Of all Jacob van Ruisdael’s qualities as a landscape painter, it was his ability to capture subtle shifts in the weather that won him the admiration of British artists, notably Gainsborough, Turner and Constable. As this issue’s front cover shows, Ruisdael’s skies are never purely blue: they teem with nuance and expression, as if at any moment their drifting clouds might burst, break, or whip the wind across the sea, flooding the dunelands where tiny figures perform everyday tasks. Cities are dwarfed by skies, cemeteries overgrown, castles invariably ruined. Ruisdael had little interest in human beings — when they appear at all they are specks on the landscape, there to be overwhelmed by the ever-changing pastoral symphony of nature. As Jenny Uglow writes in her article on the artist : ‘In terms of tone and pitch, Ruisdael was like a great singer, rising from dark base notes to shivering purity.’
Because he is so familiar — most British museums and stately homes boast a Ruisdael or a painting that looks like one — it is possible to pass his paintings by. But that would be a mistake. His closely observed images of nature reward careful viewing and remind us that the more we look at the world around us, the more we see.
Other Dutch artists applied their powers of observation to human life — Rembrandt perhaps most of all. To mark his 400th birthday and his pre-eminence as a printmaker, the London Original Print Fair this spring presents a selection of his etchings. Later, Van Gogh looked at the humble landscape and people around Arles and saw dazzling new colours. He stars in various exhibitions this spring and is the subject of a fascinating new book.
Looking at the overlooked could be a sub-theme of this issue. Jerry Brotton reconsiders the sale of Charles I’s art collection and argues that it was not the disaster it has long been assumed to be. Julia Lovell looks back at the frustrating encounter between the first British envoy to China and the Qianlong Emperor — a key figure in the Academy’s exhibition ‘China: The Three Emperors, 1662—1795’. In his new history of the RA, James Fenton rediscovers the talented but tempestuous painter James Barry, the first artist to be expelled from the Academy.
All these varied voices suggest that art, like the British weather, never stands still. We must constantly keep an eye on it.