Winterreise


Here come the times dominated by the cold and the night.

Winter – the time to travel in a different way, to the realm the farthest and most foreign to us, which is the past. And foreign not only because we travel to a different era, but also because this journey follows the imagination of a 17th-century artist, alien of his own time. We enter through the look into the world of this man – because it is only through art that we can detach ourselves from our own consciousness of the things and approach what someone else sees or have seen in a universe which never will be quite ours.

In the Netherlands there had been landscape painters since the late 16th century. Some of them made the tour to Italy and painted the landscapes flooded with the warm light of the sun, or the vertiginous passages through the Alps. Then, back in their flat country, they stretched tall steeples towering over rows of poplars, and lined up bunches of reeds along the dunes and channels. Having drawn the horizon very low on the canvas, they lit up the leaden skies, loaded with clouds, with one of those cold northern lights, and waited for the snow to lay crows on the branches hiding a sun of the end of the world. Then they went home and stayed warm, without ever dreaming about the South, in wide spread collars with white lace on their black coats.

Hercules Seghers was one of them – before becoming someone else. What he has realized, is rather the property of those who sell their homes to pay their debts, who spread the copper dust on their black panties, whose hands are stained with ink and burned by acids. Who see the shadows rather than the light. Who see the trunk rather than the leaves. Who see the bare rock rather than the grass. Who see the deserted sky rather than the birds soaring into the heights.

He was born in Haarlem in 1589 in the family of a Mennonite cloth merchant from Flandres. He learned the art of landscape from the painter Gillis van Coninxloo in Amsterdam. No doubt he had some success there, since in 1620 he could buy a large house on the Lindengracht, before having to sell it in 1631. Later we find him in Utrecht, then in The Hague. We know so little about him, that even the date of his death, around 1638, remains uncertain.

Hercules Seghers was an engraver, and as we speak today of experimental photography, we can describe him as an “experimental engraver”.

He was also a painter – but less than eleven of his paintings have survived. This one below was recently destroyed in a fire.

Hercules Seghers, Imaginary landscape, destroyed in the fire of the Armando Museum in Amersfoort in 2007

I imagine him a man in black, a relative of Frenhofer in Balzac’s novel The Unknown Masterpiece, “to whom the half-light of the staircase lent a fantastic color”, and who “looked like a painting by Rembrandt, walking silently and without a frame in the black atmosphere”. Alone, both admired and isolated in the strangeness of his work, leading an austere life and drowning each sheet in the entangled network of lines which streak it, he reveals one by one his engravings to the visitors “petrified with admiration before these fragments which escaped something incredible, some slow and progressive destruction arising among the ruins of a city put on fire.”

Rembrandt, Man in fur coat, 1631.

Rembrandt had many engravings by Seghers. And eight paintings, which he sometimes reworked – like this Mountain landscape, preserved today in the Uffizi in Florence.


But it is not the paintings that interest us. It is the experimentation.

Seghers developes “painted engravings”, engravings printed on paper colored in ink or watercolor. Others printed on canvas. For another effect, he placed the paper in the press together with a piece of thick canvas which left on the wet paper its print, the relief of its fabric. Thus each print bears the trace of a single gesture, of a surprise.


Some of his engravings were printed in colorful ink – yellow or white – on a dark background, to produce a negative effect. Others were finished in oil. Elsewhere he uses the technique of aquatint.

That’s how he realized a series of prints, each different from the other, from a single plate with a variety of unexpected effects – as a photographer would have done it a few centuries later.

Of the 54 engravings known to us, 183 prints have survived, each different from the rest. Nearly half of them are preserved in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.


Rather than real landscapes, painted after a model, he prefers to paint and engrave imaginary mountain landscapes, and thus construct a world drawn with thick lines and filled with ruins, with rotten pine logs or solitary rocks in lunar landscapes, eroded by wind and rain, frozen in a sort of petrified horror, by revolt against and a frightened flight from everything which is Dutch.


Hercules Seghers drowns his prints in such a darkness that the objects appear as “the omissions and negligences of the night”. Each landscape is a vanité – the world drawn on it is terrible and life is uncertain in it.

No one around him, in this Netherlands which is just discovering his power and sets out to conquer the world, in this Netherlands to which the Thirty Years War provides wealth and recognition, seems to notice that the night reigns in Europe – since in winter no one cares about the night behind the windows, if it is warm in the shelter.

But he knows it.

It is the night of the war at the country’s borders, a night full of the actuality of the Prophets, in the expectation of an inexorable end: a night that the man trapped in his studio in Utrecht composes in his imagination from the worse in Europe in the grip of evil, he, who knows, that the reality is even beyond the worst.

A lion has come out of his lair; a destroyer of nations has set out. He has left his place to lay waste your land. Your towns will lie in ruins without inhabitant.” Jeremiah 4:7

I looked at the earth,and it was formless and empty; and at the heavens, and their light was gone. I looked at the mountains, and they were quaking; all the hills were swaying. I looked, and there were no people; every bird in the sky had flown away. I looked, and the fruitful land was a desert; all its towns lay in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger. Jeremiah 4:23-26


“My tent is destroyed; all its ropes are snapped. My children are gone from me and are no more; no one is left now. […] A great commotion from the land of the north! It will make the towns of Judah desolate, a haunt of jackals.” Jeremiah 10:20-22



“I will fill your mountains with the slain; those killed by the sword will fall on your hills and in your valleys and in all your ravines.” Ezechiel 35:8

“I will give you as food to all kinds of carrion birds and to the wild animals. You will fall in the open field, for I have spoken, declares the Sovereign Lord.” Ezechiel 39:4-5

“I will make you a bare rock, and you will become a place to spread fishnets. You will never be rebuilt, for I the Lord have spoken, declares the Sovereign Lord.” Ezechiel 26:14

By drawing, Seghers kills the monstres that haunt his thoughts. He turns them into rocks as it happens in the fairy tales. These rocks teeming with hidden bodies and monsters, look like piles of worms, they breathe putrefaction.

In another place there is a cloud like a blade that will slice the rock: the stone is broken down into tiny pieces, and here and there a dizzy man wobbles in the middle of these fragments, he himself becoming like the fragment of a rock, a geological accident.

Paralyzed with despair, he jumps over the altitudes. He tends ropes. He piles up rocks like so many prisons. How to flee, where to hide? In which direction to escape – outside the sky?

He stands as lost in the desert among the rocks, waiting in vain for the encounter with the angel – but which angel? Is the hoped-for angel the one who accompanies Tobias while he travels with his dog somewhere in the solitude, or rather the one who fights with Jacob in the night? It is undoubtedly this nocturnal clash that left behind the emptiness and silence of the dark rocks.

Tobias and the angel are one of the very few human figures in the works of Seghers – along with some allegorical figures and a rock-like skull as a memento mori. Just a few more steps, and they will leave the picture, with their almost unfinished faces listening to each other, and with this grief and fatigue in their movement.

Strangely, this print is one of those whose plate was purchased by Rembrandt and reworked into a Flight to Egypt, where you can still recogniize a part of the original landscape. A flight, like an accomplishment for Seghers, in flight from the world – where the group of exiles are composed of black, compact figures, bent under their terror. And of the angel there is no more trace.


Hercules Seghers, Tobias and the angel

Rembrandt, The Flight into Egypt

The long winter night has fallen. In his terror, Seghers prays in the middle of the dark studio, kneeling in the middle of the books fallen on the ground, pressing his face and hands against the press.

Perhaps he is praying like Heinrich Schütz, his contemporary.

A supplication.


Heinrich Schütz, Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott, c. 1650. La Chapelle rhénane, Benoît Haller.

Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott,
Nach deiner großen Barmherzichkeit,
Wasch ab, mach rein mein Missetat,
Ich erkenn mein Sünd, und ist mir leid,
Allein ich dir gesündiget hab,
Das ist wieder mich stetichglich,
Das Bös vor dir mag nicht bestehn,
Du bleibst gerecht, ob man urteil dich.
Dr. Cornelius Becker (Leipzig, 1602)
Have mercy on me O Lord God,
According to thy great mercy,
Wash me, cleanse me of my sins,
I acknowledge my sin, I repent it.
Against thee only have I sinned,
My fault is always before me;
Before thee evil cannot exist,
Thou stayest right, even if we condemn thou.

Hercules Seghers, Ship in a storm

This text owes much, sometimes verbatim, and perhaps also in its spirit, to the article by Carl Einstein, which appeared in the fourth of the fifteen volumes of the journal Documents published by Georges Bataille between 1929 and 1930 – Carl Einstein, who also sought his path in the solitude of the mountains, and did not encounter the angel.