The peculiar charm of Dutch painting, which is quick to impress the observer conscious of the intrinsic beauty of simple, everyday things, is illustrated anew in the Institute's collection by A River Landscape
by Salomon van Ruysdael. This picture, recently acquired through the Dunwoody Fund, is now on view with other Dutch paintings, and provides an opportunity for comparing Salomon's work with that of three other landscapists, all of whom have generally been estimated to be of greater stature than he: van Goyen, Salomon's nephew Jacob van Ruysdael, and Hobbema. Such a comparison reveals, contrary to all one may have been led to expect, that Salomon occupies a perfectly independent place in the Dutch landscape school and that his best work measures up admirably to that of his more famous countrymen. It shows him to be as delightful in his own way as was his nephew Jacob, by whom he has long been overshadowed.The painting by which he is now represented in the Institute presents a theme on which he played many variations. It is a broad, free scene with a river stretching across the width of the canvas and flowing off into a dim distance at the right. On a wooded bank to the left a group of peasants in a cart shouts to a boatload of people approaching the shore. Just beyond in a ferry boat loaded with cattle, and further out in the river a sail boat is drifting away from the shore. The far reaches of the water are dotted with other small boats.It is a commonplace enough scene; it is even pedestrian—groups of people holidaying or going about their business by the river bank. Yet van Ruysdael has infused it with the poetic quality that is to be found in so many simple Dutch pictures. The vast dome of the sky, with its drifting clouds and the rays of the sun sifting through them, the moist quality of the air, the village emerging from a thin mist in the distance, and the cool bluish tonality of the whole combine to record a perfect summer day in Holland. The painting shows Salomon van Ruysdael to have had the gift of simple, telling design and a profound awareness of the rhythmic movement of clouds. It reveals him, also, to have been yet another lover of his native land.The feeling of seventeenth-century Dutch artists for their country and for the least aspect of it is one that has never been equaled by the painters of other lands. Given the circumstances under which the school was formed it appears to have been inevitable. When Holland signed the truce with Spain in 1609, the Dutch people found themselves free after an interminable, and what must often have seemed a hopeless, struggle. Suddenly their destiny was in their own hands. What were they going to do with it? What were their artists going to do with it? Fromentin gives an answer in the following passage from his volume on The Old Masters of Belgium and Holland:
"This was the problem: Given a nation of burghers, practical, unimaginative, busy, not in the least mystical, of anti-Latin mind, with traditions destroyed, with a worship without images, and parsimonious habits—to find an art which should please it, that should seize its conventionalities, and represent it. A writer of our time, very enlightened in such matters, has wittily replied that such a people had but one thing to propose—a very simple and bold thing, and moreover the only one in which their artists had constantly succeeded for fifty years, and that was to require that they should paint its portrait."This phrase says everything. Dutch painting, it is quickly perceived, was and could be only the portrait of Holland, its exterior image, faithful, exact, complete, and like, with no embellishment. Portraits of men and places, the sea and sky—such was to be, reduced to its primitive elements, the program followed by the Dutch School, and such it was from its first day to the day of its decline."Salomon van Ruysdael was one of the first to choose landscape as the aspect of Dutch life which he would represent. He was preceded by Seeghers and by van Goyen, to whose work his early canvases are often compared, and immediately followed by van Neer and his nephew Jacob. Salomon was born during the first decade of the seventeenth century and lived in Haarlem until he died in 1670. His River Landscape,
signed and dated 1656 on the ferry boat in the foreground, was done during the period of his best work. It is an admirable example, and one that presents yet another facet of Dutch portraiture during the century of its greatest achievement.Referenced Work of Art
- River Landscape by Salomon van Ruysdael, signed and dated 1656. Detail showing ferry and sailboats on the river.