Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Ruisdael, Jacob van - by Philip Graham Ryken

Dutch Master: Jacob van Ruisdael

by Philip Graham Ryken
A special exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art holds particular interest for Christians who value the intellectual and aesthetic heritage of the Protestant Reformation. Entitled “Dutch Master of Landscape,” the exhibition runs through February 6, 2006, and features the artwork of Jacob van Ruisdael, a 17th-century painter who made his profession of faith in Christ and was baptized into the Calvinist Reformed Church in Amsterdam when he was nearly 30.

Ruisdael has long been recognized as perhaps the greatest Dutch landscape painter of the 17th century. His mastery is fully on display in the current exhibition, which features nearly fifty of his dramatic paintings, in addition to many drawings and etchings. But what is not always recognized is the degree to which Ruisdael’s art reflects fundamentally Reformed convictions about nature and grace [this argument is fully developed by John E. Walford in Jacob van Ruisdael and the Perception of Landscape (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991)].
Following John Calvin, who was following the apostle Paul (see Rom. 1:19-20), Reformed Christians in Holland believed that the visible world was God’s “second book of revelation.” Like the Word that the Holy Spirit had written in Scripture, the created order revealed the attributes of God. “The world is before our eyes like a beautiful book,” stated the Netherlands Reformed Confession, “in which all created things, great and small, are like letters, which give us the invisible things of God to behold, namely, His eternal power and divinity.”
In keeping with this transcendent view of nature, Ruisdael and other Dutch artists were pioneers in landscape painting. These men saw the inherent spiritual significance of the visible world, and therefore their artwork presented “the beauty, fragility, and abundance of creation . . . as a form of divine revelation” [Walford, p. 2].
What did Jacob van Ruisdael see when he looked at the world with his keen painterly eye and rendered it in oil on canvas? What view of reality is represented in his work?
To begin with, Ruisdael delighted in nature’s beauty. At first he saw this beauty mainly in the trees, which he painted with masterly skill and exquisite detail. Many of the paintings in the present exhibition are dominated by Ruisdael’s tall oaks and other stately trees, each rendered with painstaking accuracy, according to its species. Ruisdael also came to see God’s beauty in the rushing waters, and he became justifiably famous for his waterfalls—nearly two hundred of them in all. He was equally fascinated with changing patterns in the weather, and with the way sunlight and shadow played among the clouds. Many of his later landscapes are dominated by large expanses of sky in which dark, dramatic banks of clouds open to let in streams of sunlight and reveal pure blue sky. Ruisdael saw and painted nature in all its divinely-created glory.
However, Ruisdael also recognized the transience of nature. Even for all their beauty, his paintings do not portray a perfect world, untouched by sin, but a mutable world that is subject to decay and even death. According to Wheaton College art historian John Walford, “He represents the world as he knows it, beautiful but subject to corruption, and not as he might wish it to be” [p. 2]. Nearly all of Ruisdael’s woodland landscapes feature fallen timber, or a twisted trunk, or a dying tree as one of the primary elements in their composition. Sometimes this makes his work seem almost melancholy. However, it is in keeping with the artist’s honest yet ultimately hopeful view of life. This world of beauty is also a fallen world, and everywhere we look we see signs of its passing splendor, which Ruisdael shows by drawing our eye to something that is dead or dying.
Many of the Dutch Master’s landscapes feature human forms, and there is meaning here as well. The people in Ruisdael’s paintings are small in scale, and thus they are sometimes said to have a minor role in his work. It is true that Ruisdael places human activity within the vast panorama of creation. However, this is not to say that what people do is insignificant. Often the human figures in his landscapes are one of the focal points, and they are almost always involved in meaningful, purposeful, everyday activity: they are hunting in the woods, or gathering wood for a fire, or traveling along life’s road.
In Waterfall near an Oak Wood, a painting on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, people are resting in a sunlit clearing in the woods, or leading sheep across a rushing stream. In the distance warm sunlight falls on a village church and on piles of grain that farmers have stacked in an open field. Ruisdael is showing us the seasonal cycle of human activity under the blessing of God in the huge wide world that he has made. “There is a peaceful harmony between man and his environment,” Walford writes, “despite a prevailing consciousness of the ultimate transience of life” [p. 20].
To look at these paintings is to look at nature with new eyes, and to see in that “second book of revelation” something of the grandeur of God. Early in November our family drove to French Creek State Park in Eastern Pennsylvania. The day was chilly and gray. But as we walked through the woods, the clouds began to clear, and patches of bright blue sky began to appear through the autumn trees. As I looked across the lake, suddenly I saw shafts of sunlight dance off the edge of dark clouds and turn far trees into a blaze of orange. To me it looked like something in one of Ruisdael’s paintings, and because I had been looking at his paintings, I saw what was really there: the beauty of the sun and sky, revealing the glory of God.
Published on 11/27/2005 on the website, section Window on the World.
Windows on the World have been published in My Father's World: Meditations on Christianity and Culture (P&R Publishing, 2002) and in He Speaks to Me Everywhere: Meditations on Christianity and Culture (P&R Publishing, 2004) by Philip Graham Ryken.
Philip Graham Ryken is the current president of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.