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Chiaroscuro Landscapes with a Forgotten Dutch Master

Italian landscape (2)
Italian landscape, ca. 1645

Born around 1615 in Utrecht, Netherlands, Jan Dirksz Both was a painter and etcher whose dramatic landscapes influenced Dutch painting deeply. Both spent time in Rome and Venice where he discovered several Masters, including the vibrant landscapes of Claude Lorrain. Where Lorrain used Classicism heavily in his paintings, with Roman architecture and figures, Both concentrated more on the luminous effects of light and elevated trees to a noble kind of natural architecture. Both also created atmosphere and mood with perspective in a way that not only depicts a view, but invites us to share a beautiful moment of fleeting sunlight.

In Italian landscape above, Both leaves much of the foreground in shadow, something most landscape painters would never do. Note how the light is coming from the far left, beyond the frame of the painting. Look at how it falls across the rustic path—Both creates a sliver of light where his figures stand, on horseback, possibly on a journey. It is the tree that really is the focal point here, rising high and gently backlit against the late afternoon sky. Beyond in the far distance we can faintly discern a bridge with a majestic mountain fading into the sky. The craggy vertical rocks to the right contrast with the flowing sensuous curves of the hills to the left—is Both commenting on the nature of feminine with masculine? A stunning painting that is difficult to look away from.

Jan Both - Italian Landscape with Draughtsman - WGA2675
Italian landscape with draughtsman, ca. 1650

I really enjoy the warm hues in this painting. Both divides the composition with the dark, verdant foreground and a distant hill against a sky with three distinctly colored clouds. Both instinctively knew that a landscape is a state of mind, not just a pretty picture, that it leads our eye to a more hopeful future in the background. I like how the trees in the foreground echo the pyramid-like structure of the three draughtsmen sitting to draw the natural beauty around them. Behind them lies a massive cascade of water with a sloping bridge. This is a mastery of atmospheric perspective and depth.

Jan Both - Landscape with Nymphs - Google Art Project
Landscape with Nymphs, ca.1622

Both sometimes collaborated with his compatriot Cornelis van Poelenburgh, who was a figure and landscape painter also from Utrecht. Here the sumptuous light and fleshy figures evoke an erotic idyll, with Both's fastidious attention to details and Poelenburgh's plump nymphs. The figures seem a little out of place and awkward, but the scene is nonetheless captivating in how Both uses light to describe mood, and even though our eyes notice the nymphs immediately upon first glance the real focal point once again are the glorious trees in the background against that sky. We perfectly know that the scene works just fine without the nymphs, which is a testament to the genius of Both.

Jan Both Flußlandschaft mit Fähre und einem mit Vieh beladenem Boot
An Italianate Landscape with Travelers on a Path, ca. 1622

Both uses atmospheric perspective and scale with that magic light in a way that mesmerizes. On the right of the composition he uses perspective in the trees, then uses them to bookend the figures on the road which, due to the declining plane are also in perspective (see below). Looking off to the far left are more figures ascending the hill, purposely tiny in scale to heighten the grandeur. Both even adds a cascading waterfall for interest. It is a landscape for the senses that has a presence, a sense that we are already standing on that path waiting to walk with these travellers.

Landscape with a draftsman, by Jan Both
Landscape with a draftsman, ca. 1645

This painting represents a culmination of everything Both learned, all the elements are here: mood, texture, light, perspective, depth, scale, and presence. Note how the composition gracefully leads our eye from left to right, zigzagging toward the far distance mountains. The focal point in this piece, however, is the bridge that leads across the river to a dream-like, distant land. Even the reflection in the river is calm, mirror-like. Both is reminding us that nature is far more important than we realize...nature is not a part of our world. We are a part of nature.


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