Jacob van Ruisdael, Dutch Master of Landscape
Jacob van Ruisdael
(The Philadelphia Museum of Art)
The dramatic landscapes of 17th-century Dutch painter Jacob van Ruisdael can often be recognized just by a particular shade of blue, said Holland Cotter in The New York Times. It radiates through the clouds of his skies, this “ozone-azure, cool and clear, a high, vibrato-less note.” This distinctive blue can be seen repeatedly, in all manner of intensity, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s retrospective of his work. That’s largely because skies take up at least half of so many of his works. Ruisdael managed to create such grand landscapes from Holland’s “duney flatness” by taking advantage of what his country had in spades: sky. “It was Holland’s Himalayas, awesome, many-hued, dominating all.” Ruisdael also invented or imported scenic elements to supplement the flatlands in front of him: towering waterfalls, hilltop castles, and thick forests.
No other landscape painter ever mastered the range of subjects Ruisdael addressed, said Robert Baxter in the Cherry Hill, N.J., Courier-Post. He produced more than 800 works, incorporating mountains, seascapes, winterscapes, and dunes. Not only that, but he began doing so at a tender age. By 17 or 18, he no longer needed a teacher. One of the best among the 47 paintings, 30 drawings, and 13 etchings now on display is his The Marsh in a Forest (1665). In it, Ruisdael creates a “haunting vision of a dark marsh, flecked with lily pads and surrounded by gnarled tree branches set against a dramatic sky of billowing clouds.” Westphalia’s Bentheim Castle also inspired memorable paintings, with Ruisdael setting the German castle dramatically atop a mountain. Ruisdael paid such meticulous attention to detail in all of his works that botanists can easily tell his beeches from his elms and willows.
It’s not merely his attention to detail, but Ruisdael’s “emotional edge and gravity that make his pictures timeless,” said Edward J. Sozanski in The Philadelphia Inquirer. At a time when landscape was often relegated to the role of background player, he painted scenes that mingled naturalistic fidelity with spiritual intensity. In doing so, he transformed landscape into “a metaphor for the majesty of creation and the transience of existence.” One of his most famous paintings, Jewish Cemetery, embodies this spiritual intensity. It brings together ruins, a blasted tree, tumbling waterfall, and ominous clouds, all framing the two glowing white tombs at its center. With so many elements crammed together, the painting should feel contrived, yet doesn’t. Rather, it “looks like a stage set for a Wagnerian tragedy.” Against such grand backgrounds, man’s works seem “puny and transitory.” Ruisdael’s paintings are reverent of nature and secular, but “fully congruent with what organized religion preaches about the place of mankind in the universe.”
The Jewish Cemetery
Jacob Isaacksz. van Ruisdael
[click image to enlarge]