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River Scene with Ferry Boat, by Salomon van Ruysdael


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About the artwork

Salomon van Ruysdael (c1600-1670), one of a family of Dutch landscape painters, was best known for his atmospheric river scenes based upon the countryside around the city of Haalem where he lived. Like many of his contemporary artists he did not earn his living exclusively from painting but was also a merchant who dealt in the blue dye that was used in Haalem’s famous cloth bleaching factories. He died insane in the Haalem workhouse.

This painting, along with many of the other pictures in this gallery, represents a shift in the market for art during the 16th and 17th centuries, and the subsequent change in subject matter as well. Due to the Reformation of the Church in the 16th century, the Church was no longer the main patron of artists. As a result, artists who had relied heavily on religious commissions had to find new subjects and new patrons. In northern Europe a new class of art collectors emerged – wealthy merchants, business people, politicians – who wanted to buy art for display in their homes. Artists produced pictures of secular subjects for a domestic setting, including landscapes and genre scenes of everyday life like the ones in this gallery. At the time this picture was painted, Haalem was a thriving centre of landscape painting. The painters guild included several members who were among the greatest of all Dutch landscape artists, such as Cornelis Vroom, Pieter Molijn and Salomon van Ruysdael’s nephew, Jacob van Ruisdael.

Ruysdael’s range of picture subjects was narrow and he was particularly noted for doing many versions of the same subject with slight variations in the details. For example there is another version of this picture in the National Gallery in London. It has the same dark mass of trees in the middle foreground, and a similar narrow boat carrying cattle, but without the large barn on the right.

Despite the fresh ‘natural’ look of this picture it was not painted outdoors, and probably does not show a particular place, but details or features from a number of different places brought together to form this scene. The picture is immensely social showing ordinary workers going about their daily business. A crowded boat in the foreground is taking fat cattle from one pasture to another, passing on the way a group of men who are busy pulling in a fishing net. In the barn, workers are salting fish and putting them into barrels. Above the barn roof is a large dovecot. The picture seems to be a ‘foodscape’ as well as a landscape – a visual metaphor for the plenitude of nature. Dutch patrons were very fond of this kind of general associative meaning in the pictures that they ordered for their homes. For example, still life pictures often show fruits, flowers and meats of different seasons.

If you look at the smaller brown-toned picture by Jan van Goyen displayed to the left of this painting, you can see many similarities between the compositions. Van Goyen and Ruysdael both worked in Haalem at the same time – they were acquaintances and possibly friends. (There is a record in the Haalem Painters Guild archives of van Goyen being fined 3 guilders for painting without the Guild’s permission in the house of Salomon’s brother Isaak.) Although both artists used the same format, Ruysdael’s picture rises above being formulaic by the liveliness and animation of his people, and the wonderful sparkle of the foliage and the cloud-laden sky.

The relationship between this type of picture and real nature is complex. Ruysdael clearly had remarkable powers of observation and seems to have had a very retentive memory, judging by the fact that very few preparatory drawings by him survive. Pictures like this were extremely influential upon later landscape painters, the most noteworthy examples in England being Gainsborough and Constable.

This large scale, majestic picture stands out from others in this part of the collection. It merits comparison with Poussin’s 'Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion'displayed in Room 3. Like the Poussin, it suggests a deliberately refined, schematic and cerebral approach to the putting together of natural elements in order to make a picture.