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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Landscape Painting in the Netherlands

During the 1600s, landscape painting flourished as an independent genre in the Dutch Republic (United Provinces of the Netherlands) and in the Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium). In Flanders (the dominant province of the Spanish Netherlands), particularly in the great port city of Antwerp, landscape became a popular subject for painters and especially draftsmen and printmakers from the mid-1500s onward. The pioneering landscape paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525–1569), such as The Harvesters (19.164), as well as the imaginary panoramas of Joachim Patinir (d. 1524) (36.14a–c), influenced printmakers such as Hans Bol (1534–1593) who spread ideas for landscape subjects and compositions through woodcuts, engravings, and etchings. In general, the most experimental ideas, which in the decades about 1600 included the most direct responses to actual topography and motifs, happened first in drawing, then in prints, and rather more slowly in paintings. The latter were more costly to produce (in time and materials), more expensive to purchase, and, as works displayed prominently in homes, represented a greater shift in taste than works on paper (which were stored and viewed only occasionally).

Of the many factors that gave rise to secular subjects in art, such as landscape, seascape, still life, and genre painting, the most fundamental was the urbanization of European society during the 1500s and 1600s. This was most remarkable in the province of Holland, where such important Dutch cities as Amsterdam, Haarlem, Leiden, The Hague, Rotterdam, and Dordrecht are located (the major exception is Utrecht, in the province of that name), and where as much as 70 percent of the population lived in cities and towns rather than on the land. Patrons from the mercantile and professional classes developed an interest in works of art that reflected their everyday lives and values. Genre pictures were concerned with contemporary society and human nature, still life with domestic life and collectibles (including flowers), and seascapes with foreign travel, the sea itself, the grandeur of nature, and so on. Like marine views, Dutch and Flemish landscape paintings were rarely symbolic but were usually rich in associations, ranging from God and all of nature (in this age of observation and exploration) to national, regional, or local pride, agriculture and commerce, leisure time (many Dutch landscapes suggest walks in the countryside, as a break from city life), and the sheer pleasure of physical sensation: fresh air, daylight, wind, moisture, cold and warmth, colors, textures—all of which was seen as God’s creation, and, however immediate, of fundamental or universal significance.

Flemish landscapes of the 1600s may be broadly divided into two trends: a realistic type that descends from Bruegel’s drawings (and those by many contemporaries) to his son Jan Brueghel the Elder (as in A Woodland Road with Travelers, of 1607; 1974.293) and his large circle of followers, including David Teniers the Younger; and, by contrast, an imaginary type that favors foreign and especially mountainous topography, as seen in the Museum’s spectacular Mountainous Landscape with a Waterfall, of about 1600, by Kerstiaen de Keuninck (1983.452), and in paintings by Joos de Momper (1564–1635). Of course, these tendencies mixed together in the work of many painters, although a few (like De Keuninck) really worked almost exclusively in one vein.

Some prominent Flemish landscapists were compelled by the suppression of Protestantism in the Spanish Netherlands or the economic consequences of the Eighty Years’ War to move to foreign cities such as Prague (where Roelandt Savery served Emperor Rudolf II), Frankfurt am Main (or nearby Frankenthal), Amsterdam, or Utrecht. For example, key figures for the representation of woodland landscapes, Gillis van Coninxloo (1544–1607) and Savery (1576–1639), spent their later years in the northern Netherlands.

Among Flemish landscapists, two special cases must be mentioned, those of Paul Bril (1553/54–1626) and of Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). Bril moved from Antwerp to Rome in his early twenties and painted large landscape frescoes in churches and palaces. From the 1590s onward, his style evolved from fanciful Mannerist inventions to a more naturalistic manner comparable with that of Jan Brueghel (who was also in Italy during the 1590s); in the same years, Bril devoted himself increasingly to small easel pictures for private collectors. With Annibale Carracci and the German Adam Elsheimer (1578–1610), Bril may be considered one of the founders of Italianate landscape painting, which was later represented by numerous Dutch artists, such as Bartholomeus Breenbergh (as seen in his superb The Preaching of  John the Baptist, of 1634; 1991.305), Cornelis van Poelenburch (ca. 1594/95–1667), and such “second generation” painters as Jan Asselijn, Jan Both, Nicolaes Berchem, Karel Dujardin, and Adam Pynacker. Some Dutch painters who never went to Italy, in particular Aelbert Cuyp (1620–1691), were inspired by Both and other returnees to take up the Italianate fashion, as in Cuyp’s Landscape with the Flight into Egypt, of about 1650 (1973.155.2).

Rubens painted landscapes mainly for his own pleasure, a sideline testifying to the importance of nature among his myriad interests, and, in his later years, to the desire for a less hectic life in the countryside (where he bought a small castle in 1635). However, his landscapes were a response not only to his surroundings but also to his chosen forerunners, above all Pieter Bruegel, Titian, and Elsheimer, to whom may be added Coninxloo and Savery in the case of A Forest at Dawn with a Deer Hunt, of about 1635 (1990.196). It is characteristic of the learned artist that many of his landscapes seem like history pictures in which the elements of nature as well as human figures tell dramatic tales of life and death, growth and decay. Rubens’ essentially realistic landscapes convey a sense of myth and metaphor, and in this they extend the imaginary and sometimes mystical qualities of earlier northern European landscape painting (as seen in the paintings and prints of Albrecht Altdorfer [ca. 1480–1538]), and anticipate the Romantic era. Before then, Rubens’ landscapes were admired by eighteenth-century artists such as Jean Honoré Fragonard, Joshua Reynolds (who at one time owned A Forest at Down), and John Constable.

In the northern Netherlands, landscapes in a Mannerist or rather artificial manner were far from unknown, with important representatives such as Abraham Bloemaert (1566–1651) in Utrecht, several Flemings in Amsterdam and Utrecht, and even (during the 1590s) the Haarlem artist Hendrick Goltzius (1558–1617), although he is much better known for his naturalistic landscape drawings and woodcuts (see his chiaroscuro woodcut, Landscape with Cottage, of about 1597–98; 22.67.26). During the first few decades of the seventeenth century, landscape paintings by Joos de Momper were often cited in Dutch inventories, especially in court circles at The Hague. Tastes varied regionally and locally as well as nationally. In the modern literature of Dutch art, there is a tendency to see any introduction of realistic qualities such as a unified space, convincing light and atmosphere, a tonal palette, and motifs based on direct observation as “progress” over the more artificial and seemingly old-fashioned approach, but this view fails to appreciate the often more experienced or sophisticated tastes of collectors who valued the inventiveness and refinement of the “imaginary” landscapes (which generally cost much more).

Surveys of realistic landscape painting usually begin with Haarlem, and rightly so, but the story of a small circle of painters “pioneering” the depiction of distinctly Dutch landscape views tends to underemphasize the role of local patrons (mostly middle-class merchants and manufacturers, often quite new to the notion of art collecting), and that of printing presses in Haarlem and nearby Amsterdam, which fostered a broad knowledge of earlier and contemporary ideas, and prompt awareness of innovations. Thus a series of prints depicting “Many and very attractive locations of various cottages, farmsteads, fields, roads and the like,” after a Flemish artist called the Master of the Small Landscapes, was first published in 1559 by the Antwerp publisher Hieronymus Cock and reprinted in Amsterdam in 1612, inspiring similar Dutch series of engravings and etchings by Claes Jansz. Visscher (his Pleasant Places, of about 1612), Jan van de Velde II (ca. 1593–1641), and others. Frequently, these rustic views of the local countryside suggested to urbanites (as had Horace and Virgil to Roman readers) the idyllic joys of simple peasant life, which was part of the appeal of paintings like Jan van Goyen’s Sandy Road with a Farmhouse, of 1627 (1972.25), Pieter de Molijn’s similarly composed Landscape with a Cottage, of 1629 (95.7), and Meyndert Hobbema’s much later Entrance to a Village, of about 1665 (14.40.614). Paintings like these were based on sketches made outdoors but were produced in the studio, making use of shared pictorial and thematic formulas.

Van Goyen (1596–1656) and Salomon van Ruysdael (ca. 1600/03–1670), both of whom are well represented in the Museum, were major figures in the “tonal phase” of Haarlem landscape painting, although Van Goyen moved to The Hague about 1631. The tonal style dates from the late 1620s (as seen in the works by Van Goyen and De Molijn mentioned above) and lasted into the 1640s, as in Van Goyen’s View of Haarlem and the Haarlemmer Meer, of 1646 (71.62). This panoramic view, based exceptionally—most of Van Goyen’s compositions are invented—on two sketches made looking south from the spire of the Great Church of Haarlem, is for Dutch visitors to the Museum one of the most evocative of their homeland, where wide views extending to the horizon and towering vaults of clouds are a familiar experience. In the 1630s, Van Ruysdael and Van Goyen painted many pictures in a closely shared style, especially river views with trees to one side (like Van Ruysdael’s Ferry near Gorinchem; 15.30.4). Van Goyen was especially fond of picturesque castles and city walls, while Van Ruysdael favored actual (or plausible) Dutch churches, castles, and farmhouses. The finest of the seven Van Ruysdael paintings in the Museum’s collection is one of the three acquired in the founding purchase of 1871, Drawing the Eel, from the early 1650s (71.75). This colorful picture, in that already typical of the 1650s and 1660s, shows couples on horses (neither well bred) competing to snatch an eel strung on a line running from a tavern to a silhouetted tree.

Very few pictures of this kind were commissioned: they were sold at fairs, out of the artist’s (or another artist’s) own studio, or through dealers (few of them with shops). The vast majority of these paintings (by the leading artists if not by their imitators) are signed, and the inscription together with a distinctive style or subject matter established an artist’s name on the market. Painters specialized in particular subjects—for example, ice-skating scenes by Hendrick Avercamp (1585–1634)—or in a shifting variety of subjects, as in the case of Aert van der Neer 1603/4–1677), who painted nocturnes, sunsets, ice-skating scenes (like Sports on a Frozen River, of about 1660; 32.100.11), and other types of views. Inspiration for a new approach might come from real interest in the subject and its artistic potential to market savvy (product innovation, or conformity), or desperation when the painter’s usual look was not selling any more. In Van der Neer’s late years, when the Dutch economy sank (in the 1670s), low prices drove him to high volume, repetition, and diminished quality.

The sheer number of gifted landscapists in the Dutch Republic during the 1600s makes it impossible to mention most of them, including some of the greatest (who include Rembrandt and Philips Koninck; see the latter’s Extensive Wooded Landscape; 1980.4). Indeed, speaking in terms of major artists such as Hobbema or Cuyp (whose great canvas in the Altman Collection must be mentioned; 14.40.616) might almost seem inappropriate for a movement so pervasive and so much a response to widespread demand. Similarly, it was not only the major figures such as Hobbema and Cuyp, or the greatest of them all, Jacob van Ruisdael (see his Wheat Fields, of about 1670; 14.40.623), who strongly influenced landscape painting in Europe for the next two centuries (and in America and elsewhere after 1800), but the Dutch achievement as a whole, when social and intellectual factors made later painters and patrons receptive. The careers of Van Ruisdael and his former pupil Hobbema were made in Amsterdam when the city was at its height of prosperity and cultural achievement, in the 1650s and 1660s, and their lasting reputations (together with Cuyp’s) were made between the early eighteenth and the early twentieth centuries in cities such as London, Paris, Berlin, and New York. In the broadest view, the rise of landscape painting in Europe and America may be explained in terms of taste and economics but above all in terms of a basic human need, a relationship between civilization and nature that requires expression, and more thought than it is generally given today.