The Dutch landscape sexy? Yes, if it’s one by Jacob van Ruisdael. Waldemar Januszczak savours the views at the RA
Any Dutch artist who isn’t Rembrandt or Vermeer has their work cut out having an impact. Even Rembrandt and Vermeer spent various centuries of their history being internationally ignored. I hate to think how many great Dutch paintings by so-called minor masters of the Dutch Golden Age I hurried past before I learnt how rewarding it was to peer into every one of them with interest. Perhaps Dutch art is too quiet for our noisy times; it certainly isn’t “sexy”, in that base and corporeal way that the modern world likes its sexiness. But these days, I make a beeline for it in any museum, and in particular I make a beeline for the paintings of Jacob van Ruisdael.
Was Ruisdael the greatest landscape painter of all time? Probably not. But every possible challenger for this title, from Constable to Turner, from Monet to Van Gogh, owes him so much. Ruisdael instigated the agitated close-up; the endless panorama; the river scene; the castle scene; the snow scene; the mountain in the middle; the reflection in the water; the bleak landscape with ruins; the joyous landscape with harvest; the completely invented vista; the utterly truthful one. He was a giant. And a fascinating display of his glorious small print at the Royal Academy makes this pretty obvious. I urge you to savour every tiny word of it.
Ruisdael really doesn’t deserve to be underrated. We don’t know much about his life, but we do know he was a prodigy whom we should rank at number 8 or 9 on the Mozart scale. Born in Haarlem circa 1629, he was painting the first views we see here when he was 16. They are scarily assured. Somewhere called Naarden, 12 miles out of Amsterdam on the road to the North Sea, pokes up through the first of the low, flat horizons that were one of his fortes, and in which he captured so perfectly the endlessness of a typical bit of Holland. Mondrian, who was Dutch as well, of course, would later reduce these emphatically simple natural divisions between land and sky into actual straight lines. But three centuries before him, Ruisdael was already noting the essential minimalism of the Dutch landscape, and feeling, too, its powerful spiritual updraft.
The lovely view of Naarden is painted on a wooden panel, so the underlying browns show through the grey clouds and weigh them down with water. He lets the sun break through in a couple of places, too, and it produces vivid pools of spotlit yellow that give the vista its drama and allow you to estimate where things actually are in the dark board game of this thunderous coastal perspective. Anything any painter had ever done with a vista of this sort, the teenage Ruisdael is already doing in 1647. The emotional maturity he displays is even more impressive than the technical facility.
It is uncanny how naturally inventive he is. The show opens with a clutch of his teenage landscapes, and every one of them is after something different. A beautiful view of some peasants bleaching their linen in the sun involves looking down on them in a hollow, so you feel as if you are spying. But a blasted elm by the next roadside is so close to the front of the picture that it looms over you and reminds you, spookily, of your smallness. It is such a tall and impressively gnarled totem, and the heavens soar so loftily beyond.
Ruisdael, you soon realise, is a marvellous storyteller who says it with landscapes. A key talent of his is the ability to paint trees that appear to be struggling upwards, as if the effort of survival has tied them into knots. Gainsborough copied this sense of botanical battle from Ruisdael, and his nature, too, never has it easy. But Ruisdael takes the effect to a higher level, because you always feel, with him, that the struggling tree is a natural stand-in for one of us.
I really like the way he manages to paint such heroic landscapes without populating them with heroes. There are plenty of little people scattered about the corners of Ruisdael’s vistas, but they are never Diana chasing Actaeon, or Echo pining for Narcissus, as they usually are in 17th-century landscapes. Instead, they are nameless Dutch peasants going about their daily business in interesting ways: skinny-dipping in the lake under the castle; riding out with dogs; trudging home alone. Ruisdael didn’t always paint his figures himself, and would sometimes get others in to do it for him, but you never feel that any inhabitant of his art has been thrown in casually to fill a hole. In Ruisdael’s world, the human mood invariably amplifies the natural mood.
Who copied this from him? Why, Constable, of course. Think of The Hay Wain and you’re thinking of a Ruisdael done bigger. All that’s happening in The Hay Wain is that an Englishman and his horse are returning to their broken cottage by the river, and they have paused in their labours to note how lovely their land is. The little chap minding his sheep in front of Ruisdael’s Brick Bridge with a Sluice has the same feelings. Constable found everything in Ruisdael. His genius was to enlarge it. The fierce identification with twisted trees; the fondness for humble undergrowth; how to create foliage out of splashes of light; the pure love of clouds.
Sometime in the 1650s, Ruisdael moved from Haarlem to Amsterdam. It was where the money was. As he was forced to compete more forcefully in the marketplace, his art grew notice-ably bigger, showier and less honest. Indeed, it began telling a pack of fantastic lies about Holland. The middle room of this restless show is set in a thoroughly mountainous place where raging torrents cascade down steep hillsides, and huge ruined castles dominate impressive crags and outcrops. It’s a kind of Scotland of the mind, imagined by an unusually adventurous hillwalker. Some of the most Nordic-feeling of these thunderous mountain views are actually meant to be set in Scandinavia. Ruisdael probably never went there. But other voyaging Dutch painters did, and from them he learnt to paint soaring pines and tree-cracking torrents.
It was also from Ruisdael that 18th-century Britain inherited its love of gothic ruins and haunted follies. Girtin certainly did. So, of course, did Turner.
The undoubted masterpiece of Ruisdael’s excitable middle period is the famous landscape with a Jewish cemetery. A few miles outside Amsterdam, there is, it seems, an actual cemetery for Portuguese Jews, but it is found somewhere flat and typically Dutch, while in Ruisdael’s painting it has been relocated to a stormy mountainside with a rushing stream and a ruined castle. Constable, on no evidence that anyone has been able to track down, called it an Allegory of the Life of Man, and who can doubt that it has those kinds of meanings in mind? Here and almost everywhere in his art, Ruisdael was commenting on the fragility of human existence by recording the weather. Life’s a storm, and then you die.
As if all this weren’t enough of an achievement already, the final stretches of the show reveal Ruisdael inventing various new landscape genres, as if to amuse himself. His snow scenes are less icky than most. When it came to evoking storm-tossed seas, he was the best before Turner. And in an excellent completion of a circle, he goes back to watching peasants bleaching their linen in the sun, but this time from so far away, we can sense their place in the cosmos. What an intoxicating show.