Seymour Slive, Jacob van Ruisdael: A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, Drawings, and Etchings. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2002. 788 pp, 328 color plates, 1112 b&w illus. ISBN 0-300-08972-4.
Martina Sitt and Pieter Biesboer, eds., with Karsten Müller, Jacob van Ruisdael: De revolutie van het Hollandse landschap. With contributions by Jochen Becker, Pieter Biesboer, Jeroen Giltaij, Huigen Leeflang, and Martina Sitt. [Cat. exh. Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, January 18 – April 1, 2002; Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, April 27 – July 29, 2002.] Zwolle: Waanders; Haarlem: Frans Hals Museum, 2002. 167pp, with illus. ISBN 90-400-9604-X (hardb ound); 90-400-9605-8 (paper).
The seventeenth-century Dutch landscapist Jacob van Ruisdael has recently been the subject of both a magisterial catalogue raisonné and an exhibition focusing on the earliest years of his career. An impressive 788 pages in length, Seymour Slive’s catalogue consists of chronologies of Ruisdael’s life and his dated works, followed by catalogues of 694 paintings, 136 drawings, and 13 etchings, as well as dubious and wrongly attributed works (163 paintings and 50 drawings). The paintings are grouped according to type, ranging from identifiable views, through grainfields, windmills, and waterfalls, to seascapes and winter scenes. A number of sections are preceded by substantial introductions. The individual entries are equally informative, including references to copies of Ruisdael’s paintings by other artists. In the first of two appendices, addressing the problem of ‘Dr. Jacob van Ruisdael,’ Slive concludes that it is doubtful that our Ruisdael was the ‘Jacobus Ruijsdael’ recorded in 1676. The second appendix explores John Constable’s fruitful encounters with Ruisdael’s art. The catalogue ends with a number of indices, including a concordance to earlier Ruisdael catalogues, and a selective bibliography, as well as a final supplement containing works that appeared after the catalogue was completed. Almost every work is illustrated. Many illustrations are in color and most of very good quality. Also illustrated are related works by other artists and, where possible, views of the original sites that Ruisdael painted. A number of fine color details allow us to study Ruisdael’s painting technique.
Slive’s catalogue will be consulted by scholars for generations to come, but I have one caveat. With a binding that is rather less than sturdy, the volume must be used with some care. This is unfortunate because not only specialists, but anyone with a love of Dutch landscape painting will surely want to browse through Slive’s pages, strolling leisurely, as it were, through some vast gallery devoted to Ruisdael in the company of its exceptionally well-informed and lucid curator. A prolific artist, Ruisdael was also a revolutionary one. Unlike the tonal landscapes of his predecessors, Ruisdael’s earliest works already show the dramatic compositions, saturated color, and intensely observed details of trees that mark a new phase in Dutch landscape painting. This development was examined in depth in the exhibition held in Hamburg and Haarlem in 2002. Concentrating on Ruisdael’s earliest paintings, the exhibition displayed 31 of his pictures (plus one unsure attribution), and a selection of landscapes by predecessors and contemporaries, including Jan van Goyen and Solomon van Ruysdael, as well as Ruisdael’s pupil, Meindert Hobbema.
Published for the Haarlem venue, the catalogue is prefaced by four essays. Pieter Biesboer surveys the material conditions underlying landscape painting in Haarlem, including patronage, guild organization, and the prices fetched by the works of various landscapists. Huigen Leeflang discusses how the Haarlem countryside was perceived by seventeenth-century Dutch writers, a subject on which he has published valuable studies elsewhere. Jeroen Giltaij examines Ruisdael’s earliest development, between 1646, when he produced some 12 dated paintings at the age of 17 or 18, and 1650, when he made an excursion to Burgsteinfuhrt. On the basis of the dated pictures, Giltaij reconstructs the young Ruisdael’s artistic development almost from month to month. Ruisdael’s teacher probably was not his uncle Salomon van Ruysdael, but his father Isaack, represented here by a signed picture dated 1646 (Cat. no. 1). Jacob manifests his originality in his very first works. However, his landscapes became more conventional immediately after his admission to the painters’ guild in 1648. As several writers suggest in the catalogue, this temporary retreat from innovation may have come about because, no longer under his father’s protection, he was now competing on the open market. His travels in 1650 initiated a new phase of innovation.
Martina Sitt examines Ruisdael’s new concepts of landscape and space, as well as his working methods, as revealed by x-radiograph examination. He did not search hesitantly for new forms, but eschewing underdrawing, he structured his landscapes boldly in terms of light and shadow. The catalogue entries, written by a number of scholars, are generally informative, if occasionally repetitive, and with one exception are accompanied by color illustrations. They include two paintings, cat. nos. 9 and 14, rejected by Slive as authentic Ruisdaels (Slive, dub136, which he calls a borderline case, and dub65 respectively). Conversely, one painting considered doubtful in the Haarlem exhibition (no. 25) is accepted by Slive (no. 370).
Closing the volume is a final essay by Jochen Becker, who takes Ruisdael’s Mill at Wijk bij Duurstede (which has no catalogue number) as a starting point for a useful survey of current interpretations of his landscape imagery, including the ‘scriptural readings’ of Joos Bruyn and others. Although Becker has reservations about the utility of this mode of pictorial exegesis, it is enthusiastically embraced elsewhere in the catalogue. Thus, we learn, among other things, that a dead tree alludes to the transitoriness of life (cat. no. 30), a linen bleaching-field symbolizes the ‘purity of the soul and the power of divine grace’ (cat. no. 1), and a half-dead tree with young shoots evokes both Psalm 1:3 and Job 14: 1-12 (cat. nos. 40, 41). These and similar pious associations may well have occurred to seventeenth-century viewers of Ruisdael’s landscapes, but to what extent they reflect Ruisdael’s own intentions is another matter. Skeptics will probably agree with Slive, who generally dismisses such readings as unverifiable. More plausible is the suggestion made often in the catalogue that Ruisdael’s landscapes offered occasions to contemplate the goodness of God as manifested in natural scenery. Indeed, Leeflang cites J. van Westerhoven’s book of 1685, whose title translates as The Creator Glorified in his Creatures, illustrated by Coenraad Decker’s etched view of the Haarlem dunes that remarkably calls to mind a Ruisdael Haarlempje. Leeflang notes that Van Westerhoven and Ruisdael belonged to the same Mennonite community in Haarlem, but since the latter had been a member of the Dutch Reformed Church in Amsterdam since 1657, not too much can be made of this association, and, as Leeflang concludes, the extent to which Ruisdael shared Van Westerhoven’s intensely religious view of nature must remain an open question.
Walter S. Gibson
Case Western Reserve University