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2 November 2022

Hercules Segers: the visionary printmaker who inspired Rembrandt

The 17th-century Dutch artist saw etching as a way to conjure strange imaginary realms.

By Michael Prodger

Sometime around 1653, Rembrandt, then at the height of his powers as a printmaker, decided to make an image showing The Flight into Egypt and so took a small copper plate from his shelves and set to work on it. The printing plate, however, was not new; it already contained an image of Tobias and the Angel, etched two decades earlier by Hercules Segers. But Rembrandt didn’t burnish the copper smooth before starting, he merely erased the figures and replaced them with those of Mary, Joseph and their donkey, and reworked some of the foliage. He left Segers’s landscape background untouched. The image that emerged on printing was, therefore, both a co-production and a homage to a long-dead artist who held a special place in Rembrandt’s esteem.

There is no evidence that the two men ever met, but Rembrandt’s regard for Segers was evident not just in the etching that explicitly linked them forever. He also owned eight of Segers’s paintings, as well as several of his prints and the copper plate. The artists made an appropriate pairing; Rembrandt was one of the greatest printmakers of all time and Segers one of the most innovative. Their reputations, however, took different trajectories.

Little is now known about the life of Segers. The sparse biographical details that have survived come courtesy of Rembrandt’s pupil Samuel van Hoogstraten, who discussed him in his Introduction to the Academy of Painting; or, the Visible World of 1678. He depicted Segers as a proto-Romantic figure, “disregarded and yet a great artist”, whose career was spent battling incomprehension and who was “murdered by poverty”. For a short period after Segers’s death, collectors vied for his works but many prints, claimed Van Hoogstraten, were simply discarded or used to wrap soap or butter. These anecdotes were written down some 40 years after Segers’s death and are not necessarily accurate, but are perhaps a reaction to the strange and potent images that Van Hoogstraten saw as a teenager in Rembrandt’s studio. Such disconcerting pictures could only have come from a disconcerting man.

[See also: Fashion and fetishism: the drawings of Henry Fuseli]

Segers, or sometimes Seghers (circa 1589 – 1638), was born Hercules Pietersz to Flemish émigré parents who had fled the brutality of the Spanish Habsburg armies to settle in Haarlem. Segers’s father was a cloth merchant and picture dealer of comfortable means and the aspiring artist trained in Amsterdam with another Fleming, the landscapist Gillis van Coninxloo. The young Segers joined the painters’ guild in Haarlem but returned to Amsterdam in 1614 and paid 80 guilders to Marritge Reyers, the mother of his illegitimate daughter, for custody of the girl. Shortly afterwards he married Anneke van der Brugghen, a woman 16 years older than him, who may have brought to the union funds enough to buy an expensive house on one of Amsterdam’s grander streets.

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Segers’s good fortune did not last: despite working as both an artist and picture dealer he fell into debt, his wife died, and he tried his waning luck first in Utrecht and then back in Haarlem.

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If there was nothing particularly unusual in the story of Segers’s rise and fall, there is in the work that remains. There is not much, just 16 or 17 paintings and 53 etchings that exist in 184 prints. Segers, however, was unlike other printmakers, including Rembrandt. Where most artists used prints as a means of reproducing and disseminating a work hundreds of times – for profit and to spread their name – Segers often pulled just two or three impressions of each image.

For him, an etching plate was an object for experimentation. He had no interest in simply duplicating in black and white but rather in turning every image into an original and distinctive work of art – making what Van Hoogstraten called “printed paintings”. To this end he would print on coloured paper or on ripped up “shirts and bedsheets”; he would use white ink on black paper and paint prints in different colours and then varnish them. He would make counterproofs – pressing a blank sheet of paper on to a wet etching to reverse the picture. He incorporated acid spills, trial marks and scratches into his images, reorientated used plates and left parts of earlier images in place, and cropped impressions in varied ways.

He even invented a new technique of etching – sugar-lift or lift-ground etching – where a sugar solution is applied to the plate with a pen or brush. The solution lifts when submerged in water, leaving a mottled or textured space on the plate for the acid to bite. After Segers’s death the process was lost for 150 years until it was rediscovered by the English Georgian watercolourist Paul Sandby.

[See also: The Cézanne conundrum]

Although Segers’s print output includes the first still-life etching in Western art, showing in close-up four books on a table (circa 1618-22), his real subject in both paintings and prints was landscape. Some of his pictures show real places but the majority represent imaginary vistas (although in Houses near Steep Cliffs, circa 1619-23, he placed real gabled houses seen from his Amsterdam window beneath a lowering Alpine rock face). The images are usually small in size but offer a wide view and almost always have framing mountains and crags that set even the most bucolic scene in a volcanic or lunar realm. People, if they feature at all, are small and incidental.

Segers may have travelled to Brussels and just possibly, although no documentary evidence remains, to Italy, but it seems his idea of mountains was gleaned from the prints of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who had crossed the Alps and made it as far south as Sicily in the 1550s. Segers stripped these images of their realism, giving his rocks a dark and pockmarked look so that they seem to bubble and grow organically. Van Hoogstraten admired the otherworldliness of the results: “His observation was unwavering and effective, particularly in his design of landscapes and compositions, with imaginary mountains and caves. It was as if he were pregnant with whole provinces, giving birth to them with immeasurable spaces, and picturing them to a marvel in his paintings and prints.”

This picture, The Mossy Tree (circa 1625-30), is one of his most experimental prints. Strange trees had figured before in northern European art, in particular in the work of Albrecht Dürer and Albrecht Altdorfer, but nothing quite like this. If it has a parallel at all it is in Chinese painting, which Segers couldn’t have known about. Made with his sugar-lift technique, the image was printed in green ink on pink paper before Segers added pale blue and grey paint to the top and bottom.

The tree itself sits on a tufty knoll in a formless space; indeed, the tree itself is formless – it has no trunk but is composed entirely of dots and straggly lines. The technique brilliantly fits the subject and in its pared-back simplicity, decorative patterning and concentration on mark-making anticipates modernism by centuries. The ghostly image could represent many things, from the remembrance of a real tree to an elaborate doodle, a study in mood – whether menacing or mystical, an indication of natural wonders, or the quirkiness of divine creation. 

The sheer strangeness and anomalous nature of the picture and others like it is one of the main reasons that the surrealists co-opted Segers as one of their own, and that writers such as the anarchist critic Carl Einstein believed his prints were reflections of a deranged mental state: “The rocks teem with hidden nudes and monsters,” he thought, “symptoms of an atavistic layer.”

Since Segers left no explanation of his thinking, such readings are post-Romantic projections, extracting the painter from his own time to drop him into the mental landscape of the early 20th century. Those filigree trees and knobbly rocks are just as likely to be the products of a restlessly curious and experimental mind as a disordered one, a possibility strengthened by the fact that his prints are rarely signed or dated and that there remains some debate over whether many were even finished. In the end both Segers and his intentions remain unfathomable.

Even the artist’s death is open to interpretation. It is commonly held that towards the end of his life Segers descended into drink, but this is a misreading of Van Hoogstraten, who in fact wrote of Segers’s sad end that: “Being intoxicated, which was quite unusual for him, he fell one night to his death on the staircase of his house.” Whatever it was that inspired him, Segers was a visionary not a drunk.

[See also: Lucian Freud’s pitiless style]

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This article appears in the 02 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Meaning of Rishi Sunak