Do you remember what you were doing when you were 17? If your name was Jacob van Ruisdael and you were living in the 17th century, you were feverishly painting landscapes, astonishing canvases that would portend a prodigious artistic career.
As a teenager in the Netherlands in the 1600s, Ruisdael certainly didn't have the options of instant-messaging or hanging out at the mall. What he did have was the talent and the passion to embark on a life-consuming calling that would culminate in his becoming the most important landscape painter of the Dutch Golden Age.
"Jacob van Ruisdael: Dutch Master of Landscape," on exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through Feb. 5, is aptly named. Visitors who are fortunate enough to take in this retrospective will indeed savor the artistic oeuvre of a master.
His name has never achieved the cachet of Rembrandt or Frans Hals or Jan Steen. Yet his art achieved a monumentality that should elevate him to the ranks of the best of his countrymen.
Even in his earliest work, Ruisdael demonstrated his ability to find the dramatic elements in the everyday landscape. His "View of Egmond Aam Zee With a Blasted Elm" reveals his instinctive penchant for capturing the dramatic light pouring down from a brooding sky and the theatricality that fueled his artistic vision.
His "Dune Landscape," painted when he was probably 18, is a testament to the powerful force of nature that was to fascinate him throughout his career. Here, as in all his works, the figures are secondary to the moody, mood-setting skies. In "Village in Winter," it is the weather that envelops and dominates the village, as well as the villagers.
A Master of his Domain
Ruisdael was master of all that he did – and did not – survey. Born in Haarlem, he later moved to Amsterdam, but never ventured far from his homeland. Yet that would not limit his vision. His imagination allowed him to travel beyond the Dutch flatlands to teeming waterfalls in Scandinavia, romantic castles and stormy seas.
Among his most famous works is "The Jewish Cemetery," depicting one such place near Amsterdam. It incorporates all of the landscape elements Ruisdael found most evocative of nature's majesty and the transience of human existence: the blasted tree, crumbling ruins, a cascading waterfall, meticulously rendered natural growth, and the powerful, dramatic light breaking through a foreboding, cloud-dense sky and beaming down on two stark white tombs at the center.
While these elements repetitively appear, Ruisdael's art is anything but repetitive. What's consistent is this artist's remarkable ability to infuse his work with emotional impact, unfailingly depicting the timelessness and power of nature.
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