Royal Academy of Arts/Yale University Press, 278 pp., $75.00; $45.00 (paper)
What Jacob van Ruisdael’s standing was in his own time is one of the many unknowns that swirl around him, but for well over two hundred years now he has been considered one of the formidable figures of seventeenth-century Dutch painting. He wasn’t an unpredictable and world-bestriding genius like Rembrandt, an invigorating and endearing powerhouse of a painter like Hals, or a celestial perfectionist like Vermeer. But for admirers and scholars of Dutch painting, Ruisdael’s landscapes, with their dark green and brown forests, their often embattled-seeming lone trees, their immense gray-white skies brimming with huge clouds, and their sense of nature as a setting for elemental dramatic encounters, take a place in the next level down from the pinnacle of Rembrandt, Hals, and Vermeer.
It is a terrain occupied by painters who specialized in one kind of image and perfected it. Among the more engaging of these artists to our eyes now are Pieter Saenredam, whose nearly barren church interiors seem kin to many varieties of abstract art, Gerard ter Borch, who created ambiguous social encounters between figures in sumptuously painted finery, and Adriaen Coorte, surely the most elegant and enigmatic of all Dutch still-life painters. Earlier eras put more stock in Aelbert Cuyp’s sunny panoramas of riders and cows at pasture, Jan Steen’s rambunctious tavern scenes, or Pieter de Hooch’s glimpses of domestic life. And behind these creators of compact worlds lie painters who, as persons, are barely graspable but who left a scattering of unforgettable images—the case with Willem Duyster, whose nighttime barrack-room scenes of card players and solitary smokers are among the gems of all seventeenth-century art.
As his current retrospective makes clear, Ruisdael, who was born in 1628 or 1629 and died in 1682, was very much a specialist. His work was limited to views—landscapes primarily, but also seascapes and townscapes. Yet he had an ambition we don’t associate with Saenredam, ter Borch, or Coorte. He left some seven hundred paintings, and worked on occasion with canvases four or so feet on a side. There is often, moreover, a brooding or tempestuous strength to his landscapes that can make him seem closer to Rembrandt, who was a generation older, than to any other Dutch artist of the period. Waterfall in a Hilly Wooded Landscape, for example, which is in the show and is one of Ruisdael’s finest pictures, is as much a meditation on mortality as any of the older painter’s better-known works.
In this edge-of-a-forest picture, dated about 1660 (and in the collection of Washington’s National Gallery), the fallen, broken bough of a huge white birch, trapped between rocks and the waterfall, and set off to the side of the scene, has the presence of the painting’s chief actor or conscience. Presenting an image of loss and pain but also of virility, anger, and gracefulness, the tree is like one of Rembrandt’s people (and not at all like the ebullient portrait …