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Jacob van Ruis­dael, Dutch, 1628/9-1682: A Group of Trees by the Water, c. 1648-55 

One of the most cel­e­brat­ed and pro­lif­ic land­scape artists of the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, Jacob van Ruis­dael com­plet­ed over 700 paint­ings and some 150 draw­ings. He depict­ed dunes, coun­try roads, town­scapes, rivers, canals, and forests, among other quin­tes­sen­tial Dutch scenes. Here, a woman and child stand beside a dense group­ing of trees beside the water, its smooth reflec­tive sur­face indi­cat­ed with touch­es of gray wash. The sheet belongs to a group of thir­ty black chalk draw­ings of sim­i­lar size that prob­a­bly belonged to a sketch­book dat­ing from rel­a­tive­ly early in the artist’s career. The artist’s live­ly han­dling and sure­ty of hand sug­gest he drew this scene from life.

Jacob van Ruis­dael was a land­scape painter active in both Haar­lem and Ams­ter­dam who remains one of the most cel­e­brat­ed Dutch artists of the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry. He also had a last­ing impact, most notably upon nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Roman­tic land­scape painters such as John Con­sta­ble (1776– 1837).1

While Ruis­dael’s enor­mous paint­ed out­put totals over 700 works, his cor­pus of draw­ings is not near­ly so large, stand­ing today at around 150 sheets.2

This num­ber has slow­ly grown in the past few decades as pre­vi­ous­ly unknown works con­tin­ue to emerge with some reg­u­lar­i­ty in the mar­ket­place, or occa­sion­al­ly become newly rec­og­nized in muse­um col­lec­tions. At present, at least fif­teen new sheets have emerged since the pub­li­ca­tion of Sey­mour Slive’s 2001 oeu­vre cat­a­logue, and that many again since Jeroen Giltai­j’s first mod­ern cat­a­logue of Ruis­dael’s draw­ings from 1980.3

This present sheet first came to light at auc­tion in 1993, and was men­tioned short­ly there­after in sep­a­rate arti­cles by both Slive and Giltaij as a newly accept­ed Ruis­dael draw­ing.4

It belongs to a group of around thir­ty styl­is­ti­cal­ly relat­ed black chalk draw­ings in which the sketch-like appear­ance and for­mat (most sheets mea­sure around 150 × 200 mm) sug­gest that they once belonged to a sketch­book.5

Based on their style and rela­tion­ship to other works, this group can be dated to the late 1640s and early 1650s, and thus rel­a­tive­ly early in the artist’s career.6

They give every appear­ance of hav­ing been drawn from life, either in the course of short for­ays that Ruis­dael must have taken into the coun­try­side from his home in Haar­lem at the time, or per­haps dur­ing the more exten­sive jour­ney he took to the West­phalian town of Ben­theim in Ger­many around 1650 – 51.7

Three of the draw­ings from this group relate close­ly to Ruis­dael’s sur­viv­ing paint­ings, reveal­ing that he occa­sion­al­ly used this store of motifs back in the stu­dio as the com­po­si­tion­al basis for a can­vas.8

Most, includ­ing the present sheet, appear to have remained unused. Ruis­dael signed three sheets in this black chalk sketch group with his mono­gram, sug­gest­ing that he may have sold or given away some of these dur­ing his life­time.9

Slive wrote in admir­ing terms about this draw­ing’s eco­nom­ic touch and all-pen­e­trat­ing atmos­pher­ic effect.” 10

Ruis­dael’s han­dling of the chalk dis­plays his light­ness and sure­ty of hand, espe­cial­ly in the cen­tral group of trees with their twist­ing trunks and live­ly foliage. The touch­es of gray wash in the foliage and along the edge of the water enhance the spa­tial dis­tinc­tion between fore­ground and back­ground, though they might be later addi­tions. Sev­er­al draw­ings in the black chalk sketch group from these years show trees at the edge of a body of water like this, often with signs of habi­ta­tion near­by, and staffage like the two fig­ures walk­ing along the path here who appear to be a woman and child. They also fre­quent­ly con­tain var­i­ous degrees of added wash­es, such as those found in the exten­sive­ly touched For­est Land­scape with a Fall­en Tree in Rot­ter­dam Fig. 32.1.11

Jacob van Ruisdael, Forest Landscape with a Fallen Tree
Fig. 32.1

Jacob van Ruis­dael, For­est Land­scape with a Fall­en Tree, c. 1648 – 55. Black chalk and gray wash on paper, 150 × 195 mm. Rot­ter­dam, Muse­um Boi­j­mans Van Beunin­gen, inv. no. JvRuys­dael 1.

The obvi­ous­ly hilly land­scape in the Rot­ter­dam sheet sug­gests its cre­ation dur­ing Ruis­dael’s trip to Ben­theim, and the same might also be true for the Peck draw­ing (as already sug­gest­ed by Giltaij), which is styl­is­ti­cal­ly sim­i­lar and shows a slight­ly hilly ter­rain to the right.12

The host of issues relat­ed to the ques­tions of who added the wash­es (if not the artist) to which draw­ings, and when, has long been a source of con­jec­ture in the schol­ar­ly lit­er­a­ture, result­ing in not infre­quent dif­fer­ences of opin­ion.13

Although at first glance they appear to be later addi­tions, it is entire­ly pos­si­ble that Ruis­dael added them him­self in this case. Their slight­ly sil­very tonal­i­ty does not cor­re­late well with the type of wash cre­at­ed by dilut­ing the same black chalk as the rest of the draw­ing, imply­ing, pos­si­bly, that these addi­tions were orig­i­nal­ly in a color or col­ors that have since faded.14

We know that Ruis­dael occa­sion­al­ly applied water­col­or to his draw­ings, more often on his larg­er and more fin­ished works, but traces of color remain vis­i­ble on at least three other draw­ings in this black chalk sketch group.15

End Notes

  1. For overviews of Ruis­dael’s life and work, see Slive 2001; and Los Ange­les, Philadel­phia & Lon­don 2005 – 06.

  2. For the basic cat­a­logue of both paint­ings and draw­ings (as well as etch­ings), see Slive 2001.

  3. Giltaij 1980 (list­ing 113 draw­ings); Slive 2001 (list­ing 136 draw­ings). These two authors con­tin­ued to add to the cor­pus in var­i­ous arti­cles as new draw­ings emerged, for which see: Slive 1991; Slive 1995; Giltaij 1995; Giltaij 2013; and Giltaij 2020. For a dis­cus­sion of dis­crep­an­cies in attri­bu­tion sta­tus of cer­tain draw­ings between the two authors, see espe­cial­ly Giltaij 2013.

  4. Slive 1995, 455 – 56; and Giltaij 1995, 87 – 88.

  5. Giltaij 1980 (his group 4) ini­tial­ly iden­ti­fied sev­en­teen sheets in this group; expand­ed in Slive 2001 (not list­ed togeth­er and not always con­sis­tent­ly) to around thir­ty works. See the overviews in Giltaij 1980, 148 – 49; and Slive 2001, 491 – 92. See also Slive 1991 for fur­ther con­sid­er­a­tions of this group. In some cases, it remains dif­fi­cult to deter­mine whether a draw­ing truly belongs to this group, due to styl­is­tic fac­tors or hav­ing been trimmed.

  6. The date range of circa 1648 – 55 was first estab­lished in Giltaij 1980, 148; and reaf­firmed in Slive 2001, 491. Nei­ther schol­ar record­ed water­marks in their cat­a­logues of Ruisdael’s draw­ings, the study of which in the future might prove a means of secur­ing or refin­ing this date range. One of the draw­ings in this group, for­mer­ly in a Swiss pri­vate col­lec­tion, has a later inscrip­tion on the verso read­ing Jacob Ruis­dael 1653,” for which see Slive 1991, 604.

  7. For this trip, see The Hague 2009.

  8. For the three draw­ings used for paint­ings, see Slive 2001, nos. D34, D35 (both Bre­men, lost in World War II) and D122 (Alberti­na). Giltaij ini­tial­ly sur­mised that none of the draw­ings in this group were used for paint­ings (Giltaij 1980, 149) but this view was amend­ed in Slive 1991. For Ruis­dael’s uses of his draw­ings for paint­ings gen­er­al­ly, see Slive 1973; Slive 2001, 491 – 92; and Lui­jten in Wash­ing­ton & Paris 2016 – 17, nos. 98 – 101.

  9. Slive 2001, nos. D74, D100, D134.

  10. Slive 1995, 456; repeat­ed in the entry for the draw­ing in Slive 2001, no. D29. 11 Slive 2001, no. D111.

  11. Slive 2001, no. D111.

  12. For the ini­tial sug­ges­tion, see Giltaij 1995, 88.

  13. Most of these con­jec­tures and var­i­ous opin­ions are found in the entries for indi­vid­ual draw­ings in the cat­a­logues of Giltaij 1980 and Slive 2001; but see also Broos 1989.

  14. Con­ser­va­tor Grace White exam­ined the draw­ing under a micro­scope and did not find traces of pig­ment par­ti­cles, though it is pos­si­ble that Ruis­dael used a dye instead. My thanks to her and to Reba Sny­der (Thaw Con­ser­va­tion Cen­ter, Mor­gan Library & Muse­um) for their dis­cus­sions around this issue.

  15. Slive 2001, nos. D16, D20, D65, D134 (the lat­ter also bear­ing Ruis­dael’s auto­graph mono­gram). See Slive 2001, 491, for a list of draw­ings embell­ished with watercolor.