Salomon van Ruisdael and his nephew Jacob are the two giants of Dutch Golden Age landscape art. They were both versatile painters. If you stroll through a museum and see a Dutch Baroque landscape of a harbor, with or without boats, Dutch cottages along waterways, watermills, snowscapes, ruined buildings, fortress or churches in a wood, you could be looking at a painting by Salomon or Jacob van Ruisdael.
Hold on. That’s not very specific. That sounds like every seventeenth-century Dutch landscape! Well, believe it or not, it’s a good start. There are plenty of Dutch Baroque landscape guys who paint other topics entirely. For instance, Jan van der Heyden, apart from the occasional still life and bucolic scene, painted almost entirely cityscapes, such as this view of a church in Amsterdam:
The van Ruisdaels may hint at a city or port town in the distance, but their interest is in the Dutch countryside and villages. In terms of their subjects, the van Ruisdaels were much more traditional, and van der Heyden was a pioneer. van der Heyden’s interest was much more in architectural details and the man-made, which you’ll see even more obviously in his precise interiors, especially of churches.
Another example of a very different Dutch Baroque landscape is the pure seascape, such as this one, by master seascapist (it’s a word; I looked it up) Willem van de Velde the Younger (the Elder was a master seascapist himself!):
Not only is this a military scene, which the van Ruisdaels do not paint, it takes place in the middle of the ocean. A van Ruisdael painting may be of ferries or boats (not big ships), but it’s always from a vantage point from on land, as if the van Ruisdaels only painted what they saw en plein air. (Painting outside was a common practice for Impressionists much later, but not during the Baroque; my guess is that the van Ruisdaels did sketch on location and painted in their studios, first in Haarlem and then in Amsterdam.)
So far, we’ve narrowed a van Ruisdael to a bucolic countryside or harbor, painted as if “on location” (read: not in the middle of the ocean and not from, say, a bird’s point of view or “God view” farther up).
How do we narrow down whether it’s a Salomon or a Jacob? Let’s do the easiest thing first: look at the water. If the water is still, it’s probably a Salomon. If it’s choppy – or if there’s a waterfall – it’s a Jacob. Jacob was more of the draftsman, and he was obsessed with getting the smallest botanical and natural details, including white-capped water, correct. His paintings capture the violence of water crashing on rocks or cascading down a waterfall. His seascapes show choppy waves even in a harbor. Let’s take a look at a few examples:
The water in a Salomon van Ruisdael is still as can be.
Now look at his nephew’s take on sailing:
That’s some choppy water! At a dock, no less! It’s a bit of an unfair comparison to the river scene in inland Alkmaar, but Salomon painted more placid river scenes and Jacob painted more harbor/sea scenes.
Here are some Jacob van Ruisdael waterfalls:
He’s interested at the moment the water crashes against the rocks and itself. The painting “ends” at the bottom of the frame right at the moment of greatest violence. Unlike his uncle, he’s not interested in the calm river another quarter mile off.
Salomon and Jacob, for my money, have totally different viewpoints on the relationship of man to nature. Salomon seems to think that humans have mastered nature. His boats float on calm water. His animals do their masters’ bidding unattended:
Jacob’s boats struggle against the surf. And his animals must be herded:
All that separates this farmer from falling into a powerful waterfall and the rocks below is a rickety wooden bridge. His – and humanity’s – relationship to nature is precarious at best.
Even the clouds in the two painters’ works betray this theme. Salomon’s are almost universally white and puffy. Jacob’s are just as often dark and foreboding, threatening rain at any moment.
Get a load of those clouds! And that ruin. This is Jacob’s vision of humanity’s never-ending – and ultimately fruitless – struggle to fight entropy, to conquer nature. It’s no wonder that Salomon, he of the sunnier paintings, never painted any ruins.
Finally, look for lightning-“blasted” trees in Jacob’s works that sit at 45-degree angles against the frame:
In the painting above, one is left to wonder if the home behind the tree is the next to be struck by lightning.
Odds are the museum you’re going to has a van Ruisdael. They were fairly prolific painters – and their work was sought-after, even in their own time. If you see a painting that looks like it might be one of theirs – Baroque landscape, specifically Dutch countryside or harbor, low point-of-view, etc. – take a second before you read the plaque and ask yourself if it’s a Salomon or a Jacob. If you get it right, pat yourself on the back without hitting the statue behind you!