Best known for merging printmaking and painting techniques to create “painted prints,” Dutch artist Hercules Segers (c. 1589–1638) created fantastical, panoramic wonderlands using processes that were way ahead of his time. Segers's output was restricted due to his primary career as an art dealer; the fact that he rarely signed his work has made it rarely discoverable to modern art historians.
Largely discovered by the art world long after his death, Hercules Segers was innovative and leaned toward surrealism during a time when his peers were mired in realism. Segers took conventional subjects—like crumbling castle walls and tree-covered cliffs—and executed them through the lens of his imagination. Most historians believe Segers never saw much of the world, only traveling as far as Brussels. He likely saw no alpine mountains, yet he put them in his work, probably taking his vision from the work of others. While his peers were busy painting poetic duplications of the naturescapes around them, romanticizing the local terrain, Segers created imaginary landscapes where time and place were purposefully unidentifiable. Writing in Art History, Christopher P. Heuer cited a 1922 quote by German art historian Wilhelm Fraenger, who hailed Segers's work as “the strangest landscape pictures in western art.”
Originally named Herkules Pietersz, Segers was born in Haarlem, Netherlands, in 1589 or 1590, to Pieter Segers and Cathelijne Hercules. His parents were Mennonites who immigrated to Haarlem after fleeing religious persecution in Flanders, a Dutch-speaking region in northern Belgium. Segers had one brother, Laurens Pietersz, who became a maker of fine linen fabrics.
Segers did not adopt his father's surname until launching his professional career as an art dealer. During the 1610s, he began signing documents as “hercules segers,” using no capital letters and often placing a crescent mark above the “u.” Most often, the artist is referred to by his adopted surname, which is sometimes spelled by historians as “Seghers.”
As a teenager, Segers apprenticed with Gillis van Coninxloo, a fellow Flemish immigrant painter and a sixth-generation artist who made his mark with landscapes. Instead of painting traditional panoramas, Coninxloo painted nature close-ups that included intricate forests with stylized foliage, turning “nature” into the subject of the work instead of using it as a setting for humans. He often painted trees in close view, creating a “tunnel” that narrowed the field of vision for his paintings. Segers, likewise, had a habit of including large, twisty trees or cliffs in the foreground of his prints and paintings, and these objects served to offset the scenery in the distance and offer an expansive depth of field.
When Coninxloo died in December of 1606, it cut Segers's apprenticeship short. The young artist purchased some of his teacher's work at auction when the estate was settled, intending to sell them at a later date. Besides making paintings and prints, he continued to work as an art dealer throughout much of his life. By 1612, Segers had joined the Guild of Saint Luke in Haarlem, joining other painters as well as sculptors, art dealers, and art lovers. In order to join the guild, artists had to complete a cycle, moving from apprentice to journeyman to master craftsman. Because he was a member of the guild, Segers was clearly working as an artist by this time and had earned the designation of master craftsman.
For a while, Segers lived in Amsterdam, settling in a wealthy district filled with merchants, beer brewers, soap boilers, lawyers, and craftsmen. In addition to building his clientele as an art dealer, he likely sold his work to neighbors, many of whom were affluent enough to afford such luxury items. In 1613, a romantic relationship with Marritge Reyers resulted in a pregnancy. Rather than marrying Reyers, on December 19, 1614, Segers reached a settlement with her family, agreeing to raise his infant daughter, Nelletje Hercules, at no cost to Marritge or her family. In addition, he agreed to pay the Reyers family 80 Dutch guilders for deflowering their daughter. A week later, Segers offered his banns of marriage to Anneken van der Brugghen, a 40-year-old woman from Antwerp. Posting banns was a marriage requirement in the Dutch Reformed Church and served as a public declaration of marriage that gave other parties the opportunity to object. On these banns, he listed his occupation as painter and his age as 24. He and van der Brugghen were married on January 10, 1615.
In 1619, then 30 years old, Segers became the owner of a large house on the Lindengracht canal in Amsterdam. The house had an outbuilding in the back that served as a kitchen. That this was an expensive, newly constructed home suggests that Segers may have been selling his work regularly and had a good income from his art dealership. It was not known whether he paid cash or took out a loan; if he did not have the funds needed to purchase the grand home outright, his income was such that creditors assumed that he had the means to repay them.
Segers did not get a lot of mention during his lifetime. However, in 1621, a merchant and diplomat named Dirck Rodenburg transported a collection of Dutch paintings to Copenhagen, hoping to sell them to Danish King Christian IV. Segers's work was included in the lot, along with that of Coninxloo and Jan Porcellis, an established Dutch artist known for his seascapes. That his works were represented within this collection indicates that Segers was a respected and recognized artist during his lifetime. In 1625, two of his landscapes were offered as prizes at a pub dice game in Amsterdam, incentivizing people to join the game.
In general, biographical material on Segers remains scarce; from the 1620s on, most historical documents refer to his mounting debt. In 1626, he borrowed money from a local alderman and defaulted on the payback. In 1631, the court ordered that his Lindengracht house be sold to pay his debts and he moved to Utrecht, an ancient city located about 30 miles south of Amsterdam. By 1632, Segers was living in The Hague, and he died in Haarlem, Netherlands, in 1638, the consequence of falling down a flight of stairs. Segers was known to drink excessively, and his death at age 49 has often been attributed to an accident involving alcohol.
Art historians have continued to discover Segers's work since realizing that some of his paintings were mistakenly attributed to other Dutch or Flemish artists, such as Jan van Goyen, Joos de Momper, Rembrandt, and Jan Vermeer. The first such discovery was made in the 1870s by a German art historian who, after an intensive study of Segers's prints, discerned that the painting “Mountain Landscape with a Distant View,” while attributed to Rembrandt, was actually by Segers. The oil painting “View of Rhenen from the North” was for many years attributed to van Goyen, but during a restoration the full signature of Hercules Segers was uncovered on the canvas.
Rembrandt owned eight of Segers's paintings and one of his etchings, and these works were intermingled in his estate. Rembrandt also reworked it. Such was the case with Rembrandt's 1652 print “The Flight into Egypt.” The original etching plate used to create the piece had been made by Segers and featured a forest with the characters Tobias and the Angel from the Catholic Old Testament. Rembrandt took Segers's plate and burnished out the angel, replacing it with the biblical figures Mary and Joseph. In Rembrandt's piece, Mary sits atop a donkey while Joseph walks alongside. Most of the alterations made by Rembrandt occurred on the right side of the etching plate.
Segers's prints were underappreciated in his lifetime but later captured broad interest as art historians delved into his designs and studied his unique uses of color, texture, and structure. As Mario Naves noted in the New Criterion, “Segers's art—and even more so the prints than the paintings—has a sneaking, slow-burning fascination. Though limited in scope and subject, Segers's work is prone to moody flashes of ecstasy and marked by an overriding, somewhat cloistered eccentricity.”
Segers's rare, colored etchings were innovative for his time. He developed a lift-ground technique—also known as sugar-bite etching—that was not utilized again for 150 years. With this method, instead of using an etching needle to draw on the copper plate, Segers dipped his brush in a sugar solution before applying it to the plate. Art experts believe that he then covered the plate with a ground resin and dipped it in hot water, at which point the sugar granules swelled and caused the resin to welt and slough off in areas where the sugar was applied. When printed, the lines made by this sugar-lift process became granulated and mottled.
Where most printmakers made multiple, identical prints from a single plate, Segers eschewed replication. When he did make multiple prints from an etching plate, he worked to ensure that each print was unique. Sometimes, he painted the paper before printing, pressing the etched image onto sheets he had tinted blue, crimson, or ochre. At other times, he applied a color wash to a finished print. To achieve different looks, he also printed on burlap, linen paper, or another woven textile; his contemporaries confined themselves to printing on smooth white silk or satin. Segers sometimes cut apart his etching plates to create a new version from a different perspective. Art historians have found evidence that he burnished out complete sections of certain etchings and re-tooled them.
Segers also printed from etching plates that were damaged—perhaps from his experimentation with various etching grounds and acids. Although most artists would not use an imperfect plate, Segers realized that decaying plates sometimes created an otherworldly effect. As a result of his quest for innovation, the bricks and foliage depicted in some of his prints have a unique three-dimensional quality.
In addition, during a time when other printmakers were using black ink, Segers experimented with different colors. He favored green, blue, and grey and mixed and matched inks and papers; for example, his etching “Mossy Tree” was printed with green ink on a light pink ground. As a result, he could make multiple impressions from the same plate appear wildly different. One print, “Valley with a River and a Town with Four Towers,” survives in six variations, all markedly distinct from one another. The sky appears pinkish in some and more orange in others. One etching was printed in blue on a creamy ground, then hand-colored with a brush. Likewise, “Landscape with a Waterfall, Second Version” was printed on a dark pink ground as well as in a light blue-green version.
Although Segers printed a few seascapes and several etchings featuring trees, most of his prints incorporated rocky valleys and mountain vistas connected by winding roads. At one point, he made a print depicting a pile of three books, producing what art historians consider one of the first still-life graphic-art pieces. He also experimented with tones by employing a cross-hatching technique while etching his plates. Cross-hatched areas deposit more ink on the paper than do parallel etched lines or areas of the plate that are left untouched. Segers used the technique of cross-hatching on his “Rocky Landscape with a Road and a River.”
In 1954, over three centuries after Segers's death, a major exhibition of his work was staged at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, Netherlands; another exhibit was staged in 1967 at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. In 2012, German filmmaker Werner Herzog created a five-channel video art installation that featured Segers's landscapes, set to music by Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger. Called Hearsay of the Soul, the multimedia piece was acquired by the Getty Museum and is on display in Los Angeles, California. Actual examples of Segers's art were exhibited for the first time in 2017 when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City staged “The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers.” Announcing this exhibition on its website, the museum hailed Segers as an artist who “possessed one of the most fertile creative minds of his time.”
Leeflang, Huigen, and Pieter Roelofs, editors, Hercules Segers: Painter, Etcher, Rijksmuseum, 2017.
Art History, November 2012, Christopher P. Heuer, “Entropic Segers,” pp. 934–957.
Artforum International, September 2016, Christopher P. Heuer, “Under the Impression,” pp. 185–186.
New Criterion, April 2017, Mario Naves, “The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers,” pp. 60–62.
Spectator, October 29, 2016, Laura Gascoigne, “Going Dutch,” pp. 51–53.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/press/exhibitions/2016/hercules-segers (December 29, 2017), “The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers.” □