signed and dated lower right: JvRuisdael 1647 (JvR in compendium)
J. Smith, A Catalogue Raisonné..., vol. VI, London 1835, p. 43, no. 134;
C. Hofstede de Groot, A Catalogue Raisonné..., vol. IV, London 1912, pp. 280-1, no. 910;
R. Heinemann, Collection Schloβ Rohoncz, Zurich 1937, vol. I, no. 365, reproduced vol. II, plate 156;
R. Andree, Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf. Malerei. Ausgewählte Werke, Düsseldorf 1976, no. 8;
W. Schmidt, Studien zur Landschaftskunst Jacob van Ruisdaels. Frühwerke und Wanderjahre, Hildesheim & New York 1991, pp. 27f, reproduced fig. 5;
S. Slive [& H.R. Hoetink], Jacob van Ruisdael, exhibition catalogue, New York & Amsterdam 1982, pp. 36-7, no. 5, reproduced;
H.R. Hoetink (ed.), Jacob van Ruisdael 1628-29-1682 (fully illustrated souvenir catalogue of The Mauritshuis exhibition), The Hague 1982, (unpaginated), no. 5, reproduced;
E.J. Walford, Jacob van Ruisdael and the Perception of Landscape, New Haven & London 1991, p. 62;
S. Slive, Jacob van Ruisdael. A Complete Catalogue of His Paintings, Drawings and Etchings, New Haven & London 2001, p. 93, no. 69, reproduced;
P. Biesboer, in M. Sitt & P. Biesboer, Jacob van Ruisdael. Die Revolution der Landschaft, exhibition catalogue, Zwolle 2002, pp. 86-7, no. 19, reproduced.
The view is along a rutted sandy road on the eastern edge of the dunes, looking south, a little to the northwest of Haarlem, whose rooftops can be seen in the distance to the left. To the right the dunes rise gently; straight ahead is the roof of a house, perhaps on the edge of a village. The centre of the composition is dominated by a stunted clump of an oak growing out of the bank next to the road and sharply angled to the east, blown by the strong prevailing westerly winds coming in off the sea which is barely a mile to our right. Just to the left, sheltered by the oak, and partly growing up through it, are two poplars that are less bent by the wind.1 Further to the left is the flat ground inland from the dunes, nearby where the famous bleaching fields are. The evening sunlight illuminating the western edges of the Altocumulus clouds indicate that late afternoon is drawing towards evening, and although the sky is still lighting the bleached sandy soil in the road and in the field to the left, much of the foreground near the oak clump is already in shadow.2 A farmer is making his way home along the track, carrying his scythe and accompanied by his dog, perhaps making for the farmhouse in the distance. Two figures, one seated on the ground wait further down the road, and two more are walking in the scrubby field to the left.
Although all the elements in this painting apart from the distant view of Haarlem are almost certainly imaginary, this scene is completely natural, and conveys an impression of solid reality, in which all the elements fall into place without artifice, so that they all appear to be part of a natural order. The weather and the time of day imbue this landscape with a natural mood. The receding clouds probably yielded rain earlier in the day – the vegetation feels wet and one can almost smell the dampness and the slight tang of salt from the sea – but the sky is clearing and a sense of peace is falling with the onset of evening.
These are characteristics of all of Ruisdael's greatest works, of which this is unquestionably one. His paintings from the preceding year show a growing interest in the representation of nature, weather and time of day, but it is only in 1647, in this and a handful of other works, that Ruisdael achieves complete mastery of these, and is able to use them to create a mood. This may be the first occasion in which he shows some of the leaves of the oaks starting to turn brown, both to indicate that summer is giving way to autumn, and to show the poor sandy soil in which this stunted oak clump is struggling to survive. In later works depicting fully-grown oaks, the tree that grows in the poorest soil, or has the most water-logged roots, always has the greatest proportion of brown leaves.
As Slive observed, this "excellently preserved painting has the distinction of being Ruisdael's only dated work that includes a view of Haarlem".3 We see the bulk of the city's cathedral, the Sint Bavokerk, silhouetted against the horizon to the left, and further away the spire of the Sint Janskerk, with the windmills that sat atop the city walls. Just to the left of the Sint Bavokerk is the tip of the so-called Klokhuis.
Ruisdael painted a very similar composition in an undated canvas in the Louvre, Paris, a celebrated work popularly known as 'Le Buisson' (see Fig. 1).4 The same imaginary scene is depicted: a view south along a road on the edge of the dunes with Haarlem in the left distance, but it is more wooded, so that the clump of oaks is larger and denser, blocking out the light more completely, and a second large clump rises from the right side of the bank further down the road. The peasant is carrying a bundle rather than a scythe, and has several dogs, and the clouds in the sky are massed stormy Stratocumulus. Slive is inclined to place Le Buisson slightly later than the present work, partly because the greater massing of foliage anticipates Ruisdael's more monumental later works, but it is unlikely that they are much apart in date, and Le Buisson is generally dated to 1647. Both are, as Slive observed, "outstanding examples of young Ruisdael's tendency to enlarge a detail of nature into a central motif in a spacious setting."5
A third variant of the compositional type, with the principal clump of oaks mid-way in density between Le Buisson and the present picture, but lacking the further clump in Le Buisson, is in an English private collection. On the basis of a photograph, Slive considered its status to be uncertain, and gave it to an "Unidentified artist". 6
In this and in a handful of other works from the same time, Ruisdael shows an interest in the effects of luminous sandy dune soil revealed by the erosion of the overlying foliage, as Pieter Biesboer observed.7 In the present picture we see this especially clearly in the footpath worn away by the footfall of cattle or humans to the left of the rutted road. In the dune landscape of 1647 in Munich, a footpath winding through the dunes creates the same effect, as it does in a number of pictures from the late 1640s and early 1650s, while in the small wooded landscape formerly in the Girardet collection, a small landslip has revealed patchy sandy soil.8 The Munich painting reverses the compositional scheme of the present work, with the rising mound of dune to the left (and seen from a lower viewpoint), and the centre dominated by a clump of wind-blown stunted oak, further away from the viewer than in the present picture.9 Most of Ruisdael's early works such as this one include as a counterpoint to the predominant muted tones of the landscape a contrasting note of red, seen here in the jerkin worn by the peasant.
Ruisdael returned to the theme of a rutted sandy road running along the edge of the dunes in a painting from the 1650s now in Philadelphia.10 Here the evening sunlight picks out the foliage along the transverse ridges of the dunes, and the peasant and his dog are walking towards the viewer.
This painting is an astonishing achievement by an artist still under twenty years old. Other paintings from this year and from 1646, the year of his first securely datable works also show how remarkably precocious he was, but of them all it is in this painting that he most successfully achieves evocation of mood and spirit of place.
1. The oak is a Summer Oak (Quercus robur), and the poplar is a White Poplar (Populus alba). Both trees are frequently found in the dunes, where they remain relatively small due to the poor soil. We are most grateful to Pius Floris, of Pius Floris Boomverzorging (Amsterdam) for his help in identifying the species. For more on the subject of trees in Ruisdael's paintings, see P. Ashton, A.I. Davies & S. Slive, `Jacob van Ruisdael's Trees', in Arcadia, 42, no. 1, Winter 1982, pp. 2-31.
2. This is mid-level Altocumulus, described by Gavin Pretor-Pinney (The Cloudspotter's Guide, London 2006, p.129) as "more beautiful than any other in the low-angled sunlight of these [sunrise and sunset] times of day". Few of Ruisdael's early works show similar meteorological conditions, but a notable exception is his Windmill by a Country Road of 1646 in Cleveland, also set at the onset of evening (see Walford under Literature, pp. 55-6, reproduced fig. 34).
3. See Slive, under Literature, 2001, p. 93.
4. Idem, pp. 85-7, no. 60, reproduced. Thoré-Bürger cited Le Buisson as a work that may appear to be merely a transcription of a scene from nature but is in fact the result of the same kind of intensive intellectual effort that masters of "composed landscapes" such as Poussin and Dughet put into their work (T. Thoré-Bürger, Le Salon de 1844..., Paris 1844, pp. 49-52).
5. Idem, p. 85.
6. Idem, pp. 85-6, under no. 60, reproduced fig. 60a.
7. See Biesboer, under Literature, p. 86.
8. Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, inv. 1022; see B. Florenz in Biesboer, op. cit., pp. 84-5, no. 18, reproduced. For the ex-Girardet picture see Slive, op. cit., 2001, p. 424, no. 601, reproduced.
9. See Walford, under Literature, who notes that Ruisdael eliminates the distant view of Haarlem in the Munich picture in order to concentrate the viewer's attention on "the massive dune and sprawling vegetation".
10. See S. Slive, Jacob van Ruisdael. Master of Landscape, exhibition catalogue, New Haven & London 2005, pp. 98-9, no. 27, reproduced.
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