Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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10 / The Natural World

Bleaching Ground in the Countryside Near Haarlem
Bleaching Ground in the Countryside Near Haarlem
Artist / Origin Jacob Isaacksz. van Ruisdael (Dutch, 1628/9–82)
Region: Europe
Date ca. 1670
Material Oil on canvas
Medium: Painting
Dimensions H: 24 5/8 in. (62.5 cm.), W: 21 ¾ in. (55.2 cm.)
Location Kunsthaus, Zurich, Switzerland
Credit Courtesy of Giraudon/Bridgeman Art Library

expert perspective

Alan ChongCurator of the Collection, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Bleaching Ground in the Countryside Near Haarlem

» Jacob Isaacksz. van Ruisdael (Dutch, 1628/9–82)

expert perspective

Alan Chong Alan Chong Curator of the Collection, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

A great writer once said that here is something called the ‘reality effect’—something does not need to be precisely accurate to give the impression of capturing the real world. And there is no doubt that the seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painter wanted to suggest something that was recognizable. The low skies that you see in seventeenth-century landscapes—these very flat horizons with a huge area of sky—this, of course, suggests the real Dutch landscape that one can still see today, but it was also a convention. It was an effect that was carefully calculated and manipulated by a whole generation of artists who share their ideas, and they manipulated all these elements as a Renaissance painter manipulated perspective in an interior. These are things that really require very sophisticated training and a lot of hard work to create the final effect.

Dutch landscape painting of the seventeenth century really tackled a tremendous variety of subjects. Let’s just look for a second at the views that seem Dutch. And here you can only applaud their ability to capture the look and the feel of the Dutch landscape. The change of the weather, for example, from light to dark often within a few seconds is really very beautifully captured by an artist like Ruisdael. And then the low horizon. Holland is a very flat country, much of it is reclaimed land, so it was originally under water, and is by definition under sea level. And this is something that began in the sixteenth century. You see these very low fields with cows and with waterways that bisect and divide the polders, this all for drainage, so that the land can be kept dry for farming or for agriculture production. This is absolutely typical and it’s really one of the great accomplishments of the Dutch painters at the time.

Humans are always present in seventeenth-century Dutch landscapes and often present in a big way, and not just in an obscure little figure tucked in the corner. And I think that’s particularly important. One is looking not just at nature, but people in nature. It’s that intersection that these paintings are concerned with—not just nature in itself.” 

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