CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Ruiny a duny : krajina očima holandských mistrů 17.–18. století v grafické tvorbě

Ruins and dunes: landscape through the eyes of the Dutch masters of graphic art in the 17th and 18th century Exhibition: 21 April - 25 July 2004


Zdenìk Kazlepka, curator of Old Master prints and drawings of the Moravian Gallery

Museum information

Landscape prints make up an important part of the collection of older graphic art in the Moravian Gallery in Brno, ranging from realistic landscapes to idyllic (pastoral) scenes. Landscape in graphic art sprang from a general interest in the genre in the painting of the Low Countries, in Holland in particular, in the 17th century. The landscape painting that had originated in the 16th century, the period of humanism, became a favourite among upper and middle social classes with the wherewithal to purchase both sizeable pictures and small prints at the rapidly-developing art market. At first, graphic art was targeted at less well-off customers as it was more affordable. However, its popularity rocketed in the 18th century and prices were swift to follow. Motifs from prints were often transferred onto ceramics, as illustrated by a bowl on display manufactured in the Vienna porcelain works. Etching was the most frequently employed technique with landscape prints. Unlike copper engraving, it provided artists with new, richer and more picturesque modes of depicting landscape scenes and motifs. Etching allowed for lines of different grading, and its plethora of fine tones guaranteed highly impressive light effects.

Dutch landscape painting in the 17th century was divided into two basic types, unfolding alongside each other. The first was “national landscape painting” in a realistic vein, while the other produced idealised Italian-style landscapes. The first direction was better suited to the burgher classes, the second aimed at the rich and the aristocratic. Yet they had something in common: through both landscape types, artists sought to express their spiritual and psychological insights.

The national landscape painting school depicted the Dutch countryside, from woody backwaters to the low sand dunes associated with the sea. Apart from these realistic landscapes, so much so that they seem to have been executed by a flash of a camera, popular motifs included seaside cliffs at high tide and stormy seas with tossing boats and ships. Man was always an inseparable part of these landscapes, be it involved in the everyday rush, making a living or putting up an uneven fight against the raging elements.

On the other hand, Italian-style landscape painting spawned artificial, idealised landscapes, largely inspired by the travels of Dutch painters in Italy. These observers were fascinated by sunlit mountains on the horizon, bizarre formations, waterfalls tumbling from craggy rocks, river fords and ancient ruins. Even these landscapes testify to incessant human activity, reworking the past and commenting on the present. Ancient ruins represented in engravings serve as abodes for country people and resting places for shepherds, but they also invite wanderers to contemplate the grandeur of lost empires and the inexorable passage of time, eventually turning everything to ruin.

The execution of the ideal landscape was a subject of academic dispute and learned treatises from the 17th century onwards. The French artist Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) was the first to categorise landscape painting, dividing it into pastoral, heroic and religious. In 1707, The Great Book of Painting (Het Groot Schilderboek) by the Dutch academic and painter Gérard de Lairesse (1640–1711) was published in Amsterdam for the first time. Lairesse distinguished between modern (realistic) and ancient (ideal) landscapes. He maintained that modern landscape was imperfect but could be transformed into ideal (ancient) through an aptly selected repertoire of extra content, such as remnants of antiquity, splendid buildings, tombs, and so on.

According to Lairesse’s theory, the ideal landscape picture required a correct proportion of light and shadow; the type of composition and colour choice were also prescribed. The selection of a landscape was to be based on the changing relations between individual landscape motifs including “woods with perspective vistas, rocks, rivers, waterfalls, fields, etc. that refresh our senses and please the eye.”

A landscape artist should strive to represent non-living objects in as real a fashion as possible, since the manifold variety of nature is present in every detail. It is more appropriate to depict “crooked trees next to straight ones, high mountain ranges next to low ones, large and small fountains, humble dwellings and magnificent palaces, lush vegetation and arid land, and so on”, as a one-sided use of motifs could detract from a work of art. Lairesse claimed that an artist should consider in advance “which part of nature, season, month, time of the day (sunshine or moonlight) and weather (bright, foggy, rainy or windy)” he was going to paint. To make a landscape “live”, it is vital to select suitable figurative elements and other components. If, for example, a wood landscape is the objective, “forest gods, signposts, gravestones, benches for resting etc.” are recommended. Endeavours to approach landscape painting on a theoretical basis are also reflected in some of the prints by Dutch artists exhibited here, including two pieces by Lairesse.

The exhibition includes prints by
Jan Gerritsz. van Bronckhorst, Gérard de Lairesse, Albert Meyering, Jan van Noort, Pieter Nolpe, Karel Dujardin, Roeland Roghman, Simon de Vlieger, Jacob van Ruisdael, Jan Both, Paulus Potter, Gerhard Janssen, Jan van Goyen, Pieter Molijn, the circle of Salomon van Ruysdael and Philipp Jacob Loutherbourg II.