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Hercules Segers

(c. 1589—1590)


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(b Haarlem, c.1589/90; d ?The Hague, 1633/8).

Dutch painter and etcher of landscapes, one of the most original and most enigmatic figures in the history of Dutch art. His name is now often spelled ‘Seghers’, but ‘Segers’ was the form used by himself and his contemporaries. Few details of his life are known. He was born in Haarlem, studied with Gillis van Coninxloo in Amsterdam, and worked also in Utrecht and The Hague, where he is last mentioned in 1633. The woman who was evidently his second wife is described as a widow in 1638. Hardly more than a dozen surviving paintings can be securely attributed to him, although contemporary documents show he certainly painted more. None of the paintings are dated and his chronology is difficult to reconstruct. He specialized in mountainous scenes, fantastic or visionary in conception but advanced in the naturalistic treatment of light and atmosphere. They are usually fairly small, but they suggest vast distances, and with their jagged rocks, shattered tree trunks, and menacing skies convey a sense of almost tragic desolation. Only Rembrandt and Ruisdael among Dutch artists attained a similar degree of emotional intensity in landscape painting, and Segers certainly influenced Rembrandt, who owned no fewer than eight of his paintings. One of these, Mountain Landscape (c.1630, Uffizi, Florence), now Segers's most famous picture, was attributed to Rembrandt until 1871 and he may have touched it up when it was in his collection. Segers's etchings are also rare (the latest catalogue lists 54, with 183 known impressions) and are perhaps even more original than his paintings. He experimented with coloured inks and dyed papers, so that extraordinarily different impressions could be made from the same plate, a dark paper printed with pale ink transforming a daylight scene into a haunting nocturnal view. Sometimes he printed on linen, which emphasized the vigorous and grainy quality of his work. Every print was an individual work rather than an item in a standardized commercial edition: Hoogstraten said that he ‘printed paintings’. These works are unique in European art of the time, and it is often pointed out that some of them have a strange spiritual kinship with Chinese art. The best collection is in the print room of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. In 1678 Hoogstraten published a highly coloured account of Segers's unhappy career, his desperate experiments with etchings, and his eventual poverty and drunkenness (he says that he was killed by falling downstairs when intoxicated). Although the account may be exaggerated, Segers certainly had financial problems (he was forced to sell his house in Amsterdam in 1631), and it seems likely that he was little appreciated in his day.

Subjects: Art.


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