The romance of the visionary who works in hardship, laboring beneath unbearable poverty or illness or depression, is only that: a romance. Some of the greats have certainly had awful fates in this world, but prodigies are not always punished per some cosmic law that demands suffering as a precondition for their existence. In truth, there’s no clear answer to the why and the how of their rare appearance. How funny, how baffling, the banality of genius can be.
For centuries, it was believed that the Dutch genius Hercules Segers (c. 1589–c. 1638) toiled in poverty and obscurity, that no one cared about his paintings, that his prints were used as soap wrap. Segers’s first American retrospective — at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, organized by curator Nadine M. Orenstein — is outstanding for many reasons, one of the smaller and more nuanced of which is how it corrects the facts of Segers’s life, recuperating the known details while allowing space for what’s been lost, giving a grounded, clear view of Segers’s breathtaking, otherworldly artwork.
The truth about Segers is that he was absolutely recognized in his lifetime as a singular artist of landscapes. The son of a merchant, he had years of good fortune, though it did run out later in his life. Debt would force him to sell his home, but still he was able to sell his work. Rembrandt (1606–69) was an admirer, and owned eight of the artist’s paintings as well as a printing plate for Segers’s Tobias and the Angel (c. 1633), which he re-etched sometime around 1653, changing the subject to The Flight Into Egypt. (It’s funny to imagine what this tells us about the ego of Rembrandt or, perhaps less cynically, the fluidity of lineage, of inheritance, in that era.) Although there is certainly more to his story, much of the rest of Segers’s life remains unknown.
What was so extraordinary about Segers? In short: the sheer originality of his mind and hand; he was “avant-garde” before there was such a thing. Although his paintings are masterful, his etchings are what in fact earned him his reputation. He innovated new printing processes as well as complex and refined etching techniques, some of which wouldn’t be practiced by other artists until a century and a half after his death. One disciple described them as “printed paintings,” the artist’s innovative use of color and the textures of his materials — cotton, linen, and paper — infusing his images with a richer material presence while the use of multiple impressions lent them fresh depths. As best we understand, Segers pioneered the “lift ground technique,” which entails drawing and painting directly on the copper plate. (Take the time to peruse the vitrine of printer’s tools and to read the exhibition’s descriptions of his techniques — information that’s often too easy to bypass. It will only sharpen the eye and open up the work even more.)
Segers’s were not only material achievements. His subjects are meticulous, fantastical visions of imagined geographies. River valleys and waterfalls; sweeping fields and alien, rocky terrains; steep mountains and curvy roads; windmills and churches and houses, often in the distance: Although some of these views could be had in his home country, others he dreamed and designed after the art of certain predecessors, such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder, working from their sites, their sights. (Originality isn’t a myth — it isn’t an impossibility — but it does have its origins.) The etchings are haunting, eerie — sublime and unsettling too, somehow, though there is no element we do not recognize or know as belonging in nature. His lines are fine and precise, his compositions dense and intense; each image is possessed of equal parts grace and agitation. As Werner Herzog wrote in his impassioned essay on Segers — which he penned on the occasion of his video homage to the artist, installed at the 2012 Whitney Biennial — “His work creates an illumination inside of us, and we instantly know that this is not a factual truth, but an ecstatic one….His images are hearsay of the soul.”
Hearsay of the soul: An enviable description of the murmurs and tremors of the artist’s anima. In the dimmed galleries of the Met, Segers’s strange prints remain elusive, slipping from view, sometimes because the image can overwhelm, other times because it has faded, receded. On my second trip to the show, I spent most of my time with the etchings he’d printed on darker grounds — on deep blues, grays, and browns — with lighter-colored inks to highlight the lines of the image. The effect is much like a film negative in which one sees the forms and lights and shadows of the world in reverse. The vacant architecture of Ruins of the Abbey of Rijnsburg From the South, Large Version (c. 1625–30), now lushly, wildly entwined by trees; the frenetic hills rising steeply up the Landscape With a Waterfall, Second Version (1625–27); no stars appear in the skies overhead, though I wondered if it was something about night — or at least darkness — he wished to capture. Unknown intentions — a genius left somewhat alone by history — allow one’s awe and wonder to remain intact, untouched by anything save the art itself.
The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
Through May 21