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: Landscape with Golfers


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
To its collection of seventeenth-century European paintings the Institute has recently added a landscape which will probably arouse more general interest through the fact that it depicts an early form of the popular sport golf than because it represents an early example of pure landscape painting. The picture was painted in Rome in 1624 by Paul Bril, a Flemish artist who, like many of his contemporaries, was attracted to Rome in the hope of becoming employed on the decoration of the Vatican, then in progress. In Bril’s case, the fact that his brother Matthew was already in the service of the Pope was doubtless an added incentive to join in the movement of northern painters to Italy. In any event, he arrived in Rome in 1592 and remained there until his death in 1626.Within a comparatively short time Paul Bril made a place for himself in the artistic circles of Rome. Although he was not until later employed in the decoration of the Vatican, he did not lack commissions. His approach to landscape, which he treated as an end in itself, was at the time something of an innovation in Italy, and his poetic interpretations of nature were much in favor.Bril’s preoccupation with light, stemming from his northern inheritance, is perhaps the most outstanding quality of his work. His treatment of it is well illustrated in the Institute’s landscape, in which the middle and far distances are bathed in the soft, greenish light characteristic of his last works. This particular passage of the painting is strongly reminiscent of the Institute’s Rest on the Flight Into Egypt by Patinir, and gives renewed emphasis to the continuous tradition of landscape art in the Lowlands. The intervening hills of the scene are thick with foliage, and are momentarily shadowed by a passing cloud. In the left foreground a high, crumbling wall bordered with tall trees casts a dark shadow over a pair of golfers trying to drive from a deep trap. The poetic quality of the landscape, the harmoniousness of the design, and the frankly subjective mood in which Bril approached nature, must all have impressed the Italians by their novelty.The placing, in this idyllic landscape, of a group of figures playing golf is a detail quite comprehensible on the part of a Flemish artist. Contrary to general opinion, golf seems not to have originated in Scotland, but in the Lowlands. Bril’s inclusion of it in this picture may well have been a nostalgic echo of some previous experience, just as the landscape itself is in part an echo of some northern scene.To present-day golfers, the course and accessories here depicted will appear at once amusing and absurd. The whole set-up, in fact, will probably be somewhat confusing when viewed in relation to the contemporary game, for the golf of Bril’s picture seems to be a cross between modern golf and croquet. The clubs depicted are of two types: a short mallet, like a croquet stick but with a thinner barrel, and a wooden driver with an excessively long shaft. The balls are large, rather like croquet balls, but must have been very light in weight considering the size of the clubs.The details of the game will be interesting even to the non-golfer, for Bril has made his figures both natural and lively. To the right, a foursome is getting underway, and the man who is about to drive off raises his left arm and probably calls out “Fore!” His companion is also signaling to the players ahead, while the other two members of the group are getting balls from an attendant emerging from a small building that is apparently the seventeenth-century equivalent of the Pro’s quarters. Clubs and balls are displayed on wooden arms projecting from beams, and large net bags of balls are slung from long hooks over the doorway.In the middle foreground two players are caught in what looks like an inescapable trap. One is measuring his shot with his club and the other looks on. Two other groups just beyond are awaiting their turn to drive, and apparently they, and the first foursome, are getting impatient over the delay caused by the players in the trap. In the left foreground a caddy, with a net bag of balls over his shoulder and two clubs in his hand, watches his player tee the ball and get ready for the drive.There is a pleasant air of business and fun about this scene that points up the placid, sunny countryside beyond, and emphasizes Bril’s departure from the subject matter and method of painting more generally accepted in the Italy of the period. Much of the interest of the picture derives from the portrayal of a scene that ties it up to contemporary customs, but its importance as a painting lies in its treatment of landscape, and in the fact that it shows northern Europe to have been not only a borrower from but a contributor to the Italian school of painting.Until northern artists, and particularly those from Flanders, had begun to filter into Italy, Italian painters of the Renaissance had been chiefly interested in the depiction of the human figure. The painters of the Lowlands, on the other hand, who had a long tradition of landscape behind them, were more occupied with nature than with man. There were exceptions, of course. Both Giorgione and Titian, for example, had used landscape extensively in some instances that their works might well be classified as landscape painting. Despite nature’s dominant role in such pictures, however, it is treated with a formality and an eye to design that sets it immediately apart from the northern conception of landscape painting.In the lives of northern Europeans, nature was a factor to be reckoned with. Definitely changing seasons and widely varying temperatures gave it a personality that impressed it deeply upon the minds of those subject to its vagaries. The coming of spring, of summer, autumn, winter, reawakened the perceptions periodically each year, and northern artists never tired of picturing the moods and miracles of nature. Thus when they went to Italy they took with them the flavor of their own art, and encouraged an interest in nature hitherto tentative in Italian painting.It was due partly to the influx of northern artists that Rome became the center of landscape painting in the seventeenth century, and Bril was in the vanguard of the movement that was later to have such distinguished exponents as Poussin and Claude Lorrain. He was not an outstanding figure, but he was a poetic and sympathetic interpreter of nature, and an able practitioner of the art of chiaroscuro, which was just then beginning to have an intense interest for the Italians. His is the importance that belongs to all innovators, without whom no movement could come to its full development.Referenced Work of Art
  1. Golf in the XVII Century. Detail of a landscape by Paul Bril
    Flemish, 1554-1626. Dunwoody Fund
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Source: "Landscape with Golfers," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 29, no. 18 (May, 1940): 86-88.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009