Road by the Edge of a Lake by Jan Both

Road by the Edge of a Lake by Jan Both (1637-41)

Today I am looking at a landscape painting by the Dutch painter and etcher Jan Dirksz Both.  The artist was born in Utrecht around 1618, the younger brother of Andries Both, who was one of a group of genre painters who worked in Rome in the 17th century and who brought to the Italians the sixteenth century Netherlandish art which depicted peasant subjects.  They were known as the bamboccianti.  The term came from the nickname Il Bamboccio, which translated means “ugly doll” or “ugly puppet”, and was a nickname given to the Dutch painter and leader of the group, Pieter van Laer, because of his physical deformity, as well as the puppet-like figures in his paintings.

It was whilst the two Both brothers were working in Rome that Jan Both met the French landscape artist Claude Lorrain and a fellow Dutch painter Herman van Swanevelt, and it was with these two painters that he collaborated on a series of landscape works.   It was from Claude that he acquired the skill of rendering effects of golden or silvery light and this technique was hugely influential after he returned to Holland in 1642.  Originally Jan Both produced the popular genre paintings and scenes from the everyday life of the streets of Rome but on his return to Utrecht he concentrated all his artistic efforts on Italianate landscape paintings, which were characterised by the golden glow of sunlight.  His brother Andries, on the other hand, preferred the genre painting in the manner of Pieter van Leer.   Like Jan and Andries Both, throughout the 17th century, a steady stream of Dutch painters made the long and demanding trek to Italy, which was, at that time, acknowledged as the home of art.  Aspiring artists from many European countries would descend on Rome in order to study the great masters of the Renaissance and the contemporary painters of the Baroque.  The Dutch who had come from a colder harsher climate with its gloomy and overcast skies were thrilled by the beauty of a sunny Italy.  They marveled at the light, and the myriad of colours offered by the Italian landscapes.   The Dutch artists depicted these wonderful Roman Campagna landscapes in their paintings along with the ruins of earlier civilizations which were dotted throughout the countryside.  This group of 17th century Netherlandish painters were known as the Dutch Italianates.

Jan returned to Utrecht around 1641.  He became the main pioneer of Italianate landscape painting in 17th-century Holland.   He introduced to Dutch landscape paintings a style based on the work of Claude Lorrain, which he had witnessed in Rome. Later this Italianate landscape style of his was developed by other artists such as Nicolaes Berchem and Aelbert Cuyp.  This Italianate style of landscape painting when transferred to the native Dutch landscapes was very popular and much in demand in Holland.  His landscape paintings became more refined over the years and he would often produce large works of idealised landscapes drenched in the golden light of the Mediterranean.

The painting of Jan Both, which I am featuring today, is entitled Road by the Edge of a Lake which he completed between 1637 and 1641 dating back to his Italian sojourn.  It currently hangs in the Dulwich Gallery, London.  The earth has a subtle red tinge to it which mirrors that found in Italy.  There is a tranquillity about this painting as we see the herdsman slowly weaving their way home towards the golden sunset.  The slanting light from the falling sun produces long shadows even from the smallest of molehills we see on the herdsmen’s trail.  This painting incorporates a typical golden sunset, which Jan Both probably learnt from Claude Lorrain when he was in Italy.  Look at the tones and colours of his sky.  Look how the artist has depicted the background, with its bright yellows and yet it also has a misty quality about it, which is what we would experience if we looked towards the setting sun on a clear day.  Move your eyes to the background on the right and the colour changes to a bluer tone and the mistiness gradually disappears.  The way the artist has depicted the background is a seamless continuity of the bright but misty yellowish haze to the clarity of blue sky.  I also like the way the artist has captured the way the sunlight falls on the leaves of the trees and even the individual blades of grass which borders on to the path to the left of the herdsman.

It is interesting to note that some art historians believe that Jan’s brother Andries may have had a hand in this painting.  They come to this conclusion when they studied the figures of the herdsme.  These reminded them of the figures seen in many of Pieter van Laer’s paintings and as I told you earlier, Andries Both was a dedicated follower on Il Bamboccio.

It is a magical painting and one can almost feel the warmth from the setting sun.  It is no wonder the Dutch liked to hang this type of painting on the walls of their houses as they sat inside by their fires and shivered with the cold of a Dutch winter’s day.