Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 21, 2001
Walter S. Gibson Pleasant Places: The Rustic Landscape from Bruegel to Ruisdael Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. 291 pp.; 16 color ills.; 124 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (0520216989)

In his new book, Pleasant Places: The Rustic Landscape from Bruegel to Ruisdael, Walter Gibson takes the reader on an extensive wandeling that explores the diverse pleasures the seventeenth-century Dutch took in from images of their own familiar countryside. The book spans from the sixteenth-century “origins” of the “rustic” landscape in Antwerp to late seventeenth-century discussions of the picturesque, but developments associated with Haarlem are central. In the words of the author, “The rustic landscape born in Antwerp, came of age in Haarlem.” The subject—rustic landscape—is very broadly conceived, and Gibson draws on a rich trove of historical evidence and anecdote, as well as a wide range of scholarship, to evoke the many pleasures associated with such places. The author also stresses—in the introduction, in a subsequent chapter, and as a leitmotif throughout the book—his strongly voiced conviction that “the current preoccupation with scriptural reading precludes any clear appreciation of how the rustic landscape functioned in its own time.”

The first chapters of Pleasant Places provide an overview of the sixteenth-century interest in landscape and a fuller description of the prints, and to a lesser extent, the drawings, produced in Antwerp. Hieronymus Cock’s Small Landscapes (Many very pretty examples of various village dwellings, and the Depictions of country estates and peasant houses), published in 1559 and 1561, is shown to establish a type, the dorphuysboecken, seminal for Claes Jansz. Visscher’s subsequent series. In his discussion of the series’ popularity and influence, Gibson touches on the humanist milieu and discusses both the suburban retreats of the wealthy citizens and the more modest rural pastimes of the less affluent. He sets aside consideration of the political situation, and instead emphasizes that the notably prosperous and well-ordered countryside in images, such as those by Cock, establish a mood of the Sunday and holiday world of bucolic tranquility.

Gibson proceeds, in Chapter 2 (“The Rustic Landscape in Holland”), from his emphasis on Small Landscapes to consider drawings by Goltzius and Bloemaert, before developing his main focus: the work of Claes Jansz. Visscher. The subsequent discussion of the relations between Antwerp and Haarlem sets out the rich web of connections among artists, printers, and publishers. It is within this artistic and commercial context, rather than a specific genealogy of influence, that Gibson conveys the importance of the Small Landscapes for Visscher’s Pleasant Places (1611-12) and his reworked version of the Small Landscapes (Some small residences and estates in the Duchy of Brabant, 1612). At this point, the author turns away from describing the landscape prints’ popularity and Visscher’s role in promoting a more localized [rustic] variant to consider “Scriptural Reading its use and abuses” (Chapter 3) and “Painting for Pleasure” (Chapter 4) before returning to Visscher and Haarlem in Chapter 5.

Gibson rightly emphasizes the religious pluralism of Dutch society in the seventeenth century. Indeed, the inhabited, and for the most part prosperous and pleasant, landscapes that are his subject evoke community. Certainly pleasure in landscape—especially prosperous native scenery—crossed confessional boundaries. The very act of coming together in a shared native landscape might even be seen as an embodiment of shared history and communal values that transcended all too prevalent factionalism. Nonetheless, whatever one might feel about the use and abuse of scriptural reading—especially when viewed reductively—the religious and didactic resonances of landscape surely ought not to be so baldly separated from its pleasures. Pleasure, after all, was for Calvin the main function of landscape. Without arguing for a scriptural reading, one could attempt to tease out distinctions in religious, philosophical, and ethical viewpoints equivalent to those evident in literary descriptions of landscape. The fruitfulness of attending to such differences in point of view is evident in Gibson’s own discussion of schilderachtig in Chapter 7.

Chapter 5 (“Pleasant Places: the Case of Haarlem”) presents an account of Visscher’s Pleasant Places that describes the artist/publisher’s emulation of Cock’s earlier Small Landscapes together with a synopsis of Haarlem’s history and the fame of its natural beauties. To convey the delights of Haarlem and its surroundings, Gibson draws on songbooks, the accounts of “daytrippers” and foreign travelers, as well as numerous descriptions that range from Guicciardini in the sixteenth century to Ampzing in the seventeenth. He also provides a suggestive, if rather short, consideration of the pleasures associated with Scheveningen and the Haagse Bos. Gibson’s inclusion of the country house tradition presents another perspective on the “rustic” theme—though to my mind that tradition provides a viewpoint more pertinent later in the century. Visscher, for example, leaves out the few castles and estates Cock included; such buildings appear obliquely, if at all, in most native landscapes of the first decades. One might even argue that a striking and distinctly Dutch feature of these early views is the articulation of a perspective that emphasizes the land and its inhabitants; nobles, burghers, and villagers engaged together in various mundane and communal activities. River and ferry scenes suggest a world of shared pleasure, a community of purpose distinct from the suburban vision of a particular rentier class. Country residence may well be influential and cast an important light on rustic landscape; almost certainly it has much to tell us about patronage. Before we can judge its role, however, we must begin carefully to distinguish among the varied idioms within rustic or rural scenery.

With Chapter 6 (“Labor and Leisure”), Gibson returns to Haarlem. Here, he draws attention to the staffage, its remarkable diversity, and its range of activity. No less than the many figures, the rutted well-worn roadways, and the definitions of wandeling (stroll, ramble, and walk) that Gibson cites convey just the sense of movement and engagement required of the viewer. Implicit to this perspective is the understanding that no place is really known until it has been perambulated. Only for the attentive viewer do the people and place gradually reveal themselves. Such an engaged viewer cannot but also become mindful, too, of the artist’s skill and technique. In this chapter, Gibson’s focus on labor and justified leisure (negotium/otium) recalls the strong humanist tradition especially evident in Jan van de Velde’s series of seasons, several with Latin inscriptions. Gibson cautions against judging too hastily that those who sit or gossip by the roadside are personifications of vice. His distinction between otium characterized as sluggish and dull (laziness), and active leisure or contemplation, is especially useful.

Though the sources that dominate Chapter 7 (“Rustic Ruins”) date mostly from the later part of the century, they provide a telling commentary to the pleasant places discussed in the earlier chapters. Once again, the discussion encompasses a rich diversity, and here “rustic” is no simple synonym for pleasant places. This chapter foregrounds the complex relationship between art and nature implicit in any naturalistic depiction of familiar scenery. This attention to the artfulness of selective naturalism and to the self-awareness evident in artists’ exploitation of technique contributes an important dimension to works of art discussed in the earlier chapters. Especially telling is Constantine Huygens’ criticism of those who stroll through the countryside and say, “This is a schilderachtig view. I cannot excuse this; it is thoughtlessly said. It seems to me they say: God makes ingenious copies of our originals, and may well rejoice himself in the model; even if it was from our hand it could not be more beautiful.” Such a comment evokes a Reformed view of the relationship between art and nature that provides a new context for Gibson’s argument in Chapter 3.

Pleasant Places: The Rustic Landscape from Bruegel to Ruisdael succeeds admirably in providing an overview of the pleasant places depicted in prints and paintings; telling anecdotes throughout the volume convey a range of seventeenth-century responses to actual and painted scenery. Though the author emphasizes “the traditional function of landscape images as surrogates for the experience of nature itself,” his survey provides an even more extensive range of experiences. Moreover, his book provides a timely reminder of the centrality of pleasure to the experience of landscape painting and a reminder, too, that such experience is a precondition for any attempt to understand the meanings they may speak.

Catherine Levesque
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, College of William and Mary