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The pioneering landscapes of Paul Bril

How the Flemish painter Paul Bril forged a new form of landscape art in baroque Rome.

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In the pantheon of landscape artists, it is Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) and Claude Lorrain (1600-82) who are held up as the perfect exemplars. These two Frenchmen, who spent much of their careers in Rome, perfected the classical landscape, in which mythological, allegorical or biblical themes played out in the soft light and endless vistas of the Italian countryside. Between them, they were largely responsible for raising the status of landscape painting from a lowly genre to one capable of nobility, and their influence on succeeding generations of artists (and poets and landscape gardeners) was profound. Before them, however, came another foreigner who helped shape them into the painters they became.

As The Works of Eminent Masters in Painting, Sculpture… put it in 1854, “to prepare for the coming of a Claude, or a Poussin, many generations of artists had to toil, if we may so speak, at the foot of the pedestal on which they were to mount”, and the most important of those toilers was Paul Bril.

Bril was born in Antwerp in 1554, the son and brother of painters. After training in Flanders, possibly with a decorator of harpsichords, Bril moved to Rome in 1582 to join his brother Matthijs, who had built a successful career there. The pair worked together for only a year, pioneering coastal scenes, before Matthijs died, leaving Paul to take over his studio and his commissions. At this early point in his career, Bril specialised in landscape frescoes and, courtesy of the leg-up given by his brother, he was quickly put to work by a series of influential patrons. Among them were popes Gregory XIII, Sixtus V and Paul V; cardinals Federico Borromeo (cousin of the saint Carlo Borromeo) and Carlo de’ Medici; the Duke of Mantua; and some of the grandest Roman families, including the Borghese, Barberini, and Colonna. As a consequence, Bril’s work appeared in the Vatican, and in palaces and major churches such as Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Cecilia in Trastevere.

Bril’s importance, however, lay not just in the paintings that decorated baroque Rome but in his being a figure around whom artists from north of the Alps, the ultramontani, would gather. His rise in stature does not seem to have led to a rise in self-importance, and his studio became the meeting place for a number of highly accomplished northern painters, including Jan Brueghel, Adam Elsheimer and Rubens. Another acolyte, and possible student, was Agostino Tassi – the man who raped Artemisia Gentileschi and went on to become Poussin’s teacher. In 1621, Bril’s eminence was recognised when he was appointed director of the painters’ academy, the Accademia di San Luca – the first foreigner to hold the honour.

[see also: The myths and masterpieces of Artemisia Gentileschi]

Early 17th-century Rome was full of foreign artists who clustered in national groups in different parts of the city, such as the Dutch-Flemish Bentvueghels (“Birds of a Feather”), known for their heavy drinking, and the Bamboccianti, who brought the genre painting of the Low Countries with them to Italy. These interlopers were tolerated by Italian artists because they worked in the less prestigious genres.

In this painting, Landscape with Saint John the Baptist (circa 1595), in the Ambrosiana in Milan, Bril still remained – like his fellow Flemings – close to his roots. Rather than portray the saint as an ascetic preacher in the Middle Eastern wilderness, Bril shows him as a hermit living comfortably in a northern European forest of extraordinary fecundity. The little mise-en-scène as he caresses the lamb, the symbol of his relative, Christ, is witnessed by deer, rabbits and birds but by no human eye, and the rich foliage, with its muted but harmonious palette, could be taken from a tapestry. The picture both harks back to the work of an earlier Flemish artist, Joachim Patinir, and forwards to the teeming landscapes of Jan Brueghel.

Bril, however, would soon do something different with his art by fusing this northern landscape tradition with Italian classicism. Around 1605, possibly under the influence of Annibale Carracci – who, with Caravaggio, was the leading painter in Rome at the time – he began to turn to easel paintings and to refine his landscapes. The horizons dropped, the Alps disappeared from the pictures, the transitions from foreground to distance smoothed and the piling on of miniaturist detail began to calm. But although many of his paintings are modest in size (necessarily so for those painted on copper plates), he portrayed huge vistas.

An English painter and writer called Edward Norgate learned Bril’s method. “One generall rule I had from my old freind, Paulo Brill, which hee said will make a Lanscape Caminare, that is, move or walke away, and that is by placing Darke against Light, and Light against Darke.” This alternating of dark and light, often with the foreground and its small figures in shadow, gives Bril’s pictures extraordinary depth.

He always had an eye on the market, too, producing some 100 drawings for connoisseurs, as well as prints. And having mastered landscapes, he was not afraid to collaborate with other artists to paint the figures – a system that was then far from uncommon.

Nevertheless, the figures – whether by him or by others – are secondary; rocks, water and foliage draw the eye more than the human or animal action, whether that be St Jerome praying, Diana bathing, or duck hunters stalking. And although almost all his paintings show artificial views, he took great care with the individual elements; oak trees covered with ivy, for example, became a sort of leitmotif.

Bril never made it back across the Alps and died in his adopted city in 1626, but by that point he had opened up the artistic horizon. It was appropriate, then, that he would sign some of his works with a small pair of spectacles, a pun on the Flemish bril (“glasses”), since he had shown that landscape painting could be seen in a new way. 

[see also: The dreamscapes of Maxfield Parrish]

Michael Prodger is associate editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 06 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, American chaos