The Jewish Cemetery by Jacob van Ruisdael

The Jewish Cemetery by Jacob van Ruisdael (c.1660)

When I come to think about the painting I am going to use for My Daily Art Display I like to try and find one by an artist I haven’t featured before.  I also like to showcase an artist I had not heard of previously so that when I research his or her life it is a learning curve for me.  Today, however My Daily Art Display is a three-fold repeat which limits what I can say, without being accused of repeating myself.

 Firstly I have offered you a painting by Jan van Ruisdael before (January 9th) but I will not apologise for that as he is an amazing painter and has completed many superb works of art.   Secondly, the painting today is a Vanitas-type painting, a type of painting, which I talked about when I offered you the Still Life of Food and Drink by Willem Heda on February 11th, and lastly this painting resembles in many ways the painting by Arnold Böcklin which I gave you on January 5th.  Having said all that, I have to tell you that when I was looking through some art books for my next presentation I was immediately taken aback by the strength of this painting and the aura that emanates from it.

My Daily Art Display today is The Jewish Cemetery by Jacob van Ruisdael which he completed around 1660 and now hangs in the Gemäldegalerie Alter Meister in Dresden with a larger version in the Detroit Institute of Arts.  This is a Vanitas genre painting, which is a type of painting that depicts an object or collection of objects symbolizing the brevity of life and the transience of all earthly pleasures and achievements.  In other words it is a painting which reminds us that we are not immortal and notwithstanding how rich or powerful we are –  we will all die sooner or later.

There is a definite melancholic and depressing feeling about this painting.  There is also that sense of foreboding which was present in Arthur Böcklin Island of the Dead which I gave you on January 5th.  The ruins, the graves and the dark skies set the mood of the painting.  Ruisdael had this uncanny talent to be able create such feelings in how and what he depicts.   This is a painting of the Portugeuse-Jewish Cemetery at Ouderkerk on the Amstel River close to Amsterdam, however to be absolutely accurate, I must tell you that only some of the elements in the painting actually exist such as the three large tombs shown in the mid-ground, but that’s about it !  

The backdrop to the cemetery bears no similarity to the place at Ouderkerk.  There are no ruins overlooking the actual cemetery.  The ruins Ruisdael painted were the remains of the Egmond Castle which is situated near Alkmaar some thirty miles away.   There is no river running through the cemetery but Ruysdael just used it to portray the fact that the water like time rushes away from us.  The landscape, the river and the “added-in” ruins were just figments of Ruysdael’s imagination but one has to admit they do lend themselves well to the atmosphere he wanted to project.   

The three large tombs in the middle ground, which immediately catch one’s eye, the dead beech tree in the right foreground and the broken tree trunk overhanging the fast flowing river all indicate allegorically the fast approach of death.  However, Ruisdael does offer us a glimmer of hope in the way we can see a shaft of light penetrating the black clouds.  We can also see a rainbow and if we look carefully there are signs of flourishing growth amongst the dead trees, so he is telling us there may be a better life still to come after death.   Art historians have interpreted this painting simply as a reminder that man lives in a transient world and that despite being beset by sinful temptations there is always hope for salvation and deliverance.

Dam Square in Amsterdam by Jacob van Ruisdael

Dam Square Amsterdam by Jacob van Ruisdael (1670)

Today, Jacob van Ruisdael is my featured artist in My Daily Art Display.   He was born in Haarlem in 1628 and was brought up in an artistic household.  His father, Isaak van Ruysdael and his uncle, Salomon van Ruysdael were both landscape painters.  Little is known about Jacob’s early artistic training but it is thought that his father probably taught him with guidance from his uncle.  At the age of twenty he was admitted as a member of the Guild of St Luke in Haarlem.  The Guild of Saint Luke was the most common name for a city guild for painters and other artists especially in the Low Countries.   They were named in honor of the Evangelist Luke, who was the patron saint of artists.

Unfortunately during his lifetime Jacob van Ruisdael’s artistic talent was not appreciated and by all accounts he led a poverty-stricken existence.  At the age of fifty three the Haarlem council was petitioned for his admission into the town’s almshouse.  He died in Amsterdam a year later in 1682 and his body was brought back to be buried in Haarlem

Jacob van Ruisdael travelled considerably during his lifetime but seldom went outside his own country.   He was a prolific painter with over seven hundred paintings and a hundred drawings attributed to him.  His great love was to paint countryside scenes showing fields of corn and windmills as well as woodland scenes.  He was also a renowned painter of trees and their foliage.    Another favourite subject of his was seascapes and the neighbouring dune lands.  He also liked to paint waterfalls based on the work of Allart van Everdingen, the Dutch painter, who had travelled extensively in Scandinavia.

Today’s painting, The Dam Square in Amsterdam, completed in 1670 is neither a landscape nor a seascape.  The subject is Dam Square in Amsterdam, a place which he was very familiar with as he lived on the south side of the square at this time.   The square was dominated by the old Amsterdam municipal weighbridge and one can see several bales of goods under the canopy waiting to be weighed.   On the right of the building one can see the Damark with its sailing boats and the tower of Oude Kerk.  In the foreground of the painting there are a large number of figures.  It is not thought that Ruisdael actually painted these as he was not an established figure specialist.  Experts believe they may have been painted by the Rotterdam artist Gerard van Battem.  The pale light from the left of the painting casting long shadows across the square suggests that it is daybreak.

 His artistic works although not fully appreciated during his lifetime have since his death been highly praised and he is now often considered the greatest Dutch landscape painter of all time.