The Wistful Sky

By: Berend ter Borg


Art lovers who have never been to the Netherlands will, in all likelihood, have a fairly clear idea of what the Dutch landscape might look like. Almost all major museums in different parts of Europe and the USA showcase the work of Jacob van Ruysdael among its cast of major Dutch seventeenth-century artists.


There is something unspeakably wistful about the landscapes of van Ruysdael. The paintings exude an atmosphere of pensive sadness, which never edges into either depression or histrionics. It is a melancholy quality that is inherent to Dutch landscape painting. A comparison with landscapes by artists such as Claude Lorrain of France, John Constable of England, or Caspar David Friedrich of Germany, make it apparent what the source of this wistful quality is. Van Ruysdael’s paintings contain an overabundance of sky and clouds, and a relative absence of either trees or sunshine.


It would be unfair to say that an absence of trees and sunshine are typical features of the Dutch landscape. The name ‘Holland’ derives originally from ‘Houtland’, or ‘Woodland’, and cloudy as the country may be, it is hardly more overcast than England, Germany, or many parts of France. It must be suspected that Ruysdael, the Netherlands’ premier landscape painter prior to Van Gogh, was a despondent man by inclination. Art historians will not be drawn on the issue. Very little is known of the life of Jacob van Ruysdael, and we can only speculate about his motives.


There is only one cardinal fact about his life. He left the town in which he grew up, Haarlem, when he was a young adult, to make his career in what would have been the ‘big city’, in his small world. He moved to Amsterdam, 20 kilometres east of his hometown. Nowadays, 20 kilometres does not seem a significant distance. A well-maintained system of highways, commuter trains that bridge the distance in less than 15 minutes, and a helicopter service for the very wealthy give the impression that Haarlem is nothing more than a suburb of Amsterdam. In parts, it feels like a carefully preserved medieval theme park, for the benefit of tourists, and of wealthy commuters who work in parts of the country that are more wired to the dizzying reality of modern life. In the seventeenth century, those 20 kilometres must have seemed a very long distance indeed. The means of transportation were lacking, and most of the area consisted of swamps that were impassable either by coach or by boat.


Ruysdael left Haarlem for Amsterdam, and returned after his death, to be buried in the main church.  Among Ruysdael’s most famous and most wistful paintings are his views of Haarlem, made in the 1670s, more than a decade after he left the town of his birth. They are characterised by the heavy sky, taking up well over half the painting, (as you would never see in a painting by Friedrich, Constable, or Claude), seeming to press down upon the town. The sky is filled with clouds, which are drawn in almost as much detail as the landscape below it, and a few lost birds. The sadness of these paintings does not culminate in depression. They bring home the point that the world is beautiful, in spite of all the pain that comes with it. It is the sadness of nostalgia, of remembering the beautiful things one has to leave behind in order to move on in the world.



A picture accompanied this article, made by the artist can be viewed at the Rijksmuseum and at the following link: