There was a calm and barren nature to many of his landscape paintings, where a key object would sit centrally, and the rest of the scene would be filled with a flat environment with little dramatic detail. Often he would focus on a tall structure such as a tower or castle, and perhaps just a few figures in the foreground to provide an element of perspective. Over his career, though, he would vary his style and in some other examples there would be greater detail and undulations across these environments. He also produced a number of windmill depictions in which they were pulled closer to the viewer, allowing more detail to be added and a very different atmosphere to be produced. There is a charm found within the paintings of Jacob van Ruisdael which perfectly captures the beauty of the Dutch countryside and his work remains just as popular today.
Whilst the Dutch Golden Age brought about a wealth of innovation and expertise within the visual arts, it was rare for someone to prove as influential as Jacob van Ruisdael would prove to be. A whole host of European landscape painters would study, even love, his work right across the continent. He is certainly regarded as the most significant landscape painter from 17th century Netherlands and is known to have been naturally gifted from an early age. He was also a highly accomplished draughtsman as well, with these talents providing the base to many of his paintings. Both mediums have been collected with relish by a number of prominent art galleries and museums around the world, with the artist's oeuvre best served by the likes of the National Gallery in London, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
As was often the case within 17th century Netherlands, Jacob was just one of several artists found within his family. They also focused on the landscape genre, which has made it difficult to attribute some of the paintings that have been given their signature. The artist that we focus on here is undoubtedly the most talented to have come from the family, but other names to look out for include his father Isaack, uncle Salomon van Ruysdael, and also one of his cousins, Jacob van Ruysdael (note the alternative surname). This lineage was also very important in persuading Jacob into this industry into the first place, as well as influencing the type of style and content that he would choose to use. There would have been plenty of other artists around Haarlem and Amsterdam during his lifetime, but it was his family members that gave him his initial artistic direction. Jacob managed to build a strong reputation within his own lifetime which ensured that his work would become in-demand right across the Dutch Republic.
Table of Contents
- Career Summary
- Early Years
- Mature Period
- Later Life
- Style and Techniques
- Ruisdael Family of Artists
The artist was able to produce a strong body of work despite rarely travelling outside of Haarlem and Amsterdam. He is known to have visited Germany several times, as well as a number of other Dutch towns, but for the main spent almost all of his time in the city of Haarlem before relocating to the Dutch capital in the mid 1650s. There was a clear stylistic development across his lifetime, though he focused on the landscape genre throughout, just varying other aspects such as the relative sizing of his focal points, as well as what regions he would depict. Seascapes started to appear later on, and his compositions were also bolder as his ambitions grew. The artist would become particularly popular across the Netherlands, with all levels of society and most regard him as the best landscape painter to have contributed to the Dutch Golden Age. During his own lifetime he would be discussed alongside masters such as Vermeer and Rembrandt.
Jacob van Ruisdael was a prodigious talent who impressed from as early as his teenage years. He would focus on accurately depicting the various elements of his landscape paintings during this period, going to great lengths to incorporate recognisable species of trees, for example. The artist used thick paint and relied on careful study drawings from which he would develop these majestic artworks. Some of his canvases were also particularly large, allowing him to incorporate precise detail right across the scene. Most Dutch landscape artists up to that point would place a building centrally and work around that, but this artist tried out different methods, such as giving the sky above or other parts of the composition much more prominence. As part of his education the artist was also introduced to etching, which became a natural extension of his skills as a draughtsman, and he would release a number of landscape etchings during this period. This early period lasted from around 1646 to the early 1650s, when the artist was living in Haarlem.
As the artist developed he would start to move beyond reality and start to tweak his landscapes with flourishes of flair. He was almost romanticising about what he wanted to see instead, "perfecting" nature as some landscape painters have attempted to do. He would travel to Germany and this brought about changes in the content of his work, whilst Scandinavian scenes would also start to appear, even though it is not believed that he actually ever visited that region. Van Ruisdael enjoyed producing paintings which balanced nature with humanity, normally through castles and windmills which would be found on rolling hills, surrounded by trees and free flowing rivers. These paintings would feel harmonious, where a fair balance was struck, many centuries before the Industrial Revolution would unsettle everything. Even his small villages would blend into the background as if another natural creation, and the impact of humanity at this time can be seen to have been relatively minimal.
The last part of the artist's career would be his most varied in terms of his content. There would be the flat landscapes of before, with windmills and other landmarks, though also a number of mountainous scenes which perhaps remind us of influences from outside his native country. He had been settled in Amsterdam for many years by this point and had developed a strong list of patrons, which was perhaps his main reason for leaving Haarlem in the first place. He took on a number of students who would sometimes contribute to his own paintings and it was clear by this point that Jacob van Ruisdael was starting to consider the type of legacy that he would leave behind after his death. By the end of his career he would have produced many hundreds of artworks in a highly prolific period that spanned around three decades. He took landscape art of the 17th century about as far as it could go, whilst sticking to a consistent style. His experimentations were therefore all about the content itself and he challenged some of the conventions of the time with his compositional balances which differed from the norm.
Style and Techniques
Jacob van Ruisdael was an incredibly versatile artist, taking in as many different styles of landscape art as anyone can imagine. He is best remembered for his flat landscapes, in which he would style his compositions in a manner that brought our attention to the typical nature of the Dutch countryside. Some have described his landscapes as heroic in the manner in which he presented them, but he also was a very precise artist in the detail that he included. He would not just add a tree, for example, but it would be a carefully chosen species of tree to suit the particular painting. He learnt from other artists who had travelled around Europe to get new ideas for his work, but without travelling much himself. As a qualified doctor, perhaps also a surgeon, the artist would understand the importance of accuracy and precision and he would bring this attitude into his paintings. In some examples from his career the artist would purposely lower the horizon to allow the sky to dominate, pushing the balance towards nature and against humanity perhaps akin to how the Romanticists would work in the next century.
This was a landscape painter, pretty much from birth, and Jacob would not diverge from that at any point in his career. He was introduced to the genre by members of his family and some of their own style would appear within his. Over time, though, he moved away from the Ruisdael name to forge very much his own path and added other ideas from alternative sources. German landscapes provided a notable change in his work to more dramatic scenes in which the tranquility of nature started to turn into something more emotional, almost threatening. The flatter landscapes went for a few years, with mountains reaching up towards the top of his large canvases. He also started to use brighter tones for a period as well. Scandinavian landscape features would also start to appear as well, though it is not believed that he actually visited the region in person, but instead relied on the paintings of other local artists who had been there. By the end of his career he had taken on pretty much all categories of landscape art, other than perhaps some of the techniques that were appearing in Italy at that time.
Ruisdael Family of Artists
Isaack van Ruisdael encouraged his son, Jacob, into the art industry having achieved some notable success himself. Isaak had a similar artistic style, with fairly flat landscapes in which the focus would often fall on one particular building that was placed centrally. Isaak's brother, Salomon, was also an artist of considerable talent and they both chose to have sons by the name of Jacob (both of whom would become artists). A survey of the family's output would reveal that they all devoted themselves to the landscape genre and there would be a clear exchange of ideas and techniques, as noted by the similarities found between all of their work. Jacob himself perhaps was the most ambitious and varied of the artists, and he also certainly achieved the most critical acclaim for his work. Of the other members of the family, it is perhaps Salomon van Ruysdael who has been researched and documented in the most detail and he is also known to have concentrated a little more on seascapes than the others would have done.
The artist is known to have influenced a large number of landscape painters who appeared after the 17th century. This impact came on an international scale, and was felt most strongly in other European nations. Dutch art from this period was studied in detail and, of course, boasted many impressive attributes across a variety of genres, but in terms of landscape art, Jacob van Ruisdael was the figure that everyone became aware of. Some of the most important influences came upon a number of British artists from the Romanticist era, such as William Turner and John Constable. He would also impact the Barbizon school in France and the Hudson River School over in the US. Besides that, many Dutch landscape painters from later in the 17th century would also take much from his varied content and unusual compositional style. He remains famous on the international stage, with his work well served by a number of high profile art galleries and museums, including the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the National Gallery in the UK and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the US.