The author of an earlier study on panoramic world landscapes of the sixteenth century, Walter Gibson concentrates here on what Simon Schama has termed the ‘plotless places’, views of ordinary scenery, studied from a close vantage point, as depicted by Dutch printmakers and painters in Haarlem during the second and third decades of the seventeenth century. Such distinctively domestic scenes (waterways, dunes, farm buildings and fields, etc.) have posed interpretative problems for modern scholars: whether specific sites can be identified, what these depictions reveal of Dutch attitudes toward nature and toward their own rapidly urbanizing countryside, and, of course, the hotly debated question of whether symbolic or moralizing meaning can be attributed to them. Gibson takes up these and other matters, first emphasizing the Flemish origins of Dutch rustic scenes.
Gibson finds the most influential prototypes in the print series, the so-called ‘Small Landscapes’, published in Antwerp by Hieronymus Cock in 1559 and 1561. Although other rural images of the sixteenth century are cited from sketchbooks, maps, prints, paintings, and even tapestries, Cock’s prints emerge as the first truly independent images of local rural scenery, which Gibson sees also as innovative visions of ideal human leisure. Tracing the afterlife of these scenes, whose plates were acquired by Philips Galle and reissued in two editions in 1601, the author underlines the crucial importance of print publishers for the genesis and development of Dutch landscape. Indeed, the Galle publications appeared just when the new Republic was seeking its own political and cultural identity, but had not yet developed a distinctive landscape tradition of its own.
That Claes Jansz Visscher is described as the pivotal figure in the development of this new theme is no surprise, as the importance of his print series of rustic scenes around Haarlem (the ‘Pleasant Landscapes’ of 1611-12) has long been recognized. Gibson’s close analysis of Visscher’s entrepreneurial activities as print publisher deepens our understanding of the relationship between art and commerce in this complex period, for Visscher’s acquisition and reissuing of old plates and prints, often through his own copies (after Cock’s 1591 series, among others), placed him at the very centre of the rapidly expanding landscape market, and made him a major influence on the rustic scenes produced by both draughtsmen and painters.
Using the concept of ‘pleasant places’ mentioned in the title, page prints by Visscher and others (as well as writings such as Cornelis Pietersz. Biens’s drawing manual of 1636) Gibson formulates a reading of rustic landscape that strongly counters the interpretations of what he calls the ‘scriptural readers’. Gibson is hardly the first to resist the notion of Dutch landscapes as moralizing sermons on sin packed with admonitory iconography. Yet his arguments offer a particularly persuasive alternative, for he uses varied evidence to connect these scenes not only to Calvinist views of nature as a source of divine beneficence, but also to attitudes toward landscape as a place of recreation and relaxation after labour that had been established in literature and art well before the seventeenth century.
In tracing this long tradition from its earliest pastoral sources onward (‘Painting for Pleasure’) Gibson provides an extensive and fascinating account of how recreation and its depictions (including such activities as country walks, merrymaking, laughing, etc.) had long been valued for esthetic, therapeutic, psychological and even spiritual reasons. Another chapter on labour and leisure in the Dutch countryside concentrates on the ubiquitous small figures who populate landscape prints and paintings. Gibson sees these standard types of travellers, boaters or fishermen neither as diligent labourers nor as idle sinners but as positive embodiments of leisure: surrogates for an audience of urban viewers seeking refreshment from the hubbub of urban existence. Support for this interpretation is found in a remarkable print series (Otia delectant) of etched figures illustrating the benefits and enjoyments of leisure and published between 1620-25 by Cornelis Bloemaert after designs by his father Abraham. Abraham’s stunning drawings of rustic landscape motifs and ruins are discussed elsewhere in the book as major contributions to the genre.
The celebrated beauty of Haarlem and its surroundings attracted both rich burghers who established country estates and scores of local and visiting nature lovers seeking diversion in its dunes or forests. Gibson’s detailed descriptions of the scenic districts of Haarlem (as well as other Dutch towns) plausibly answers the question of why Dutch rustic imagery was first developed there by Visscher and others, and why it continued to be popular throughout the century. Why such landscapes often feature ruined or weathered buildings and trees is taken up in a chapter on ‘rustic ruins’ in which the author, again by taking a broad historical viewpoint, provides evidence that images of dilapidation did not necessarily carry negative associations of death or derelication of duty, but could often refer to virtuous poverty or to the freedom of life lived close to nature. Moreover, a taste for rough and irregular pictorial effects (of figures as well as landscapes) only diminished in the classicizing images and writings of the later seventeenth century, as the author demonstrates by track-ing changing shadings of meaning for the term ‘schilderactig’.
Gibson writes with an unpretentious clarity and directness well suited to his material, offering a complex, informative and many-layered account of the origins, contexts and associations of Netherlandish rustic landscape, which he rightly defines here as a special category of its own. Engaging incidental com-ments on nearly every page bring the period and place vividly to life: that Hoboken was notorious for ladies of easy virtue or that there were two official hangmen in Holland who lived in different towns, are only two of the innumerable morsels that enliven this delightful and extremely important study.
Susan Donahue Kuretsky