Jacob van Ruisdael and English Landscape Art
RA Magazine, Spring 2006
View of Egmond aan Zee with a Blasted Elm, 1648,
by Jacob van Ruisdael.
Currier Museum of Art, Manchester,
NH; Museum Purchase: Currier Funds.
1950.4/Photo Jeff Nintzel
The works of Jacob van Ruisdael, who has been called ‘ 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 before. What was the secret of Ruisdael’s appeal, and how is it that almost every major British collection now contains one of his paintings?
Ruisdael’s own life provides few answers. He was born in 1628/9 into a professional artist’s family in Haarlem. His father Isaack was unsuccessful, but his uncle Salomon was a fine landscape artist, as well as a frame maker and occasional picture dealer, in a good position to further this nephew’s career. Ruisdael showed extravagant early promise, learning much from the pioneering, naturalistic painting of his immediate predecessors, van de Velde, Avercamp and Rembrandt, and especially from the atmospheric wooded landscapes of Cornelius Vroom. But immediately he established a style of his own, a blend of accuracy and mystery, and if we look at one of his earliest landscapes, we can see his appeal to British painters. ‘Landscape with a Cottage’, 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 Oudekerk, painting this in what his most romantic and evocative mood. Around 1656 he 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, excelling, for example, in one of the most popular genres in this flat, watery land, ‘exotic’ Scandinavian landscapes with waterfalls tumbling over rocks.
Ruisdael’s paintings first crossed the channel the art auctions of the 1720s to 40s, when public figures like Walpole were building their great collections and Hogarth was fulminating at the British passion for collecting ‘dark old masters’ and ‘Dutch landskips’. This boom co-incided with a slowly shifting attitude towards what was ‘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’ that allowed the parkland to merge into the meadows beyond. By opening up such views, Addison suggested, ‘ a Man might make a pretty Landskip of his own Possessions’.
This was the era of William Kent, a painter in green, creating his lyrical landscapes at Stow and Rousham. For inspiration, Kent and later addicts like Henry Hoare at Stourhead, and Charles Hamilton at Painshill, looked to artists, particularly Claude and Poussin. But beside these favourites, Dutch paintings were also growing in popularity: the expert Simon Slive has calculated that nearly a hundred of Ruisdael’s paintings passed through London art sales between 1722 to 1760. 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 compared to historical or allegorical painting. It was hard for British painters to make a living from such work, apart from painting estates to form the background to portraits and conversation pieces, as Gainsborough did in his early portrait of ‘Mr and Mrs Andrews’ in 1748/9. 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 Wynants and Hobbema. According to an early obituary in the London Magazine, ‘The first manner he studied was Wijnants, whose thistles and dockleaves he frequently introduced into his early pictures. The next was Ruysdael’. Around 1747 he made a tenderly accurate chalk sketch of Ruisdael’s Wooded Landscape with a Flooded Road’(Louvre).
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 to the distance, would characterise his painting from now on. So would the deep central gulf, sometimes a river, but more often a lane, suggesting nature as at once embracing and dwarfing the figures who make their living from it: cottagers woodmen, carters. Critics like Anne Bermingham have also pointed out how Gainsborough adapted the composition of Rusidael’s waterfall pictures, with a high bank and 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 Rusidael’s work, the accurate ‘reality’ of his plants, stones, rough brick walls and knotted trees. But even the advocates of the high, idealised style had a fondness for his 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 Grainfield 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 accuracy but also for 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, of 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 that 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 he could create from unpreposessing corners, like the trees around a marsh.. And 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 cloud-scapes, the windmills standing out against the vast expanse. Ruisdael often places his horizon very low, using 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, 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 which show a calm, golden light flooding the plain, like the Haarlem bleaching pictures, have a sense of the small scale of human endeavour when compared to the mobile vastness of our precarious girdle of air.
Constable made his first copy of a Ruysdael etching, of two trees standing in the water, in 1797. Five years later, 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 Great 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’, the lovely etching of Grainfield at the Edge of a Wood, the Landscape with Two Windmills and many more. 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 - & as brisk as champagne’.
But Constable also admired the accuracy, the ‘true’ depiction. 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’, like The Leaping Horse, where the horse towing the canal barge has to jump over a cattle-guard on the towpath, Constable shows a sudden, strange moment in a working routine. These have the effect of a surprise, an impressionistic, magical glance at the familiar, using a composition familiar from Ruisdael’s work (in a scenes like Landscape with a Sluice Gate, or a Windmill near a Town Moat) of the woods, the bank, the bridge. The catalogue to this summer’s Royal Academy exhibition describes Constable pointing to Winter Landscape 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, indicating a change ‘that will produce a thaw before morning. The concurrence of these circumstances shows that Ruysdael understood what he was painting’. Sometimes Ruisdael’s dense trees and evening skies anticipate 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. Turner, for example, paid homage to him in Port Ruysdael of 1827 (Yale) and the more intimate Fishing Boat Bringing a Disabled Ship into Port Ruysdael of 1844(Tate).
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 twenty-two of his paintings and five of his etchings, yet it would be over a hundred years before he received his next exhibition 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.