Signed and dated 1642, the present river scene represents one of Salomon van Ruysdael’s favorite subjects of the middle period of his career: fishermen tending their nets along a riverbank. Although it has been infrequently discussed in the literature on Ruysdael it is nevertheless a finely preserved example of his monochrome river landscapes. By the 1640s Van Ruysdael had developed an independent approach to landscape, concentrating on calm compositions executed with a limited tonal range, which required him to create depth by blending a restricted palette of browns, greys and yellows.

After first treating the theme of fisherman on a river in the 1630s, Van Ruysdael focused more intently on river and estuary scenes in the 1640s, using as his inspiration the inland stretches of water around Haarlem and elsewhere in the Netherlands. These river scenes were indebted to the work of Jan van Goyen (1596–1656), the most important and prolific artist of this important phase of Dutch tonal landscape painting, but Van Ruysdael introduced subtler color variations and applied his paint quickly and fluently, usually without the aid of preliminary drawing. Rather than topographical accuracy, Van Ruysdael focused on the sky and water as subjects and his riverscapes are typically imaginary or composed of elements from several locations. The boats are typically shown in calm conditions, allowing Van Ruysdael to experiment with clouds and their light effects on the sky and water. The viewpoint of scenes like the present is often very low, creating the illusion that the viewer is on a similar boat close by.

Fig. 1. Ruysdael, River landscape with fisherman setting out their nets, signed and dated SVRUYSDAEL 1644, oil on canvas, 91.5 by 123.5 cm. Sold London, Sotheby’s, 4 July 2007, lot 31.

As is common with Van Ruysdael, he repeated and reworked the present compositional format, with the riverbank receding sharply towards the right horizon and clouds dominating the upper right quadrant. Yet within this formulaic approach he reveals an infinite creativity, never slavishly repeating himself but always envisioning the scene anew, such as in a work formerly in the collection of Jean de Sellon (1736 - 1810) and sold London, Sotheby’s, 4 July 2007, lot 31 (fig. 1). That painting, signed and dated 1644, includes stripes of clouds painted with a loaded brush, while here the looming grey clouds are parting to make way for a blue sky in the distance, with its accompanying sunlight already burning off the humidity over calm seas.