PRINT May 2005


Jacob van Ruisdael

AN EXHIBITION OF WORKS BY JACOB VAN RUISDAEL, which opens this summer at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art before travelling to Philadelphia and London, will give viewers a chance to appraise the various ways in which this seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painter could make the familiar unforgettable. It is not hard to imagine patrons taking pleasure in recognizing well-known landmarks in his scenes of the countryside around Haarlem and Amsterdam. Indeed, Ruisdael’s success might be measured by the multiple versions he often painted of virtually the same place. But what for some artists might have devolved into an onerous exercise in replication for Ruisdael became an opportunity to explore a new kind of artistic freedom.

In that regard, the exhibition also provides an opportunity to reflect on what Hegel identified as one of the most innovative aspects of seventeenth-century Dutch realism and the foundation of its modernity. Because the subjects that Dutch artists depicted were often commonplace—landscapes and the “trivial” activities of daily life—the key interest in their work ceased to be the subject matter and became the art of painting itself. What mattered, Hegel claimed, was the process “in which the productive artist himself lets us see himself alone.”

Indeed, the series Ruisdael painted of fields for bleaching linen is a superb example of the freedom with which he was able to improvise on a single compositional theme. The exhibition includes three examples of these “Haarlempjes” (“little views of Haarlem,” painted mostly between 1670 and 1675) from collections in The Hague, London, and elsewhere. Comparing one view with another, one appreciates how Ruisdael changes the perspective, plays with the alternation of light and shade, and rearranges the patterns of the cloth strips and of the rooftops near the foreground—Mondrian-like clusters of rectangles laid out in shifting hues of terra-cotta, purple, and blue.

Ruisdael’s Haarlem series is fascinating in another respect: The paintings are consonant with new attitudes that emerged in the seventeenth century toward the natural world. In contrast, say, to the hay makers and harvesters in Bruegel's “Seasons” of around 1565, Ruisdael's figures in the fields outside of Haarlem are miniscule. Ruisdael's laborers, moreover, are engaged in modern and industrial rather than timeless agricultural activities: They are tending strips of chemically treated linen that have been stretched out on the grass to dry. This bleaching process could be said to exemplify the new relationship between people and the elements envisioned by seventeenth-century philosopher Francis Bacon. An early figure in the scientific revolution, Bacon called for men to master and harness the powers of nature for economic advancement and the production of wealth. Appropriately, a large portion of these small canvases is given over to sunlight and windblown clouds: Sunlight was the agent for bleaching the linen and the air for drying it. One can imagine the bleaching fields in the foreground to be the economic base from which the wealth of the distant city arose. Of course, the people working in the fields were not masters of anything but rather Holland’s new, rural proletariat.

Other scenes also feature the way in which nature, through technology, was put to the service of the Dutch economy. Windmills were used to harness the winds of the North Sea for many industrial processes, as well as for irrigating farmland and draining land reclaimed from the water. Whereas rulers on horseback were figures of power for European monarchies, for citizens of the recently formed Dutch Republic, Ruisdael painted towering windmills that had a comparable, awe-inspiring effect.

This, in fact, was a challenge that Ruisdael took up over and over again: how to create a landscape that inspires awe in the beholder. In following the myriad ways in which Ruisdael achieved that goal, one can learn something about how he worked as, in Hegel’s words, “a productive artist.” Sometimes Ruisdael depicts sweeping vistas of cloud-darkened terrain illuminated by a few dazzling patches of sunlight. Or, adopting a “frog’s eye” point of view, he paints a castle (Bentheim, which in reality is spread out on a low-lying hill) in such a way to make it seem like a mountainous fortress crowning a rocky mass that rises up the picture’s surface like a wall. And at yet other times Ruisdael closes in on a waterfall that, accompanied by shattered tree trunks or massive boulders, seems to come crashing out of the canvas with a force rivaling the most theatrical of Baroque altarpieces.

Many of these paintings are quite large and imposing. All the more remarkable, then, are those small views of the bleaching fields (and grain fields) outside of Haarlem in which, with infinitely subtle variation, Ruisdael suggests vast panoramic expanses without resorting to clichéd compositional devices like framing trees or prominent foreground ledges. In View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds, 1670–75, the flat terrain, streaked by alternating bands of light and shadow, is capped by diagonal banks of side-lit clouds that fill more than two-thirds of the canvas; with almost vortical force they pull the eye back to the city’s cathedral, which rises up, like a beacon, on the horizon.

“Jacob van Ruisdael: Master of Landscape” will be on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 26–Sept. 18; travels to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Oct. 23, 2005–Feb. 5, 2006; Royal Academy of Arts, London, Feb. 25–June 4, 2006.

Margaret D. Carroll is professor of art history at Wellesley College.