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This is the first of two pieces and discusses the artist’s life and times. Part two discusses Van Ruisdael’s art.
Jacob Isaackszoon van Ruisdael (1628/30 – 1682) was a precocious artist, possibly a medical doctor, a lifetime bachelor, probable Mennonite convert and a great landscape artist. However, the exact details of his life have been lost over time. A biography was written by Arnold Houbraken, but this was 40 years after his death. Van Ruisdael’s bittersweet images echo by a life which, although he was undoubtedly gifted, saw him die in impoverished obscurity.
A legal document sworn in 1661 with Van Ruisdael’s signature gives his age as 32. This gives a window of between 1628 and 1630 for his year of birth. His parents lived with their family in Haarlem, where his father, Isaack, was involved, peripherally at least, in the arts. Isaack was in turn a frame-maker, art dealer, tapestry designer and a painter. Van Ruisdael’s uncle Solomon was a well-known landscape painter and a member of the relevant guild – the Haarlem Guild of Saint Luke. This was the same guild that Van Ruisdael himself, would later join.
It is known that Van Ruisdael was a fully fledged artist, and therefore guild member from a very young age – 18 years old or thereabouts, when he produced the image above. More intriguingly there are references in Houbraken’s biography that Van Ruisdael trained for a career in medicine. It is even suggested he carried out some surgery. Primary source evidence appears to bear this alternative career out. A contemporaneous sale catalogue lists a Dr Jacob Van Ruisdael painting while a list of doctors in Amsterdam, where Van Ruisdael lived from 1656, has an entry for the same person or a namesake.
Here the interest is further piqued. The entry on this list states that the doctor qualified in 1676 when Van Ruisdael would have been in his 40s. The qualification was given in Caen, in northern France. Van Ruisdael, from what we know, was something of a homebird and this would have been a major journey. Even more intriguing is the fact that this reference appears to have been crossed out later.
He did travel more or less constantly in his early career, through his more immediate locality, sketching and working. He often travelled with a friend, Nicholaes Birchem, who appears in many paintings and drawings. Part of the reason Van Ruisdael was so reluctant to travel further was the fact he was devoted to his family. He contributed financially to help his parents from a very early age and obviously felt great loyalty towards them.
One of the reasons so little is known about Van Ruisdael is the nature of his business dealings. Van Ruisdael’s engagement with the art market was an open one, and did not the follow the artist/patron model we are familiar with in regard to better known artists. This has resulted in less clear documentation in a single body of work.
Once he had installed himself in Amsterdam Van Ruisdael converted to the Reformed Church (a latterly non-extant Protestant church). He made two wills which confirmed his bachelor status without dependents and watched helpless as his cousin succumbed to mental illness and died in the Almshouse back in Haarlem.
His last years are somewhat of a mystery – on the one hand some claim his art sold well, but it would appear, there are those who maintain the opposite is true. They say his career faltered to the point that the Mennonites may have petitioned the Almshouse his cousin died in to also take in Van Ruisdael.
Jacob Van Ruisdael died on 10th March, 1682 and is buried in St Bavokerk, a gothic church in Haarlem. His death supposedly happened in the almshouse. Even the exact date of his death is contested, with estimates varying by a number of days.
Up to Van Ruisdael’s adult years, Europe had been turning itself inside out in a series of religious and imperial wars of infinite complexity. These two issues, monarchy and rule and the religious divide, meant that in central Europe, nowhere was distant from war.
Netherlands had been a tumultous place previously war, empire etc. Now had converted to protestantism and was becoming the modern country we know today. It was not liberal, but austere and measured. Had been Spanish and Hapsburg, but not unified at those times. The Spanish presence forced the country to take sides in the Eighty Years War and essentially became a civil war. It was in this background that a new reformed and enlightened country wished for stability.
In 1648 the Peace of Munster brought an end to the Eighty Years War and shortly thereafter the Treaty of Munster concluded the Thirty Years War. Spain, and its Hapsburg rulers, were essentially beaten from the Netherlands. Confusing, but in effect this threw off the yoke of the Hapsburg dynasty and created the Dutch Republic, often referred to as the United Provinces. Essentially the first fifty years were a Dutch vs.Spain main event, with the grand finale thirty years dragging the rest of Europe in. As a predominantly Protestant population was held under the control of the Spanish crown and their Catholic heritage, these areas were a tinder box.
Being centrally located in Europe and with a long coast and therefore access to the sea and the attendent nautical trade routes, Holland was well placed to partake in and control trade. Great wealth was created. Unlike previously, this was now to the benefit of the Dutch themselves. Nonetheless, much of Holland was up to this point and well past it, very poor after almost a century of violent conflict. The primary cities had been wealthy, but other languished. For example Van Dyck had travlled to Italy and Spain in search of patronage for his art at the turn of the 17th century. This new trade was a return to prosperity after an absence of 100 years, back to when King Philip of Spain initiated a campaign of persecution against Calvinist reformers.
Suddenly, the Netherlands, as it is now called, became a stable trading platform. The humanities flourished. The visual arts at the time in Holland spawned luminaries such as Rembrandt, Vermeer and Metsu. Trade and conquest spread as Japan. Science flourished (Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek, Huygens’ astronomy and in particular his lenses). Dutch medicine drew crowds especially the public dissections in the Guild of Physicians and Surgeaons in Leyden. Professor Herman Boerhaave became the personification of The Enlightenment through his studies of botany and theoretical medicine. Dutch engineers were, and remain, world leaders in drainage and large environmental works involving water. The Dutch also went exploring (Abel Tasman discovered Van Diemen’s Land).
In Van Ruisdael’s time they were beginning to see the possibilities of the new republic – colonial expansionism. The Dutch world view of this time is exquisitely plumbed in the fiction of David Mitchell – The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
Unlike today’s radicalised protestant churches, those reformers in the 17th century saw similarities between the scientific mind and an inquisitive morality. They both sought, in their own ways, answers and insight. The prevailing religious sense of the day was of a questioning faith based on morality-propelled inquiry and understanding, not retrograde religiosity.
Anthony Van Dyck: A Life 1599-1641, Robin Blake, Constable, 1999
Wikipedia, of course, has an article about Van Ruisdael
The National Gallery of London has a large collection of Van Ruisdael’s art online
The National Gallery of Ireland has two pieces, one of which is seminal
Van Ruisdael’s place in the cultural history of the Netherlands
The history of the Netherlands
The independent state called the Dutch Republic
Online gallery of Van Ruisdael’s Paintings
Exhibition of Van Ruisdael’s work at Yale
Further works by Van Ruisdael in the National Gallery of Ireland’s online gallery
The Grove Dictionary of Art, Ed. Jane Turner, Oxford University Press, 2003
Master European Paintings from the National Gallery of Ireland, Raymond Keaveney, National Gallery of Ireland, 1992
Jacob Van Ruisdael- Master of Landscape, Seymour Slive, Yale University Press, 2005
The Great Artists – Ruisdael, Ed. Clive Gregory, Marshall Cavendish, 1986
Titian: The Last Days, Mark Hudson, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2009