signed lower left: JvRuisdael
oil on panel
Probably Edward Strutt, 1st Baron Belper (1801-1880), Kingston Hall, Derbyshire;
Thence by descent.
S. Slive, Jacob van Ruisdael. A complete Catalogue of His Paintings, Drawings and Etchings, New Haven & London 2001, pp. 24, 40, no. 26, reproduced in colour.
Ruisdael’s views of Bentheim Castle are perhaps his most famous works. Some sixteen of them survive, and they form a largely cohesive group of works in which the greatest of all Dutch landscape painters reveals an almost obsessive fascination with this memorable subject.
Bentheim, a small town clustered round the foot of a hill dominated by a large castle after which it is named, is in Westphalia in Germany, about six miles from the border with the Netherlands. When Ruisdael visited it, almost certainly in 1650, and probably accompanied by his townsman Nicolaes Berchem, the town was no more than a few scattered houses on the lower slopes of the hill partly covered in oaks, but the castle was very much as it is today, dominating the surrounding plain. Travelling east from the province of North Holland, this is the first proper hill that Ruisdael would have encountered, made all the more dramatic by the fortified Schloß on its crown, and it is hardly surprising that it should have made such an impact on the young painter. The lowland landscapes, rivers, watermills and woods and the distinctive timber-framed buildings that Ruisdael saw in the Dutch province of Gelderland on his way to and from Bentheim served as the inspiration for much of his work in the ensuing years, as they were to do for Hobbema a decade later, and Ruisdael drew on them for the rest of his career. This journey was thus of huge importance for Ruisdael’s development, but his discovery of the monumental topography of Bentheim was more than this: a defining moment for an artist whose physical horizons had hitherto been interrupted by nothing more dramatic than a church spire, a tree or a low sandy dune.
Ruisdael’s characteristic response to Bentheim was to adapt what he had seen and drawn, and to recreate landscapes that are completely plausible but not topographically accurate. In fact, Ruisdael’s Bentheim paintings are more closely based on real views than any of his other paintings except his cityscapes, but they were nonetheless subtly altered to suit his artistic purposes. As with the dunes near Haarlem, Ruisdael consistently exaggerates the height and steepness of the hill of Bentheim, but his purpose in doing so is different: to show the castle atop its sandstone outcrop, dominating the viewer and towering over him. He does the opposite with dunes, exaggerating their height to enable the viewer to enjoy panoramic views from their escarpment; views which in reality he would have been denied by their puny lack of altitude. Ruisdael painted the view from dunes, not of them, whereas he painted not a single panoramic view from Bentheim, which always remains instead his subject. In one very late painting Ruisdael paints a distant view of Bentheim without exaggerating its height (see Slive, under Literature, p. 37, no. 23, reproduced). It is an extraordinary testament to Ruisdael’s genius that he should, so perversely, have painted his most topographically accurate view of Bentheim up to thirty years after he last set eyes on the site.
Ruisdael did not use Bentheim as a personal Mont Sainte Victoire. His Bentheim pictures are in no sense a serial struggle with the representation of nature, nor are they totemic, and while they are atmospheric, with states of weather used to emphasize mood, and thus expressive, they are in no sense expressionist. In several of them the site is disguised, so that the distinctive shape of either the round or the square tower of the castle can barely be made out through the trees, as if Ruisdael wanted the viewer to discover the subject himself (see Slive, op. cit., pp. 29, 30, 34, 36, 40, nos. 12, 13, 18, 22, 27, all reproduced), in wilful contrast to the more vigorous depictions such as the present picture.
Many of Ruisdael’s views of Bentheim date from the 1650s, although he continued to paint it in the 1660s and '70s. The present painting can be dated to the early 1650s. It is one of five of Ruisdael’s Bentheim pictures painted on panel, a support that the artist largely ceased to use after the mid-1650s. Ruisdael rarely dated his paintings, and it is usually only possible to establish a rough chronology for them. Two of the Bentheim views are dated: an upright picture with a distant prospect of the castle, painted on canvas and dated 1651 (private collection; here reproduced in detail Fig. 1; see Slive, op. cit., p. 39, no. 24, reproduced), thus providing a terminus ante quem for Ruisdael’s journey; and the celebrated Beit picture, now in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, which is dated 1653 (here reproduced Fig. 2; idem, pp. 31-2, no. 15, reproduced). The Harold Samuel painting (reproduced here Fig. 3) dates from the mid-1650s.
Ruisdael depicted Bentheim from all sides. This view of it shows the castle from the north-west. To the left is the castle church at the distant north-east corner. The womens’ quarters are halfway along the northern side. Nearest us is the Kronenburg, with its stepped gable, which was the principal living quarters. Three other paintings show it from the same angle as the present one (Slive, op. cit., pp. 28, 33, 39, nos. 10, 16, 25, all reproduced), but in the latter two the topography of the hill is different in each case (see Fig. 4). The upright picture in Amsterdam however (here reproduced Fig. 5; idem, no. 10), which dates from the early 1670s, is clearly dependent on the present one, to whose composition Ruisdael clearly had recourse.
Ruisdael must have made drawings of Bentheim, but unfortunately none survive, although drawings of sites nearby are known. A lost drawing known only through an old photograph, formerly given to Simon de Vlieger, would appear to be a copy after the present work, rather than a study for it. A drawing of the castle from exactly the same angle as this one, though from further away, was made by Anthonie Waterloo, probably also in the 1650s (Teylers Museum, Haarlem; here reproduced fig. 6; see Slive, op. cit., p. 25, reproduced fig. Bentheim h).
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