Roelant Savery (1578-1639) was a pioneer in many fields, and introduced several new themes to Dutch painting. He made the Netherlands’ first floral still life, and was the most notable painter of the legendary (extinct) dodo. He was also the first artist who went out into the streets to draw ordinary people. His painted landscapes are often like a fairy tale, featuring ancient ruins and marvelous vistas. And his animal paintings include so many species that it would be an understatement to describe them as ‘crowded’.
Roelant Savery’s Wondrous World (Roelant Savery’s Wonderlijke Wereld – Alleskunner in de kunst), featuring over 40 paintings and drawings, including works on loan from museums in the Netherlands and abroad, will introduce visitors to this highly versatile artist.
Roelant Savery was born in Kortrijk, but his Protestant family fled to Haarlem in 1584 to escape the advancing Spanish troops (who were Catholic) during the Eighty Years’ War. He moved to Amsterdam in circa 1590 in order to train as a painter. In 1604 Rudolf II invited him to become a court painter in Prague. He returned to Amsterdam in 1615. Three years later, in 1618, he settled in Utrecht, where he would remain until his death. The decade that Savery spent in Prague was the most creative phase of his career. After his return to the Netherlands he focused mainly on floral still lifes and animal paintings. Savery was declared bankrupt in 1638, and was forced to sell his home in Utrecht. The exhibition will cover Roelant Savery’s entire body of work.
Savery specialised in landscapes. His paintings of impressive waterfalls were an entirely new phenomenon in art. From 1604 to 1612 Savery worked as court painter to Habsburg emperor Rudolf II, at his spectacular court in Prague. Rudolf amassed large collections of nearly everything. He was even keen to ‘collect’ the natural beauty of his country, so he sent Savery to Tyrol to depict its landscape. Savery traveled there in 1606-07 to capture the still inhospitable natural environment of the Alps in a series drawings and paintings. He also made a series of drawings of Prague and the surrounding area, the earliest topographical drawings of the city. The drawings, featuring Charles Bridge, the gateway to the Strahov Monastery and Prague Castle with Rudolf II’s palace, are certainly picturesque. Roelant included himself in one drawing, seated on the ground with his sketchbook in his lap, a pot of ink beside him, drawn from life, precisely as he observed it.
Savery was also a pioneer of floral still lifes. It was important for a painter of flowers to depict all parts of the flower as realistically as possible. Savery had plenty of opportunity to hone his skills in Prague, as flowers from all over the world were grown at Rudolf’s palaces. Savery’s first floral still life (1603) was fairly modest, with just eleven flowers and several insects. By 1615 he was including many more flowers in his paintings, both native and cultivated and, as always, lots of insects. But ten years on (1624), his floral paintings featured whole forests of flowers, up to 64 varieties at a time, from cultivated to wild. And the flowers are teeming with life: butterflies, insects and small animals, no fewer than 45 species, including a Moluccan cockatoo using its sharp beak to pull apart a frog (an entirely imaginary scene, as this bird eats only seeds, berries and insects).
Savery was best known for his animal paintings, of which over fifty have survived. In this respect, too, the painter found everything he could wish for in Prague. The emperor had ‘zoos’, volières, a ‘Löwenhof’ with a collection of lions, a pheasant garden, a deer park, stables and a collection of stuffed animals. As with his flower paintings, Savery combined them all in landscapes teeming with life. These animals – dromedaries, foxes, elephants, bears, lions, cattle, deer, horses – would never be able to coexist in real life, but in Savery’s paintings they live peacefully side by side. He would add a biblical (Adam and Eve) or mythological (Orpheus) story to the picture, to make the idea more plausible. Fantasy plays a role in many of Savery’s paintings. One, depicting the interior of a stable where a woman milks a cow, for example, features the extraordinary sight of witches flying around on broomsticks. In another, a macaw and a cockatoo look on while grooms parade before us two impossibly elegant horses in fairly unnatural poses (one has two raised legs).
One animal – the legendary dodo – was already close to extinction in Savery’s day. But Rudolf had one in his collection (a stuffed one, at any rate), so Savery was able to portray it. His depiction of the dodo as a rather heavy bird (probably because the one in Rudolf’s collection had been overstuffed) defined its image for centuries.
Savery was the first artist who sought out models beyond the studio, drawing ordinary people out on the street, or wherever else he encountered them. He would often draw them from behind, so that they had no idea they were being immortalized. He also scribbled down notes about what they were wearing, to jog his memory later. One beggar was wearing ‘filthy black leather breeches’ and ‘filthy ash-grey stockings’. One extraordinary drawing features Jews at a synagogue on one side of the paper, and a young man sleeping on the other. It is possible to pinpoint the precise location of the synagogue: the Neualtschul (Old New Synagogue) in Prague. Savery’s five or six drawings of Jews in Prague are the earliest known images of contemporary European Jews. The young man on the other side of the sheet, dressed in elegant attire, dozes in a chair. Given his tousled hair, closed eyes and slightly open mouth, Savery must have drawn him, too, ‘from life’, precisely as he observed him.