Gateway to the Classics: The Story of Dutch Painting by Charles H. Caffin
The Story of Dutch Painting by  Charles H. Caffin

Jacob Van Ruisdael

T HERE is a tendency to identify Jacob van Ruisdael too exclusively with his pictures of mountainous scenery and rocky waterfalls; hence to speak of him as a romantic painter. But the true Ruisdael must be sought elsewhere. These romantic subjects belong to his latest period, in the seventies, when the indifference shown by the public to his own manner had induced him to imitate that of Everdingen's Swedish landscape, and of the pictures of Swiss scenery by Roghman and Hackaert. How superior he was to Everdingen, we have already noticed in comparing the examples of these two men that hang close together in the Munich Pinakothek. Ruisdael's knowledge of and feeling for form, his power of construction not only of the details but also of the ensemble, his mastery of sky and cloud effects, and, above all, his individual and powerful personality combine to produce in these scenes of wild solitude with their plunging cataracts a suggestion as of great organ music, beside which Everdingen's pictures have only the tinkle of picturesqueness. Yet while Ruisdael, as was to be expected, was superior to Everdingen, he is in these pictures inferior to himself. That his health was failing may possibly account for it; that he painted on dark grounds and the black has in many cases come through and dulled the resonance of the colors, overdarkening the shadows, is another reason; but the chief one is to be found in his changed attitude. He was no longer drawing his inspiration direct from nature itself.

The finer examples of his latest style, such as the Landscape with Waterfall  of the National Gallery, still exhibit his power in rendering the movement and the mass of water, while others are impregnated with that solitary grandeur which was a characteristic quality of his genius. But it is in these instances touched with moroseness, with something possibly of the sentimental sorrows of a Werther. The great artist, whose lonely bachelor life had been spent in meditating upon the bigness of nature, was now brooding over the littleness of the world's appreciation of himself; introspection had taken the place of that large looking out upon the world which hitherto had been the habit of his life. These romantic subjects, in fact, represent the waning of his powers; for the complete revelation of his genius we must look elsewhere, beyond the invented landscapes, to those in which nature itself has inspired the mood which dominates its interpretation.

Meanwhile let us glance at the brief facts of the artist's life. He was born in Haarlem, in 1628 or 1629, the son of a picture-frame maker, and nephew of Salomon van Ruisdael, who was probably his teacher. At about the age of twenty he was enrolled in the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke. Some years later he settled in Amsterdam and was admitted to the rights of citizenship. Among his pupils at this period was Meindert Hobbema. At the age of fifty-three he returned to his native city, broken in health and without means of subsistence, and through the intervention of some friends of the Mennonite faith was given refuge in the poorhouse. Here he lingered a few months and died in 1682, one more example among so many in the story of Dutch painting of an artist dying in poverty. This is the ugly side of the story. In telling it we have tried to do justice to the part played by the young republic, out of whose hard-won nationality a great school of artists grew; but at the same time we have not overlooked the quick decadence of national and social spirit that followed upon the attainment of political liberty. And of this sapping of the morality of the people the indifference paid to her great artists was not the least notable symptom.

Ruisdael's youth and the prime of his manhood were spent in studying the wooded dunes, open country, seashore, and large stretches of water in the neighborhood of Haarlem and Amsterdam. These supplied the subjects for his finest and most characteristic pictures, while others suggest that he traveled in different parts of Holland and even penetrated into the neighboring German principality of Münster, a hilly country with forests and old castles: witness Castle Bentheim  of the Dresden Gallery. The dated pictures are comparatively rare and belong chiefly to Ruisdael's earliest period, but it is possible to assign approximate dates to many later ones through examination of the figures which were introduced by other artists. As Bode points out, those to which Adriaen van Ostade, Nicolaes Berchem, and Wouwerman contributed may with much probability be assigned to the Haarlem period, which terminated about 1655; on the other hand, when, among the Amsterdam artists, Adriaen van de Velde was his collaborator, the picture must antedate that artist's death in 1672.

Like all the greatest artists of landscape, Ruisdael was a close student of form, his drawings and etchings being often so conscientious in treatment as to suggest that he was something of a botanist. At any rate, few men have shown a more thorough knowledge of trees, their character of bulk and build, their branch-growths and manner of leafage, while the same constructive sense appears in his delineation of ground, rocks, water, and in that final test of great landscape-painting, the comprehension and rendering of skies. In his earlier work this preoccupation with form results in an excess of detail and a considerable tightness and hardness of method, as may be observed in the little Village in the Wood  of the Dresden Gallery.

Later his works acquire breadth; details are treated more freely and are less obtrusive; the feeling for ensemble is more complete. And corresponding with this ampler motive is a clearer eye for the local colors, a richer and fuller tonality. Then, by degrees, the true Ruisdael discovers himself. As we know him in the finest works of the Amsterdam period, his genius is declared in the amplitude of his conception of nature. We are in the presence of one who has comprehended the vastness of its suggestion, and entered into it, merging therein the pettiness of personality. At these great moments it would be hard to mention a landscape-painter whose outlook is larger, freer, and more impersonal than Ruisdael's, whose attitude is more truly epic; usually with an ample expression of serene benignity, but, even when there is stir of conflict, with an all-embracing vision that merges the accidental in the universal.

In the attainment of this magnificent composure it is the skies that play the greatest part. They occupy a large, often the larger, portion of the canvas. They are not only expanses of light, contrasted with the darker tones of the ground, as in the case of most Holland landscapes, but are pervaded with vibrating atmosphere that, while it penetrates to the front, seems to communicate with endless space. To this element of universal suggestion is added the stimulus of the poised or drifting cloud-forms. They are not merely shapes of vapor, but have bulk and weight and carrying power. They are to the fluid mass of the sky what the wave is to the ocean: a manifestation of its boundless energies. While to him the ground and its forms of tree and rock or dune are symbols of stability and static force, the sky is symbol of dynamic energy unbounded. It is because Ruisdael thus felt and could interpret the symbolism of nature that his finest landscapes and marines create and maintain so profound an impression.

Among the pictures prior to 1655 is View of Haarlem from the Hill of Overveen,  a subject by which Ruisdael seems to have trained and disciplined himself, for he often repeated it. There are said to be twenty examples, some of which are in the galleries of The Hague and Berlin, in the Rijks Museum, and used to be included in the Holford and Kann collections. From the elevation in the foreground one looks down and across a stretch of level country, broken up with trees and houses and a field where strips of linen are bleaching, to the city, over which rises the mass of the Groote Kerk, St. Bavon. But two thirds of the canvas is given to the sky. The picture presents an elaborate study in the art of ground- and sky-construction, in the difficult differentiation of the planes of a level country, and in building the sky's volume and depth. Already there are distance and spaciousness, but as yet little expression, while, in the case of the Berlin example especially, the technique is still a trifle hard and dry.

But, without attempting any chronological order, turn to The Beach  at the Hague Gallery, a replica of which, Shore at Scheveningen,  is in the National Gallery, while there are others elsewhere. A cliff projects on the right; otherwise the water, dotted with wading figures and sail-boats, extends clear back from the front to a low horizon, above which is a sky piled and scattered with loose, buoyant clouds. There is wind in them, and it ruffles the long reaches of waves that glide in over the sand. Here is freedom not only of brushwork but of imagination, which has been stirred by the sense of vastness and of movement. The sea itself spreads far and is alive with briskness, but in the endless distance of the sky the clouds are moving grandly. This picture already gives the clue to Ruisdael's fully developed genius. It prefigures his capacity to comprehend the big in nature; to go out to it and mingle with it; to find it, not in stupendous spectacles, but in the sense of vastness that even familiar scenes may convey to one who realizes and feels the bigness in nature everywhere about us. For compare The Mill near Wyk-by-Duurstede,  Ruisdael's masterpiece in the Rijks Museum. Familiar enough in Holland are the ingredients of this scene: gray water, gray lowering sky, olive-green, brown, and pale-buff ground and trees, a gleam of light on the body of the mill; yet with what a majesty of conception they are clothed! Everything is heightened and made poignantly compelling by a beautiful, tremendous dignity.

Nor was it only under aspects of stirring movement that Ruisdael found bigness. He could find it in calm: witness The Swamp in the Wood,  in St. Petersburg, and the Oak Wood  of the Berlin Gallery. In front, pale amber-green lily-pads, floating on depths of olive-green water, in the mingled light and shade of rich, somber golden-green and ruddy foliage; distant water and dunes, and over all a sky in which balloons of clouds hang drowsily. It recalls another masterpiece, this time of the Imperial Art-History Museum, Vienna, The Big Wood.  Again a clump of oaks and a shattered silver birch, massed high and wide against a sky of wonderful luminosity. Everything is simplicity itself, yet expresses magisterial authority. The amplitude of conception on this occasion has no trace of stress or poignancy, nor is it one of calm; it is buoyant with a glorious joyousness.

Another remarkable example, heightened into grandeur by impulse of the imagination, is the Landscape with Fence,  in the Vienna Academy: a bit of sloping ground with some wooden sheep-cotes and a willow. But the light from a dull-gray slaty sky pales upon the willow and gleams with a strange whiteness on the boards of the fence. The picture, moreover, is painted with unerring mastery of form and splendid fluency, which, combined with its startling arrangement of light, produces an effect of extraordinary impressiveness.

By a method of lighting, somewhat similar, a mood of profound and bitter melancholy has been interpreted in The Jewish Cemetery  of the Dresden Gallery. In the murk of the distance a ruin glooms gauntly under a heavy purplish slaty sky, where a faint rainbow shows amid the turbid clouds. In the foreground a blasted tree-trunk cuts white against a dull mass of trees; but the brightest light, pallid and cold, is concentrated upon one of a group of tombs. The stillness is broken by a stream that shatters itself on the stones and rushes on. Is this solemn picture an allegory of Ruisdael's own darkened life and its approaching end? Possibly, for his signature, undated, appears upon a tombstone on the left.

The examples quoted above are fairly representative of an artist who handled the prose of nature with so large a sense of its significance that he lifts it up to poetry, of epic and occasionally tragic grandeur. For Ruisdael, like Rembrandt, saw into the soul of facts. That in a period of fifty years or thereabouts a school of artists could be formed, wherein there are so many excellent craftsmen, not a few masters of technique and expression, and two great masters of the soul, is a marvelous record. Such was Holland's legacy of the seventeenth century to the civilization of the modern world.

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