Re-Discovering Woodland Imagery in Northern Art - by Leopoldine Prosperetti

Leopoldine Prosperetti, author of Woodland Imagery in Northern Art, c. 1500-1800 : Poetry and Ecology, explores the subject of woodland imagery by considering the case of Jan Brueghel’s “little woods” painting held in The Ambrosiana Museum in Milan, thought by many to be the first time in European art that a painting focuses on a forest landscape for its own sake... 


Jan Brueghel the Elder, Forest Interior, oil on copper, 1596. Milan, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. Photo @BibliotecaAmbrosiana, Milan.


For many years the focus of my scholarship was on Jan Brueghel the Elder (1569-1625), a painter of great renown in the city of Antwerp (Belgium). Son of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1515-1569) and contemporary of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) he was admired for the perfection of pictures in small format. Some of these were on copper, known in the picture trade as rametti, hot items in the picture trade, aimed at collectors, who admired the aesthetic effects of metal support, superb pigments, and great pictorial skill. These pictures were not meant to hang on a wall. They were stored in private cabinets, where they dazzled the eyes of their owners as they held them up close to take in every detail.


Brueghel ran a busy studio which, even after his death in 1625, specialized in the production of derivative pictures, cheap versions of Jan’s oeuvre that flooded the market.  It was a case of overproduction that would prove a challenge for art historians, who wished to decide which one could be autograph. Presently it is much easier to navigate Brueghel’s art thanks to the creation of a fabulous website, curated by Brueghel scholar, Alice Honig (https://www.janbrueghel). It contains 350+ pictures that are by his hand


The picture above, Forest Interior, is discussed in the scholarly literature as a novelty.  It is the first time in European art that we see a forest landscape for its own sake. No longer part of a story the refreshing scene of a forest clearing heralds a new appreciation for “greenery”, which art critics at the time considered a distinct branch of the pictorial arts. The job of the skilled painter of sylvan imagery was not to be botanically correct, but to capture the effects of fleeting light upon leaves to create a green-tinged chiaroscuro, that brings a tree to life. It was a technique akin to what Karel van Mander (1604) identified as reflexy-const, or the technique for depicting reflecting surfaces, whether on objects crafted by human hand, or created by nature.


During the Renaissance the color green also became a cultural issue. As an English connoisseur once wrote,

If your Eyesight be weary or offended with longe viewing of one and the same object, you may be pleased to proceede to my Second Division, which is landscape. The rather because (they say) greene is of all Colours most Grateful and moste plesant to the Eyes. (Edward Norgate)


Greenery is therapeutic! The emerald tones in Jan’s picture would have been received by its viewers as a prime example of viriditas, the green power of renewal, a spiritual quality valued by the mystics of the Middle Ages (St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Hildegard of Bingen, John Ruusbroec) and continued to be highly prized by the Christian humanists of the Renaissance. The essence of greenery, as a skill, was to make apparent the properties of nitor, understood as a passing refulgence, as when a cloud floats by, or the skies open after a summer storm. These are visual effects, which in mystical terms denote the shifting epiphanies of a hidden god. For many in Early Modern times, depicted greenery was valued as a little dose of medicine for tired souls. Nowadays a walk in the woods is prescribed by the medical establishment as a cure for the effects of the modern lifestyle.


Jan Brueghel painted his rametto in 1596 for his life-long patron, cardinal-connoisseur, Federico Borromeo (1564-1631), who kept it in his collections in Milan, where it has been ever since.  Early on it was mounted with five others in a common frame. I saw this assembly, and another one just like it, in August 2021 in the Jan Brueghel room in the Ambrosiana. As I stood in that marvelous space the sight of Brueghel’s rametto infused me with a renewed enthusiasm for the woodland scenery that once abounded near human settlements, but gradually disappeared in modern times. This book looks for the lost woodlands in poetry and the art of the Old Masters, in hopes that the poetic arts and pictorial images will bring back not the wildernesses or the great parks, but the “fleeting charms of the vanished woodlands.”


-- Leopoldine van Hogendorp Prosperetti, 2021 


Order your copy of the book HERE.

And see more books in our Art / Art History collection HERE.

You can also find out more about Leopoldine Prosperetti's research and books on her website HERE.