New York exhibit looks at legacy of forgotten Dutch master Hercules Segers

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In his day, Hercules Segers was collected by Rembrandt. But today, the great Dutch experimental printmaker, who lived in Amsterdam in the early 17th century and created singularly expressive landscapes, is largely unknown.

The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers, which runs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from February 13 to May 21, 2017, is the first major exhibition of his work in the United States. The Met exhibition follows the first full retrospective at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, and the great Dutch museum has lent its entire collection of 74 prints, two oil sketches and one painting to the New York art institution. The British Museum and the Kupferstichkabinett of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden have also made significant loans.

Very few of Segers’s works survive, but what does remain suggests an artist with an extraordinary ability to portray the natural world – Segers’s works show delicately rendered landscapes that he would only have seen depicted on canvas and never actually witnessed – as well as incredible technique.

Segers trained with the foremost Dutch landscape painter of his day, Gillis van Coninxloo, and his oil paintings are executed in the Flemish tradition, but Segers’s etchings are utterly original. He rejected the idea of endlessly reproducing images in black and white from a single plate and, instead, introduced colour, sometimes painting the paper and fabrics on which he printed, adding lines to the plates or using two plates to define a single image. He invented techniques that would be not be adopted for another 150 years. Such was his inventiveness that contemporary artists and filmmakers are still inspired by his work.

A Rijksmuseum film by Christian Bortslap, Hercules Segers, an Introduction, explains the artist's enduring appeal: "Segers was a prolific artist. He made paintings and also produced many prints. He merged the two techniques, inventing avant-garde printed paintings. He was daring with colour and fascinated by texture and structure. He used familiar print techniques and invented new ones.

“Yet the biggest mystery remains Segers himself: an inventor, a genius, a visionary, a man driven to create fantasy.”

The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on Monday, February 13 and runs until May 21. For more information, and to view the film Hercules Segers, an Introduction, go to metmuseum.org

Clare Dight is the editor of The Review.