Rembrandt and Max Ernst were admirers. So is the film-maker Werner Herzog, who has said his images “are like flashlights held in our uncertain hands.”
So who was Hercules Segers? A 17th-century Dutch printmaker and painter – and an enigma. What we know of his biography is a loose patchwork: his birth to Flemish immigrant parents in Haarlem c.1589; his brief apprenticeship to Gillis van Coninxloo, a landscape painter; his work as an art dealer in the late 1620s and marriage to a wealthy bride. What little we do know is riddled with inconsistencies. According to some accounts, Segers was widely respected: Rembrandt owned eight of his paintings and one of his printing plates. And yet Samuel van Hoogstraten, a writer, painter and pupil of Rembrandt’s, wrote that no one cared for his work in his lifetime. Apparently, his prints were used to wrap up soap and butter. Segers had no important followers and his unusual style largely died with him.
A new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York makes the case for why we should admire him. “The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers” has brought together all of his surviving prints and a selection of his paintings to shine a light on a mind of startling originality. It shows that Segers was unlike any of his Dutch Golden Age contemporaries. He concerned himself with neither the meditative, introspective qualities of Rembrandt’s work, nor the finer points of linear perspective, which Vermeer used to draw viewers into his paintings. He is closer to the landscape painter Jacob van Ruisdael, who was popular in his day for heroic depictions of the Dutch countryside. But Segers’s scenes are flatter, more intricate and betray an obsession with pattern that van Ruisdael never had. More than anything, Segers was drawn to fantasy. He began painting what he saw in front of him, but added his own inventions: mountains where there were none, cities with their walls removed, and forest paths leading nowhere. Pieter Bruegel the Elder had popularised landscapes that were half real, half imaginary. Segers upped the ante. His landscapes were dreamscapes.
What drove Segers most was technical innovation. Before anyone else thought to print on fabric, Segers did. While others were still printing in black and white, Segers was using green, blue and pink. Instead of making multiple copies of one image – which is precisely the purpose of printmaking – he tinkered with his inks and press to make each print unique. Why, he thought, should they all look the same? By adding colour, drawing new lines or cutting down the plate, he turned his impressions into miniature paintings. He invented etching techniques that would not be used for another 150 years, and made the first graphic still life in Western art, an enigmatic etching of four old books heaped in a messy pile.
His innovations would eventually be adopted by artists with imaginations equally as fertile. As Rembrandt guessed, Segers was a man ahead of his time – a visionary who spent a lifetime committing his strange, mysterious reveries to paper.
“Small Wooded Landscape with a Road and a House” (c.1618-22)
Among the distinctive characteristics of Segers’s work is his unusual way of cropping. This print has been cut to give prominence to the densely layered leaves of the trees in the foreground which, thanks to Segers’s lack of shading, appear flat. But take a closer look and the road in the middle leading to a house eventually emerges as the picture’s primary focus. Introducing depth to a scene dominated by the pattern-like foliage makes for a landscape that is at once realistic and abstract.
“The Mossy Tree” (c.1625-30)
This work seems to draw on Japanese printmaking traditions, but in fact it’s inspired by the Danube School, whose members worked in Bavaria and Austria in the early 1500s. This group of painters and printmakers was especially drawn to the countryside and, like Segers, they made scenes in which people are nowhere to be seen, as if the world existed in perfect harmony without man. Segers learned of their art indirectly through minor Golden Age painters like Jacob Pynas, and mastered their most important lesson: that nature can be captured not just through the techniques of realism, but through expressionism too. This tree, which has browned over time, was originally green, and Segers printed it on a sheet he’d painted pink. The gentle palette produces a dreamy effect, as does the tree itself. Lacking a trunk, it is really a column of mossy clumps floating in space.
“The Tomb of the Horatii and Curiatii” (c.1628-29)
Because many of Segers’s works were only discovered in his studio after he died, scholars think that some of the pieces in this show may have been unfinished, or were perhaps experiments not intended for public view. This print, which depicts the tombs of the Horatii and Curiatii, two feuding families in Roman legend, may have been a work in progress. The curators suggest he intended to add colour to the ruins and vegetation, as he had done in other prints.
“Tobias and the Angel” (c.1630–33)
Like any artist, Segers had his limits. A career spent examining the landscape and devising patterns left little time to study the figure. “Tobias and the Angel”, one of his final prints, is a case in point. The figures here are preposterously large for the hillside upon which they stand – a problem Rembrandt identified and tried to fix. Around 1652, some 14 years after Segers’s death, he obtained the printing plate and re-worked it into a depiction of the flight into Egypt, reducing the monstrous Tobias and the Angel into a sensibly sized Mary and Joseph. Yet the lack of felicity in the original print was surely what drew Rembrandt to it in the first place. He must have seen in it some curious potential that needed only to be fulfilled. If Segers has a legacy, it can be found in prints like this, which capture his prodigious imagination and commitment to experimentation, even at the risk of making mistakes. As the Dutch writer Samuel van Hoogstraten noted, “It was as if he were pregnant with whole provinces.”
The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until May 21st