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Art. III.- Reliquien von Albrecht Dürer, seinen Verehrern
geweiht. Taschenbuch für Deutschland's Kunstfreunde, zu Albrecht Dürer's dritter Secular-feier. (Relics of Albert Durer, dedicated to his Admirers. A Pocket-book for the lovers of German Art, on occasion of his third Centenary
Celebration.) Nürnberg, 1828. 18mo. We have repeatedly had occasion to allude to the spirit of nationality that, almost within our memory, has sprung up in various parts of Europe, displaying itself in the search after, and veneration of, those national antiquities which the affected classicism and refinement of the eighteenth century abhorred as barbarous and gothic :-two words, by the way, then used as synonimous. We have upon those occasions discussed some of the various lines in which this spirit of nationality, according to the various inclinations of the individuals it influences, exerts itself, especially those of history, legal institutions, customs and usages, and literature; but the subject is far from exhausted, and we now wish to invite attention to one of those lines yet untouched by us, namely, the Fine Arts.
The reasonableness or unreasonableness of the well nigh exclusive enthusiasm of Dr. Waagen, Johanna Schopenhauer, &c. &c. &c. for the Old German and Low-Country Masters, is a question that we do not intend to moot. We have no mind to expose ourselves either to the stiletto of Italy, or to the transcendental disdain of Germany; no, nor even to the ineffable contempt of English cognoscenti, by involving ourselves in the controversy, let alone emitting an opinion, upon the relative merits of the Italian and German Schools; which, moreover, being altogether a matter of taste, we are at full liberty to leave undecided and unargued, according to the old non-disputandum adage. But we should not hold the duties we have undertaken to be duly discharged, did we not afford our readers the means of estimating the impassioned admiration, the reverential love now felt in Germany for what is deemed the especial German School, and for the Old German and Netherland Painters. We therefore gladly embrace the opportunity of so doing, offered by the little volume now before us, which, though it bears the date of 1828, has but lately fallen in our way.
These “ Relics of Albert Durer” are published in the form of an Annual; and as such it might have escaped our notice, or seemed only fit to be thrown in with a whole batch of its fellows. But this Nuremberg Taschenbuch is entitled to a different degree of respect, both from the high interest every where attached to the name of Albert Durer, and from its appearing almost in the
light of a monument raised to his honour, by the venerable and, to our fancy, beautiful old city, which still glories in her artist's fame, and sedulously preserves every memorial of his former presence, every indication of his being her own. But ere we proceed to examine the Relics themselves, we must say a few words touching both the early cultivation and condition of the arts amongst our Teutonic kindred, and the rise of the existing passion for the Old German school of painting: two matters so blended together that they must perforce be treated conjointly.
The taste for the old masters seems to have originally manifested itself under the collecting form, and we believe the best gallery of their works extant is that which was the first begun, collected by two gentlemen of the name of Boisserée, and which long remained the property of them and their friend M. Bertram. The brothers Boisserée were merchants, who did not suffer their pursuit of wealth to induce neglect of mental culture. During the dispersion, consequent upon the French conquests, of all such church and convent works of art as were not seized for the Louvre Gallery, the Boisserées, in the way of business, picked up cheap some old German and Flemish paintings. Their taste and fancy were touched by their acquisition. The cleaning and reparations requisite for a profitable re-sale, heightened their sense of the merit of their purchases; and they gradually conceived so ardent a passion for the long-neglected early Flemish and German artists, that from a casual picture-dealing transaction, they became the most enlightened and the most indefatigably zealous collectors. Their labours and exertions have been crowned with success, and their gallery, now, we believe, after a first transference from Heidelberg to Stuttgard, purchased by the King of Bavaria, and permanently fixed at Schleissheim, is said to be unrivalled. It is entirely composed of the works of the Old German and Low Country artists, and if it does not contain all their masterpieces, possesses specimens of all their excellencies, and by its judicious selection and arrangement is calculated to delight those amateurs who sympathize with its collectors, to gratify those who “ for several virtues” “ love several" schools and several artists, and to afford the student of the history or the science of painting the happiest possible field for prosecuting his inquiries. Messrs. Boisserée have rendered a farther service to the arts by the publication of a series of admirably executed lithograph copies, finely coloured,* of the originals of which this Gallery is composed,
* The title of this splendid work is Die Sammlung Alt Nieder und Ober-Deutscher Gemälde, der Brüder Boisserée und Bertram, lithogruphirt von T. N. Striiner. (The Collection of Old Low and High German Pictures, of the Brothers Boisserée and Bertram, lithographed by T. N. Strixner.)
thereby enabling foreign amateurs, and their own countrymen, to form a correct notion of its merit and value. Although they, perhaps, hardly do justice to John van Eyck, since they cannot display the brilliancy and clearness of colouring which constitute one, if not the chief, of the excellences of that master, they form a most instructive exhibition of the varieties and progress of the Flemish and German schools, in drawing, composition, and expression. In all these points they establish, as fully as we could desire, the immense superiority of Albert Durer over his German predecessors and contemporaries, showing him amply endowed with the art of telling his story, and, we will venture to say, with the soul and the inspiration of a painter.
This gallery, always most liberally shown, drew, perhaps even in its incipient state, the attention of patriotic lovers of the arts, and German authors began to write of German artists. The first who, to the best of our knowledge, zealously took up the subject, was that mighty veteran of literature, who for more than half a century exercised an influence, we believe unexampled, over the tastes and opinions of his countrymen, and indeed of a large portion of Europe,--we mean Goethe. From the first number of that great author's later periodical, entitled Hefte über Kunst und Alterthum, (Papers upon Art and Antiquity,) we shall take the liberty of borrowing much of what we have to say upon the subject.
When the Fine Arts, banished by political convulsions and the devastations of war from Italy, took refuge at Constantinople, in a Greece far unlike the Hellas that had given them birth, they assumed a peculiar character, which Goethe terms “the gloomy oriental aridity,” and describes as chiefly marked in painting by stiff symmetrical composition, a gilded background, and a Moorish or Ethiopian complexion, distinctively and babitually given to the representations of our Saviour and the Virgin; whence this last strange peculiarity was derived he professes himself unable to explain. He conceives this Byzantine school of painting to have prevailed in all those parts of Germany which were sufficiently polished to value the Fine Arts, and especially on the wealthy and populous banks of the Rhine, having been there introduced either by pictures brought from Constantinople, or by painters educated in that metropolis, then boasting itself the only Christian seat of luxury, retinement, learning, and cultivation. This lasted until the thirteenth century, of which era Goethe says:
“ But now a gladsome feeling of nature breaks suddenly through, and that not as a mere imitation of individual reality; it is a genial revelling of the eye-sight; as thougli then first opening upon the sensible world. Apple
cheeked boys and girls, egg-shaped faces of men and women, comfortable looking old men with flowing or curly beards, the whole race good, pious, and cheerful, and although sufficiently individualized, collectively embodied by a delicate and tender pencil. So with respect to the colours. These are cheerful, clear, aye and powerful too, without especial harmony, but likewise without gaudiness, and always agreeable and pleasing to the eye."
The painters on whom Goethe bestows these praises, he nevertheless considers as mere improvers upon the Byzantine school, to which they still indubitably belonged--we are not even sure whether they had discarded the unaccountable
negro complexion—and John van Eyck was the first who fully emancipated himself from its trammels. Him he calls a pre-eminent man, and says
further : “We do not for an instant besitate to place our Eyck in the first class of those whom nature bas endowed with pictorial faculties. * His compositions possess great truth and loveliness. * a right-thinking and right-feeling artist.”
Upon an artist thus eulogized by Goethe-to say nothing of the herd of minor and more extravagant encomiasts—an artist who was the real founder of the Flemish school of painting, and is believed to have materially influenced the art even in Italy, we must dwell for a few minutes, notwithstanding he be not our immediate subject.
John van Eyck was a native of the Netherlands, and although considerable discrepancy of opinion exists as to the precise dates of his birth and death, it is certain that he was alive, and at the height of his celebrity, about the middle of the fourteenth century. He had then discarded the gilt back-ground, substituting landscape, buildings, or whatever best suited his subject; had rejected the established formal symmetry of composition, and, whether his predecessors had or had not ventured on such an innovation, he was in the habit of giving every beauty of colour as well as of feature to the divine persons he depicted. His chief merits were fidelity to truth and nature, just expression, correct drawing of his heads, careful and high finishing, great beauty, brightness, and clearness of colouring, and especially a skill in composition, then and there at least previously unknown, by which he not only told the story he meant to represent, but, introducing into his landscape-background some totally unconnected incident of ordinary life, gave a singular air of reality to the whole. His faults were an ignorance of anatomy, that made his drawing of body and limbs as defective as that of his heads was good, great stiffness of attitude and drapery, a want of blending in his colours, and a total absence of
all aspiration after ideal beauty or sublimity. The very qualities by the way, good and bad, that might have been expected in the founder of the Flemish school.
These faults are admitted by the warmest of van Eyck's modern admirers, and Dr. Waagen, in his publication Veber Hubert und Johann van Eyck, expresses his surprise at the unqualified assertion of the painter's contemporary, the Genoese, Facius, who, in his work De Viris illustribus, says that John van Eyck was esteemed the first painter of his day. This superlative praise from an Italian appears, however, less extraordinary when we recollect that the dark and hard school of Cimabue, then prevailing in Italy, must have given peculiar effect to the brilliancy and clearness of the Netherlander's colouring. But there is another circumstance, extraneous to his skill as an artist, that might very materially influence the judgment of his contemporaries, and of which we must briefly speak ere we dismiss this really talented man.
It was long generally believed that John van Eyck was the first discoverer and inventor of the art of oil-painting, all his predecessors having mixed their colours with water, and secured their preservation by different varnishes dried upon the pictures in the sup. This opinion originated, we believe, with Vasari, who, in his Vite de' piu eccellenti Pittori, Scultori, ed Architetti, relates a long story concerning the rise of the invention, from the disaster that befel a picture carefully finished by van Eyck, which split with the sun's heat whilst the varnish was drying. Vasari goes on to state, that the mortified painter, who was skilled in chemistry, such as the science then was, forthwith applied himself to seek some mode of mixing his colours that should supersede the use of sun-dried varnish, and found linseed oil, duly prepared, to answer bis purpose. Vasari further names the two favourite scholars of the discoverer, viz. Roger of Bruges, and Antonello da Messina, an Italian attracted to the Low Countries by the fame of van Eyck, to whom he at length imparted his secret, and through whom, after years of concealment and some death-bed revelations, it was finally made public.
In later and more critical times the truth of this whole story has been questioned. Authors of all countries have attacked Vasari; a treatise upon oil painting, written in the tenth or eleventh century, by a monk named either Rogerus, or Theophilus, or Tutilo, has been discovered; and Bernardo di Domenici, in his Lives of Neapolitan Painters and Architects, published in 1744, speaks of an oil painting bearing the date of 1309, a period when John van Eyck was certainly unborn. We have hinted that we love not controversy, and the investigation of this matter