The Dutch have every reason to be proud. From the late 15th century until deep into the 20th, they've produced a succession of truly remarkable artists - to say nothing of four or five who are universally acknowledged to be great.
Name the world's greatest and best painters and the list will include a large number of Dutch artists, from Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, Ruisdael, Hobbema, De Hooch, Terbrugghen, Honthorst, and Steen - all from the magnificant 17th century - to Jongkind, Van Gogh, and Mondrian of more recent date.
Discuss the world's great printmakers, and Rembrandt will almost certainly be the first named. And when it comes to landscape painters, the 17th-century Dutch practically swept the field until the days of England's Constable and Turner (both of whom, however, owed a considerable debt to the Dutch conception of landscape) and France's great Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.
For years, many laymen equated the word ''painting'' with Dutch works of the 17th century. In their mind's eye, they envisioned very realistically executed paintings that were rather dark and brownish in tone, and that depicted genre scenes, quiet interiors, panoramic landscapes, or men or women posing in their Sunday best. Such paintings were also easy to understand, heavily varnished, and enclosed within a heavy, carved, gilt frame.
Well and good. Dutch paintings of the 17th century, by and large, did look like that. They were, after all, intended to depict and to celebrate the newfound power, position, and wealth of the Dutch nation, and to show its pride in its accomplishments, its lands, and its cities. Newly rich businessmen demanded portraits of themselves and of their wives - as well as ''portraits'' of their homes and estates and of the other things they owned. Still-life paintings were bought and commissioned as evidence of the good life, and many a landscape depicted leisurely walks in the woods or streets, or showed the lush richness of the flat Dutch fields stretching toward the distant horizon.
Nothing could be more neat and tidy, more conservative in spirit, than that. And yet, ironically, only two other European countries, Italy and France, have produced more truly revolutionary painters, more artists who created new modes of expression, or who pushed toward greater formal realization of human reality through paint. In Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, and Mondrian, the Dutch gave the world three artists who helped mankind to know and to see itself better, and one who may have helped change the course of world art.
One cannot spend much time in the Netherlands without becoming very much aware of these four figures, and of how deeply rooted they were in Dutch life, geography, and culture. Vermeer, in particular, seems quintessentially 17 th-century Dutch - at least he does to this American viewing him and his time from a distance of several centuries, and from the perspective of a very different kind of world.
But not only that. The parallels I've always sensed in Vermeer's and Mondrian's art seem more obvious than ever after a few days here. Both artists had such an extraordinary sense of order, such an exaggerated sense of neatness, and such an uncanny and awesome ability to evoke stillness through their canvases that I cannot help feeling they would have understood each other very well - once Vermeer had overcome his shock at seeing Mondrian's abstract paintings.
Mondrian's abstract vision, as every art student in the world must know, did not spring forth full-bodied and complete, but evolved slowly over a number of years. This evolution is beautifully documented in the permanent collection of the Gemeente, or Municipal Museum, in The Hague. I would recommend that anyone about to dismiss Mondrian as insignificant or a fraud suspend judgment until viewing his early and transitional works in this museum. On the other hand, anyone already convinced of Mondrian's quality and importance will find these paintings beautiful and deeply moving.
''Beautiful and deeply moving'' are words that also describe the paintings and drawings of Van Gogh. In fact, I know of no other artist of the past century to whom they more aptly apply.
Holland, as is to be expected, is very rich in works by Van Gogh - and is very proud of them. The Vincent Van Gogh National Museum, in Amsterdam, contains 150 of his paintings and 400 of his drawings; the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, near Arnhem, has 272 of his paintings and drawings, and others of his works can be seen in smaller numbers throughout the country.
It is truly astonishing to realize that Van Gogh's extraordinary career encompassed only one decade and that most of the works for which he is so famous were produced during the last three years of his life. How anyone could have sustained such levels of creative vision - to say nothing of difficult daily bouts of hard work wrestling colors and paint into the desired images - remains one of the real mysteries of art.
I leave Holland awed and humbled by this lonely man's creative genius, by his ability to fuse perception and passion into such clear-cut and memorable images. I intend to return here to study his work more thoroughly. I've read hundreds of thousands, possibly even millions, of words about Van Gogh and his art, and yet I feel that somehow the main point about both has been missed.
I've also read millions of words about Rembrandt, and yet every one of them evaporates before the sheer truth of what confronts me in one of his later or more important works. ''The Jewish Bride,'' in Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, for instance, must be one of the very greatest of all works of art, and yet it ''merely'' represents a man turning toward and gently embracing a woman. It hangs a few feet from the ''Night Watch,'' and not far from ''The Staalmeesters, '' and their combined effect was to render me speechless - and determined to live the rest of my life as fully and truly as possible.
But how is such an effect possible? How can one human being strike such a universal chord, and so profoundly affect millions of others?
It is true, people don't just look at Rembrandt paints, they get involved in them. I stood beside a young man studying Rembrandt's ''A Man in a Cap'' in London's National Gallery for a few minutes, moved on to another wing of the museum, and then returned to the Rembrandt roughly an hour later to find the young man in exactly the same position as before.
What held him there? But then, what held me riveted in front of Rembrandt's ''Portrait of Jacob Trip'' and kept drawing me back a good dozen times before I could finally leave it?
It occurred to me while studying this work that the issues of life and death, of living and dying, are resolved in Rembrandt's portraits and figure studies. And that the person we see gazing out at us from within such a work has made his peace with life and with his God, and that we are the beneficiaries of his experience, wisdom, and faith.
Rembrandt work is not so much paintings as glimpses of mankind at its wisest, deepest, and best.