Hercules Segers: Painter, Etcher does much to advance our understanding of an artist whose work is often described as enigmatic and – as the accompanying exhibition calls it – ‘mysterious.’ Since the seventeenth century when Samuel van Hoogstraten gave an account of Segers as an unrecognized genius who died impoverished and drunk, a mythos of Segers has persisted, even while scholars uncovered more about the artist that seemed to question Van Hoogstraten’s account. While the accompanying exhibition seemed to play off of Segers’s earlier reputation – it was dimly lit and introduced by a slickly produced animation narrated by John Malkovich, in which he called Segers “an inventor, a genius, a visionary driven to create fantasy,” – the catalogue largely avoids such characterizations, instead aiming to account for and contextualize the strangeness of Segers’s work.
The generously illustrated and smartly designed two-volume catalogue raisonné builds heavily on Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann’s Hercules Segers: The Complete Etchings (Amsterdam, 1973), retaining its numbering system and adding only two impressions to the printed oeuvre. The addition of a catalogue of Segers’s paintings is a substantial contribution, augmenting and circumscribing what has in the past been a small and somewhat nebulous painted oeuvre. The catalogue’s text volume includes seven essays and entries on every painting, drawing, and impression of a print attributed to Segers. The plate volume contains high quality reproductions of every work as well, most presented full size and some reproduced for the first time.
Following a short introduction, Jaap van der Veen’s biographical essay presents Segers as a painter, art dealer, and integrated member of a community, rather than as the lone and tormented genius sketched in earlier biographies. Van der Veen uses contracts, deeds, and professional and familial connections effectively to map out Segers’s milieu. Though he reveals that one of Segers’s neighbors was a printer, Segers’s life as a printmaker remains largely unexplored. We know of his apprenticeship to painter Gillis van Coninxloo, but not where, when, or from whom he learned etching (a footnote in another essay proposes David Vinckboons); nor where he printed; nor whether he owned his own press.
Huigen Leeflang provides broader context for Segers’s print practice. He situates Segers’s ‘printed paintings’ – a term used by Van Hoogstraten in his comments on the artist – within the context of cheaply produced hand-painted prints and watercolors on canvas that saturated the market in the early seventeenth century, but which rarely survive. The diversity of watermarks in Segers’s prints suggests that the surviving impressions are but a small fraction of his total production; most extant prints likely came from his estate, as many appear unfinished or not intended for sale. The majority of Segers’s production would have been lost due to the instability of media and the fact that they were seen as cheap ersatz paintings. Leeflang also contextualizes Van Hoogstraten’s description of Segers’s work within art writing of the time, with particular attention to ideas of working uit de geest and naer het leven. Segers, Leeflang argues, was playing with subject matter and approaches that highlighted his geest, that is, his spirit or imagination. Through such interpretations, the work of Segers appears less mysterious and enigmatic and more a product of contemporary currents in art production and criticism.
Two technical essays follow. Ad Stijnman examines Segers’s printing processes, with insights gathered from technical analysis and firsthand experimentation using period materials. At times the descriptions of etching processes can be difficult to follow for even a specialized print audience, more on account of the complexity of Segers’s practice than any fault of the author. Segers’s methods are maddeningly complex, Stijnman makes clear. Segers variously covered plates with layers of ground, dense hatching, stop-out fluid, and line work, repeatedly biting with acid and covering again. His supports are similarly treated with layers of paint and ink. The explication of such processes will elicit interest from audiences well versed in printmaking, but may remain opaque to lay-audiences. Dionysia Christoforou and Erik Hinterding’s essay on Segers’s supports reveals the exciting discovery that one of Segers’s impressions is on Asian paper, granting him the distinction of having been the first European artist to use Asian papers, preceding Rembrandt by two decades. The authors also establish a rudimentary timeline using watermarks that can be dated with some certainty.
Nadine Orenstein addresses the possibly overinflated influence of Segers on Rembrandt, pointing out that the oft-noted connections between the artists’ printing practices – use of drypoint, selective wiping, experimentation with supports, reworking plates – are in many ways superficial, and hardly bear out the direct influence of one artist over the other. Though Rembrandt owned eight of Segers’s paintings and one of his printing plates, Orenstein questions the assumptions drawn from Rembrandt’s interest in Segers’s work. Rembrandt did not adopt Segers’s more dramatic effects such as printing white-line etchings on dark ground or thickly overpainting his prints. Segers’s impact on Rembrandt is thusly disputed.
Pieter Roelofs treats Segers’s production as a painter. What was formerly an oeuvre of a dozen or so attributed paintings has been expanded to sixteen, with a seventeenth presented with reservations. Through dendrochronological analysis, comparison of Segers’s signatures, and connections with prints, Roelofs charts a plausible chronology for the paintings. Given the fact that not a single work by Segers is dated, the chronologies outlined by Roelofs, Christoforou, Hinterding, and Leeflang will be an invaluable basis for future research.
The work of conservators and scientists is present everywhere in the catalogue: pigment analysis, x-ray radiography, dendrochronology, and microscopy are tacit protagonists throughout. Still, conservator Arie Wallert’s essay at the end of the catalogue feels a strange conclusion. Though Wallert offers insights into Segers’s underdrawing, pigments, and techniques, the most significant findings of the conservation team have been revealed in previous essays, and more minute details of their analyses saturate the catalogue entries. Perhaps Wallert’s essay might have had more impact if placed earlier in the catalogue alongside the other technical essays, with Orenstein’s contribution a more appropriate coda.
Overall, the catalogue rationalizes and explains work that has heretofore been called anomalous, otherworldly, and even deranged. The ‘mystery’ of Segers’s prints, their sheer strangeness, is diminished by Leeflang’s explanation that our understanding of Segers is largely based on test prints and unfinished thoughts. Segers’s influence on Rembrandt is likewise diminished. But despite the strength of the arguments presented, the inconvenient truth is that we – like Van Hoogstraten’s audience – crave the pathos of the lone and troubled genius, born under Saturn, centuries ahead of his time. The closest the catalogue comes to such characterization is when Leeflang concedes Segers’s exceptional “graphic intelligence,” placing him among Goya, Rembrandt, and Picasso (55). In avoiding the sensationalist pitfalls of previous scholarship, the catalogue may somewhat undersell his singular graphic achievements. Nonetheless, the catalogue offers a significant step forward in understanding the work of Hercules Segers, equally showcasing technical, archival, and art historical research. It will no doubt prove foundational for any subsequent research on this (now somewhat less) mysterious artist.
University of Michigan