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This article follows on from an earlier discussion of Van Ruisdael’s life and times.
Van Ruisdael is considered one of the truly great artists, and particularly influential with regard to landscape painting. Through the, circa 800, works of his that have been approved as canonical, he is now one of the better known Dutch artists from the early days of the Netherlands’ independence. Although his renown is vast within the art world, he has not really crossed over into being a household name. In this regard, his true legacy can be seen through its reflection in the work of an artist who is better known in the anglophone world. Constable was a fan.
Although not always dark in tone, there is always a foreboding in Van Ruisdael’s greatest works. There is always a latent drama in these brooding landscapes, simmering with unease. Even the most pastoral scenes have dull clouds, full-bodied and menacing, closing in above. His colour usage is quite somberly naturalistic, often with small details, highlighted areas and pinpricks of vivid colour, heightening the tension. This all feels “real” in comparison to works by earlier Dutch artists whose emphasis was more on the paint’s physical application (see this smooth and tonally-level image of his mentor’s Cornelius Vroom) and the subsequent accepted style.
The adoption of a regularised and approved style was in large part due to the operation of the guild system. Van Ruisdael himself came up through this system which was responsible for maintaining acceptable styles and high standards. Painting was still very much seen as an artisanal craft. A contemporary description of what would be deemed a successfully acceptable composition; buildings framed by trees on raised ground in the centre, and all backed by a distant panorama.
Van Ruisdael’s oeuvre covers scenes from mountains, woodlands, rivers and waterfalls, seascapes and images of winter. Human edifices occur throughout – fortified castles, functioning windmills, far-off towns and even tiny solitary figures dwarfed by the vastness of their surroundings. These add scale to the scenes and are usually all but consumed by the wildness and hugeness of their natural surroundings. Long before the notion of the sublime was encountered in the works by Romantic artists, musicians and writers Van Ruisdael brings it to life.
Van Ruisdael was hugely accomplished and naturally gifted as a draughtsman and these abilities show in his painting. The exact presence, the feeling and depth of the picture are innate and instinctive. Images are precise and were obviously drawn and worked through methodically. The viewer can plainly see the exacting detail. One of the artist’s obsessions was his particular emphasis on arboreal scrutiny (ie. he was good at painting trees) – his trees are gargantuan, solid, natural pillars. They rise up like columns in the nave of a natural church. Van Ruisdael’s exquisitite ability to paint was built on great foundations – many of his drawings can be seen today. The confidence is astounding.
As already mentioned, even the dullest landscape is enlivened with a sense of drama, most often through clouds. These are huge, weighty presences that hang like ceilings on the verge of collapse. It might all go under. This is most evident in his mid-career works. Rivers are torrents tearing through what ought to be pastoral landscapes from a fertile, productive part of Europe. Rickety buildings and wretched trees totter and sway, scraping across grey vistas. They threaten like Northern interpretations of quixotic windmills, between the viewer and the safety of the tiny built environments on the distant horizon.
This is Van Ruisdael’s great artifice and conceit. He cheated. Well, not exactly. Van Ruisdael made the mundane grandiose. His images are lyrical part fictions.
For example, as a Netherlander, it is interesting that Van Ruisdael’s work should include mountains. While there is no doubt that he did travel, he didn’t do it extensively and would probably have only seen the uplands that now make up the Ardennes region, Alsace and border regions of Belgium, Holland, France and Germany. Southern Belgium’s Flemish Ardennes would certainly have held Van Ruisdael’s interest in this regard. But these are not high plateaus, soaring pinnacles or towering alpine reveries.
Consider an example from the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland:
Please note, that unfortunately at the time of publication, anyone wishing to view the work which is described below will not be able to view it in person. There are extensive renovations currently taking place at the gallery.
The artist lived at a time when art was a trade and not a matter of self-expression. Yet, the works we know by him are often not the literal representations we might expect. Scale is exagerrated, very often hugely, as can be seen in the contrast between the photo of the castle at Bad Bentheim in Westphalia, and the painting from the National Gallery of Ireland. 12 paintings of this castle exist from various angles, all of which show it as a virtual mountain-top citadel. As can been seemed from the modern photograph, it patently isn’t.
The Bad Bentheim image is a paradigmatic painting on Van Ruisdael’s greatest theme – man’s place in the world. His is a natural world which could take over at any time. The castle may appear unassailable to a military campaign, but the arboreal growth around it bristles with antipathy. So this castle is in a dangerous place regardless of its stout, resolute appearance. Van Ruisdael lived in a world where nature, in all its forms, was to be feared. Diseases took loved ones away in the blink of an eye, ships ran aground in rough seas, winter plumbed temperatures we are unused to today. The world was harsh.
Note also that Van Ruisdael often appears to have tackled the same subject a number of times. This is certainly the case with Bad Bentheim but also with two images of a pair of watermills with a raging torrent tearing through a sluice gate between them. From both angles the water’s power and the resilience of the human structures are clear an pronounced.
Have a look at a Van Ruisdael in extreme close-up loveliness on Google Art Project.
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
This article was posted by Ronan McDonnell on
Tuesday, April 12th, 2011 at
It is archived in Art, Culture, Environment, History, Wild Places and tagged Art, belgian, dutch, flanders, landscape, netherlands, painting.
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