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A PPE N DIX.
Two pictures by John Wan Eyck have fallen under our observation since the bulk of the present work passed through the press. They confirm the views which we had been led to take of the career of the great painter, whilst they suggest reflections of additional weight in support of our previous arguments. We had been led, by the examination of John Van Eyck's masterpieces, to the conviction that he reached the pinnacle of his greatness about the time when the altar-piece of the “Mystic Lamb” was completed. That great work was not only the finest effort of the two great masters of Belgium, but it was the noblest monument of Flemish art. After its production came the decline and fall of the School of Bruges; and it might be said with truth that the Wan Eycks were at once the Giottos, Masaccios, Raphael and Michael Angelo of Flanders. We were not slow, however, in giving expression to the feeling that, remarkable as was the altar-piece of the “Mystic Lamb,” and deserving as were its creators of praise for its conception, it had faults which no partiality could conceal. Nor is it improbable that, in the Q
endeavour to explain these defects, we dwelt upon them in such a degree as to give our judgment a semblance of severity, likely at first sight to appear too great, but which was really not so. It should, in truth, be borne in mind that the elements developed in Flanders by the Wan Eycks alone, and concentrated in their persons, were in Italy diffused over generations of painters. The most perfect creation of the Northern school was the production of a century in which the Southern was progressing at a gigantic speed; and the faults which may be found in the art of Belgium must, therefore, be qualified by a due consideration of the period in which the Van Eycks laboured and lived. The “Mystic Lamb” thus forming the pinnacle of Belgian art, it became interesting to ascertain whether the decline which followed its completion commenced in the person of John Van Eyck himself, or only in those of his own and his brother's immediate followers. The conviction was forced upon us, that John Van Eyck began to decline from the standard which he had himself erected, and that, as he increased in years, he proportionately lost his powers. The pictures whose dates were nearest to 1432 were the most-remarkable for his peculiar qualities, whilst those executed later exhibited the progress of decay in his powers. The two pictures by John Wan Eyck of which we have now to speak, are of the former time—one of them belonging to Mr. Weld Blundell, of Ince Blundell Hall, being dated 1432; and the second, the property of the Marquis of Exeter, at Burleigh House, though not authenticated by his signature, bearing the trace of the hand of John Van Eyck about the same year.
The marked feature of these two pictures is the smallness of their size. There is no doubt that John Van Eyck concentrated all the qualities inherent in his manner on the production of diminutive panels. He affords in this a bold contrast with the masters of the Italian school, who exhibit the great qualities of art on surfaces of considerable extent. So long as his object was confined to the elaboration of a scene of which all the parts were within the compass of the eye at the distance usual to a painter at his easel, his judgment enabled him to develop, without effort, the most pleasing features of good proportion, composition, colour, and aërial perspective. His sense of atmosphere and depth was at such times perfect, and he laboured with all the advantages consequent on his vivacity and clearness of perception. But as the field over which his eye had to wander increased in magnitude by the enlargement of his panel, that judgment and innate sense of colour, aërial perspective, and knowledge of proportion, became less available ; and being insufficiently sustained by scientific knowledge, rendered his larger pieces (we except always the “ Agnus Dei") less effective and pleasing than those of a small size. No effort, in truth, seems to have been made by John Van Eyck to do more than multiply, on a large scale, that which his eye had conceived in small; and the result ensued, that defects which were invisible at first became glaring by multiplication, and exposed what may be aptly enough described as the fault in the master's artistic armour.
The "Ince Madonna” is signed, “Completum anno Domini MCCCCXXXII per Johannem de Eyk. Brugis,
Als ikh Kan,” and was, therefore, executed when John Van Eyck had completed the altar-piece of St. Bavon. The Virgin, dressed in a blue tunic and a gorgeous red mantle, whose folds cover the ground about her, holds a book before the Infant Saviour, who sits on her knee, and playfully turns the leaves; a rich warm green dais, copiously adorned with capricious arabesques, contrasts with the drapery near it. The scene is in one of those semi-obscure chambers lighted by tiny squares of glass, which Van Eyck was fond of depicting. A crystal vase on a table near the window is partially filled with water, and some oranges lie by its side. On a board to the left of the Virgin are a chandelier and a pot of brass. The Virgin's feet rest on a richly-coloured carpet covering a sombre floor. Were it not for a general crackling of the surface, which mars many parts, but especially the face of the Virgin, this picture might be pronounced in excellent preservation, having all the warmth and vigour of colour given to it by the master; and retaining, in consequence, an unity and harmonious softness of tone which give it the greatest charm : a circlet of pearls holds back the brown hair of the Virgin, and makes it fall in thin wavy tresses over her shoulders ; similar ornaments cover the upper part of the blue dress. The Saviour's head has a laughing expression, and light curly locks play about his forehead, giving an airy and happy expression to his face; a bold piece of white drapery partially covers his limbs. The Divinity is thus represented without the moody gravity which so frequently mars the faces of Van Eyck's Infants. The limbs and body are not too thin, and the hands and feet are fairly designed, and truthful in movement. The head of the Virgin is not free from the defect of length, but the expression of the eyes is pleasing, and the hands are delicate. If the drapery which surrounds her is too abundant, and marked by the frequent angularities of Van Eyck, these faults are greatly redeemed by the beauty of the colours and the freedom with which the whole subject is executed. We have here, in truth, a rare instance of the master's success in the production of a fine vigorous colour in good relief, and broadly handled. If the “Ince Madonna” discloses in miniature the talents developed on a larger scale in the altar-piece of St. Bavon, in that of Burleigh House we are still more struck by the same impression, because the figures are smaller and more numerous, and the treatment of the whole is more minute and finished. Here we no longer have a Virgin merely sitting with the Infant Saviour; but we have a symmetrical and beautifully-ordered composition, perfectly balanced in every part—the figures being so marshalled, and the accessories so arranged, as to give the picture an uncommon degree of simplicity and grandeur. The Virgin stands on the right hand of the spectator, holding the Saviour affectionately in her arms; the Infant has a crystal orb in his left hand, and, with two tiny fingers of his right, blesses a kneeling monk at his feet. The hands of this person are joined in prayer, and the features piously collected and grave. He seems pleasingly recommended to notice by St. Barbara, who stands behind him, and whose right hand, holding a palm, presses his shoulder, whilst the left rests on her
* Wood, 9 inches by 6.