Not many books like "The Road to Putte" have appeared in Polish literature in recent years. Holewiński has written a fascinating biographical novel about Jacob Jordaens, one of the leading Flemish painters of the Baroque era (he lived from 1593 to 1678). The action begins in the year 1640, when Jordaens is already a mature painter, esteemed and wealthy; he also has a loving wife, successful children and a splendid house. Yet, as is often the case with artists, he is still torn by creative anxieties, has a distinct complex about Rubens, with whom he is always comparing himself, and is unsure whether he is an artistic genius or just a very able craftsman. However, Holewiński’s book is not purely and solely the story of the ups and downs of an artist’s life, about a workaholic who subordinated everything to his painting. In the background to Jordaens’ story the author draws a detailed picture of daily life in seventeenth-century Antwerp, once a highly prosperous, rich commercial centre, later increasingly waning, torn by political and religious conflicts. "The Road to Putte" is also, perhaps primarily, a novel about the pain of transience and coming to terms with death; it is no accident that Holewiński has included the name of the town where Jordaens and his family were buried in the title of the book. For the painter the “road to Putte” was exceptionally painful, because he lived a very long life and had to cope with the death of almost everyone closest to him. However, he never let himself be overwhelmed by despair and was always helped by painting.
- Robert Ostaszewski
On the princess’ orders the servants nimbly moved the dais aside. What the gathered company now saw most evidently surpassed their expectations.
“Rubens,” someone put in from aside.
Someone else began to examine the masterful likeness between the person in the picture and Frederik Hendrik as they still remembered him.
Only Beck, a rich man from The Hague, allowed himself to make a scathing comment: “If this is Rubens, then aren’t we lucky we’ve got our Rembrandt!”
As Jordaens listened to the voices, at first he felt intimidated, then, as the number of compliments grew, he brightened more and more, becoming radiant and confident. Personally he felt there was not enough pulsating rhythm in the picture, not enough of the swagger he had managed to capture in other scenes, in other pictures. But as none of the assembly had noticed that…
“Master,” said the princess, taking him by the arm and crossing with him from one end of the huge painting to the other, “if the two remaining pictures are as beautiful… I shall be proud to possess such works.”
She ordered wine to be brought. Soon after she raised a toast, but not to him, just to what was to come.
“May this house be able to host artists of your calibre as often as possible in the future.”
The sound of breaking glass, caused by the carelessness of one of the ladies, prompted joyful comments.
“A good sign,” cried one of the painters, and went straight over to Jordaens to pay him due respect.
The princess left him in his hands, while she spoke for a while with young Jacob. She wanted him to show her what he had accomplished. Then she listened in on the lively conversation of the two other painters, who with expertise, stressing the originality of the colour tone, indicating the thickness of the paint in the bright areas and how it was different, more transparent in the dark ones, gathered around themselves a small crowd of listeners.
Egbertus Kuipt, the painter who was standing there with the creator of all this commotion, was determined to invite Jacob to his studio. He did not paint large scenes, like Jordaens, but, like his distant cousin Gerard ter Borch, tried to depict wealthy townspeople surrounded by their servants on small canvases. He crafted every feather, curtain and lace cuff precisely, hence his admiration for Jacob, who in such a large work as they were viewing not only captured the details, but seemingly effortlessly set his characters in a background, rendered a sense of space, demonstrated an attachment to a painting tradition, wove into it a hint of what was called smooth painting and, by skilfully handling the light, also showed which of the characters was unarguably the more important.
Jacob, who suddenly felt his entire body itching, accepted the invitation and pressed Kuipt’s hand. Suddenly he realised he was steaming with agitation and anxiety, a sort of fear. He knew the moment was coming, that others would determine his mastery, but he did not think he could still be quite so dependent on those comments. At any rate, it was a good thing the princess had brought with her to this unannounced viewing people like him, painters, who worked arduously, talented people with a special vision of the world. And he was happy as a child to have their recognition.
Many people came up to congratulate him that day. He believed in their sincerity, and for a while he even felt that no one else, just he… it was pride, however, he realised in almost the same instant, pride, the devil take it!… So he quickly sobered up, and once they had gone, sat down on the dais and stared at length at his own achievements. And when he had done his share of sitting, he seized a brush and hurled it to the floor.
Young Jacob almost wept when he saw his father destroying what others regarded as a masterpiece.
“Why?” he stammered.
“Why?” he repeated his question. “You said this would be my greatest work, remember?” he reminded him of their earlier conversation. “I wouldn’t want anyone to think this is all I can do. But don’t worry,” he continued, maybe trying to console his son. “You can put in for the second canvas. I’ll deal with this one myself.”
And for the rest of the day he didn’t say a word until evening. He painted as his heart bid him, not as he had planned. He could put the sheets of cardboard aside, he could tear them up and have them burned, they were no longer of any use to him. In fact in its general outline the picture remained the same, but in the figures he captured something no one could have perceived there earlier. Only now were Frederik and Maurits the embodiment of iron will, power and masculine honour, and the woman, the angel suspended above them, ceased to be a decoration, the crowning point, and suddenly became an alluring object of desire, causing one to lick one’s lips with lust. She was both a lover and a mother, a saint and a harlot. She was looking into their faces, martial countenances, destined not for her but for the enemy. He knew he had come closer, he hadn’t yet reached it, but he had come closer to the region, the place where his imagination merged with what his hand had left on the canvas.
He went up to his son, took him by the hand and led him to the spot where he had been painting. He stood behind him and waited for his reaction. Young Jacob spent a long time scrutinising the changes, and when at last he broke the silence, his words were like a sigh of relief.
“I didn’t want to mention it earlier,” he told him, without turning round, without looking him in the eye, “I could see how hard you were working. I hoped, I believed you would find a way… Maybe I alone of the company gathered here today knew that no amount of praise would fool you. I do not think the other two will give you any trouble now. I’m just curious to know how the others will react to these changes.”
He had no fears about that. Any expert was bound to notice that the modified painting was better than before, that it played not only with the colour, the light, and the arrangement of the figures, but above all that its author had found the key to the situation. Anyone who looked at it must feel that the scene conveyed a vision of the state, that it reflected the social climate and built pride in the achievements of recent years.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones