6.5 Realist Tendencies
The image of Spain in the nineteenth-century Netherlands was influenced by clichés from photography and literature and, to a smaller extent, by the work of painters from other Northern European countries who had visited Spain earlier. Artists were motivated to go to Spain by various aspects of its stereotype; it was thought to be the country of Don Quixote, an unspoilt landscape and, above all, an exotic land. Van Looy and Israëls’s letters and, to a lesser degree, Bauer’s confirm this perception but also reflect their disillusionment: the country was in fact less Oriental than they had hoped. These artists were all also motivated, in varying degrees, by the desire to see the works of the Spanish masters. All three praised them effusively, but only Van Looy, the student, was influenced by them in his later career.
Israëls was already an aging, established artist by the time he visited Spain, and the trip did not influence his style. But travelling to Spain does seem to have changed the work of the other two artists in certain respects. Bauer’s trip inspired him, for the first time, to produce many oil paintings and large watercolours rather than graphic works, which had been his preferred technique until then. Spain also rekindled his fascination with knights. And for Van Looy, a Spanish watercolour marked the first step toward the style he would adopt a few years later, with vivid colours and an emphasis on the partition of the picture plane.
Bauer is a somewhat special case, in that he was guided more by his imagination than by what he saw in Spain, but both Van Looy and Israëls were clearly in search of a culture different from their own, with exotic figures and scenery. What they discovered, however, was that the stereotype of the country did not entirely correspond with reality, and they ultimately settled for depicting ordinary landscapes and everyday life. In these works, they used few striking colours and placed no special emphasis on Spain’s sunny climate. The realist tendencies that these two artists showed before visiting Spain seem to have grown stronger there. One might question whether their attraction to familiar images during their travels had anything to do with Spain in particular. Perhaps artists in foreign lands always seek out the familiar. The above quote from Van Looy suggests that this is the case, and that the picturesque is in the eye of the beholder.