Mathieu Dubus, avant-gardist

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In 1939 Abraham Bredius bought a painting by Mathieu Dubus. At the time few people knew anything about the artist. Nevertheless, Bredius recognised the true artistic quality of the painter’s work. Today, we know Dubus to have been a modern artist in his own day. Indeed, he was one of the few disciples of the celebrated Hercules Segers.

What was it that made a connoisseur like Abraham Bredius notice a painting by an artist as obscure as Mathieu Dubus then was? At first sight it seems to be an Italianist landscape, like many that were painted in the early half of the seventeenth century. Bredius must have recognised something special. To him there could be no doubt that this was a modern work for the period in which it was painted. Today we would we would probably call Dubus’s painting avant garde.

Mathieu Dubus

Mathieu Dubus (Flanders c. 1590 - 1665/1666 The Hague) began as a kamerschilder (decorative painter) at the stadholder palaces. He painted the ceiling of the Great Hall at Noordeinde Palace with birds and decorated the galleries at Huis ter Nieuburg in Rijswijk and Buren Castle with gold-leaf foliage. Yet he was an artist too. In 1635 he joined the St Luke’s Guild at The Hague. He painted small, Italianate landscapes with jagged rocks and sharp contrasts of light and dark. These are reminiscent of today’s Magic Realist movement. In that sense his work was different from the pictures produced by most of his contemporaries. Although one other painter also made a name worldwide with similarly unrealistic landscapes: Hercules Segers.

Hercules Segers

Hercules Segers (Haarlem c. 1589 - 1637/1638 The Hague) settled in The Hague in 1633. Perhaps he came to the stadholder’s town because Prince Frederick Henry had shown an interest in his work. Segers was one of the most original artists of the seventeenth century. He also made etchings, experimenting with colours and techniques. Towards the end of his life he became destitute and took to drink. He died after falling down the stairs.

Segers’s landscape paintings, of which only ten survive, reveal a tranquil world with craggy rocks, deeply grooved valleys, moss-covered dead trees and startling views. Often, a lonely figure wanders, as if lost among these imposing natural surroundings. Segers painted with a loose, brisk brush, mainly using browns and greens. Bright light from an unseen source ensures a powerful contrast between light and dark. That is why his work is reminiscent of Rembrandt. Indeed, Hercules Segers was one of Rembrandt’s principal inspirations.

The stadholder collection

Rembrandt and Segers were both represented in the country’s leading art collection of the early half of the seventeenth century, namely that of Stadholder Frederick Henry and his consort, Amalia of Solms. The Stadholder possessed no less than fifteen paintings by Rembrandt, including the specially commissioned Passion series. In 1631 Rembrandt also painted a portrait of Amalia of Solms. In 1632 Frederick Henry acquired two paintings by Hercules Segers. These are mentioned in the detailed inventory compiled in that year of the contents of the Stadholder’s Quarter at the Binnenhof: ‘Twee landschappen deur Hercules Zegers gemaeckt’ (Two landscapes made by Hercules Segers). In addition the collection contained numerous portraits and other works by contemporary artists. The painting collections at the stadholder’s palaces offered an overview of the art that would then have been considered modern. As a decorative painter at the various palaces, Mathieu Dubus would have been able to feast his eyes and find inspiration for his own paintings.

From a closer look at his work it may be supposed that Dubus would have felt the attraction of Segers’s landscapes. Indeed, it is not impossible that Dubus may even have been in contact with Segers. The important role Hercules Segers played in the development of Rembrandt’s landscape art has long been known. Nevertheless, he remained a misunderstood genius. Mathieu Dubus’s art also reflects the Magic Realist landscapes of Hercules Segers. It is an avant-garde element that Bredius must have recognised in Dubus’s work.

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