Meet Hercules Segers

Parallel to Seurat’s Circus Sideshow, The Met was showing works by the Dutch printmaker and painter Hercules Seg(h)ers (ca. 1589 – ca. 1638). Very little is known about his life but his dreamy landscapes, innovative techniques such as lift-ground etching which would only be employed by others 150 years later, impressions in multiple colours contrary to the existing traditions that wanted them to look alike – in black and white, all speak for themselves.

And if that was not impressive enough, the curators’ notes disclosed that Segers very seldom depicted actual places; his incredibly detailed landscapes are all places he had never been to and only knew from prints made after Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s designs. So, for all their detail and realism, Segers’ landscapes were mostly products of his beautiful mind. No wonder he was the favourite artist of the much younger but no less experimental printmaker of the time, Rembrandt van Rijn, who owned eight paintings and one printing plate by Segers.

Mountain Valley with Dead Pine Trees and a City in the Background, ca. 1622-25
Line etching printed on light brown ground, varnished; unique impression

Influenced by the work of earlier Netherlandish landscapists, most notably prints after drawings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Segers often rendered broad Alpine valleys, as in this example. Bruegel was known for creating vast, comprehensible spaces that invited the viewer to fancifully wander. While here Segers included elements typical of Bruegel’s scenes – a path leading from the foreground into a distant valley, dotted with villages and castles – he flattened the landscape and used a variety of patterns to distinguish the rocks, the grassy hills, and the path. One of the artist’s larger etchings, this print exists in only one known impression.


After Hans Baldung
The Lamentation of Christ, ca. 1630-33
Line etching printed with tone and blue highlights on a cream-tinted ground, coloured with brush

This poignant depiction, one of the artist’s few biblical subjects, copies a woodcut created more than a century earlier by Hans Baldung. Segers closely replicated the figure group but removed the suggestions of the cross behind them, adding instead a small cluster of buildings on the bottom right. The artist overpainted this impression with opaque watercolour and oil paint, making it his most colourful etching.


Tobias and the Angel, ca. 1630-33
Line etching printed in olive-green with tone and highlights; first state of six

Tobias and the Angel, one of Segers’ final prints, was inspired by an engraving by Hendrick Goudt after Adam Elsheimer. Segers copied the two figures, including the large fish dragged along by Tobias, but enlarged them so that their silhouettes stand out against the sky.


Hercules Segers with Rembrandt van Rijn
The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1652
Line etching, drypoint, burin; sixth state of six

Rembrandt came into possession of Segers’ etching plate by about 1652 and altered the subject to the Flight into Egypt. He scraped away the large figures and added Joseph and Mary, as well as sketchy trees. In the second state, Rembrandt’s addition of rich drypoint lines almost obscures the subject.


The Mossy Tree, ca. 1625-30
Lift-ground etching printed in green on a light pink ground, coloured with brush; unique impression

The Mossy Tree is one of Segers’ most striking and iconic prints, due to its loose, almost calligraphic lines, which convey the unruly nature of moss. Linked together solely with thin lines, the branches seem to float before the delicately coloured background. The artist original printed the tree in green ink, though it has turned brown over time.


The Two Trees (An Alder and an Ash), ca. 1625-30
Lift-ground etching printed in green on a light pink ground, coloured with brush; unique impression.


Mountain Landscape with a Distant View, ca. 1620-25
Oil on canvas laid down on panel

Once attributed to Rembrandt, this painting was assigned to Segers in 1871, though it was still considered to have been retouched by the younger master. The palette and the dramatic mood relate to Rembrandt’s work, but recent study of the painting has determined that the reworking was carried out instead by an unknown 17th-century painter. This ambitious landscape, Segers’ largest, suffered in the 17th century due to a large hole in the upper right, which was patched with a new canvas. Subsequently, both the mountains in the background and a large section of the sky were overpainted, and Segers’ brush marks abruptly stop at the edge of the patch. The nervous white highlights on the rocks in the foreground are typical of Segers’ paintings.


Mountain Valley with Fence Fields, ca. 1625-30
Line etching and drypoint printed in blue with plate tone, coloured with brush; second state of two


The Enclosed Valley, ca. 1625-30
Line etching printed on linen with a tinted ground, coloured with brush. Twenty-two impressions of this print have survived.


The Enclosed Valley, ca. 1625-30
Line etching printed on linen with a tinted ground, coloured with brush. Twenty-two impressions of this print have survived.


The Large Tree, ca. 1628-29
Line etching printed with tone and highlights, black chalk

A majestic oak dominates a landscape abundant with foliage. A town and a body of water populated by sailboats can be seen in the distance.

Here, Segers’ three-tone process yields subtle gradiations of black and grey and enhances the play of light in the foliage. To create this etching, the artist covered the printing plate with dense pattern of intersecting lines, which are clearly visible in the sky. To preserve parts of the sky and the white highlights, he used stopping-out varnish, which prevents the acid that incises the lines into the metal from ”biting” farther into the plate. But the solvent in the varnish reacted with the etching ground, resulting in the fine line that curves around the top of the foliage. Segers may have meant to paint impressions of the print in order to hide this line, though neither of the two existing examples is painted.


Distant View with a Road and Mossy Branches, ca. 1622-25
Segers printed this etching with various coloured inks and grounds. Using fabric and paper, he also created counterproofs and a maculature. 


Impressions of Valley with a River and a Town with Four Towers, ca. 1626-27 etching.


Skull on a Ledge
Undated
Oil on canvas
Possibly Segers

The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 13 – May 21, 2017

March 19th, 2017

A patio from a Spanish castle, 16th century ceiling tiles and some recent acquisitions

All on view at The Met. Some of humanity’s greatest accomplishments sitting together in one of the world’s greatest museums.

Like these mid-16th century ceiling tiles from Seville.

Or this entire patio from the castle at Vélez Blanco of Almeria, an example of early sixteenth-century Spanish architecture. 

Or these little gems of recent acquisitions 

Katsumi Watanabe
Untitled, 1966, Gelatin silver print

Watanabe was an itinerant portrait photographer who worked in the Shinjuku section of Tokyo during the 1960s and 1970s, mostly in the blue-light district of Kabukicho that was populated nightly with Yakuza, cross-dressers and prostitutes. His pictures, made with a strobe flash, were by necessity collaborative, as his subjects had to be pleased with their likeness before paying his set fee of two hundred yen for three prints. 


Elisabeth Hase
Down Stairs, ca. 1948, Gelatin silver print

In this self-portrait, Hase appears to have tripped, or perhaps to have thrown herself, face-down on a flight of stairs. In her most intriguing work, including this example, the artist experimented with staged scenarios and narratives exploring feminine identity, as would Cindy Sherman half a century later. Another such self-portrait shows her enacting a tearful confession to an anonymous clergyman. Hase turned to photography after beginning her career in the early 1920s as a student of avant-garde graphic design and typography. Despite being a lesser-known photographer, she established a studio in Frankfurt and pursued a variety of subjects, including portraits and still lifes, street scenes, modern architectural views and botanical studies. 


Unknown American Artist
Brooklyn Bridge, New York, ca. 1883, Albumen silver print from glass negative

When it opened for use on May 24, 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world; it immediately became an essential subject for photographers working in or visiting New York as well as an iconic feature of the city’s skyline. Despite the bridge’s instant landmark status, early large-format view such as this one are rare. Now 133 years old, the soaring granite towers and steel cables of the Brooklyn Bridge carry roughly 150.000 vehicles and pedestrians every day.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art
March 19th, 2017

Grimaces and Misery – The Saltimbanques

This epic work by Fernandez Pelez (click on link for a better view on a public domain image) was part of Seurat’s Circus Sideshow exhibition. It made me terribly sad.

Too large to be ignored at the Salon of 1888, Pelez’s commanding parade scene went on view just before the close of the exhibition at the Salon des Indépendants that featured Seurat’s representation of the same subject. True to form for an artist who made no secret of his sympathies for the downtrodden in trenchant, life-size depictions, Grimaces and Misery – The Saltimbanques presents a lineup of circus performers whose lot does not improve with age: unsmiling young acrobats, sniveling in the corner or waiflike in sagging tights, give way to miserable, world-weary musicians across a twenty-foot stage.

On the face of it – from the quizzical dwarf to the white-faced clown – this epic naturalist painting would seem to to have nothing in common with Seurat’s stylized conception. And yet in each brooding masterpiece, the players take their place on a shallow stage, aligned in friezelike formation in tripartite arrangement.

Grimaces and Misery drew mixed reviews in 1888. Faulted for its dry and uninspired reportage, it also aroused deep sentiments, triggering heartfelt concern and rapt appreciation for its penetrating characterization of human suffering. The following year it was awarded a silver medal at the Exposition Universelle of 1889.

Fernandez Pelez
Grimaces and Misery – The Saltimbanques, 1888
Oil on canvas, in five sections
87 3/8 in. × 20 ft. 6 7/8 in. (222 × 627 cm)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
March 19th, 2017

Sunday in The Met with George

But first, a peacock mosaic column, one of the two that served as a room divider in Tiffany’s Manhattan showrooms, Madison Avenue & 47th St., as shown here in a picture taken ca. 1913. 

Fresh from an inspiring performance of ”Sunday in park with George” at the Hudson Theatre the previous weekend, a ”Sunday in The Met with George” to see Seurat’s Circus Sideshow, one of only six major figure paintings he created, was the next best thing. With it, an array of works by other artists – Seurat’s contemporaries – the exhibition aimed to explore their fascination with the Sideshow as a subject.

Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque) represents an ensemble of circus players lined up on a narrow stage outside a tent performing sample entertainment to entice customers to their show.

Georges de Feure. The Corvi Circus (Le Cirque Corvi), ca. 1893
Gouache, watercolour, pencil on paper

This highly finished gouache, by an artist who went on to champion Art Nouveau design, relies on simplified drawing and bold colour to give an edge to his description of performers preparing backstage at the Corvi Circus. His palette – the ambient blue of the evening set off by strident pinks, violets and yellows – uses ostensibly festive hues to spotlight the vagrant life of the saltimbanques and the existential paradoxes of the performer. 


Jules Chéret. Folies-Bergère: Corvi Circus, 1881. Colour lithograph


Georges Seurat. Two Clowns (Une Parade), ca. 1886-88. Conté crayon on paper


Georges Seurat. Study for ”Models”, 1886 – 87. Conté crayon on paper


Georges Seurat. Models (Poseuses), small version, 1887 – 88. Oil on canvas

This gemlike canvas is a small-scale version of the imposing, life-size Models (The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia) that Seurat exhibited alongside Circus Sideshow at the Salon des Indépendants in 1888. Two years after he asserted his authority as an innovative painter of modern life, with a plein-air subject in full sunlight, Seurat returned to the public stage with figure compositions that succeeded to demonstrate the versatility of his approach. He set forth a daytime, interior studio scene – graced by three nudes who channel classicizing prototypes, while skirting his earlier triumph – and a contrasting nighttime, outdoor scene that reflects a more abstract sensibility, broaching a symbolist aesthetic. Linked by formal characteristics, such as frontality and symmetry, the opposites did not attract equal attention. Models stole the limelight. 


Louis Anquetin. Avenue de Clichy (Street – Five O’ Clock in the Evening), 1887
Oil on paper, laid down on canvas

Anquetin’s view of a Paris boulevard at dusk – the blue and violet gloaming of the twilit street offset by the orange and yellow light of a butcher’s shop at left – is painted in his signature cloisonnist style, characterised by flat areas of colour outlined by emphatic contours. It was shown in the Salon des Indépendants of 1888, in direct competition with Seurat’s Circus Sideshow. Quick to recognise the rival solution to painting a nocturne of urban bustle under artificial lighting, one critic saw Anquetin’s canvas as ”designed to trouble those practicing pointillism.”


Georges Seurat. Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque), 1887 – 88. Oil on canvas

From the time it debuted at the Salon des Indépendants in 1888, Circus Sideshow has intrigued and confounded its viewers. Indeed, Seurat’s closest associates were seemingly dumbstruck, largely confining their spare remarks to its novelty as a ”nocturnal effect”. (Of course, his detractors could not see past the ”multicoloured and mathematically contrasted lentils.”) The laconic artist never mentioned the picture, nor did he exhibit it again. Recent technical findings reveal that in adding the painted border, Seurat effaced his signature at lower right.

Circus Sideshow was sold from the artist’s estate in 1900. It left Paris for New York in 1929, claiming a ”place of honour” at the Museum of Modern Art’s inaugural show. Future Met donor, Stephen C. Clark acquired it three years later.


Seurat’s Circus Sideshow at The Met (February-May 2017)

March 19th, 2017

Remember this?

Whaddayamean too soon! Trees are up and ready to be lit, shiny trinkets and giant dazzling displays are all set and ready to go, the jolly Rockettes are tapping their way into the  season, ice-skating rings, holiday markets… not yet December and everything screams ”Christmas”. Well, if there’s no avoiding it I wish, at least, it will be a white one.  

Manhattan
Photos from March 15th, 2017

The Best of the Rest @ MAD

From the  permanent collection.

I was particularly drawn to the delicate work by Tomoko Ishida ”Co-twisted, 2003”, using paper and starch. The intricate Macramé knots and fringes by Françoise Grossen, like her Shield & Blu, c. 1968. And the most striking of them all,  Judith Shaechter’s stained glass kaleidoscope, adorning the second floor stairwell. Aptly titled ”Seeing is Believing” this site-specific permanent installation extends the art viewing to an otherwise bare and functional space and rewards those curious enough to peek behind closed doors. 

The Museum of Arts and Design (MAD)
2, Columbus Circle
New York City

March 12th, 2017