces taken from churches. The works are principally those of Rubens, Vandyke, and a few of the older masters. The Vandykes, I think, are the best. On the whole, it struck me there were more curious than pleasing pictures in this gallery, although they are all valuable as belonging to a school. The study of the "Descent from the Cross" is among them, and it gave me more pleasure than anything else. Vandyke certainly rose in our estimation, after this close comparison with his great rival: he is altogether more human than Rubens, who is a sort of Dutch giant in the art; out of the natural proportions, and always a giant.

Mr. Wappers permitted us to see his own painting-room. He is of the school of the great Flemish masters, and, I think, quite at the head of his profession, in many of its leading points. It was curious to trace in the works of this young artist the effects of having Rubens and Vandyke constantly before him, corrected by the suggestions of his own genius. His style is something between the two; broader and bolder than Vandyke, and less robust than Rubens.

We went the round of the churches, for, if Italy be the land of marbles, Belgium is, or rather has been, the very paradise of those who carved in wood. I have seen more delicate and highly-finished works of this sort, in a small way, in other countries; as in the high reliefs of Santa Maria della Salute, at Venice; but nowhere else is so much attempted, or, indeed, so much achieved in this branch of art, as here. Many of the churches are quite surrounded by oak confessionals that are highly and allegorically ornamented; though, in general, the pulpits contain the most elaborate designs, and the greatest efforts of this curious work. One at Brussels has the Conversion of St. Paul, horse, rider and all, larger than life. The whole is well wrought, even to the expression. But the best specimens of carving in wood that I remember, were a few figures over the door of an hospital that we saw in 1828, though I now forget whether it was at Gorcum or at Breda. One often sees statuary of great pretension and a wide-spread reputation, that is wanting in the nature, simplicity, and repose of these figures.

We went to see a collection of pictures owned by Mr. Van Lankeren. It is a very fine gallery, but there are few paintings by very great artists. A Van der Heyden (an old New York name, by the way), surpassed anything I know, in its atmosphere. Poussin, and our own artist Cole, excel in this high merit, but this picture of Van der Heyden has a cold, gray transparency that seems actually to have transferred a Dutch atmosphere to the canvass.

We returned to Brussels in time to dine. At Malines I stood with admiration beneath the great tower, which possesses a rare majesty. Had it been completed according to the original plan, I believe it would have been the highest church-tower in Europe. In the evening we had a call from Mr. and Mrs. ——, and made an appointment to visit the palace of the Prince of Orange in the morning.

I was up betimes next day, and took a walk round the park, and on the upper boulevards. The injuries done in the fight have been, in some measure, repaired, but the place was deserted and melancholy. The houses line one side of the boulevards, the other being open to the fields, which are highly cultivated and unenclosed. This practice of cutting off a town like a cheese-paring is very common on the continent of Europe, and the effect is odd to those who are accustomed to straggling suburbs, as in America and England.

At ten we went to the palace, according to appointment. The royal abodes at Brussels are very plain edifices, being nothing more than long unbroken buildings, with very few external ornaments. This of the Prince of Orange stands in the park, near that of the King, and is a simple parallelogram with two gates. The principal apartments are in the same form, being an entire suite that are entered on one side and left on the other. There is great good taste and elegance in the disposition of the rooms. A few are rich, especially the salle de bal, which is really magnificent. The place was kept just as it had been left by its last occupants, Leopold, with good taste, not to say good feeling, religiously respecting their rights. A pair of gloves belonging to the princess were shown us, precisely on the spot where she had left them; and her shawls and toys were lying carelessly about, as if her return were momentarily expected. This is true royal courtesy, which takes thrones without remorse, while it respects the baubles.

This palace had many good pictures, and among others a Raphael. There was a Paul Potter or two, and a couple of pictures, in the same stile, as pendants, by a living artist of the name of Verboeckhoven, whose works sustained the comparison wonderfully well.

We were shown the window at which the robber entered who stole the jewels of the princess; an event that has given room to the enemies of the house of Nassau to torture into an accusation of low guilt against her husband.[18] I have never met a gentleman here, who appeared to think the accusation worthy of any credit, or who treated it as more than the gossip of underlings, exaggerated by the agents of the press.

From the palace of the Prince of Orange we went to the house of Prince Auguste d'Ahremberg, to see his collection. This is one of the best private galleries in Europe, though not particularly large. It is rich in the works of Teniers,[19] Woovermans, Both, Cuyp, Potter, Rembrandt, and the other masters of the country. Among others is a first-rate Gerard Douw (another New York name).

I passed the evening at the house of an English gentleman, where the master of the last-named gallery was one of the company. A guest, a Sir ----, amused me by the peculiarly British manner in which he conveyed a few remarks on America. Speaking of a countrywoman of ours, who had lately been at Brussels, he said that she called standing up to dance, "taking the floor," and he was curious to know if it were a usual form of expression with us. I had to tell him, we said a horse "took the track," in racing, and as this lady came from a racing region, she might have used it, con amore, especially in the gallopade. Capt. ——, of the navy, once called out to the ladies of a quadrille to "shove off," when he thought the music had got the start of them; and it is lucky that this Sir —— did not hear him, or he would have set it down at once as an Americanism. These people are constantly on the hunt for something peculiar and ridiculous in Americans, and make no allowance for difference in station, provincialisms, or traits of character. Heaven knows that we are not so very original as to be thus ruthlessly robbed of any little individuality we may happen to possess.




James Fenimore Cooper

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