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Dutch Painter of Light

Italiaans landschap met de Ponte Molle Rijksmuseum SK-A-51
Meridional Landscape with Horsemen and a Cart drawn by Oxen; in the Background the Ponte Lucano over the Aniene and the Plautii Tomb, ca.1652

Jan Dirksz Both was a Dutch landscape painter born in Utrecht around 1609. Known as an Italianate painter, i.e a painter of lush italian-style landscapes inspired by Claude Lorrain and almost always from imagination, or capriccio. Both was a pioneer of using the drama of Baroque chiaroscuro in his vivid landscapes. Also interesting is how Both often painted artists painting or drawing, as subjects in the paintings, which was a theme sometimes seen in the works of artists such as Piranesi, Pannini, and Bellotto among others. Whereas most vedute painters incorporated strong elements of architecture in their scenes, Both focused more on the geography and verdant foliage and how light changes the landscape.

In the above painting you can see how Both uses a very warm palette, even in his blues. Look at how the clouds are painted with thick yellow brushstrokes that merge into yellow-green, with blue-green greys in the shadows as the clouds grow higher in altitude. Note how he paints small traces of that yellow-green across the top of the sky, so subtle yet it makes the deep cobalt blue sky pop out. Those yellow-greens and blue-green greys continue below along the range of hills and the valley beyond. Even Both's green foliage has deep ruddish undertones, which become increasingly darker as they come closer to the foreground. Both paints the leaves of those magnificent trees with loving attention to hue and value, whereas many painters today would use a thick brush to dapple on the canvas to indicate all that foliage, Both lets us know it is the best part of the painting. You cannot fake leaves. The main figures here seem like background elements, almost silly, all three on horses and accented with warm red clothing, yet serve to give scale and perspective to the overall landscape. Both uses light in a highly sensual and glorious tone, even if only to reveal nature itself as miraculous to behold.

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

Both's use of perspective, space and scale here with a zig-zag composition leads the eye from the cool distant mountains to the warmth of the foreground rocks and foliage. Note how Both uses scale to juxtapose space...the foreground tree looms tall compared to the one off in the distance, its leaves hit by the sunlight. Even the tiny figures crossing the bridge provide an important sense of scale. What is interesting here is how Both paints the cool morning mist behind the bridge by blending those colors simple yet it creates so much atmosphere to an already beautiful scene. Those distant trees are side-lit with very cool tones that contrast against the warmer trees of the middle and foreground. Both uses cool beside warm all over this painting, along with soft beside hard edges. Texture is the main ingredient in landscape, not just light and sky. It is a masterpiece not merely because it is scenic, but because it invites us to walk inside the painting, inside this peaceful world of drama and sensuality without shock-value. The more we explore it the more beautiful it becomes.

Jan Both 003
Italian landscape by evening, ca.1645

Absolutely dream-like, this surreal painting is more an experience than a landscape. I have never seen anything like this in the thousands of landscape paintings I have seen, and over a hundred years before Turner. In this world of agriculture and working peasants, Both challenges what real wealth truly means by asking us what we hold more important, earthly possessions which fade...or Nature, which is true beauty and eternal? I truly enjoy the idea of painting as philosophical. This very warm palette, with no blues and hardly any greens at all, yet a wondrous landscape...Both proves sunlight itself can be pure sensuality.

Jan Both, 1634 - 1652 - Italiaans landschap met tekenaar - Google Art Project
Italian landscape with draughtsman, ca.1650

Gorgeous. Pure poetry. Both explores a fuller palette of warms and cools to enhance his textures to dramatic effect. Look at those clouds...the range of drama, expression, and hues are paintings in themselves. Breathtaking. And the way Both uses green here, not as a hue of leaves but as an accent color throughout the trees, from grayish green in the distance to an almost fluorescent green in the foreground. Both even uses a warm range of tones that is nearly orange in some areas. The waterfall off to the right is not a focal point yet is beautiful nonetheless. Both's landscapes are dreams, states of mind, fantasy that pulls us in...and lingers in our memories. This is not just another landscape painter. This may be one of the greatest of all time.

Landscape with the Judgement of Paris by Jan Both and Cornelis van Poelenburch
Landscape with the Judgement of Paris, ca.1650

Click here to zoom in at National Gallery in London

This copy from Wikipedia has lost the original colors for some reason, but looking purely at the composition we can glimpse into the genius of Both's vision. The figures were painted by Cornelis van Poelenburgh, a contemporary Dutch figure painter with vibrant skintones. What makes this work so intriguing is how Both really makes the mythology irrelevant to the background of Nature itself, the true story here. And yet we want to be with those figures in this lush verdant dream. Paris hands the apple to Venus as a gesture of preference for true nature of love and beauty over the complex materialism of human creations, and Both personifies the idea itself in the overall composition itself. Both challenges the notion of landscape as mere decoration on the walls of the wealthy and instead, offers us paradise as Nature itself, mindfulness, away from the problems of our own creation to the perfection of beauty itself.


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