Houbraken Translated


Volume 1, page 370-381

Page 370

The first could be true, but the latter lacks probability seeing that Poelenburch was born in 1586 and Breenbergh died in 1660, with too many years passed in the interim for one human life. We have therefore preferred to pass him by until we have received clearer information about him, and have only spelled out his name at the end of this first volume to earnestly request readers that if they should know something concerning his time of birth and life (as well as of Gabriël Metsu, Gerard ter Borch II, or Gerard Pietersz. van Zijl, all painters worthy of a major rôle in our theatre), to apprise me of this orally or, should these readers live outside the city, by letter. Just as it now appears that we will have to get by with scarce information concerning Bartholomeus van der Helst, who along with Gerard Dou, two bright torches of art, will come onstage along with their portraits at the beginning of our second volume.

We have already brought a good many painters onto the stage, seen many kinds of brush handling, and heard the farcical rôle of their lives played. Pictura’s art school has certainly nurtured a great variety of art children.

In general one may say of this school of art that she is a treasury in which all the images of visible nature are imitated with liveliness and the various acts of human beings are contained, in which all lovers of art, no matter how different in preference and passion, can find their choice and pleasure. Some


Page 371

writers choose worthy material, others trivialities for their subject. Some sharpen their pens to sound the praise of heroes and to record their famous acts on precious parchment for posterity. Others have instead specialized in heaven knows what, even in the praise of the donkey, or the owl. Both reach their target, more or less, in so far as they have managed to depict their material according to its nature and in appropriate writing style.

The one or the other, both the heroic and the farcical, can amuse the reader with its inventive finds. Nevertheless the first deserves more repute on account of its worthier reflections.

It pleases us to listen to Jean Passerat, the author of Het waare lof des uyls, on account of his painted owl, which was versified thus.

An owl (who could come up with it?)
Amusingly sat
spinning on its behind
Like an old
biddy by the hearth:
I thought to myself, I would like a web
Spun from this thread.
Such would always be as valuable to me,
As that spun by Hercules,
Or won from Sardinopolus
Wrought by women of loose virtue.
Charming owl! inventive, pleasant,
And deemed worthy by the Athenians,
to be bought as a
To grace their
And to celebrate out of
No wonder that you spin:
But I have to laugh when I consider


Page 372

That Pallas came to bestow that art on you,
And loves you
more than all the other birds.

That is also the case with painters. Some apply themselves to the depiction of grand and dignified profane incidents. Others apply themselves only to farce. David Teniers II has more than once depicted a domestic scene, such as weaving and other such handicrafts by monkeys, so inventively that those who see such works cannot hold back their laughter because they see in these depictions the daily activity of human beings drawn so wittily. I have seen a soldiers' guardhouse with monkeys depicted by him, with a pendant in which is depicted a criminal who is being judged by his captain. This judge sat in an infant's toilet-chair, preening in the night as jauntily as a peasant bailiff amidst his village council, while the older ones are passing judgment. His staff of judgment was a long painted Bengalese tobacco pipe. Before him appeared the criminal, who looked down his nose so guilelessly as if he could not have been guilty. Tied up with soldier's fuses, he was held on both sides by two apish policemen. Between them and the judge stood the prosecutor with a long, pursed snout, like a pig eating straw. In addition, the soldiers’ way of life, the entire equipage, and each on his own was so comically dressed and outfitted that even Cato would have laughed up his sleeve had he seen it. In this way many comical shows by the droll Jan Steen, of which we will later show samples, can make the spectators laugh.


Page 373

One may say about the mentioned artists what Junius said about Piraeicus, that he appears to have had enough intellect to pursue the great in art, were it not that he willingly committed himself to all sorts of lesser things. There were few who excelled above Piraeicus in art (says Pliny), but I do not know if his resolution crumbled, for though he had a great passion for trivial things, he still acquired great praise by these. He painted barbers, shoemaker's shops and donkeys, and other such things, being exceptionally amusing in these things so that the very stately scenes of other artists tended to count for less than these broad jokes of Piraeicus. It is even so with the art of the aforementioned Teniers and Jan Steen. Their comical scenes are eagerly sought after and well-remunerated, while other art is difficult to market. And we also agree with Junius that they did not lack the intellect to be able to depict worthier subjects to their credit if they had put their minds to it, of which we have already seen samples. It is true that such scenes with comical subjects encounter fewer admirers at one time than at another and that all those who have aimed at an everlasting name have always occupied themselves with great thoughts and worthy depictions, but who can place limits on natural passion? We do not want to prescribe a law for it, seeing that art lovers are as well served with the one as with the other, but we do wish to advise for the better. In the meantime we think of the saying of Longinus: It is not impossible that those who spend all the time of their entire


Page 374

lives worrying about minor and altogether slavish concerns could achieve something that would survive the admiration of the following centuries, and that a happy disposition (after the saying of Cassiodorus) always produces something special, both of which may be applied to our farcical Jan Steen, since he, ever jolly of spirit, was able to express things by his intellect and brush, both with respect to natural depiction and manner of painting, that deserve admiration. Of the first proposition, everyone who knows his art is aware, and the latter is confirmed by two pieces, of which Mister de Meester in Zeeland is the owner, that (following the testimony of the painter Nicolaas Verkolje) are as well-wrought and artfully executed as Gerard Dou ever did, whereby he earned an eternal name.

They were both great masters in art, each of which was able depict his particular subjects naturally. But it is also to be lamented that such great men in art did not apply themselves to worthier subjects. What price would have been big enough to pay for them?

The history writers who link past events to the recollections of following centuries give us a multitude of magnanimous actions and memorable instances which deserve that the greatest artists wear out their diligence and art brushes on them. For instance, imagine Zenobia queen of Asia when brought to Rome imprisoned with her two sons and she has to accompany the triumphal chariot of Aurelianus,


Page 375

for the many emotions that arise with such a show. Consider the courage of the triumphant ones, Zenobia’s steady and fixed mind in her change of fate, of which she had said in advance that she could not be vanquished by it, and the commotion of those who lament her misfortune. There are also others who observe her fate with a smile, mistakenly believing that the lustre of the conquest belongs to Rome as hereditary tenure.

Or Marcius Coriolanus, where his wife and mother (moved by the cries and tears of the Roman women) beseech him, falling on their knees, that he should desist from the destruction of that city and people, and opposite to them Marcius in that state when he does not know to which side he will incline, whether to his intention as statesman or to the request of his wife and mother.

The painter can also imagine or depict another moment in time (as, for instance, where the poet says:

He raises his mother, embraces his wife....)

his magnanimous intention having deflected his most powerful passion. In the distance, outside the army tent of the commander, one can also show Roman church wardens and priests (the delegation to which he refused to listen and which are an essential part of the recognisability of the history), as if desiring what consequence the advocacy of Volumnia and Verginia will have for the preservation of the city, and Rome disappearing in the blue haze.

Or imagine Berenice where, commanded by the Roman Council to leave the royal court,


Page 376

she takes her leave of Titus Vespasianus, when the powerful passion of love shows itself at the point of separation, and how Titus, struggling against princely magnanimity, tries to hide his emotions and tears from the court household.

Should the inclination of art practitioner extend to the treatment of a more turbulent scene, take for instance Eteocles and Polynices, sons of Oedipus, King of Thebes, born of Jokasta, with swords in hand disputing over the conduct of state, and give heed to the strong passion of anger and revenge on the features and their entire faces. On the other side consider the concern of the royal household to stem the rage and thirst for revenge, and amidst that movement Antigone with Jocasta her mother seeking to silence her sons by beseeching thus:

Ach, Policines do you challenge your brother to combat!
Let yourself be moved by Antigones’s weeping;
My son, embrace, embrace your brother and gladden
Your sad mother; do not shed his blood with your sword.
Come, come Eteocles, carry out your word and duty:
Grant me that I may again unite two sons.

The artist can further fill the scene by showing a royal palace and trappings which add greatness and lustre to such historical scenes when they are arranged to the benefit and elegance of the figures according to art. And to comprehend an idea of the various passions in such an incident, I wish to advise the inquisitive


Page 377

to read the tragedy in rhyme by Racine before taking the brush to hand.

Or does the painter have a desire for depictions of a quieter nature, in which the passions do not stand out so powerfully, let him paint in his scene the Macedonian world ruler, where he gives his beloved Campaspe to Apelles as reward for his artwork. He should depict Alexander as the most important person in the middle of the piece and next to him Apelles, whom he offers his beauty, holding with his left hand the right hand of Apelles and pointing with the other hand to Campaspe who, sitting on a splendid seat and surprised by the strange incident, looks at Apelles, who bends over and with a reverential and downcast face expresses his gratitude for the worthy present.

It is certainly a rare incident, but I will let the reader guess which of the two, be it Alexander or Apelles, had got the best of the deal? After all it is the case that most painters would rather have their artwork rewarded with hard ducats than with a half worn-out court doll.

Leaving this aside we say, to knot the broken thread of our digression back together:

If, now, such or similar instances worthy of depiction (of which there are a multitude in ancient writers) were rendered with their required elegance and diverse emotions by fixed and recognizable expressions by a brush of such ability as that of Jan Steen and with that ultimate detail and power of Gerard Dou, and if as much time and patience


Page 378

had been applied to each part in particular as he usually invested in his carpets and basketwork, one would see art divided into many manners of painting in one picture, and the perfection spread out amongst many objects, blended in one single work of art.

But what shall I say? The gifts of art are peculiarly divided. The one imitates nature in the raw, the other with refinement. This one prefers the worthiest, the other the slightest subject of nature, each where his passion takes him and that best suits him, and he who departs from this is in danger of losing his fame, just as someone who can’t swim runs into danger by leaving solid ground.

One finds it arranged the same way with eloquent and learned men. Some have the gift of writing and others of speaking well. Asclepius among the Argives, Demosthenes among the Athenians, Aeschines among those of Rhodes and Cicero among the Romans were exceptionally eloquent but would never commit their orations to writing, saying: that they did not wish to entrust to their pen the fame that they had garnered with their tongue.

To return once more to painters, we say: that we have not only experienced that these have usually chosen subjects for reflection that corresponded to their nature, but further agree with Franciscus Junius: That artists have generally devoted their labours to such things to which they were led by divine inclination or nature, the proof of which we do not have to go far to seek but see readily and conveniently affirmed in J. Steen.


Page 379

The ancients have generally taken into consideration, and deduced from the works what the nature of the maker might be. Parrhasius generally painted nothing but scenes of vice (which pieces Caius Suetonius mentions in the life of Tiberius) from which he decided that the painter proclaimed his thoroughly foul way of life by this. But I do not wish to formulate this as a general rule, no more than Androcydes, having depicted fish so marvellously in his Scylla, must be taken for a great glutton of fish, and that this particular predilection was of use to him in painting them. Which Plutach adduces in Symposium book 4, Quaest. 1. But I do affirm that among all subjects, that on which inclination has the most powerful influence is depicted more perfectly than any other. Pliny gives us a sweet example in affirmation of what we say in his 21st book, where he says: Pausanius, being in love with Glycera, left a painting which was called the Stephanoplocos, that is, weaver of wreaths, and because he had made it with a particular affection for Glycera, it pleased everyone and was judged the best of all his artworks, and greatly renowned.

While it is thus the case that because of different inclinations, one individual aims for this and another for something else, and that something that is undertaken out of natural inclination is best done, we would not (as is said) be opposed to this but only advise painting youths for whom it is still indifferent which subjects they turn to and have not become enslaved to such things out of habit, to get used to


Page 380

worthy reflections after the example of Aristotle, who did not cease to admonish Protogenes that he should paint the deeds of the great Alexander with regard to the everlasting fame of these things, etc.

Or, finally, we wish to recommend Biblical histories which, being many in number, provide a variety of choice material, as may be seen from the manifold subjects painted and depicted in print, especially from the New Testament, where a painter finds an open field in which to graze and from which to choose subjects with which he can show what his brush is capable of in the way of art, both with respect to histories as to the natural depiction of the hours of day and night, which according to differing light temper the objects with changes in colour, an observation which serves to indicate when the hour depicted by the artist has taken place. Or if it pleases him to depict lush valleys, landscapes, still waters, wild seas, mountains with tops washed in green which are covered more and more with a blue veil by the intervening air, there is more than enough from which to choose. Or thin clouds in which objects finally fade due to greater density or distance. As with, in view of this last item, the Ascension of Christ, thinking of which I also remember the handsome comparison that a Dordrecht poet made of it, by which he thus rendered with his pen as if with paints the disappearance of the Saviour Jesus from the view of his disciples:
Just as an eagle flaps
His wings with joy when
he sees


Page 381

The light of the sun with bright face,
Emerge in the sober East,
bravely climbs to the south,
through his extended wings
The sunbeam shines in the eyes.
pursues it with rapid power.
Until it at last
it shines as if smaller.
And finally disappears
before our eyes.

In another discursion we will test what guidance may achieve in connection with those who are of mean spirit or those who by distinguished examples may be spurred on to competence in great undertakings in art.


The lovers (whose desire and longing could not be postponed) will receive the portrait of the author, which could not be ready with this first volume, as a supplement to the last volume, so that it can be bound in the first volume before the dedication.

As a service to the reader we have added after this a list of painters and indication of particular matters concerning art: witty answers, jokes etc. noted in the biographies of the artists in this first volume: as well as a list of names of the portraits of painters as these follow them according to the letters A B and C and page references, and of special illustrations, serving especially the bookbinders to insert them in the correct place.


Cookies disclaimer

Our site saves small pieces of text information (cookies) on your device in order to deliver better content and for statistical purposes. You can disable the usage of cookies by changing the settings of your browser. By browsing our website without changing the browser settings you grant us permission to store that information on your device.
I agree