A natural phenomenon
With his atmospheric depictions of the Dutch countryside and his skilled use of light in his works, Ruisdael became a firm favourite with British landscape painters, influencing the likes of Constable, Gainsborough and Turner. Jenny Uglow examines the enduring appeal of one of Holland’s greatest artists and charts his early rise to success
The works of Jacob van Ruisdael, considered Holland’s greatest landscape painter, sometimes seem so familiar that we take them for granted, walking past them in a gallery without a second look. Paradoxically, this is not because they are undistinguished or insignificant, but because their influence on British art was so great. At first glance they might be taken as eighteenth-century or ‘Romantic’ landscapes and seascapes, and it comes as a shock to realise that they were painted in Holland almost a century earlier. What was the secret of Ruisdael’s appeal, and how is it that almost every major British collection now contains one of his paintings?
Jacob van Ruisdael, View of Egmond aan Zee with a Blasted Elm, 1648. Ruisdael’s own life provides few answers. He was born in 1628/9 into a professional artist’s family in Haarlem. His father Isaack, a frame maker and occasional picture dealer, was unsuccessful as an artist, but his uncle Salomon was a fine landscape painter, in a good position to further his nephew’s career. Ruisdael showed extravagant early promise, learning much from the pioneering, naturalistic painting of his immediate predecessors, Esaias van de Velde, Hendrick Avercamp and Rembrandt, and especially from the atmospheric wooded landscapes of Cornelis Vroom. But immediately he established a style of his own, a blend of accuracy and mystery, and, if we look carefully at one of his earliest landscapes, we can see his appeal to British painters. Landscape with a Cottage and Trees, 1646, an apparently unpretentious scene with a tumbledown wooden privy in the foreground, is dense with suggestion, yet every detail is meticulously inscribed: the reeds in the stream, the pollarded willow, the oak tree with the elder bush springing up at its foot. And beyond this precise foreground, over the dingy cottage, the dunes catch the light of the sun and the great clouds scurry overhead.
Ruisdael’s travels never took him beyond Holland, but he thrilled to both the plain, sweeping scenes of the dykes and dunes and pastures, and to the stranger aspects of his country, like the ruins of old castles, or the Portuguese Jewish cemetery at Ouderkerk (see page 38), painting this in what was his most romantic and evocative mood. About 1656, Ruisdael moved to Amsterdam, where he remained for the rest of his life. His own feelings about his art are unknown — not a scrap of a letter or diary has been found — but his clients were the burghers of Amsterdam and Haarlem, and, like his peers, he painted the scenes they liked best. He excelled, for example, in one of the most popular genres in his flat, watery land: ‘exotic’ Scandinavian landscapes with waterfalls tumbling over rocks.
Ruisdael’s work first crossed the Channel for the art auctions of the 1720s to ’40s, when public figures like Horace Walpole were building their great collections and Hogarth was fulminating at the British passion for collecting ‘dark Old Masters’ and ‘Dutch landskips’. This boom coincided with a slowly shifting attitude towards what was considered beautiful in natural surroundings. Since the accession of George I, great landowners had set aside the formal parterres and avenues of the Stuart grandees, in favour of curving walks, woods and shimmering lakes, distant views and ‘ha-has’ (hidden ditches), which allowed the parkland to merge into the meadows beyond. By opening up such views, the writer Joseph Addison suggested, ‘a Man might make a pretty Landskip of his own Possessions’.
This was the era of William Kent, who created his lyrical landscapes at Stowe and Rousham. For inspiration, Kent and later landscape addicts like Henry Hoare at Stourhead, and Charles Hamilton at Painshill, looked to artists, particularly the classical visions of Claude and Poussin. But beside these favourites, Dutch paintings were also growing in popularity: the art historian Seymour Slive, who has curated the RA’s show, has calculated that nearly 100 of Ruisdael’s paintings passed through London art sales between 1722 and 1759. One sale alone, in 1748, carried eighteen of his pictures, their buyers including the Duke of Rutland, Lord Ashburton, Lord Londonderry and Lord Petersham.
At the time, landscape was considered a lowly genre of art in comparison with historical or allegorical painting. It was hard for British painters to make a living from such work, apart from painting estates to form the backgrounds of portraits and conversation pieces, as Gainsborough did in his early portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews, from about 1749. But Gainsborough cherished a life-long love for this unfashionable genre, and in the 1740s — just at the moment when the Duke of Rutland snapped up his Ruisdael — he was looking closely at Dutch artists like Jan Wynants and Meyndert Hobbema.
Jacob van Ruisdael, View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds, c.1670-75.
According to Gainsborough’s obituary in the London Magazine in 1788, ‘The first manner he studied was Wijnants, whose thistles and dockleaves he frequently introduced into his early pictures. The next was Ruysdael [sic].’ About 1747, he made a tenderly accurate chalk sketch of Ruisdael’s Wooded Landscape with a Flooded Road.
Where he saw this painting or print we do not know, but the texture of the tree-trunks — rough, lichened, knotted — and the use of screens of trees guiding the eye into the distance, would characterise his paintings from now on. So would the deep central gulf, sometimes a river, but more often a lane, suggesting that nature at once embraces and dwarfs the figures who make their living from it: cottagers, woodmen and carters. Critics such as the art historian Ann Bermingham have also pointed out how Gainsborough adapted the composition of Ruisdael’s waterfall pictures, with a high bank on one side, to create rural scenes where the foreground is packed with detail, retaining the sense of a natural force thrusting itself powerfully towards us.
Gainsborough responded to the material quality of Ruisdael’s work, the accurate botanical details of his plants, stones, rough brick walls and knotted trees. But even the advocates of the highly idealised style had a fondness for Ruisdael’s intense and moody scenes. In the 1750s, Joshua Reynolds, who became the first President of the Royal Academy in 1768, bought five Ruisdael landscapes, among them almost certainly the beautiful Grainfields, from about 1665—69, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By the 1780s Ruisdael’s reputation was established: he was a ‘must have’ artist. As Reynolds wrote in his Journey to Flanders and Holland in 1781, his landscapes ‘have not only great force, but have a freshness scarce seen in any other painter’.
British critics valued him for his accuracy, but also for what they called his ‘strength’, the combination of the natural with the sublime, which gave his work a kind of grandeur. He was admired, too, for his stormy seascapes: Reynolds bought one on his trip to Holland, depicting fishing vessels beating off the coast on a wild day. Inevitably, he became a touchstone for the painters who would come to prominence in the 1790s, the ‘Picturesque Decade’.
By now a new attention to nature had been fostered by the changes to the British landscape, as enclosure acts led to the transformation of commons and heaths into neat fields. Ruisdael showed British painters how to incorporate lyrical distance and light into ‘ordinary’ scenes, transforming the humble — as in his magical scenes of bleaching fields near Haarlem. But he was also admired for the sensual, velvety detail of his foliage and the atmospheric, quasi-magical mood that he could create from unprepossessing corners, like the trees around a marsh. To add to this, his fondness for ruins, towers, blasted trees and strange emblems of transience, as in The Jewish Cemetery, linked his painting to the vogue for the gothic and the grand.
In terms of tone and pitch, Ruisdael was like a great singer, rising from dark base notes to shivering purity. When Constable famously wrote, ‘ I fancy I see Gainsborough in every hedge and hollow tree’, behind Gainsborough stood Ruisdael. And when he sketched clouds flooding the wide East Anglian skies, he echoed the Dutch painter’s cloudscapes, the windmills standing out against the vast expanse. Ruisdael often places his horizon very low and uses almost two-thirds of the picture to show the weight of cloud flooding across the sky, flights of mist, pillows of heavy cumulus, dark lowering rain clouds and strange openings allowing a glimpse of translucent blue.
Far from being static, his landscapes suggest a world in constant motion, subject to the force of the wind, the changes of weather and the play of light — caught in a passing moment, never to be repeated again. Even those paintings that show a calm, golden light flooding the plain, like the Haarlem bleaching field pictures, have a sense of the small scale of human endeavour in comparison with the mobile vastness of our precarious girdle of air. Constable made his first copy of a Ruisdael etching, depicting two trees standing in water, in 1797. Five years later, as a student at the Royal Academy, he told his friend John Dunthorne of his determination to return to Suffolk for the summer, turning his back on the Old Masters and studying the landscape he knew best — ‘still Nature is the fountain’s head, the source from which all originality must spring’ — but he continued to copy Ruisdael all his life: ‘the shoar at Skeveling’, Shore at Egmond aan Zee, the lovely etching Grainfield at the Edge of a Wood, Landscape with Two Windmills and many more. Ruisdael shows a working landscape, of grain fields, rivers and canals, with people involved in the tasks before them. Similarly, in his fine ‘six-footers’, such as The Leaping Horse, 1825, on display at the Royal Academy until the end of April, where the horse towing the canal barge has to jump over a cattle-guard on the towpath, Constable paints a sudden, strange moment in a working routine. This has the effect of a surprise, an impressionistic, magical glance at the familiar, using a composition familiar from Ruisdael’s work, for example, in a scene like Landscape with a Sluice Gate, from about 1665—70.
The emotional content, as well as their accuracy, drew him to these scenes: ‘ I have seen an affecting picture this morning, by Ruisdael,’ he wrote in 1819. ‘It haunts my mind and clings to my heart… the whole so true and fresh — and as brisk as champagne.’ But he also admired the accuracy, the ‘true’ depiction. The catalogue to this exhibition describes Constable pointing to his own copy of Ruisdael’s painting, Winter Landscape, of the late 1660s, in a lecture of 1836, showing how the artist had caught the precise turn of the weather, the different position of the sails indicating a shift in the wind, the glow in the opening of the cloud to the south, illustrating a change ‘that will produce a thaw before morning. The concurrence of these circumstances shows that Ruisdael understood what he was painting’. Ruisdael’s dense trees and evening skies anticipate the Romantic landscapes of Samuel Palmer, but he also appealed to painters of this era for his grandeur, his brilliant use of a sudden shaft of light to illuminate a scene in the middle ground against a heavy sky, on land, or even more effectively at sea. J.M.W. Turner paid homage to him in Port Ruysdael of 1827, and the more intimate Fishing Boat Bringing a Disabled Ship into Port Ruysdael of 1844 (part of the Tate Collection).
Turner and Constable gave Britain its own masters of Romantic landscape. In their shadow, Ruisdael no longer seemed extraordinary. The large seventeenth-century Dutch section at the Manchester Art Treasures exhibition of 1857, included 22 of his paintings and five of his etchings, yet it would be nearly 150 years before he received his next show in Britain.
Now we can look again. It was Ruisdael’s observant, meticulously accurate ‘understanding’ of natural effects, as Constable called it, combined with a vibrant and imaginative sympathy for the effects of nature, water, clouds and light, that exerted such a powerful force on the British landscape tradition. These qualities can still entrance us today, if we take time to stop, and allow ourselves to be drawn into the luminous world that he presents.
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