Holland was not always the center of artistic activity in the Low Countries. Before the plunder of Antwerp in 1576 and the religious schism which prompted the north to liberate itself from Spain, artistic activity was centered primarily in the wealthy towns of Flanders. From there, interest in art spread north continually.
The North had, however, its own artistic accomplishments. In the Romanesque period, churches were built by patrons and parishes, later surpassed in grandeur by cathedrals commissioned by powerful bishops and ambitious chapters. For the most part, town planning was evident as early as the late Medieval period.
Painting remained a minor and provincial art compared with the elegance and refinement of contemporaneous work in the south. Jan van Eyck visited the court of the Bavarian dukes at The Hague before 1425, and Dirk Bouts was in Haarlem shortly afterward, but there is but small evidence of their influence.
It is not likely that drawing was a widely practiced art before 1500 in Holland. Painters probably sketched during their travels and in their studios, but how often we do not know. Only a few examples have come down to us. We are greatly indebted to the curators of the print rooms of the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett der Staatlichen Museen and the National Gallery of Art in Washington for having been willing to favor the exhibition with some of the earliest known examples, including the Adoration of the Kings, a delicate page whose origins are close to the Jan van Eyck workshop, and possibly from it.
By 1500, however, we are able to name specific artists in connection with particular works of art. This first generation of painters, apart from their paintings, left sketches behind. The first of these, Hieronymus Bosch, was a genius whose sketches derive from tradition and fantasy, but at the same time are such spontaneous outcries of casuistry as to be reminiscent of the tormented modern mind. The analysis of their stylistic components is difficult. In one respect, the lines seem to denounce the melodious undulations of Gothic ornament, while, on the other hand, they break with convention by the directness of visual rendering. We may contrast Bosch with Cornelis Engebrechtsz, his younger contemporary, who, more in accordance with the common trend, was already influenced by the Flemings when he finally settled at Leiden. It was Lucas van Leyden, his great pupil, whose work first evidences the penetration of the Italian Renaissance style into the north.
Originally the draftsmen worked either with pen or small brushes on a white ground, or on a ground colored by hand. In order to work more rapidly and on a larger scale, charcoal or natural chalks were gradually substituted. At once a new freedom of formal invention burst forth, even in the older techniques.
The young Renaissance overthrew late Medieval attitudes, and curiously enough this occurred within the limits of religious imagination itself. The increasing demand for large painted church windows compelled artists to work on a different scale from that of the altar-tables, with their less than lifesize figures. Preliminary sketches for commissioned projects were made for the approval of the patrons; these were fullsized cartoons and separate portraits of the donors. Although these cartoons are too large to show in the present exhibition, many have survived, including almost all of those for the splendid monumental windows of the church at Gouda, after the fire in 1552. This church was decorated, in large part, by the brothers Crabeth, and still stands in its colorful entirety in that small town.
Lucas van Leyden began his career as an engraver of small copper plates, in the manner of Dürer. The minute penwork of his early drawings was also influenced by that German master, and he later adopted Dürer's style for his life-size portraits.
But despite Dürer's influence, Lucas' inventions retained a startlingly individual character. In 1520 Lucas met Dürer in Antwerp and had he been no more than a skillful imitator, Lucas' portraits might easily have been mistaken for those Dürer executed during his stay in the Netherlands. Lucas had, however, a more nervous and ephemeral way of applying his greys, which eliminates any doubt about authorship. Jan Gossaert van Mabuse, after his Italian journey, worked in the same medium--black chalk --when he did his Madonna and St. Catherine, a recent acquisition of the Amsterdam Printroom; this work is typical of the mixture of older motifs with Renaissance architectural structures and ornamentation.
Many drawings by lesser-known artists during the age of Erasmus were executed as studies for small glass panes, which the citizens inserted in the windows of their homes. Lucas himself must have done such work along with Pieter Cornelisz Kunst and Jan Swart.
The great movement of artists to the south started with Jan van Scorel, who after traveling to the Holy Land, was appointed Surveyor of Antiques for the Dutch Pope Adriaen, and thus was able to study in Rome before settling in Utrecht. His Roman work has not been found thus far, but we may guess at its character after seeing sheets from Gossaert's Italian sketchbook ( 1509) and the several complete books of drawings by his pupil Maerten van Heemskerck, who systematically portrayed Clementine Rome and its newly unearthed sculptures ( 1532-1535). His hand was free, and his eye sure, making it unnecessary for him to correct a line once it was established. These lines do not so much interpret as define. His great counterpart, Hendrick Goltzius, dealt with the same subject matter while in Rome toward the end of the century ( 1591) and showed still more intense application to careful shading, plasticity, and precise appearance.
This period had its importance in that the emergence of naturalism as part of the new pictorial idea had to overcome Southern mannerisms. Biblical and mythological symbolism inspired artistic and intellectual, and sometimes literary expressions.
The subject matter in our examples, however, is taken primarily from the natural world, as, for example, in the portraits, which often became character heads of a more general type, as in the work of Antonio Moro or Goltzius, or his pupil Jacques de Gheyn.
The virtuosity displayed by the unique artist Jacques de Gheyn enabled him to find the essence of the character of his subjects, which are rendered in a simple, seemingly unsophisticated manner. We sense the approach of the 17th century, when the artists dealt with one aspect of a scene, and rendered it as they saw it. Here, the artist ignored all alien distractions, that he could serve as a mirror reflecting a carefully defined object. The artists of the 17th century were in contact with events of the world, and their best drawings derive from those supreme moments of observation and translation into artistic realism.
Such contemplation bestowed new capacities upon the artists. Those who went to Italy became more interested in the rendering of light and shadow on the picturesque ruins, or on the intricate patterns of leaves. The romantic nature of Hercules Seghers led him to translate the delicate uniform grayish atmosphere of a country road into twilight and evoke a more sensitive mood. Most of the images, however, glorified daylight and vivid color, which would soon be reduced to mere monochrome. Rembrandt seldom employed more than simple black or brown, but with such mastery as to capture each gradation of light.
Our eighteenth century is much less known than our Golden Age. There are many reasons for this. The persisting penetration into the recesses of inner life, such as Rembrandt had pursued, was lost to it. Only once could the parables have been so magically translated and Christ evoked as a new reality! No learned societies or Virgilian poetry would ever be able to dramatize the vital questions again. High ambitions had receded to the hearth of family life, or were concealed behind the lighthearted display of garden parties and theatre life. Yet the draftsmen did not fail. Holland possessed its Hogarth in Cornelis Troost, who left us the spirited records of Langendyk's comedies and of others performed on the Amsterdam stage. These attain a charm of easy treatment that recalls the Venetian rococo.