Hercules Segers, The Mossy Tree (ca. 1625-30), lift-ground etching printed in green, on a light pink ground, colored with brush/unique impression, 6-5/8 x 3-7/8″; Collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam and courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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As much as a person might try, it’s impossible to escape the imprimatur and influence–some might say “taint”–of Hollywood. At the entrance to“The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers,” museum-goers encounter an introductory video narrated by the actor John Malkovich. It is, admittedly, an adroit fit: Malkovich has cultivated an air of idiosyncrasy and affectlessness in his choice of roles and in his public demeanor. Who better to introduce contemporary viewers to an intensely quixotic painter and printmaker known primarily to specialists of seventeenth-century Dutch art? Notwithstanding Malkovich’s stated admiration for Rembrandt, there’s something condescending, not to mention tiresome and predictable, in trotting out a movie star to clue us into the dimly remembered Hercules Segers (ca. 1589–ca. 1638). The Met wouldn’t be the first museum to poach upon the glitz of showbiz, and it won’t be the last. But do curators really think they need to goose the audience with a frisson of celebrity for it to sit up and take notice?
Having said that, “The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers” does bring scholarly focus to a singular talent. Organized by Nadine M. Orenstein, the Met’s Drue Heinz Curator in Charge of the Department of Drawings and Prints, the exhibition draws heavily on European collections, especially the Rijksmuseum: its entire holdings of Segers work— seventy-four prints, two oil sketches, and one canvas—are currently ensconced on the Upper East Side. The scarcity of Segers’s art stateside accounts, in some measure, for this being the first American overview. Still, he’s never truly been an approachable artist—in our day or his own. Writing in 1678, the painter Samuel van Hoogstraten cited Segers as a “disregarded . . . great artist” who was “murdered by poverty”—this, in a cautionary text titled “How an Artist Should Conduct Himself Against the Blows of Fortune.” Van Hoogstraten’s interest may have been prompted by his teacher Rembrandt, who is known to have owned (and re-worked) Segers’s art. Certainly, van Hoogstraten’s telling of Segers’s fate and reputation is clouded by hearsay and romance. For decades following his death, poems and prints mourned and/or celebrated Segers’s “abject poverty.” Tragic stories die hard: Segers became (as the catalogue has it) the “poster child” for starving, misunderstood artists.
Hercules Segers, The Tomb of the Horatii and Curiatii (ca. 1628-29), line etching printed with tone and highlights, colored with brush; unique impression, 5-1/16 × 7-11/16″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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The historical record has been fleshed out some since Van Hoogstraten’s time, but it remains fragmentary, and somewhat contradictory. Writing in the catalogue, the historian Jaap Van Der Veen undergoes—and the pun will be forgiven, I hope—Herculean contortions in the attempt to hone in on the particulars of Segers’s life. Though peppered with qualifiers, Van Der Veen’s essay explains that Segers came from a moneyed family—his parents, Pieter and Cathelijne, were merchants—and was a student of the Flemish landscapist Gillis van Coninxloo. Segers eventually established himself as an artist and art dealer in Amsterdam, and experienced enough success to purchase a house on the Lindengracht in 1619. A few years later, however, Segers underwent financial distress: the house was put under foreclosure and his workshop dismantled. Van Hoogstraten’s claim that no one “wanted to look at [Segers’s] works in his lifetime” has been viewed as an indicator of the extreme indigence into which he had fallen. The support of Segers’ admirers and collectors couldn’t save him. Segers took to drinking and fell to his death down a flight of stairs. He was forty-nine.
Which would make Segers a run-of-the-mill character if his accomplishment didn’t extend beyond a ragged mythos. As it is, Segers’s art—and even more so the prints than the paintings—has a sneaking, slow-burning fascination. Though limited in scope and subject, Segers’s work is prone to moody flashes of ecstasy and marked by an overriding, somewhat cloistered eccentricity. Notwithstanding the stray still-life or Biblical scene, panoramic landscapes were the man’s métier. The bowl-shaped compositions are fairly pedestrian, and rarely veer from a foreground/middle ground/background orientation—a pictorial foundation that must have already seemed pat in the age of van Ruisdael, van Goyen, and Hobbema. Most of these vistas were, in fact, gleaned from second-hand sources. Their hyperbolic crags and tors are unlike other Netherlandish landscapes (and unlike the landscape of the Netherlands), and were pinched from Pieter Bruegel the Elder or, more likely, copies after Bruegel. Segers’s dependence on Bruegel’s example did allow a certain freedom, serving as a reliable armature for textural indulgence and experiments in blending the boundaries between painting and printmaking. It says quite a lot about Segers’s methodology that his mixed-media pieces retain an unpredictable élan some four hundred years after the fact.
Rembrandt van Rijn and Hercules Segers, Flight into Egypt altered from Tobias and the Angel by Segers (ca. 1653), etching reworked with drypoint and burin by Rembrandt; sixth state of seven Plate: 8-7/16 × 11″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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The most exciting moments in “The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers” occur when Segers takes a single etched image and calls it dramatically into question—making multiple impressions, wildly changing tonality and color, and, not a few times, dabbing at the print with colored ink and paint. The diminutive Valley with a River and a Town with Four Towers (ca. 1627–27) is seen in six distinct variations, the most startling of which is all but obscured by an immeasurably rich blue. Segers’s attention to texture, particularly in the geological formations, veers from being irritably delicate to coarse—bordering on clumsy—often within a single piece. As a printmaker, Segers was clearly not given to preciosity; so much so, that one can’t help but wonder if some pieces were one-offs that Segers never got around to discarding. Whatever the case, the prints pulse, and thrive, with risk. The paintings, and there are only a handful on display, are considerably less arresting—a reflection based, perhaps, on contemporary taste, but it is more likely that Segers brought a sharper sense of invention while at the printing press than when in front of an easel. Our narrator, John Malkovich, goes so far as to describe Segers’s prints as “avant-garde.” And you know what? For once that outmoded adjective is rightfully earned. Here in the far-flung twenty-first century, the outré character of Segers’s art may well be the most mysterious thing about him.
© 2017 Mario Naves
This article was originally published in the April 2017 edition of The New Criterion.