Jacob van Ruisdael: Master of Landscape at the Royal Academy

‘Landscape’ is an English misspelling of the Dutch landschap, a fact which goes some way towards suggesting how significant Dutch painting has been to a particularly English tradition of depicting nature — even, perhaps, to a certain way of seeing the world around us. And when it came to influencing English taste, especially during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there were few Dutch landscape painters who mattered more than Jacob van Ruisdael, the Haarlem-born artist who died in Amsterdam in 1682.

Jacob van Ruisdael: Master of Landscape, currently showing in the Sackler Wing of the Royal Academy, provides a welcome reminder of Ruisdael’s remarkable skill, fluency, range and emotive force. It also demonstrates — and surely Burlington House is the perfect setting for such an insight — how very disparate are the lessons that later generations can mine from a single, if extensive and sometimes problematic, body of work. Yet because the curators have somehow failed to get to grips with presenting the work in a compelling, comprehensible way, the exhibition inadvertently raises a much larger question as well. In a culture that rewards above all else speed, shock, variety, evanescent celebrity, blink-and-you’ve-missed-it sensationalism, the new, the easy and the would-be ‘ironic’, do we still have what it takes to appreciate Jacob van Ruisdael?

Background, foreground
The sort of gallery-goer who wishes to fix the artist’s extant work onto an armature of incident, accident, sex, violence and controversy may find this exhibition hard going.

To put it mildly, not a lot is known about Ruisdael’s life. His father, Isaack van Ruisdael, was a modestly successful frame-maker who sometimes dealt in pictures and may even have painted a few himself. His uncle, Salomon van Ruysdael, was a landscape painter of some importance. It isn’t clear who, if anyone, encouraged the young Jacob to pick up a brush. By 1648, however, when he was about 20, he had become a member of the local painters’ guild and was already producing works of bracing proficiency, a number of which appear in the present exhibition.

In the early 1650s, while in his mid 20s, Ruisdael left his native Haarlem for the borderlands between the Netherlands and Germany, where he painted several versions of his Bentheim Castle. By about 1656 he had moved again, this time to Amsterdam, already in the midst of what would become its Golden Age. Ruisdael was a contemporary of, amongst others, Rembrandt, but there’s no particular evidence that the two men ever met. Instead, Ruisdael evidently appreciated the work of a painter called Alart van Everdingen who had travelled to Scandinavia and continued to paint that terrain long after returning to the Netherlands. Other than that, and his Haarlem upbringing, the influences on his work are mostly conjectural.

Ruisdael never married. We know nothing much about his professional relationships and little if anything about his personal ones. He died in 1682, aged about 54. But since art historians abhor a vacuum, many other things have been suggested about him over the years. It has been claimed that he practiced as a physician (not true), that he died penniless (not true either), or that he was prone to bouts of depression (impossible to prove one way or the other). Yet he was nothing if not prolific. If one is to trust his catalogue raisonné, he is supposed to have created about 800 paintings, some of them very major ones, in a working life of perhaps 40 years at the very most.

Haarlem renaissance
Despite his crucial importance to later artists, Ruisdael was by no means the first Dutch landscape painter of real significance. Even at the start of his career, he was following on in a strong tradition — not least, that of fellow Haarlem painters Jan van Goyen, Pieter de Molijn, Hercules Segers, Jan van de Velde the younger, Claes Jansz. Visscher, Cornelis Vroom and, of course, Salomon Ruysdael himself.

These were the so-called ‘tonal painters’, and while Ruisdael’s own painting would eventually feature areas of strong local colour, it is clear that he learned much from the subdued palettes and subtle atmospherics of this older generation. Meanwhile in Amsterdam, Ruisdael would have had access to one of the world’s great art markets. Hence he may have known not only the work of Dutch contemporaries like Aelbert Cuyp, working in a far more Italianate mode, but perhaps also art from France, Italy and beyond.

The point is worth making, if only as a reminder that the apparent ‘realism’ of Ruisdael’s most famous work was very much a matter of personal choice, not a naïve inevitability. He built on the work he knew best, as well as the actual landscape he saw all around him — but like the artists he would in turn influence, his borrowings were selective, personal and intelligent. He would also bring something new and unique to his strongest work, injecting into those images of the created world what later generations would go on to read as a moral and psychological significance hitherto undetected. Therein — in that flexibility, in that richness — lies his greatness.

A patch of yellow
About that greatness, I’ve long had no real doubt. For what it’s worth, I can even point to the actual painting that opened my eyes to this painter — that made him stand out from any number of his Dutch contemporaries and made him matter to me.

An Extensive Landscape with Ruins is a small painting, and in some ways, not outstandingly different from others in the National Gallery’s collections. The National Gallery owns, indeed, a rather similar painting by Ruisdael, Landscape with a Ruined Castle and Church, which, unlike An Extensive Landscape, is included in the present exhibition. And as far as that goes, there are also works by Philips Koninck, e.g. this one, that really don’t look so very different either. So what’s so special about this particular Ruisdael?

An Extensive Landscape is, like many of Ruisdael’s works, laid out on a squarish rectangle, the lower third of which is taken up with flat fields and low trees, whereas the upper two thirds are filled with a lowering sky that is slate-grey in places, but almost a dirty-brown in others. The oncoming storm has darkened the land beneath it, so that all incident — a little pond, a modest and scrappy ruin, some scrubby vegetation — blends together in the gloom. A church steeple, near the centre of the composition, is hardly even visible against the sky — or, rather, seems to matter little when compared with those mountainous clouds which, the true patriotic topography of this flattest of art-historical hegemons, rolling and swirling above. So in a sense, the subject of the painting is no more and no less than the tonal relationships out of which it is concocted: something to do with the balance of blue and brown, of foxy russet and a green so dark as to be almost a sort of ersatz black, leavened with the drama of the brush-strokes with which it was created, free and strong but very personal. Fantastically moody, potentially violent even, yet totally composed, there’s more real fierceness packed into this little painting than in whole square acres of theatrical baroque canvases elsewhere in the National Gallery — which is perhaps, although the choice is a hard one, the thing that I love most about it.

But then, I haven’t even mentioned yet the really extraordinary feature of the painting — not least, because it’s hard to find the words to do it justice. Along the right half of the horizon, just under the lowest of those clouds, Ruisdael has painted in a field in brilliant yellow. Well, if anything were going to do it, what that little patch of yellow wall did to Bergotte, Ruisdael’s canary-coloured field would do to me, because no matter how often I see it (the painting isn’t always on show, either) that flash of colour always leaves me slightly giddy. Having seen it, I feel ready to go home because, let’s face it, after that, there’s not much more that art is going to do for me today.

This effect is, among other things, a technical triumph. Yellow isn’t an easy pigment to handle. Titian, like Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione, knew the secret of making it work. Van Dyck had his moments of working magic with it. Artists within living memory who could do so are few and far between, although — strangely, perhaps — Pollock, de Kooning and Auerbach, all firm favourites of mine, spring to mind. For it’s harder than it might sound to avoid making yellow go all muddly, to give it the room it needs not just to exist, but to burst with real opulence and clarity from the surface of the canvas. In achieving this, Ruisdael has shown us something truly wonderful: a miracle taking place against the most uneventful of topographies.

That, however, isn’t the main point. What I am trying to say this simply this. As many have done before me — some of them, very great landscape painters in their own right — I really do love Ruisdael’s work, which is why I had great hopes for the present exhibition. These hopes were, however, not entirely fulfilled, and even a little disappointed.

A bit flat?
Ruisdael is not an enormous show. Packed into such a small space, however, it manages to look cluttered. About fifty paintings have been shoe-horned into four rooms, accompanied by some 36 works on paper — which might sound like quite a lot, until one remembers that Ruisdael’s catalogue raisonné of paintings runs to something like 800 entries. So at best it’s a survey, a tour d’horizon rather than an encyclopaedic account of Ruysdael’s achievement, let alone a rigorous and thorough examination of the man and his oeuvre.

Furthermore, although the genial, well-illustrated catalogue, written by Harvard emeritus professor and veteran Ruisdael scholar Seymour Slive, is illuminating in places and entertaining throughout, the background information available at the show itself is both patchy and, where it exists, confusing. The problem here may lie in Prof. Slive’s characteristic approach, which over the decades has tended to subordinate issues of iconography, historical context, patronage and the study of taste to what used to be known, without as much as curled lip, as ‘connoisseurship’.

Now, in deference to ERO’s own longstanding tradition of cheerful perversity in these matters, in a sense it would be all too tempting to welcome such an approach. Yet there are three reasons — three criticisms too nagging to be ignored — that ultimately prevent me from doing so.

Put out more paintings
The first of these brings us back to the point about the exhibition’s limited scope. There simply isn’t enough visual evidence here to engage with the basic issues of how Ruisdael’s work looks. Many of Ruisdael’s paintings appear in variant versions. It would have been fun, certainly, and perhaps even instructive to have been led through the evolutions of particular compositions, with hints about derivations, detours, meanings. For instance, I’d have loved to have seen the Detroit Jewish Cemetery, which travelled to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum a few years ago for The Glory of the Golden Age, placed next to the Dresden version on show here. It would have been interesting to have learned more about Ruisdael’s technique, which was evidently subject to considerable fairly dramatic shifts. It would have been informative to have been shown how some of his effects, so much admired and so widely copied, were achieved. And if the show had been held downstairs in the main galleries, rather than upstairs in the Sackler wing, there would have been more than enough space available to allow the display of works by some of Ruisdael’s predecessors and contemporaries, just to show us all what he was, at it were, painting ‘against’.

Finally, we could have done with hearing more about the way in which Ruisdael’s growing popularity spawned, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a host of copies, forgeries and the creeping transformation of plenty of dull old landscapes into bright new ‘autograph’ Ruisdaels. But then that particular line of enquiry rarely stirs much happiness in the hearts of curators, dealers, auction houses or private collectors — which, is perhaps, why the organisers of the present exhibition decided to steer away from it.

Lacking, however, as we do, their humane and practical inhibitions, this leads us, albeit rather indirectly and by gentle stages, to my next major objection.

Spot the difference
The best thing about the present Royal Academy exhibition is what it has to say about the breadth of Ruisdael’s achievement — how many other Ruisdaels there are, in a manner of speaking, beyond the poet of the flat fields outside Amsterdam.

No wonder that for centuries landscape painters continued to turn to this rather obscure Dutchman for inspiration. It’s impossible to wander through the four rooms of the Sackler Gallery without spotting seeds from which would later spring whole new landscape painting traditions. The Bentheim Castle from Dublin, for instance, perched adventurously on its not-very-authentic mini-mountain, reminded me hugely of the vedute of Bernardo Bellotto, seen most recently (by me, anyway) at Masterpieces from Dresden, here in these same Sackler Galleries, only a few years ago. Ruisdael’s seascapes are so compelling that one momentarily forgets he forged his reputation as a painter of dry (by Dutch standards, anyway) land. And The Jewish Cemetery made my jaw drop, not just because it’s such an astounding painting, but because it seems to have turned up in the wrong exhibition. Surely, this isn’t the stuff of staid, Calvinist, reassuringly burgerlijk Amsterdam, c. 1665? Surely, with that thunderous sky, the mouldering tombs, the crumbling ruins, the blighted tree, the whole landscape throbbing with sturm und drang — this has to be a stray from Gothic Nightmares, currently at Tate Britain? And then the graphic work is another thing altogether — as pleasing as anything in the show. With his unerring eye for the specific and his incredible facility with pen and burin, Ruisdael’s eloquence is enough to make Gainsborough’s copies seem crude.

But even within the bounds of similar subject-matter, Ruisdael can look surprisingly various. Compare, for instance, the near-monochrome Village in Winter, drawn in white on a very dark ground, with the warm midsummer colour of Two Water Mills and an Open Sluice, or the gem-like brightness of the Duke of Buccleuch’s Hilly Wooded Landscape with Cattle with the almost metallic golds and coppers of The Great Oak. Or compare the almost hyper-real intensity of The Great Oak, each kinking, curling branch observed with meticulous care, with the explosive, rather Turner-esque freedom of Waterfall with a Half-Timbered House and Castle. The light changes, the handling changes, the colour and tonality veer this way and that, the range of mood and atmosphere is virtually infinite.

There are moments, indeed, when it becomes hard to believe that these canvases all passed through the hands of the same young painter — however innovative he may have been, however driven in the development of his personal style, however supernaturally agile when it came to negotiating the transitions between his wildest and quietest modes of expression.

When is a Ruisdael not a Ruisdael?
For hard, actually, read ‘impossible’. And this is the second major problem with the exhibition. One of the basic points about connoisseurship is that, well, it helps to be sure who created the relevant works. And yet at least one critic — by which I mean, obviously, the Evening Standard’s brave Brian Sewell — has questioned whether several of the paintings included in the Royal Academy’s exhibition have anything to do with Ruisdael at all.

Who knows? Let’s be entirely honest about this. Unlike Prof. Slive, I’m no expert on authenticating seventeenth century Dutch paintings, and unlike Mr Sewell, I lack the sort of training on which such expertise is built. Further, since even those who are experts seem unable to reach anything approaching consensus, it probably wouldn’t matter much if I were. On the other hand, however, one would have to be blind, or perhaps simply very inattentive, not to notice a certain lack of family resemblance in the works on show.

There could be all sorts of reasons for this. To state the most obvious, cleaning and conservation make a huge difference. Take, for instance, a very basic feature — the white of Ruisdael’s billowing, cumulous clouds. In several paintings, these have all the tobacco-golden lustre old varnish can confer on them, while in others, the surfaces look rather as if someone’s been at them with Lemon Cif and a scouring-pad. The impact of this difference on the whole atmosphere of the painting, the sort of weather indicated and the mood established, could hardly be greater. Meanwhile, some paintings have quite a lot of surface crackle while others have disconcertingly little; there are at least two that suffer from re-touching so blatant as to be downright distressing; a few simply don’t seem to fit in with the rest at all.

Perhaps they are all perfectly genuine works, scarred by such divergent histories as to mask or even erase their essential similarities. Or perhaps Ruisdael was simply that much of a chameleon, changing the most basic features of his art to suit unrecoverably altered circumstances. Who can say? All I know is this. After visiting the exhibition once, I went away with some doubts, but put this down to my mood, bad lighting, distractions, a naturally suspicious mind, visceral dislike of freshly-scrubbed Old Masters, pure ignorance — I can’t even remember what else, but really, I was making every effort to suspend some increasingly burdensome disbelief.

On a second visit, however, the doubts doubled and trebled. Nor was my confidence in the work boosted in any way by the response of my companion to the first two rooms. ‘How many of these are fakes, then?’ he asked me, before nominating a few particularly dodgy examples.

There may well once have been a time when respect for authority was such that the inclusion of something in a serious exhibition, curated by acknowledged experts, stilled all such concerns. But for better or worse, that time has passed. The atmosphere of generalised distrust, however ill-informed and mistaken it may be, surely means that someone, somewhere, ought to have addressed the issue of attribution and, if possible, put our collective doubts at rest. Whereas in contrast, ignoring the problem only detracted from the entirely authentic delights of what is, in many ways, a worthwhile exhibition.

Second glances
The third problem with Jacob van Ruisdael: Master of Landscape is, in a sense, as much the fault of the world we inhabit as it is a defect of the show itself.

To return to a point raised several times earlier, Ruisdael has long attracted the interest and adulation of connoisseurs, collectors and painters alike. Prof. Slive’s catalogue is full of information on this topic, both in the general essays and in the descriptions of particular painters. Perhaps most memorable is his account of John Constable’s relationship with Ruisdael’s work. The practicalities of this convey us to a now-unimaginable age, before cheap colour reproduction and blockbuster exhibitions, let alone the mixed blessing of huge million-colour LCD displays and Google Images — back to an age where seeking to expand one’s visual horizons might mean, for instance, riding a long way in order to borrow someone else’s copy of an engraving of a far-distant painting by a long-dead artist.

For some reason we find it irresistible, now, to sneer at those aristocratic Grand Tourists, with their well-publicised superficiality and provincialism, without pausing to realise how literally impossible it was for most Englishmen, even those who cared about it most, to form any decent mental picture of the great art and architecture of France, the Netherlands, the Italian city-states and lands beyond. Whereas for us, the once-exotic has been domesticated to the point of banality. The tangled green fastness of Machu Picchu, the dusty magnificence of rose-red Petra, the famous inaccessibility of what’s left of Timbuktu — the few of us who haven’t passed through these during gap-years or interludes of personal crisis are doubtless nonetheless familiar with their every crooked enfilade and inscrutable stone, having been coaxed through these by Dan Cruikshank or Michael Palin on one of those many, many evenings when there was nothing good on television but cooking dinner in silence seemed too great an enormity to contemplate. And as for the ‘natural’ world, in which the hand of God was once seen to be particularly evident, it is now most easily observed through the agency of someone else’s long lens, in the weirdly aestheticised and depopulated ghetto of ‘wildlife photography’, where all those meerkats and snow leopards detain us briefly only as something halfway between art and entertainment, succeeding really, poor beasts, in neither capacity.

Hence the ever-accelerating devaluation of our visual currency in a century where images are too abundant to be valued much, and where anything that requires a degree of persistence and patience is likely to be elbowed out of the way by pleasures that, while seeming to offer more, demand far less. How, then, to ‘sell’ a painter like Jacob van Ruisdael to the world in which we live now?

Difficult loves
Whatever else may be said about Norman Rosenthal’s time at the Royal Academy — and personally, although this perhaps is just old-fashioned ERO perversity piping up again, I have to say that I’ve got quite a lot of time for Mr Rosenthal — he’s shown a strong stomach for exhibiting the unfashionable, the difficult and the downright hard-to-love. For every ‘Sensation’, for every loan of high-profile booty from a far-away country with a bad human rights record, there’s been something surprising, challenging but genuinely exciting. Who but the RA would have put on such a comprehensive Frank Auerbach retrospective — so much better, in every possible way, than Tate Britain’s embarrassing apotheosis of Lucian Freud? Who else would have given such full outings to Vuillard, Guston, Kirchner? Who would have reminded us of Sir William Nicholson, or coaxed those remarkable Russian Constructivist paintings out of their provincial collections, or come up with the 1900: Art at the Crossroads exhibition?

So in that sense, it isn’t surprising that the Royal Academy have chosen to host an exhibition of Ruisdael’s work, complemented with a small display of related work by past Academicians in the John Madejsky Fine Rooms. What is surprising, though, is that the curators haven’t somehow injected more enthusiasm into the project — that they haven’t made more effort to bring the exhibition to life — to help us and our contemporaries, with our gnat-sized attention spans and our addiction to the flashily superficial, to find a way into the windswept sand-dunes and crepuscular forests of Ruisdael’s art.

A blind spot
For as we’ve seen, the fit between Ruisdael’s visual culture and our own isn’t exactly a very neat one.

His preoccupations are not our own. Ruisdael’s art has neither the literalism of the point-and-shoot photograph, nor the lurid, self-conscious fantasy of the Surrealists. It’s not Baroque in the sense of being remotely flashy, extrovert or susceptible to adoption under the rubric of High Camp. It’s too skilful to be ‘primitive’ but too genuine to be ironic. Nor is there a sexy back-story. Ruisdael didn’t, so far as we know, murder anyone during a tennis match, or keep dozens of mistresses, or having interesting political views of a progressive and left-wing nature, or even keep a journal. Most hopeless of all, though, is Ruisdael’s subject-matter. He painted neither the super-rich, the scorned outcasts of polite society nor the beautiful and underdressed. He painted neither religious art capable of anachronistic readings as ‘fantastic and imaginative’ or ‘richly psychologically revelatory’ — nor stuff useful for illustrating volumes of social history. He didn’t even paint animals.

Instead, Ruisdael painted landscapes, always with some trace of human activity present — because Nature for its own sake presumably interested him as little as it did any of his contemporaries — yet often remarkably low on incident. Featureless fields, decrepit trees, unremarkable and indistinct buildings — this were the stuff out of which so many of his finest works were made.

Ruisdael painted the world he saw around him. His perception was shaped, as all our worlds are, by the visual culture in which he found himself, but still grounded in the knotty genuineness of sight, touch — habitual contact. Furthermore, he painted for a clientele that still knew how to look — not simply to scan an image for its meaning, as if it were a piece of roadside advertising or a corporate logo, but really look — with patience and persistence. Truly, hard though this may be to believe, Ruisdael’s contemporaries, like Constable’s, could lose themselves in an etching as fully as ours can vanish into an episode of Desperate Housewives or the non-stop rapid-fire action and gory yet painless deaths of a new generation video game.

But we can’t — or at any rate, so few still can, and those only with such a desperate expenditure of will or generous dollop of good luck, that the Royal Academy, unable to count on mass appeal, hasn’t even been able to garner much support from the usual tame flock of arts journalists. Oh, it’s not that the arts press doesn’t like Ruisdael. It’s just that this show does nothing — tells them no story, gives them no new angle — in order to make their pulses race a little faster when contemplating him. Compare the number and length of the British reviews of this exhibition with those of other exhibitions in the Sackler Galleries, even the really unpopular ones, and you’ll see what I mean. The attraction, then, is all tick-the-box worthiness. Ruisdael is, after all, a certified Old Master. The pitch seems to be that if you like that sort of thing, come along and see it — but don’t worry much if you don’t.

Gnarled trunk, green shoots
Yet the final irony here is that, as has been mentioned so often above, Ruisdael has proved himself more than capable of appealing across the generations.

Samuel Palmer, for instance, writing from Shoreham in the mid 1820s, saw in Ruisdael’s ability to ‘draw from the visible creation’ a welcome antidote to ‘imaginative thought’, which provided ‘practice’ while refreshing a ‘mind tired with better things’ — by which, it’s clear from the context, Palmer meant the inventive frenzies of artists like Michelangelo and Blake. Ruisdael thus served, for Palmer, as a reminder of the importance of balance between God’s own creation and men’s flights of fancy. The latter might be fascinating — Palmer evidently found them so, and complained about the need to spend days drawing tree stumps — but without being grounded in the former, something was lost.

On the other hand, just to pick the example that springs to mind the moment Palmer is mentioned, Graham Sutherland also seems to have learned something from Ruisdael, in part, of course, via Palmer. But in this case the lesson could hardly have been more different. Wandering around Wales, spending weeks worrying over a mossy darkened lane or single twisted tree-trunk, Sutherland was following in Palmer’s footsteps, and thus by extension in Ruisdael’s. Yet for Sutherland, nature seems largely to work as a language in which emotional truths — in the late 1930s and early 40s, it must be said, usually pretty anguished ones — could find a sort of voice. Nature and man were thus in some sense inextricable one from the other, a mirror for each other’s convolutions and deformities.

By the same token, it’s easy to think of artists who have gone to Ruisdael primarily for lessons in colour, or composition, or for a host of other reasons. Nor are other painters the only ones who can play this game. Each of us who engages, truly and deeply, with his work will bring something unique to it, and hence has the potential to take something unique away.

In short, then, I don’t doubt that future generations will continue to find their own distinctive epiphanies in Ruisdael’s painting, drawing and engraving. I only regret that the present exhibition didn’t push harder in trying to encourage what will, clearly, happen anyway.

Instead, however, lacklustre commentary, a cluttered display of distractingly odd-looking works and a sort of take-it-or-leave-it attitude have the strange effect of making the work of this extraordinary painter seem so much duller and deader than it ought to do. Ruisdael, ultimately, deserves a better show than this. Yet this is doubtless the only one we’ll see for some time. For that reason, the Royal Academy’s exhibition is, for all its various defects, of course, unmissable.
Bunny Smedley was co-founder and arts editor of electric-review.com. Until very recently, she wrote about art for the website of the Social Affairs Unit.

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