Otto Marseus van Schrieck was a Dutch Golden Age painter who pioneered the sottobosco, or “forest floor” picture. His works are surrealistic nature studies that invite the spectator into the hidden kingdoms of snakes and toads, moths and snails.
Living in the marshland beyond Amsterdam’s walls, he kept a menagerie of reptiles, snakes and other creepy-crawlies which he (sometimes literally) incorporated into his works, pressing butterfly wings into wet paint to blend their iridescent scales into the pigment. According to his wife, he held snakes so often that they began posing for him. The 17th century was a period of awakening to the natural world, and yet “low” organisms like snakes, toads, and insects were still regarded as unworthy of serious contemplation.
Marseus challenged his audience to take a second look. His paintings are revelatory, filled with small surprises that reward the spectator’s attention; snakes pursuing moths, salamanders lurking in darkened corners, dragonflies alighting upon jagged leaves. “Even here,” he seems to say, “even on the forest floor, amid the mud and weeds, there is beauty and wonder in nature, if only you will pause to see it.”