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Jacob van Ruisdael

(1628—1682) Dutch landscape painter

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(b Haarlem, ?1628/9; d ?Amsterdam; bur. Haarlem, 14 Mar. 1682).

The greatest and most versatile of all Dutch landscape painters. In the absence of any evidence about his training, it is generally assumed that he was taught by his father Isaac, who was a painter as well as a frame maker and picture dealer (no works by him are known to survive). His uncle Salomon van Ruysdael (this distinction in spelling occurs consistently in their own signatures) presumably also played a part in his artistic education. Ruisdael was extremely precocious, however: his earliest known paintings date from 1646, when he was probably no more than 18, and already reveal a mature and distinctive artistic personality. He was also versatile and prolific (about 700 paintings are reasonably attributed to him, together with 100 or so drawings and a dozen etchings): he painted forests, grain fields, beaches and seascapes, watermills and windmills, winter landscapes and Scandinavian torrents influenced by Allart van Everdingen (he did not visit Scandinavia himself); he could conjure poetry from a virtually featureless patch of duneland as well as from a magnificent panoramic view. Even more than his range, however, it is the emotional force of his work that distinguishes him from his contemporaries. He moved away decisively from the ‘tonal’ phase of Dutch landscape represented by his uncle: in place of subtle atmospheric effects he favoured strong forms and dense colours, and his brushwork is vigorous and impasted. His emotional, subjective approach is most memorably expressed in The Jewish Cemetery (c.1660, versions in Detroit Inst. of Arts and Gemäldegalerie, Dresden), where tombstones and elegiac ruins, symbols of man's transitory and ephemeral existence, are contrasted with nature's power of renewal.

Early in his career Ruisdael seems to have travelled a fair amount in search of subjects, but he never ventured far from home. His most ambitious journey was probably made in 1650 with his friend Nicolaes Berchem and took him just over the German border, resulting in several pictures of Bentheim Castle in Westphalia. In the most famous of these views (1653, NG, Dublin), the castle heroically crowns the top of a steep, rugged hill, transformed by Ruisdael's imagination from the mild slope it is in actuality. In about 1656 he moved to Amsterdam, where he lived for the rest of his life (although he was buried in St Bavo's Cathedral in Haarlem). He evidently had a fairly prosperous career, but little is known about his life and it was long thought he had died insane in the workhouse at Haarlem, a fate that is now known to have befallen his cousin and near-namesake Jacob van Ruysdael. There is still uncertainty, however, concerning the story, reported by Houbraken and supported by some tantalizing evidence, that Ruisdael practised as a surgeon. It seems unlikely that he could have found the time for this (he is said to have taken a medical degree at Caen in Normandy in 1676, when he was in his late forties), but other prolific Dutch painters, for example Steen (who ran a tavern), managed to pursue two careers. Ruisdael's only documented pupil was Hobbema, but his influence was resounding, both on his Dutch contemporaries and on artists in other countries in the following two centuries—Gainsborough, Constable, and the Barbizon School for example. His work is represented in many public galleries, the finest collection being in the National Gallery, London.


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