10.5 High and Low
This will ultimately lead us back to the question of what it was that made the Small Landscapes such a successful model in the 17th century. And the answer is that they pretend to show views from a certain geographic region but in fact the images shown could be located everywhere and nowhere. Not only was their subject an interesting one; it was certainly quite profitable, too. Publishers almost certainly knew about the numerous editions, and they had possibly heard of the name Pieter Bruegel that had suddenly cropped up in the second edition.1 It was Karel van Mander who said of him that, when he was in the Alps he swallowed all those mountains and rocks, which, upon returning home, he spat out again onto canvases and panels, so faithfully was he able to follow nature.2 Claes Janszoon Visscher’s marketing strategy to associate his copies of the series with an artist lauded by his biographer for being an inspired landscape painter, perpetually searching for new subjects, had definitely worked. However, their simple dissemination was unlikely to be the only reason for their popularity and outstanding critical reception I have tried to sketch out in my essay. The Small Landscapes were ahead of their time in terms of their accessibility, or what today is often described as reducing complexity, an idea very prominent in the current scholarly Zeitgeist. They provided real alternatives to the hermetic woods of the Frankenthal artists, the sylvan idylls by Bemmel, and all those landscapes that pretended to have a devotional purpose by adding Christian elements. The question that remained in the viewers mind was ultimately where all this happened. Being able to locate what is shown in the picture, perhaps a real place that actually exists, is, I think, the key in understanding the popularity of these landscape prints. This holds even more true when we consider viewers who are less interested in satisfying their curiosity, enhanced by art-historical knowledge and competencies gained through study, but an audience who simply looks for something to compare the pictures with their own experience.
I would like to end this essay with the same quote I used at the beginning and repeat Horst Gerson’s statement that ‘engravings and drawings [...] were disseminated around the world in their thousands’. He goes on to say that it were ‘not only the good and valuable things like the etchings by Rembrandt, but also the cheaper reproductions of painting’.3 – ‘And’, one wants to add, ‘the countless small format landscape prints’. What I wanted to show is how the type or genre of the Small Landscapes with its close rural views and precise geographical locations was promulgated in southern Germany in the late 17th century. Many of the landscape prints discussed here are admittedly only minor works of art. They are, moreover, priced less than, say, unique objects like paintings, and since many copies of the same print exist, several collectors can own the same print, therefore making each print less valuable. What is so fascinating about the topic, is that here we see a phenomenon that takes place in the early days of the now long-established market for art and art-related publishing whose laws of supply and demand were most of the time completely separate from the academic discourse on art. Putting the focus on the role of publishers in shaping the canon is, however, a discussion that will have to wait for another time.
1 Regiunculae, et villae | aliquot ducatus bra | bantiae, à P. Breugelio | delineatae, et in picto | rum gratiam, à Nico | lao Ioannis piscatore | excusae, & in lucem edi | tae. Amstelodami (Some small residences and villas of the Duchy of Brabant, designed by Pieter Bruegel, and for the sake of painters engraved and published by Claes Jansz. Visscher in Amsterdam).
2 Van Mander 1604, fol. 223v: ‘In zijn reysen heeft hy veel ghesichten nae t’ leven gheconterfeyt, soo datter gheseyt wort, dat hy in d’ Alpes wesende, al die berghen en rotsen had in gheswolghen, en t’ huys ghecomen op doecken en Penneelen uytghespogen hadde, soo eyghentlijck con hy te desen en ander deelen de Natuere nae volghen’ (http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/mand001schi01_01/mand001schi01_01_0221.php).
3 Gerson 1942/1983, p. 4: ‘Nicht etwa nur die guten und kostbaren Sachen wie die Radierungen von Rembrandt, sondern auch die billigeren Reproduktionen von Gemälden’.