RUISDAEL, Jacob Isaackszon van
(b. ca. 1628, Haarlem, d. 1682, Amsterdam)

The Jewish Cemetery

Oil on canvas, 84 x 95 cm
Gemäldegalerie, Dresden

Ruins sometimes play a prominent role, and gloomy skies set a melancholy mood. Ruisdael's rare ability to create a compelling and tragic mood in nature is best seen in his famous Jewish Cemetery at Dresden. A larger, more elaborate autograph version is at the Detroit Institute of Arts. These works are moralizing landscapes that were painted with a deliberate allegorical programme. The combination of their conspicuous tombs, ruins, large dead birch trees, broken trunks, and rushing streams alludes to the familiar themes of transience and the vanity of life and the ultimate futility of human endeavour, while the burst of light that breaks through the ravening clouds in each painting, their rainbows and the luxuriant growth that contrasts with the dead trees offer a promise of hope and renewed life.

The masterliness of the Dresden painting lies in the artist's clear and concentrated presentation of these ideas. The eye focuses on the three tombs in the middle distance, where the light is centralized. They present a truthful picture of the actual, identifiable sarcophagi as they can still be seen in the Portuguese-Jewish Cemetery at Ouderkerk on the Amstel River near Amsterdam. Ruisdael made carefully worked-up drawings of the tombs, one of which he used as a preparatory drawing for the paintings. But the landscape settings of the Dresden and Detroit paintings bear no resemblance whatsoever to the site at Ouderkerk. They are Ruisdael's inventions. The cemetery never had monumental ruins. Those seen in the Dresden version were transplants from the shattered remains of Egmond Castle near Alkmaar, a site about forty kilometres from Ouderkerk; they also are based on a preparatory drawing. The ruins seen in the Detroit painting are probably derived from the ruins of Egmond's old Abbey Church. A rushing stream does not bisect the actual burial ground. (Would anyone in his right mind place tombs near a vigorous stream which would wreak havoc with the tombstones and coffins beneath them when it flooded?) The stream was included as a traditional allusion to the passage of time. Most remarkable is the barren birch tree in the Dresden picture that gestures toward the three tombs and heavenwards. If ever a tree was capable of seducing a viewer to accept the pathetic fallacy of endowing natural forms with human feelings and emotions it is this dead birch.

The iconographical programme of Ruisdael's two versions of the Jewish Cemetery leaves no doubt that they were intended as moralizing landscapes. He made no others that can be given a similar unmistakable reading. None of his other existing paintings include tombs; those done by his contemporaries are rare, and some of them are based on his depictions of the sarcophagi at Ouderkerk. However, Ruisdael made numerous pictures that include identifiable or imaginary ruins, dead and broken trees, rushing streams, rivers, and waterfalls. Were these motifs invariably intended by the artist as symbols of transience and the vanity of life, and does the handful of them that include rainbows allude to hope? It has been argued that this is indeed the case, and that these motifs not only offer the iconographical essence of Ruisdael's landscapes but offer the key to the meaning to seventeenth-century landscape painting. According to this interpretation they were intended as visual sermons to convey the biblical message that man lives in a transient world beset by sinful temptation, but may hope for salvation.