Imagine if this were the only painting we had from 17th-century Europe.
I am glad, of course, that it’s not. No one wants to lose Rembrandt, Rubens, Velazquez, and Vermeer just like that.
But if it were, I might almost be content, so perfectly does it answer to my internal idea of all that was marvelous about that century.
Forests everywhere. Travel a question of horse-clop and footfall. Trade, war, exploration, knowledge all gathering to a greatness. But humans, with their oversize brains, still in a manageable relationship with the natural world. Shadows and blue light. Shakespeare. Mystery and curiosity making up the larger part of knowledge. Mozart and the 18th-century Enlightenment still a way off.
“Forest Scene With Hunters” was painted about 1615 by Roelandt Savery, a Flemish artist who later settled in the Netherlands. Between 1603 and 1613-14, he worked in the court of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague. He seems to have painted this after returning to Amsterdam, while memories of his journey through the mountainous Tyrol — and perhaps of Rudolf’s menagerie of birds and animals — were still fresh in his mind.
A member of the Habsburg line, Rudolf was a great patron of the arts. He assembled Europe’s first “kunstkammer,” or cabinet of curiosities, which is why this painting hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts Kunstkammer gallery. But he was a bit of a ditherer. His interest in the occult, particularly alchemy and astrology, was by no means out of the ordinary in those days, but it went hand-in-hand with his disinclination to travel and his melancholy nature.
You have to remind yourself, when you look at Savery’s small but thickly populated picture, that it was once a simple panel of wood. Nothing on it.
Imagine, then, this blank panel staring back at the artist as he begins. This line here, that color there. A big, twisting tree through the center of the composition. (Work harder on the coppery tint of the lichen . . .) Light picking out a horseman and his barking dog on a trail through the woods on the left; give it moonlit tones.
The splash of some waterfalls over here. Make the green of the distant castle more mineraly, colder, so that it chimes with the blue tint of the overcast sky. How about a few more birds perched on those bare branches? And a big one, with white plumage and a long, curving neck, taking flight . . .
Those stags in the foreground: Have one of them twist its body to hide its head in its haunch. Get the spine right. Highlights on the ears. Weeds and wildflowers in front.
One could go on and on, of course. There’s just so much to register. But this picture doesn’t need me and my clumsy imaginings. It is already charged with its own special 17th-century magic.
Forest Scene with Hunters
By Roelandt (Roelant) Jacobsz. Savery (Flemish, 1576–1639)
At Museum of Fine Arts.
617-267-9300, www.mfa.orgSebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.