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Wednesday 4 January 2012

Subject integration: Sadeler

How does an artist integrate a subject with its surroundings?

There is a difference between integrating and camouflaging a subject with its surrounding. The idea of integration is to leave space surrounding the subject rather than making the subject appear indistinguishable from the background. The trick—and it is a trick—is to leave a band of empty space (i.e. an area without any imagery or very lightly indicated imagery) on the shadow side of the subject while allowing surrounding background features to abut with the lit side of the subject.

Use of this principle is very evident in the engraving by Johannes Sadeler (1550–c. 1600), Hermit Ciomus, c. 1590. The forest shown behind the distant church dome is darker where it “touches” the lighter side of the dome (the left) while the forest is much lighter and less detailed on the dome’s shadow side (the right). This phenomenon can also be seen in the portrayal of the hermit Ciomus where his surroundings are darker and makes contact on his lit side but are bleached out on his shadow side (see his arched back in the details below).

Johan Sadeler (1550–c.1600)
Hermit Ciomus, c.1590 from the suite Solitudo sive Vitae Patrum Eremicolorum …
Engraving, 175 x 209mm (plate); 190 x 227mm (sheet)
1st state (of 2) before erasure of "25"
Bartsch: 7001.373.S1; Hollstein: 402
Note: I have relisted this print with additional information and extended the discussion, see:
  Detail of Hermit Ciomus, c.1590
Detail of Hermit Ciomus, c.1590
Many other artists (e.g., Georges Seurat) also use this principle of abutting the immediate surroundings on the lit side of a subject and pictorially separating the surroundings on the shadow side. Paul Klee even coined the term for this shading phenomenon: “endotopic and exotopic treatment.”
Integration of subject with its surroundings may also be on a much more subtle level. For instance, in my reading of the image I see a link between the portrayal of the bell clanging in the distant church (see detail below) and the various ways that Ciomus and the other monks respond to the sound. Here the subject is integrated with the surroundings by a visual clue—the bell portrayed in a state of ringing links the hermit and his fellow monks with the church. This notion of sound is a rare element in prints at the time of Sadeler. In a similar way the large number of crosses scattered throughout the image link Ciomus resting on his staff with his surrounding.

Detail of Hermit Ciomus, c.1590
  (Full sheet) Hermit Ciomus, c.1590