RUYSDAEL, Salomon van
(b. ca. 1602, Naarden, d. 1670, Haarlem)

View of Deventer Seen from the North-West

Oil on oak, 52 x 76 cm
National Gallery, London

Salomon van Ruysdael, the uncle of Jacob Ruisdael, was, with Jan van Goyen, the greatest painter of Dutch inland waterways. He lived in Haarlem, painting small pictures for sale rather than on commission, mostly variations on the native landscape; late in life he also executed some still lifes with dead game. Water soon became the major element in his work, beginning with atmospheric descriptions of cottages silhouetted against rain-laden clouds, and progressing to views of lakes, ponds, rivers, canals and ditches with trees reflected in their calm or slowly running waters. After 1640 his work grew bolder, the intimate backwaters giving way to more open vistas, almost marine riverscapes from which trees disappear, to be replaced, as here, by boats sailing close to the wind and the distant silhouettes of cities.

Like many of van Ruysdael's later pictures, this view of Deventer, not topographically exact and probably derived from an engraving, seems almost to illustrate a passage in the influential treatise by Karel van Mander published in Haarlem in 1604. In prescribing attractive motifs for landscape painting, van Mander recommends: 'The rivers with their sweeping bends, winding through the marshy fields...Moreover, let the water always search for the lowest level and, to heighten the artistic effect, build sea-towns stretching up to higher grounds...' Rather than invent the castles on cliff-tops which van Mander then describes, van Ruysdael has placed the belfry of the Grote Kerk nearly in the centre of the horizon line to provide a dominant vertical against the streaky sky, lightest where, in van Mander's words, it meets 'the heavy element of earth'.

Set on the River Ijssel in the eastern province of Overijssel, Deventer is far from the sea, and the vessels flying the Dutch flag and tacking into the wind are proceeding upriver, inland. Yet van Ruysdael lends this commonplace view of commercial shipping the epic quality of a voyage on the open seas. Their sails silhouetted against the sky, the ships move in a diagonal line, outlined by a patch of marshy land and brightly lit as cloud shadows fall across the foreground. This diagonal, which leads our eyes to a vanishing point on the horizon, is reinforced by the receding shoreline on the right. It is an astonishingly bold and dynamic effect within the modest scope of the picture. Although three-quarters of its surface is taken up with sky, the focus of attention is on human achievement: stone-built church towers, mills harnessing the power of the wind, heroic sailing ships, fishermen hauling on their net - not least, the making of art from these everyday ingredients, with no picturesque motifs to frame the composition or stand between us and the flat waters and sandy ground.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.