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 subjects in Hals’s paintings or Vermeer’s opaque characters). In its stark, chalky white and black bark, the birch is at once a victim, a hero, and a figure who stands outside the drama, thinking about it.
Not all Ruisdael’s pictures have weathered the centuries so well, however, and the artist’s retrospective, which has been organized by Seymour Slive, demonstrates that good-sized, inclusive exhibitions can be as hard on artists of world-class achievement as on artists whose contribution is slight. The fifty-odd paintings, accompanied by some sixty drawings and prints, add up in a perplexing and uneven, even flattening, way. At his best, Ruisdael was a considerable poet of nature, a man who conveys simultaneously the fragility of a twig and the massive strength and shapeliness of a grove of trees. With their immediately clear-cut, overall sense of structure and balance, his pictures are as engaging from a distance as close up (which may be why we are often aware of the frames when we take in the pictures). Ruisdael sometimes saw the world as a standoff between dark areas and light ones, and he might gear his color in the same pared-down way. His palette could be limited to an array of earth colors—browns, tans, yellows, oranges, greens—and, for his skies, a mixture of blue, gray, and white.
Yet Ruisdael was also masterful when, as it were, he pushed all his tones in one direction. Some of his best pictures are quite dark. In them, he is almost revisiting, but with a new naturalism and muscularity, the enchanted, fairy-tale forests of earlier European art, whether by Pisanello, Dürer, or Altdorfer. The Jewish Cemetery, from around 1655, which shows a dead tree standing watch over sharply angular tombstones in a threateningly stormy wooded setting, is a collection of the darkest earth tones, and yet presents a penetratingly lucid space. Village in Winter, an essentially black painting touched here and there with various grays, is a glistening tour de force that can bring to mind Picasso’s steely gray early Cubist pictures. And the appealingly tremulous small etching Trees and a Thicket on a Bank changes, as we look at it, from being an identifiable scene to being merely an accumulation of countless black dots.
The artist was no less adept in his light-toned works. These are generally views of plains or fields or the city of Haarlem seen from afar, with cloud-filled skies taking up most of the pictures. In them, Ruisdael seems to be asking, like a twentieth-century abstractionist, how little of the dark earth he needs at the bottom of his painting to balance above it a vast sky. Other artists of the time emphasized Holland’s big skies, but it was Ruisdael, whose cloudscapes show a world reduced to its essentials, who produced definitive images of his country’s famous flatness.
In a number of Ruisdael’s works, however, something specifically Dutch—or, at least, some precisely observed, distinctly local note—is missed. The painter seems to be making generic views that could have been painted in any number of locales in any number of centuries. In the show, we go from forest scenes with glades and marshes to images of waterfalls in rugged, pine-clad, even Alpine, terrain. There are seascapes, images of windswept dunes, and woodland views with cottages and derelict castles. Ruisdael painted homely, near-deserted villages on snowy days, Amsterdam’s main square, the city from above, and scenes with water mills, windmills, and grain fields.
For Slive, the artist’s sheer variety is his foremost quality. But a viewer, numbed by the versatility on display (and half-believing that this Dutch artist worked occasionally in Wyoming), might wonder whether Ruisdael was more a jack-of-all-trades in the landscape line. His paintings can be marred, additionally, by a mechanical handling of details, like the brassy light that registers on every plank of the wood fences in pictures of mills (though it is possible we might be seeing the efforts of later artists or restorers). More disturbingly, a fair number of the works seem somewhat concocted, or have the blandness of stage sets. This is particularly the case in paintings with buildings in them, admired as they have been.
Ruisdael’s canvases of Bentheim Castle, for instance, which he saw on a trip to the Dutch–German border, are invariably acclaimed, both by Slive in his catalog and by other commentators, in large part, it seems, because they center on, or lead the eye to, a formidable-looking structure. For writers on Dutch art, the artist’s efforts here, and in related paintings where he centers his attention on a building of some import—it might even be a windmill seen against the sky, as in Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede, which Slive calls Ruisdael’s “most famous picture”—represent a breakthrough in the history of Dutch painting. It would never have occurred to Ruisdael’s predecessors, who formed the first generation of Dutch landscapists, to build their works around heroically isolated structures. Before Ruisdael, landscape painting in Holland—the painter’s uncle, Salomon van Ruysdael, was one of its foremost practitioners—was often a pale, unassuming affair. The pictures might be done in washy greens and pale grays and tans, and the viewer’s eye was rarely led to fasten on anything.
Unquestionably, Ruisdael gave Dutch landscape art a drama and a tension that were new to it. But whether he did so convincingly in his paintings of Bentheim Castle or of various derelict castles in the countryside, or in his Windmill at Wijk, is debatable. He certainly made these structures large; in some cases, their proportions seem elongated. Yet mostly they have a bland, undefined presence. None could be said to have, like the fallen birch bough in the National Gallery’s Waterfall, a many-sided character.
The amorphous note of the exhibition is compounded by Slive’s catalog, where Ruisdael is treated as a master yet is accorded no accompanying program, psychology, or set of motives. A professor emeritus in Harvard’s art history department and a past director of Harvard’s art museums, Slive has been writing on Dutch art now for over half a century. Along with Jakob Rosenberg, he is the coauthor of the pages on painting in the 1966 Dutch Art and Architecture 1600–1800, in the Pelican History of Art series, a survey which had its critics (and is now out of print) but which has long been valued by students and general readers for its range of information, generosity of spirit, jargon-free style, and palpable love of its subject.
Slive has taken all of classic Dutch art as his province, but he may be most associated with Hals and Ruisdael. He helped select the works for the wonderful 1989 Hals retrospective held at Washington’s National Gallery, and wrote its catalog as well as the separate complete catalog of all Hals’s pictures. He similarly organized the 1981 Ruisdael retrospective, seen at the Mauritshuis, in The Hague, and at the Fogg, in Cambridge—the first comprehensive exhibition that the painter ever had anywhere. Slive wrote its catalog, and in 2001 he published the complete catalog of all Ruisdael’s paintings, drawings, and etchings.
Slive writes with the spirit of someone who believes that artworks can be miraculous things and that essentially we need to know as many facts as possible about their individual histories. In his studies of Hals and Ruisdael, he finds different works “magnificent,” “majestic,” “awesome, “extraordinarily beautiful,” “astonishing,” “remarkable,” and “a masterpiece,” and his enthusiasm draws us into looking longer at the pictures even when he doesn’t offer solid reasons for his opinions. Slive’s lack of interest in theories is a relief; he has little time, for example, for those writers who see in every dead tree a veiled sermon. But at least in his writing about Ruisdael (and Hals), he also forgoes describing the ways a painter can fit into a larger art-historical or cultural pattern, or can reflect or deviate from his contemporaries—aspects of an artist’s larger story that were handled brilliantly in the Pelican survey of Dutch art.
In the case of Ruisdael especially, Slive’s desire to bring us principally the known facts and to refrain from suppositions leaves the painter bodiless. Ruisdael is an artist about whom little is known in the first place. Next to him, the elusive Vermeer might be the chatty subject of a New Yorker profile. We know that Ruisdael, who was from Haarlem, was already selling fully accomplished landscapes by the age of seventeen or eighteen, that he moved to Amsterdam in the 1650s, that he never married (or had children), and that his reason for bachelorhood presumably was his need to take care of his father, Isaack, a sometime painter and frame-maker, who was ill for many years. What remains unknown is not only what people at the time thought of his work but what he thought of it, whom the precocious artist studied with, who bought his pictures, and how they were sold.
At various times, Ruisdael’s name has been linked with a few promising biographical details: that late in life he decided to become a doctor and traveled to France for medical studies, and that he was a member of the highly ascetic Mennonite sect, whose strictures prompted the concern with mortality which pervades some of his pictures. Slive makes light of these possibilities, handling them merely in his outline chronology of the artist’s life (where the notion of Ruisdael’s possible religious conviction is limited to the date of the painter’s baptism). As recently as 1986, however, in the catalog for an exhibition at London’s National Gallery entitled Dutch Landscape: The Early Years—an exhibition that dwelt on artists who led up to Ruisdael, and included Ruisdael at the very end, as a kind of climax to decades of development—Christopher Brown, the show’s organizer, spoke of the artist’s Mennonite faith as a crucial fact in his biography. Calling him a “devout Protestant,” Brown wrote that the artist “thought of the act of painting landscape as akin to an act of worship.”
For many years it was also believed that Ruisdael died in a state of poverty. Here Slive simply points out that the painter was confused with an impoverished person with the same name. Besides, merely looking at the sizes of some of Ruisdael’s canvases, let alone his sheer productivity, indicates that there was an audience for his work. So we can ignore Kenneth Clark’s saying, in his 1949 Landscape into Art—where he calls Ruisdael a great artist but spends little time on him—that the Dutch bourgeoisie let the painter “starve” in his old age. Yet Clark also touched a note that, while rarely encountered in the writing on Ruisdael, is present at the current exhibition. Working from a mixture of biographical details he had no reason to question, a desire to see Ruisdael as a precursor to the English Romantic poets and painters (whose careers were often beset by creative blocks), and his response to the pictures themselves, Clark believed that “this grave, lonely man was evidently subject to fits of depression in which he worked without a spark of feeling or vitality.”
Slive’s account of the artist makes no mention of illness, let alone his temperament. And people who are as productive as Ruisdael was perhaps aren’t “subject to fits of depression.” But Clark’s comment is a sharp piece of criticism; and it perhaps also has a psychological validity. One can imagine that an artist intent on showing lone, dying trees as grandly stoical entities might, on other occasions, work “without a spark of feeling”—when he was flattened by his stoicism.
Adding to the difficulty of summing up Ruisdael is that he can seem like two artists: the painter of subdued or indirectly lit works such as The Jewish Cemetery, which, with its graves and vigilant-seeming dead tree, is a kind of tense monument to the brevity of life, and the creator of softly radiant sky paintings. Although it is hard to get a clear sense of his development—Ruisdael only dated his canvases in the first few years of his career—it appears that, contrary to what might be expected, the emotionally more somber works came when he was younger.
His best later, cloud-dominated views look toward Haarlem and were made, beginning in the early 1660s, after Ruisdael had moved from that city to Amsterdam. Literally speaking, he was looking back on where he had come from. Far smaller than his forest scenes, these Haarlempjes (or Haarlem views) are among the few pictures by Ruisdael to present tangible aspects of the life of his time. At the bottom of many of the pictures we see the city’s outlying bleaching fields, where enormous lengths of linen, laid in parallel or curving lines, were left to dry. Ruisdael precisely records what from a great distance away were minuscule strips of white cloth, tended to by tiny people.
There are small people and creatures in Ruisdael’s paintings in general. They might be walkers, swimmers, hunters, workmen, stags, horses, or birds, but usually they are bigger than the figures in the Haarlem views, and whether they were actually painted by Ruisdael or by other artists—research shows both to be the case—they can be rather lumpen entities. Their waddling presence only adds to the note of something not fully felt which afflicts some of his pictures. But in the paintings of bleaching fields there is a concrete reason for the figures to be exactly where they are and the size they are. Their microscopic dimensions make the entire space of the Haarlempjes charged, and immense, in a way that Ruisdael’s other pictures, no matter what their literal size, are not.
The white cloth strips are more significant than the little people, however. As Slive points out, Haarlem was known for its bleaching grounds; tourists to the city journeyed out to see them, and, as a painter who apparently kept an eye on his market, Ruisdael might have included the whitening process simply to ensure sales of his pictures. But one can also believe that there was a larger, more personal reason he was so careful about the linen lines. The cloth strips in the Haarlempjes are among a surprising number of instances, covering his work from his earliest days, where, often toward the bottom of his picture, the artist placed a small but pivotal detail in pure white.
There was a formal need, of course, for bits of white in Ruisdael’s paintings. For an artist who often played a grayed white sky against a lower area of darkened earth tones, touches of white might seem called for in the lower area if only to break up the somber greens and browns, and form a link with the paler sky. Yet artists often come to specific formal decisions because of temperamental desires to have pictures balanced in certain ways; and there is ample evidence that Ruisdael introduced his spots and traces of white with wit and pleasure.
He was doing so in one of his sweetest, and earliest, pictures, Bleaching Ground in a Hollow by a Cottage. Here he presents his taste for the color with the combined tentativeness and adamancy of a beginner, presenting, one next to the other, a cloth strip, a worker’s shirt, a heap of linen, a racing stream, and an exposed patch of lime ground as so many little white appetizers. In the epically grand Banks of a River, the touches of pure white, especially for a curving gash of earth, which resembles a sand trap on a golf course, help make the surrounding dark areas coolly elegant. And two of the principal details in all of Ruisdael’s art are white: the sloping birch in the National Gallery’s Waterfall and the foremost tomb in The Jewish Cemetery.
Once one becomes attuned to Ruisdael’s affinity for white it appears repeatedly. In his seascapes, he emphasizes a lone boat’s white sail, or makes whitecaps a striking pure white, while in a picture of hilly woodlands he places a plant with delicate white flowers in the foreground (even when, as Slive points out, such a plant did not grow in that region). In a painting of the ruined Egmond Castle, the color white blotchily emerges from behind a stone or brick wall, and in a picture of another ruin, the Manor Kostverloren, we look at a building whose walls are in the very process of getting a new coat of white. One can think that Ruisdael painted waterfalls so often because the shape of the plunging water gave him a chance to include a zigzaggy zone of white.
Ruisdael’s place in the history of art obviously has nothing to do with an apparent if undocumented taste for a color. But then his place in textbooks doesn’t square with the experience of his pictures in a large retrospective, where an artist capable of imbuing the landscape genre with a tragic breadth shares a place with both a painter who delivered his share of workaday efforts and the maker of the dextrously composed and ethereal Haarlempjes. The occasional white bits hardly explain the inconsistencies in his work, either, but these elements of varying sizes, whether for a barely perceptible spray of flowers, a minute strip of cloth, or a great fallen bough, give many of his pictures a semblance of unity. Looking at these details, one feels the painter slipping self-portraits into his scenes, and doing so with a modesty and an ingenuity, and sometimes a genuine grandeur.
February 9, 2006