Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 27, 2006
Seymour Slive Jacob van Ruisdael: Master of Landscape Exh. cat. Yale University Press, 2005. 288 pp.; 160 color ills.; 30 b/w ills. $45.00 (1903973740)
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 26–September 18, 2005;
Jacob van Ruisdael. The Jewish Cemetery. Mid-1650s. Oil on canvas. 40.86 x 57.5 inches. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.

Jacob van Ruisdael: Master of Landscape, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until February 5, 2006, is a splendid exhibition; it is not to be missed by anyone with an interest in landscape painting or in Dutch art. The show provides an admirable overview of Ruisdael’s work. It includes expected monuments such as the Dresden Jewish Cemetery (ca. 1655; cat. no. 22) and the Hermitage Marsh in a Forest (ca. 1665; cat. no. 37), but also a number of little-known gems. Though paintings quite understandably dominate the exhibition, works on paper—including all of Ruisdael’s exceedingly rare etchings—are given their own space. The show’s organizers are to be especially commended for the thoughtful arrangement of the works on paper. Two facing walls with the etchings and a selection of drawings convey the range and diversity of Ruisdael’s landscape types and techniques in these media. Other drawings are interspersed with the paintings, and so allow for comparison and suggest the role of drawing within Ruisdael’s oeuvre. This attention to the prints and drawings provides a rich addition to the show and to an understanding of Ruisdael’s art.

The judicious selection of works emphasizes Ruisdael’s range of scale and diversity of landscape subjects. The large spaces of the exhibition provide both expansive vistas from which to view the pictures as well as smaller, more intimate spaces and alcoves. The paintings are hung in an arrangement that is loosely chronological within a thematic framework. They can be looked at from various perspectives, and these different viewpoints encourage useful comparisons and telling juxtapositions. With some effort a persistent viewer can even look from Ruisdael’s Winter Landscape (late 1660s; Philadelphia; cat. no. 43) to a Constable copy across the gallery. The paintings include a fair number of works from relatively remote museums (the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, and the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, are especially well represented) and private collections. Moreover, within the familiar categories—waterfalls, ruins, Haarlempjes—the organizers juxtapose characteristic and unfamiliar versions of a subject. For example, the quintessential View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds (early 1670s; The Hague; cat. no. 48)) is hung near the more unusual Bleaching Ground (near Haarlem?) in a Hollow by a Cottage (late 1640s; London; cat. no. 10) and View of the Dunes near Bloemendaal with Bleaching Fields (late 1660s; private collection; cat. no. 47).

Early Ruisdael is especially well represented with several paintings from before 1648 (the year he joined the guild) and a fair number from that year. Among these are the dated Landscape with a Cottage and Trees (1646; Hamburger Kunsthalle; cat. no. 1) and Oak Tree and Dense Shrubbery at the Edge of a Pond (ca. 1646–48; Budapest; cat. no. 5). Works such as these convey Ruisdael’s ability to grasp the physical world in painting. The large and remarkably fresh Dune Landscape (1646; Hermitage; cat. no. 3) provides a wonderful example of the young Ruisdael’s incredible technical facility. Here, the scumbled brushwork and crabbed handling (with the butt end of the brush as well as the bristles) are all reminiscent of the graphic marks found in the etchings he made in the same period. In works such as this, we can see Ruisdael as he strives for technical handling that matches the myriad textures and structures he so closely observed in nature. This devotion to precise visual description—the brushstrokes that render the morphology of each branch, leaf, and reed—distinguishes Ruisdael from his Haarlem contemporaries.

Given the riches provided in this exhibition, it seems churlish to expect more by way of context. The exhibition does have a useful timeline on the wall, but provides little information on Haarlem or Amsterdam as cultural centers—or of previous landscape traditions. Perhaps this dearth of context is more problematic for the general public, though even art historians would benefit from a small selection of paintings by other artists including Salomon Ruisdael and Jan van Goyen, or perhaps Cornelis Vroom and Pieter Molijn. More importantly than suggesting sources, such comparisons would highlight the distinctiveness of Ruisdael’s vision and technique. To a lesser extent this is also true of the prints. Admittedly, though, the total focus on Ruisdael is compelling. One leaves this show with a renewed appreciation of his achievement, an overview of his diverse subject matter, and the shifts in his work over time, but also the incredible and consistent intensity of his vision—picture by picture.

The catalogue by Seymour Slive—a coda to his catalogue raisonné (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001)—is notable for the fine quality of reproduction and the thoughtful selection of choice details. Moreover, this volume provides a clearer sense of Ruisdael’s chronology than the larger thematically organized catalogue raisonné. Three essays, “Jacob van Ruisdael: Master Landscapist,” “Ruisdael’s Clientele, Early Collectors and Critics,” and “Constable and Ruisdael,” introduce the section covering the paintings, and two somewhat shorter pieces introduce the drawings and etchings. Each work is illustrated and discussed in several paragraphs.

In “Jacob van Ruisdael: Master Landscapist,” Slive’s many pointed observations on Ruisdael’s empirical vision highlight the artist’s ability to grasp the physical world in paintings. The care with which the art historian describes the artist’s accuracy in the depiction of the confluence of two rivers, his record of an unusual specimen, his portrayal of a plant’s particular morphology, or the aerodynamics of a mill’s blades compellingly conveys Ruisdael’s interest in how things are. The description of just what is portrayed in his many pictures of water-works—water mills, sluices, and even a mud mill—further evokes his interest in technology. Moreover, Slive documents the exactitude of the artist’s scientific eye with the opinions of experts in botany, oceanography, and aerodynamics. It is also a view he amply supports with the many beautiful photographic details that convey Ruisdael’s “astonishingly accurate portrayal of natural phenomena” (4).

Slive’s belief that the total absence of meticulous drawings of various species of trees and close views of plants by Ruisdael is a gap in our knowledge of the artists’ achievement as a draughtsman seems not to take into account Slive’s own recognition of Ruisdael’s “microscopic attention to detail” (38) in a painting such as Landscape with a Cottage and Trees. Given the way that the artist’s remarkably distinct brushstrokes differentiate among the blasted pollarded willow, blooming elder bush, and the oak tree within the dense vegetation, the very articulation of each specimen within the painting might be seen to fulfill this need. Indeed, the structural use of the brush provides a closer approximation of perceptual phenomena—the physical structure of the branches, bark, and leaves—through which the observable facts of growth and decay appear almost a natural manifestation. To quote Arnold Houbraken on the painter, “And he could depict water splashing and foaming as it dashed upon the rocks so naturally clear and transparent, that it appears to be nothing less than real water”; (in Slive, 23).

The second essay, “Ruisdael’s Clientele, Early Collectors and Critics,” supplements a useful summary on what little we know about Ruisdael’s patronage with information gleaned from considering specific subject matter such as Bentheim Castle, Kostverloren Castle, and the Haarlem bleaching fields. In addition, Slive lays out early comments made by Gérard de Lairesse and Jan Luiken, as well as a translation (and facsimile) of Houbraken’s seminal biographical passage. Slive pays considerable attention to Ruisdael’s eighteenth-century reception both here and in the essay “Constable and Ruisdael.” Surprisingly little is made in any of the essays of Ruisdael’s conversion to the Reformed Church after his move to Amsterdam or of Houbraken’s problematic reference to Ruisdael’s training as a surgeon (we are referred to a note that takes us to an appendix in the catalogue raisonné). Slive is surely right, though, to emphasize Ruisdael’s techniques of convincing representation. Moreover, it is through such close attention to the works’ technique and subject matter that he provides sure evidence for Ruisdael’s longstanding reputation as a “thinking artist” (the view of such diverse critics as Goethe and Fromentin). This exhibition and catalogue—together with the recent catalogue raisonné—are a magnificent achievement, the capstone of Slive’s (and Jacob Rosenberg’s) years of labor and a firm foundation for all further work on Ruisdael.

Catherine Levesque
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, College of William and Mary