In the shadow of a group of Roman ruins, a nude woman stands on a low rock with her back to us, her long hair caught up to reveal shoulders and narrow waist. A young lad gazes at her, crowned with a wreath of leaves and cradled in a peasant woman’s lap. She appears to be trying to turn his face away from the voluptuous figure.
This would be a good beginning to the illustration of a classical story. But which story? Suggestions have been made, but none quite fits the characters van Uyttenbroeck shows. At this time, landscape painting was still considered a lower form of art than pictures of historical events or classical myths. In order to elevate their work artists included classical figures.
The figures in van Uyttenbroeck’s painting have not been identified, but are an excuse to paint a detailed view, using texture and light to lead the eye from place to place in an imaginary landscape.
In the shadow of a group of Roman ruins, a nude woman stands on a low rock with her back to us, her long hair caught up to reveal shoulders and narrow waist. She holds a bucket and her long, pink shawl flutters in the breeze. Her pearly white flesh glows against the dark foliage in the background, and giant leaves curl at her feet.
A young lad, crowned with a wreath of leaves, gazes at her. He is cradled in a peasant woman’s lap; she appears to be trying to turn his face away from the voluptuous figure. Up on the hillside, a bearded old man walks through the woods, close to figures in classical dress dancing to a tambourine. Below them is the entrance to a cave or rough building shuttered with long poles. Lower down the hillside a man takes a woman by the hand and points the dancers out to her.
This would be a good beginning to the illustration of a classical story. But which story? Suggestions have been made, but none quite fits the characters van Uyttenbroeck shows. Perhaps it doesn‘t matter. At this time, landscape painting was still considered a lower form of art than pictures of historical or biblical events or classical myths. Many artists were fascinated by the problems that landscape painting presents – how to show light on various textures, how to show distance on a two-dimensional surface. But in order to paint landscapes they needed a pretext, such as the inclusion of classical figures.
Whatever myth he originally intended, the purpose of van Uyttenbroeck’s picture is clear. The figures are an excuse to paint a lush, detailed view, using texture and light to lead the eye from place to place in an imaginary landscape. Several Dutch artists at the time had been to Italy and returned to paint landscapes in a soft, mellow Mediterranean light. Van Uyttenbroeck shared their enthusiasm for such rustic scenes but didn’t go to Italy himself. His rural idyll has a cooler northern light. His clouds are grey, diminishing into the distance, balancing the burgeoning trees on the hillside. He paints animals, especially the silky hair of the goats, with a fluid brush; he picks out details of horns and floppy ears, and soft eyes that gaze at us as if we have interrupted their grazing.
Van Uyttenbroeck probably took the Roman ruins from one of the many engravings of Roman monuments available in the Netherlands. The rest of the landscape he would have made by putting together sketches he had made in the open air and assembled to paint in the studio, partly from life, partly from memory – the whole from imagination. He enjoys such details as the gnarled branch sticking out over the white cow’s head and the glistening water of the river meandering into the distance as much as the distant dancers or the elegant nude.
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