Herman Saftleven the Younger (Rotterdam 1609 - Utrecht 1685)

A Rocky Landscape with Travellers on a Path and Peasants by a Lake

signed with monogram and dated 'HSL 1643' (lower left)
oil on canvas
116.2 x 91.5 cm (45¾ x 36 in)


Provenance: H.S.H Princess Cäcilie of Salm Reifferscheidt-Dyck (1911-1991), Schloss Dyck, Jüchen;
by descent to the previous owner.

The theatrical, soaring mountains frame this landscape to spectacular effect. In the background a snow-capped peak can be spied, hinting at the extreme altitude and general inaccessibility of the scene. The craggy rocks are scattered with sporadic trees emerging from nooks and crannies in the rock face, while long, creeping plants reach out into the harsh, challenging environment. Perched on top of the right-hand cliff, a building can just be made out with the outline of a chimney and windows. Above, the sky is clouding over, though the whole landscape is bathed in a soft, warm light.

Walking through the central valley, a group of travellers can be seen. A man wearing a broad-rimmed black hat and cape leads the group and looks towards the viewer while a small dog scampers alongside. Behind him, a pair walk together deep in conversation. The man, holding a walking stick, looks at his companion who is heavily laden with possessions. A small child follows the couple, gesticulating with his right hand. Further behind on the path a lone figure sits atop a horse as it slowly embarks on the incline. In the distance the valley leads into a lake. Two hat-wearing figures can be seen sitting on the shore gazing into the water and in the hazy distance, other figures can be seen wandering through the landscape.

A Rocky Landscape with Travellers on a Path and Peasants by a Lake, was previously unrecorded, but Dr. Wolfgang Schulz, author of the catalogue raisonné Herman Saftleven the Younger, has noted that it was by some distance the largest work produced by Saftleven in 1643. The portrait format is also an unusual one for Saftleven, but there are at least two other examples recorded by the RKD, both of which were also painted in 1643.¹ This experimentation is just one element which makes this such an intriguing point in Saftleven’s career, when he was influenced by a number of varied artistic sources, many of which are in evidence in the present work.

The most dramatic and immediate of these influences was the work of Roelandt Savery (1576-1639). When he painted the present work Saftleven was living in Utrecht, the town where Savery had spent the last part of his career, and the elder artist’s work clearly had a significant impact on A Rocky Landscape with Travellers on a Path and Peasants by a Lake. In works such as Crayfish Fishermen (Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent), Savery depicted fantastical landscapes, dominated by dramatic jagged rock formations, deriving ultimately from the raw beauty of the Rhenish landscape. Both Crayfish Fishermen and the present work use portrait formats to emphasise the great height of the mountains they depict. The soaring expanses of bare rock dwarf the figures and imbue the landscapes with a sense of great drama.

This type of mountainous landscape was to play an increasingly important role in Saftleven’s work, especially in his mature period. Mountainous Landscape, was executed almost forty years after the present work and yet they are highly comparable. Both works show figures journeying through vast rocky gorges, and reflect a fascination with the imposing majesty of nature, which emphasises the relative insignificance of man. The role of the figures in both these works is predominantly that of staffage, their presence serving to animate the landscapes. However, even in works where the narrative plays a more central role, such as the National Gallery’s Christ Teaching from Saint Peter’s Boat, Saftleven uses a fantastical mountainous landscape, ultimately deriving from Savery and the Flemish tradition, to imbue his work with drama.

Although Saftleven’s mature period is dominated by these monumental Rhenish landscapes, in 1643, when the present work was painted, it was a very recent development in his style, especially on this scale. In another work from the early 1640s, Mediterranean Coastal Scene, which bears the heavy influence of Jan van Goyen Saftleven’s interest in geological features is starting to show itself, through the huge boulder which stands isolated on the left-hand side. It is clear therefore that A Rocky Landscape with Travellers on a Path and Peasants by a Lake comes at a fascinating point in Saftleven’s artistic development.

Saftleven’s early work was influenced by artists such as van Goyen and Pieter de Molijn, before he started to come under the influence of the Dutch Italianate artists, initially Cornelis van Poelenburch, and in the 1640s, Jan Both. Both returned to Utrecht from Rome in 1641, and it is perhaps his work which is the second major influence upon A Rocky Landscape with Travellers on a Path and Peasants by a Lake. Although Both’s Italian Landscape with a Path, has none of the drama of the present work, Saftleven’s humble travellers are closely akin to those that populate Both’s paintings.

Perhaps of more significance is the comparable use of light in both works. Both and the Dutch Italianate artists were known for the way they infused their landscapes with the rich light of the Campangna. This same soft golden light is used by Saftleven to illuminate his Rhenish valley, heightened by his skilful use of shadow. In both paintings the delicate white clouds, which drift across the sky, are tinged with the yellow and pink of the dawn light.

A Rocky Landscape with Travellers on a Path and Peasants by a Lake is therefore a fascinating work in the context of Saftleven’s career, as it evidences the fusion of the early Italianate influence of artists such as Both and van Poelenburch - evident in the soft, southern light - with the craggy, spectacular landscapes seen in the works of Savery. It was painted at a crucial juncture in his stylistic development, and in a unique manner reflects his major influences.

Saftleven was born in Rotterdam to an artistic family. His father, Herman Saftleven I (c. 1580-1627) was a history painter and draughtsman, active in Rotterdam from around 1609, and three of his sons became artists.² Saftleven the Younger and brother Cornelis (1607-1681), both trained as artists in Rotterdam, probably under their father. Later in their careers the brothers briefly collaborated from c.1633. Cornelis specialised in rural genre scenes and the brothers produced a number of barn interiors together. Herman continued to produce these alone up until 1637 and they are generally considered to be superior to those of his brother.

Saftleven the Younger is recorded as a pupil in the Rotterdam Guild of Saint Luke in 1627, but by 1632 he had settled in Utrecht, where he was married the following year. He was particularly fond of his adopted city and he drew and etched its views and vistas. After a hurricane caused widespread devastation in 1674, Saftleven recorded the damage and in c.1682 he sold a series of twenty two drawings of Utrecht churches that he had completed before they were destroyed. At around the same time, he received a commission to draw the plans and flowers at Vijverhof, the riverside estate of the amateur botanist and horticulturalist Agnes Block (1629-1704). He was also a member of the Guild of St. Luke there, where he served several times as dean.

As previously discussed Saftleven’s early work is indebted to de Molijn and van Goyen, and he later briefly fell under the influence of Abraham Blommaert and more significantly, Both. His oeuvre includes farmhouse interiors, imaginary riverscapes and Italianate landscapes. In addition to painting Saftleven was a prolific draughtsman, and he produced more than 1,200 topographical and imaginary landscape drawings that were highly sought after by contemporary collectors. As can be seen in an example such as Mountain Landscape with Figures, these were not rough sketches, but highly finished large-scale independent works, which stylistically and thematically are comparable A Rocky Landscape with Travellers on a Path and Peasants by a Lake. He was also a very active printmaker and produced an extensive body of etchings and engravings. The earliest were produced at the age of eighteen and reveal the influence of Willem Buytewech (c.1591-1625).

His exceptional skill in depicting imaginary and real landscapes made Saftleven one of the best-known Dutch artists during his lifetime. He had a number of pupils including, from c.1645, the landscape painter Jan Gerritsz. van Bemmel (1628-1673) and his brother Willem van Bemmel (1630-1708), and from 1668 to 1671, Jan van Bunnick (1654-1727). His popularity also continued into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when his works were actively collected and copied, for example by Jan Griffier I (c.1645/1652- 1718).

The provenance of the present work is of particular note as it was once part of Princess Cecilia of Salm-Salm’s art collection at Schloss Dyck. Schloss Dyck is one of the most important moated castles in the Rhineland and had been the home of the Salm-Reifferscheidt-Dyck family for 900 years until 1999 when the estate became the Centre for Garden Art and Landscape Design. The Baroque appearance of the castle was updated between 1656 and 1667, though the history of the site dates back to 1094.

We are grateful to Dr. Wolfgang Schulz for noting that this previously unrecorded painting is by far the largest of Saftleven’s work in 1643.

¹ RKD image nos. 62573 & 21873. The latter is in the the Centraal Museum, Utrecht (no. 10243).
² It should be noted that Thieme-Becker and other sources erroneously record Saftleven I as Saftleven II, and Saftleven II as Saftleven III.