The Fantastical Landscapes of Hercules Segers

River Valley With Four Trees, Hercules Segers, ca 1625-30, line etching, first state of two

I first heard of the 17th-century printmaker Hercules Segers this spring at the TEFAF, where the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam showed a short film about his work, in advance of the recently-opened show at the Metropolitan Museum.  This is the first major exhibition in the United States devoted to the artist.  The Rijksmuseum has lent its entire holdings (74 prints, two oil sketches, and one painting) to the exhibition, and you’ll find work from other European institutions, such as the British Museum and the Kupferstichkabinett of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden. The Met exhibit, while highlighting Segers’ artistry, also showcases his innovations in printmaking.

Not much is known about Segers – he was born around 1590 to a family of moneyed Flemish merchants in Haarlem, which was an important printmaking town.  He later moved to Amsterdam, and then, in 1631 to the Hague, due to financial difficulties.    

In the show are two small display cases with the brushes, inks, papers, and etching needles Segers would have used.   Among his innovations were the use of Asian papers (later employed by Rembrandt), and colored papers, as well as printing on cloth, and using sugar to create texture. Rather than creating multiple identical prints of an image, Segers sought to make each impression a unique work, a departure from the practice of the day.

Segers seems to have traveled no farther than Brussels. Yet he created fantastical landscapes that combined aspects of Dutch cities with those of more Alpine landscapes, which he would have seen in the etchings of artists such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The show – which has most of Seger’s 53 known prints in varying impressions plus six of his paintings and two studies – begins with a very short video on Segers (which I recommend watching).  It then proceeds chronologically, giving you the full flavor of Seger’s ouevre – you’ll quickly understand why Rembrandt owned several of his works (including a plate he reworked).  Because the various states of Seger’s prints are grouped together, you get a more complete understanding of his innovations, and how his technical mastery and daring allowed him to create very different impressions of a given scene.  On it’s website, the Met does a wonderful job of explaining this with an interactive feature that lets you move between different states of a print.  Here are some of my favorite paintings and prints in the exhibit:

Houses Near Steep Cliffs, Hercules Segers, ca 1619-23, oil on canvas

Houses Near Steep Cliffs, an oil painting from around 1619, faithfully renders buildings that Segers would have seen from his window in Amsterdam – but the artist has chosen to set them in an imaginary landscape with cliffs and a lake, like you might find in the lower Alps.

View Through the Window of Segers’ House Towards the Noorderkerk, Hercules Segers, ca 1625-30, line etching, unique impression

A few years later, he created a line etching, View Through the Window of Seger’s House Toward the Nooderkerk , again faithfully showing the buildings – now with the newly completed North Church – Segers would have seen from his window (even including the shutters and window frame); however, the trees in the distance are a fanciful element, replacing actual buildings.

River Landscape with Figures, Hercules Segers, ca 1625-30, oil on panel

We can gain some insight into Segers’ methods by looking at River Landscape with Figures, an oil he completed sometime around 1625-30.  We see buildings that would not have been out of place in a Dutch city in that era, now set in a landscape that is clearly not in the Lowlands.

About a year later, he created an etching, Valley With a River and a Town with Four Towers,  which seems to have been derived from the River Landscape painting, as their compositions are almost identical.  Even though the buildings in the etchings are more Gothic, and there are other details, such as the vegetation, which are different, there’s a clear relationship to the painting.  While the etchings are all the same, you see from the three states below how Segers’ use of colored backgrounds and wash convey completely different atmospheres.

Valley With a River and A Town with 4 Towers, Hercules Segers, 1625-27, etching and drypoint printed in black ink

This is a drypoint etching in black ink.

Valley With a River and A Town with 4 Towers, Hercules Segers, 1625-27, etching and drypoint printed in green ink on cream-tinted ground, pen in gray ink with gray wash

Segers printed this line point etching in dark green on a cream-tinted back ground, over which he used a pen with grey ink, and a grey wash.

Valley With a River and A Town with 4 Towers, Hercules Segers, 1625-27, etching and drypoint printed in blue ink pm cream-tinted background, colored with brush

This version was printed in blue on cream-tined ground, then colored with a brush.  The streaks that seem to point upward suggest that the print was hung upside-down to dry.

Tobias and the Angel, Hercules Segers, ca 1630-33

I started off this article by mentioning that Rembrandt van Rijn was among Segers’ admirers, owning several of his works, including the plate that Segers used around 1630 to create this etching of Tobias and the Angel.  Sometime later,  Rembrandt reworked the plate, taking  out the figures of Tobias and the Angel…

The Flight into Egypt, Rembrandt van Rijn, ca 1652

… then sketching directly onto the plate with a drypoint needle, he changed the subject into The Flight into Egypt.  Hubirs or homage?

Even though he’s not that well-known today, in his lifetime Segers was widely admired and influenced his contemporaries.  There’s much more to this exhibit, so get to the Met to see The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers before it closes on May 21st.

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