The Master of Landscape

Ruisdael The stunning retrospective of the works of Jacob Van Ruisdael and the accompanying catalog by Seymour Slive, Jacob Van Ruisdael: Master of Landscape, receive a substantial review in the most recent edition of The New York Review of Books.

What Jacob van Ruisdael’s standing was in his own time is one of the many unknowns that swirl around him, but for well over two hundred years now he has been considered one of the formidable figures of seventeenth-century Dutch painting…[F]or admirers and scholars of Dutch painting, Ruisdael’s landscapes, with their dark green and brown forests, their often embattled-seeming lone trees, their immense gray-white skies brimming with huge clouds, and their sense of nature as a setting for elemental dramatic encounters, take a place in the next level down from the pinnacle of Rembrandt, Hals, and Vermeer.

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At his best, Ruisdael was a considerable poet of nature, a man who conveys simultaneously the fragility of a twig and the massive strength and shapeliness of a grove of trees. With their immediately clear-cut, overall sense of structure and balance, his pictures are as engaging from a distance as close up (which may be why we are often aware of the frames when we take in the pictures)….Yet Ruisdael was also masterful when, as it were, he pushed all his tones in one direction. Some of his best pictures are quite dark. In them, he is almost revisiting, but with a new naturalism and muscularity, the enchanted, fairy-tale forests of earlier European art, whether by Pisanello, Dürer, or Altdorfer….

The artist was no less adept in his light-toned works. These are generally views of plains or fields or the city of Haarlem seen from afar, with cloud-filled skies taking up most of the pictures. In them, Ruisdael seems to be asking, like a twentieth-century abstractionist, how little of the dark earth he needs at the bottom of his painting to balance above it a vast sky. Other artists of the time emphasized Holland’s big skies, but it was Ruisdael, whose cloudscapes show a world reduced to its essentials, who produced definitive images of his country’s famous flatness.

Jacob Van Ruisdael: Master of Landscape runs through February 5 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and then will appear at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (February 25 – June 4, 2006). The catalog is published by Yale University Press.

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