Salomon Van Ruysdael – The Bridge

This is Dutch landscape at a wellbalanced moment of transition between the patterned artificiality of early Flemish work such as Patinir’s, and the patternless, photographic naturalism of the later Dutch school (e.g., Jacob van Ruysdael, his nephew). It is inconspicuous, easily overlooked, yet substantial and quietly satisfying. The sharp decorative flourishes are gone, the tiny, detailed, individual leaves and pebbles, and the unnaturally strong color-contrasts between different sections of the ground. But there remains a sense of rhythm and unified design which was afterward sacrificed to the merely realistic and picturesque. Two contrasting themes are unobtrusively interwoven: first the long lines of the boats and bridge, straight or broadly curving, carried out in the broad rolling contours of the land; and, second, a short wavy line that rounds out the blunt silhouettes of the peasants, the tree-trunk and little hillocks, then goes rippling through the branches and the soft, smudged con-tours of the leafage and the clouds. Strong but not unnatural contrasts of light and shade divide the picture into definite planes and masses, composing it clearly in deep space. The persons, trees and boats are arranged without symmetry but in firm bilateral balance, which accords with the tranquillity of the scene. The color lacks richness and variety: it is largely a monochrome of greenish brown, in washes of different shades and thicknesses. This limitation is to be under-stood as a phase of the movement toward naturalism, away from unnatural, bright color-patterns. Later painters (Cezanne and Renoir, for example) have been able to combine rich, contrasting color-patterns with a fluent naturalism.

Those aspects of nature and humanity are selected here that express quietness, plainness, snugness, sturdiness, unpretentiousness. We are at a far remove from the other, more Italianate landscape school of the seventeenth century—that of Poussin and Claude Lorrain, with its vast, ordered, park-like expanses, peopled with majestic arching trees, dramatic crags and ruins, and gracefully posed classical personages. With Salomon van Ruysdael and his contemporaries, van Goyen and Cuyp, begins the influential Dutch tradition in landscape. It later inspired Hobbema in Holland, Old Crome and Constable in England, and some of the Barbizon school—Diaz and Rousseau—in France.