Museums

The Mysterious Experiments of Hercules Segers, a 17th-Century Art Radical

The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the first major retrospective on the radically experimental 17th-century Dutch artist.

Hercules Segers, “Ruins of the Abbey of Rijnsburg from the South” (1625-30), line etching printed with tone and highlights in yellow-white, on a dark brown ground, Sheet: 7 7/8 × 12 9/16 inches (courtesy Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin)

While exploring the exhaustive The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of my fellow art goers remarked that Hercules Segers “basically invented Photoshop.” The 17th-century Dutch artist was indeed ahead of his time in image manipulation, treating printmaking not as a form of endless black and white repetition, but as a chance to experiment with how washes of color, different types of fabric and paper, and variations with the line-etching ink could completely transform the mood of a piece. Every print became its own painting, a prescient approach that until now hasn’t received a deep dive in a museum exhibition.

Hercules Segers, “The Mossy Tree” (1625-30), lift-ground etching printed in green, on a light pink ground, colored with brush; unique impression, Sheet: 6 5/8 × 3 7/8 inches (courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; on loan from the City of Amsterdam, collection Michiel Hinloopen)

The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers is organized by the Met with the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where it closed this January. An incredible amount of research went into his first major retrospective, including the new attribution of six new paintings. In a September release, Taco Dibbits, general director of the Rijksmuseum, stated that it’s “[v]ery seldom can one add so many new paintings to such a small oeuvre.” There are now 18 paintings attributed to Segers, and 184 color etchings, published together for the first time in a two-volume catalogue raisonné.

Each of these works is otherworldly in its vision, whether an isolated tree draped in moss printed in green over a hazy pink, or a panoramic landscape with Dutch architecture of Amsterdam seemingly teleported into a craggy valley. For instance, in his 1616–23 painting “Houses near Steep Cliffs,” the distinctive Dutch stepped gable of one of these homes is shadowed by a towering cliff worthy of Dover. Although he depicted incredible mountains and sweeping valleys populated by solitary travelers, he likely never strayed further than Brussels, relying on his imagination and the representations of other artists (like Pieter Bruegel the Elder). Even when painting from his reality, he made alterations. In the 1625–30 “View through the Window of Segers’s House toward the Noorderkerk” etching, he substituted trees for certain buildings, yet featured the frame of his own window as a concrete detail.

Much of Segers’s life is punctuated by a question mark, including his sudden death that may have contributed to his obscurity. However, The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers argues that he was never really forgotten, perhaps more overlooked as an anomaly at the dawn of the Dutch Golden Age. While his contemporaries were realists, he was an experimenter. The lift-ground etching technique of painting on the plate that he pioneered would not reappear in art until 150 years later; a blue-green 1618–22 etching of a heap of books, depicted as if just rifled through by an eager reader, is believed to be the first graphic still life.

Although his work is radically different from other early 17th-century Dutch artists, he had his fans, including Rembrandt, who owned eight of Segers’s paintings. And into the 21st century, there are dedicated aficionados. Filmmaker Werner Herzog featured Segers’s art in his 2012 Whitney Biennial installation, which immersed viewers in a video of his landscapes, which Herzog described as “states of mind; full of angst, desolation, solitude, a state of dreamlike vision.” The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers also begins with a video, in which Segers’s prints and paintings are animated into fragments like a paper theater, revealing their depth and details. (Sadly, Herzog does not narrate, and instead John Malkovich gives it a melancholic tone.)

Hercules Segers, “The Two Trees (An Alder and an Ash)” (1625-30), lift-ground etching printed in green, on a light pink ground, colored with brush; unique impression, Sheet: 6 1/8 × 6 3/4 inches (courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; on loan from the City of Amsterdam, collection Michiel Hinloopen)

In a blog post for the Met, Nadine Orenstein, the organizer of the exhibition in New York and curator in charge of the department of drawings and prints, breaks down the color variations of Segers’s “The Enclosed Valley,” seven impressions of which are on view. She points out that he was “more experimental in using color in his prints than any artist of his time,” with one view of the rocky valley created with blue ink on a yellow-painted linen to suggest a bright and warm day, another employing softer hues that radiate the mist of morning, and still another is heavy with dark green ink on green-painted paper, creating a night scene.

The exhibition is curated with grouped impressions of the same etching so that you can appreciate these variances (supported by thorough label text), witness how one mountainous vista can morph from dawn to dusk, solely with the use of color. And ordered chronologically, the experimentation of his art unfolds, the paintings included alongside the prints enriching the fantastical settings of his subjects. I was surprised that although the perspectives can get repetitive — with landscape after landscape populated with Dutch architecture — each feels distinct. It’s unlikely that this many pieces by Segers will again be assembled together any time soon, and seeing these transitions in The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers vividly conveys Segers’s vibrant ingenuity in a way no single work could.

Hercules Segers, “The Tomb of the Horatii and Curiatii” (1628-29), line etching printed with tone and highlights, colored with brush; unique impression, Sheet: 5 1/16 × 7 11/16 inches (courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; on loan from the City of Amsterdam, collection Michiel Hinloopen)
Installation view of The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Hercules Segers, “Houses near Steep Cliffs” (1619-23), oil on canvas, 27 9/16 × 34 1/8 inches (courtesy Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam)
Installation view of The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Hercules Segers, “Mountain Valley with a Plateau” (1625-30), line etching, drypoint, and metal punch printed in blue-green, on a yellow-green ground, colored with brush; second state of two; Sheet: 4 1/8 x 5 7/16 inches (courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1923)
Hercules Segers, “Mountainous Landscape with a Distant View” (1620-25), oil on canvas on panel, 21 3/4 × 39 inches (courtesy Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence)
Installation view of The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Hercules Segers, “Landscape with a Plateau, a River in the Distance” (1622-25), line etching printed in black and pale yellow from two plates, on dark blue prepared paper; unique impression of the second state of three, Sheet: 5 11/16 × 4 3/16 inches (courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; on loan from the City of Amsterdam, collection Michiel Hinloopen)
Installation view of The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Hercules Segers, “Mountain Valley with Dead Pine Trees” (1622-25), line etching printed on light brown ground, varnished; unique impression; Sheet: 11 in. × 16 3/16 inches (courtesy British Museum, London)
Installation view of The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers continues through May 21 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan).

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