Magazine article The Spectator

Going Dutch

Magazine article The Spectator

Going Dutch

Article excerpt

Jacob van Ruisdael: Master of Landscape Royal Academy, until 4 June The Sackler Wing of the Royal Academy is currently in deep-green livery to conjure up a rus in urbe setting for the grandest of the Dutch landscape painters of the 17th century - Jacob van Ruisdael. The first impression is a dark one - storm-tossed seas and forests, cloud-filled skies: the untamed might of nature and plenty of lush verdure. The painted green of the gallery walls is here and there relieved by pale-grey partitions, like silver birches in a conifer wood, upon which smaller works can be hung. (There's an excellent sampling of Ruisdael's powerful black chalk drawings made from direct observation. ) The screens provide extra wall space for this dense exhibition: 50 paintings and 36 drawings and etchings are hung in the relatively confined spaces of the Sackler. The hanging echoes the nature of Ruisdael's compositions, packed with incident and detail of quite remarkable accuracy.

The exhibition is curated by the American scholar Seymour Slive, who brought us a memorable Franz Hals exhibition (also at the Academy), back in 1990.

Slive has devoted much time and energy to the study of Ruisdael, publishing a catalogue raisonne on the artist five years ago, and now writing all the text for the beautifully produced catalogue (£24.95 in softback). For the most part the catalogue is clearly and gracefully written, with a useful chronology and three main essays - on Ruisdael the landscapist, on his early collectors and critics, and on Constable and Ruisdael. The Gallery Guide pamphlet, also written by Slive, is an excellent short introduction to the show; I've rarely come across one as good. In it he stresses Ruisdael's surprising versatility: 'No other old master or modern artist can match the variety of landscape subjects he depicted.'

It's a bold statement, but I'd like to know who could challenge it.

Not much is known about Ruisdael (1628/9-82), who was born poor but was so naturally talented that he was able to burst forth fully formed as a painter at the age of 17 or 18; 1646 was the year of this sudden and extraordinary maturity, and 15 paintings can be securely dated to it. Who taught the boy? Possibly his father Isaack, who was a gifted but not prolific painter as well as an occasional dealer, but more probably his uncle Salomon van Ruysdael (note the variant spelling), who was a landscape painter of some standing. But from the start young Ruisdael's handling of paint had a different quality to it - it was both denser and more energetic, as can be seen in the examples of his early work with which the exhibition opens.

'View of Naarden' (1647) is particularly fine, Ruisdael's earliest panoramic view, a long, low landscape with a high creamy sky and poignant fall of light. Look through the screen on which it's hung to a couple of the high points of the exhibition in the room beyond: the celebrated 'Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede' from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, and 'Le Coup de Soleil' from the Louvre, both pictures of the 1670s. On the back of the same screen are some of the more traditional dune landscapes Ruisdael was also known for. His treatment makes the dunes more solid, and focuses on a central motif (a favourite device this, hence his attraction to windmills) such as a clump of trees. For an artist so praised for his verisimilitude, it is intriguing to find him exaggerating and inventing effects.

Look, for instance, at the magisterial depiction of Bentheim Castle on its rocky eminence. Actually, it's situated on rather a low hill, but it wouldn't have made nearly so striking an image if painted realistically. …

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