Landscape with Bridge, Cattle, and Figures

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The windswept countryside in Ruisdael’s painting looks entirely natural. Clouds float in the sky, casting shadows over trees, rocky crags, and a river, over which people and animals make a somewhat hazardous journey. Ruisdael carefully organized the composition to lead our eyes across the painting’s surface and included certain features for their subtle symbolism—the dead tree and unstable bridge are intended to remind us of the passage of time and the unpredictability of life.

Landscape painting in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century was, in many ways, unique. Instead of fleeing to distant or exotic lands, painters concentrated largely on capturing their immediate surroundings. They found beauty in dunes, rather than ancient ruins, and dignity in the work of peasants, rather than stories from the Bible or mythology. Often unidealized and unadorned but with some artistic license, the work of these artists provides an extraordinary record of the life, the people, and the countryside of the Netherlands in the baroque period.

This painting by Jacob van Ruisdael was carefully composed to achieve balance and beauty. The rocky and wooded outcrops have been treated like a series of planes receding into space and made interesting by great variety in height and texture and by a subtle rhythm of contrasting areas of light and shadow. The horizon line is at approximately one-third the height of the canvas, a convention based on the low horizon in the Netherlands, and much attention is given to the clouds that billow above.

The Dutch predilection for naturalism in seventeenth-century painting was often accompanied by a desire for instructive moral symbols. Many of Ruisdael’s landscapes follow this convention. The juxtaposition of saplings with mature and dying trees, for example, is generally seen as representing the cycle of life, a caution that all mankind meets the same end. Likewise, the inclusion of a river or waterfall, both of which can be found in this landscape, may carry the meaning of mortality. Human life, like flowing water, goes past all obstacles to its inevitable end.

— Steven Kern, excerpted from The Clark: Selections from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Steven Kern et al. (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1996), p. 30.

Provenance

Hope Collection of Deepdene, as early as 1835; Lord Francis Pelham-Clinton Hope, 1891 at latest, by descent; sale, Lord Hope's collection, 1898; either Asher Wertheimer or Otto Gutekunst of Colnaghi's (the two men split the sale of Lord Hope's collection), 1898; Ludwig Neumann, London, by 1919; Colnaghi's; M. Knoedler & Co., London, by 1921; Robert Sterling Clark, by purchase in private sale (January 16, 1922-1955); Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 1955.

Jacob van Ruisdael

Dutch, 1628/1629–1682

Landscape with Bridge, Cattle, and Figures

c. 1660

Oil on canvas

37 5/8 x 51 1/16 in. (95.6 x 129.7 cm)


Acquired by Sterling and Francine Clark, 1922

1955.29


ON VIEW