I carried out my wish and remained a night at Bāle, resisting the greater convenience of the station hotel for the old, famous, and handsomely rebuilt post-house of 'The Three Kings,' with its balconies over the rushing, splendid Rhine. To the ignorant this river looks as if its water-power were stupendous; as a fact it cannot even be used to make the electric light for the town, the level of the river varies so immensely.
Time was short and the weather wet, so I only saw the museum or picture gallery, which was what I had come to see. Bāle to me meant two things - Erasmus and Boecklin. It was at Bāle that Erasmus lived and died. Froude's lectures on 'The Life and Letters of Erasmus' had so recently brought that memorable time vividly before me; and they enable us to look 'through the eyes of Erasmus at all events as they rose, with the future course of things concealed from him. This is the way to understand history. We know what happened, and we judge the actors on the stage by the light of it. They did not know.' Holbein's portrait of Erasmus is intensely interesting, and much more beautiful than the one at Hampton Court, by the same painter, of this thin-lipped, intellectual, sensitive 'Trimmer' of the Middle Ages. Froude says: 'In early life death had seemed an ugly object to Erasmus. When his time came he received it with tranquillity. He died quietly at Bāle on July 12, 1536, and was buried in state in the cathedral.' The last words of Froude's last lecture are: 'I have endeavoured to put before you the character and thoughts of an extraordinary man at the most exciting period of modern history. It is a period of which the story is still disfigured by passion and prejudice. I believe you will best see what it really was if you will look at it through the eyes of Erasmus.' It is not always so easy to see through the eyes of wisdom, especially for those who are passionate and prejudiced.
With regard to the typical pictures of Boecklin bought by his native town, I must confess my first impression was one of disappointment, in spite of their great power. His large figure-pictures of mermaids and mermen, fighting centaurs, etc., though in a way striking and remarkable, are to me positively ugly, both in colour and form, their only redeeming point being the beautiful cloud-effects. In skies he seems never to fail. But there is one small picture of exquisite beauty, which reaches the height of the Todten-Insel, called 'The Sacred Grove' - a deep, dark Ilex wood, just like those I had been lately seeing near Florence. On the right a sunlit plain or valley was only indicated, and the light seemed to beat upwards as in Nature. Along the dark wood came a white-robed procession of worshippers. On the left was a tiny stone altar, on which burnt the sacred fire, the smoke rising straight up into the absolutely still evening air. It was a beautiful picture - a thorough example of Mr. Ruskin's description, in one of his Oxford lectures, of landscape painting. He says: 'Landscape painting is the thoughtful and passionate representation of the physical conditions appointed for human existence. It imitates the aspects and records the phenomena of the visible things which are dangerous or beneficial to men; and displays the human methods of dealing with these, and of enjoying them or suffering from them, which are either exemplary or deserving of sympathetic contemplation.'
On my return home I found a criticism of M. Arnold Boecklin's work in the 'Revue des Deux Mondes' for November 1897, by a fellow-countryman of his, M. Edouard Rod. He describes how admiring crowds came from all parts of Switzerland and the adjoining countries, as if for a pilgrimage, to see the loan collection of Arnold Boecklin's paintings, brought together that year and exhibited on the occasion of his having attained the age of threescore and ten. Many strangers came, somewhat doubtful as to the admiration to be bestowed on a painter almost entirely unknown out of Germany and German Switzerland. But the display seems to have convinced all that the work showed wonderful power and originality, executed in a novel manner. He was born rich and became poor, and for years his art seems to have had a hard and uphill fight with the world that did not appreciate him, and poverty that dogged his steps from Rome back to Bāle. At last he went to Munich, where the distinguished novelist, Paul Heyse, seems to have held out to him a friendly and helping hand. Must one believe that success is necessary to an artist? The fact is that Boecklin never really became himself till his individuality was recognised. His best works all belong to this latest period, and his admirers hope for him an illustrious old age. M. Edouard Rod adds: 'In looking at his later works I thought what a beautiful thing is old age when it remains healthy, brave, and laborious. I thought of those luminous evenings that sometimes are the end of glorious summer days.' Boecklin's work will be all the more interesting in the days that are to come, because it is singularly devoid of French influence. In a closing sentence of an admirable article on the Millais Exhibition Mr. Claude Phillips says: 'A vast wave, starting from France as a centre, is now more or less rapidly spreading itself over the whole expanse of the civilised globe, enveloping even us, who with a wise obstinacy most strenuously interposed our barriers of race and position as a defence. If it continues to advance, steady and resistless as heretofore, will there not, before the next century has spent half its course, be practically but one art?' But as time goes on will not individuality always assert itself, and may we not hope for Boecklins in the future who will struggle and be free of all schools, even the French?