Master of the Unreal

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Hercules Segers: Rocky Landscape with a Man Walking to the Right: First Version (detail), circa 1625-1630

An air of unreality hangs over the astonishing exhibition of seventeenth-century Dutch artist Hercules Segers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. More than once, I found myself wondering whether this extraordinary etcher and painter—the creator of mesmerizing prints of spectral trees dripping with moss, ships foundering in rough seas, and a pile of old books with the emotional heft of a pile of skulls, prints that seem to combine an early Chinese landscape aesthetic with Surrealist fantasy—actually existed. He seems a character dreamed up by Bruce Chatwin, say, or W. G. Sebald. (Not surprisingly, Werner Herzog created a moody work of video and sound art—snippets of which can be glimpsed on YouTube—inspired by Segers’s mysterious creations.)

For such an ethereal artist, it seems fitting that almost nothing is known of the concrete circumstances of Segers’s life. In the materials accompanying the Met show, his birth date is variously given as 1589, 1590, and, hedging, 1589/90. His death, even more uncertain, occurred “some time between 1633 and 1640.” Trained in Haarlem by a prominent landscape artist, he worked mainly in Amsterdam; despite his moody landscapes of Roman tombs and Alpine mountain valleys, he seems never to have traveled, except in his expansive imagination, farther than Brussels.

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Hercules Segers: The Tombs of the Horatii and the Curiatti, circa 1628-1629

For a while he was prosperous; then, abruptly, he wasn’t. He sold paintings from his collection—some that he himself had painted, some by other artists—to stay afloat. Lacking dates or signatures, and bedeviled by problems of attribution, his own paintings, including those few on view at the Met, are relatively conventional, especially when compared to his remarkable prints, with their virtuoso technique and vertiginous variations on the same subject. Rembrandt, a younger admirer, owned eight Segers paintings, along with one of Segers’s printing plates, which he recycled for his own creative use. Segers also owned a painting by Rembrandt, a discovery made during preparations for this exhibition, raising the tantalizing possibility that they were acquainted. Segers moved to the Hague around 1631, where he died. According to a contemporary, the art chronicler Samuel van Hoogstraten, he sank into obscurity even during his lifetime: “his prints were used to wrap butter and soap.”           

The impression of unreality extends to Segers’s art itself, both in subject and technique. The otherworldly Castle with Tall Towers, early in the exhibition, is built up of dots and dashes without a firm line in sight, as though digitized; the pixilated result, according to the curators, “must have been a product of Segers’s imagination.” At a certain point, Segers stopped basing his landscapes—which more closely resemble moonscapes, with bubbly hills and spongy rocks—on his Dutch surroundings. Instead, riffing on Brueghel prints and other popular sources, he reoriented his art to fanciful Alpine valleys and distant Roman ruins. “It was as if he were pregnant with whole provinces,” Hoogstraten remarks.

Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Hercules Segers: Houses near Steep Cliffs, circa 1619-1623

Even in his most representational works, like a wonderfully detailed View Through the Window of his spacious house in Amsterdam, Segers introduced fanciful elements—a line of trees in the distance, for example, when the actual view consisted of houses and other buildings. He let accidents dictate content. Cutting up a printing-plate he had used for a large ship, he turned the fragments into landscapes instead, with the rigging and mast morphing into tree branches. In a fascinating related development, the steps of which are documented in the exhibition, Rembrandt took a plate that Segers had etched of the biblical subject of Tobias dragging a big fish, made some adjustments, and transformed it into Joseph leading a donkey, with Mary aboard, on the Flight to Egypt. But whether Rembrandt was inspired by Segers’s own experiments with recycled images or thought he could improve on Segers’s figures, is unknown.

Almost all of Segers’s surviving prints (numbering some 184) are on view at the Met, surprisingly the first show of his work in the United States. To counterbalance the airy nothings on view, Met curator Nadine Orenstein, working in conjunction with curators at the Rijksmuseum, has sought “to place Segers in the context of his time and illuminate a few of the mysteries surrounding his art.” The exhibition emphasizes Segers’s restless technical experimentation, such as the way he played with different colored inks deployed on different colored papers, then painted over the results with washes and oils.

In a succession of prints from the same plate, he could represent, with his changing color effects, either day or night, or bring out completely different qualities of the underlying picture. Serial impressions of The Enclosed Valley, of which Segers made twenty-two in all, look like some prototype of PhotoShop. Printed in green ink on green paper washed with watercolor, the resulting image conveys the dead of night. Printed in blue on cream-tinted paper, the same U-shaped valley, bracketed by mountains, shimmers in broad daylight. When the rocks in the foreground are highlighted with oil paint, the scene assumes a craggy, three-dimensional immediacy. When the more distant mountains are illuminated instead, there’s a surprising illusion of depth. Segers could also, presumably, sell these different prints as hybrid, one-of-a-kind paintings.


Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna

Hercules Segers: The Enclosed Valley, line etching printed on cloth with a cream-tinted ground, colored with brush, circa 1625-1630

British Museum, London

Hercules Segers: The Enclosed Valley, line etching and drypoint printed in dark green, on a green ground, circa 1625-1630

Département des Arts Graphiques, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Hercules Segers: The Enclosed Valley, line etching and drypoint printed in black on paper prepared with a pink opaque paint and colored with paint, circa 1625-1630

In emphasizing the experimental scientist rather than the full-blown mystic, tendencies that seem perfectly fused in Segers, the curators seek a basis in reality for some of Segers’s most oneiric images. Consider the absolutely stunning Mossy Tree, which seems to have wandered out of some twilit Louisiana bayou, and is probably Segers’s most reproduced image. So tenuous are this gaunt tree’s invisible branches, it barely seems like a tree at all; one mossy extension, in the upper-right corner, is detached from the tree altogether. The bands of pink and blue paper in the background—the discolored results, over time, of green ink overlaid on pink paper, brushed with paint—add to the hallucinatory effect. But no, insist the writers of the two-volume catalogue raisonné (which substitutes for an exhibition catalog)—a variety of moss known as “beard lichen or old man’s beard” really looks like this in Holland.

I couldn’t kick the impression that Segers must have been looking at Chinese prototypes, either in porcelain traded by Dutch merchants, or perhaps Chinese paintings or screens that had made their way to Holland. But the catalog writers, curators Huigen Leeflang and Pieter Roelofs of the Rijksmuseum, huffily resist any suggestion that trees in Chinese scroll paintings might have inspired a print like Mossy Tree. Such “literally farfetched” fantasies, they argue, are “based on vague associations with Asian art rather than concrete examples.” 

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Hercules Segers: The Mossy Tree, circa 1625-1630

And yet, little is known of Segers’s professional networks. He was, for a time, an art dealer of sorts, and surely encountered Asian artifacts, during a period when the Dutch carried on extensive trade with Japan in particular. He was the first European artist to use papers from the Far East (whether from Japan or China remains unclear), more than twenty years before Rembrandt, as in the sensitive small etching Landscape with a Plateau, a River in the Distance, where the thin white paper confers added delicacy. It seems premature, under the circumstances, to reject out of hand any possibility of East-West artistic influence, especially in this stay-at-home artist who loved to roam in distant, fantastical realms.   

One is grateful, nonetheless, for the careful documentation, in this cautiously staged exhibition, of Segers’s working methods. Examples of needles, metal punches, copper plates, and the rest of the etcher’s difficult trade are on view, along with explanations of the steps required to produce an individual image. Now we have a clearer idea of how Segers cropped and recycled his imagery, and how the accidents sometimes produced by his exacting methods, like a stray drip of acid, were seemingly welcomed: “the bubbled streak in the sky is the result of foul biting.” We can see how the question of what was finished and what was merely abandoned hangs insistently over the prints on display, many of which were salvaged from his studio after his death.

Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Hercules Segers: Ruins of the Abbey of Rijnsburg, circa 1625-1630

But I would have welcomed a little more interpretive freedom in the approach to Segers’s imagery. It’s true that he avoided human figures, which tend to be barely visible when present—a tiny figure carrying a big stick, say, through a valley—except in a couple of borrowed biblical subjects. But was this really because “drawing the human form did not come easily to him”? Instead, I think he deliberately attributed character, and even personality, to seemingly inanimate objects, like trees and books and ruins. Consider his dazzling portrait of Two Trees, a bunchy, pollarded alder, with a hacked-back branch at its bosky heart, paired with a graceful, flowering ash. Here, the character contrast could hardly be more explicit: resilient versus delicate; aged versus youthful; hunkered down versus open to what happens; perhaps even male versus female.


Or consider Still Life with Books, a work of audacious originality. Apart from a few stray book illustrations of vanitas skulls, this print, the curators tell us, “can even be considered the very first still life in European graphic art.” And how much of the human presence is built into this crepuscular pile of reading matter! One ancient volume has been shoved into another to mark a place, for later resumption. In Segers’s off-kilter composition, we can see the individual lines of words, half read. But the books, too, seem to be sleeping in the half-light, tired of the endless scrutiny of their contents. The interrupted reader will, presumably, return when the light is better, when the time is again right, and lift the heavy, tactile volume in his or her hand. Looking at Segers’s print—indeed, at all his prints—we can feel the heft. The larger mystery of this visually challenging and immensely rewarding exhibition is why this wonderful artist isn’t familiar to us all.

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Hercules Segers: Still Life with Books, circa 1618-1622

“The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers” is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 21.

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