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Friday, May 10, 2013

Jacob van Ruisdael

Jacob van Ruisdael
(Not a self-portrait, he painted
landscapes, remember).
A few days ago (four, to be exact) I went on at some length regarding the greatness of Nicolas Poussin's classical art and their landscape backgrounds. For a 17th century Frenchman, he was pretty good at painting sky and clouds, trees and mountains, land and water--stock in trade prerequisites for anyone attempting a landscape. However, if you really want to know about the advent of the landscape artist, you need to look further north to Holland of about the same era starting around 1600. The one name most often associated with what some call the "Dutch Golden Age" of landscape painting is that of Jacob van Ruisdael. However, in highlighting that name, I must caution you that there were no less than four van Ruisdael, all related, who painted landscapes over the course of two generations. Worse, they all share similar names. Having said that, I could name them all and go into some detail regarding the family tree, but that would only add confusion to chaos. Suffice to say Jacob van Ruisdael learned to paint from his father and uncle (who also taught his son to paint landscapes).

The Mill at Wijk-bij-Duurstede, ca. 1670, Jacob van Ruisdael
--not just windmills but heroic windmills.
Jacob van Ruisdael was born in 1628. The whole van Ruisdael clan lived in and around Haarlem, thus this colorful geographical area is well documented visually (and not just by the van Ruisdaels). About a year ago at this time I was in Holland and the Netherlands. It's a strange, beautiful country where land and water are met in an eternal struggle between man and nature to see who's boss. Mostly man wins, though it's a relentless battle, the outcome of which is never a given. Ruisdael art (and the four are extremely difficult to differentiate) reflects this. The dikes are real. The windmills are not reproductions; the quaint domiciles were not transported to a central location for the convenience of American tourists; and the tulips...I don't ever recall seeing any van Ruisdael tulips. Mostly I recall seeing clouds--lots and lots of clouds. The firmament above usually makes up roughly two-thirds (sometimes much more) of a van Ruisdael composition. I suppose, living mostly below sea level makes one inherently sensitive to clouds.
View on a Stormy Day, ca. 1660, Jacob van Ruisdael
Then there's the sea. Seldom is any Dutchman (painter or otherwise) ever more than a half-hour bicycle ride from the sea (any modern Dutch landscape artist would have to include this omnipresent mode of transportation in his depiction). Jacob and his kinsmen documented the sea nearly as much as the land and did so capturing both its calm tranquility and its powerful anger. Yes, there are windmills, but van Ruisdael doesn't dote on them. More often there are houses, barns, shops, churches, cemeteries, and ancient ruins involving all of the above. Moreover, seldom are his man made landscape features elegant architecture. Though often the focal point in his landscapes, one has the feeling these works of man are little more than helpless bystanders in the battle to steal the landscape from the sea.

Riverside, 1649, Jacob van Ruisdael

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