Jacob van Ruisdael, View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds

Jacob van Ruisdael, View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds, c. 1670–75, oil on canvas, 55.5 x 62 cm (Mauritshuis, The Hague)


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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the Mauritshuis in The Hague in the Netherlands, and we’re looking at probably the most famous painting by Jacob van Ruisdael. This is a landscape of the city of Haarlem.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:16] It’s recognizably Haarlem because of the church of Saint Bavo that rises above the skyline, but most of the painting is cloud. It is a landscape, a new type of painting in the 17th century in Holland, but in a way, I wish this was called a skyscape.

Dr. Zucker: [0:31] There is a long tradition of landscape. You can find some landscapes from the ancient world. You can find some early examples in the Renaissance, but they’re almost always subsidiary to something else. Here, we have a landscape that is very much about this place. It is a portrait of a city.

Dr. Harris: [0:49] A portrait of someone’s love of a city. Built into these portraits of a place is the artist’s feeling and attachment. We have Vermeer painting Delft, where he lived most of his life. We have Van Ruisdael painting Haarlem, where he lived.

Dr. Zucker: [1:03] At least one art historian has suggested that this may have been commissioned by the person who owned [the] linen works that we see in the foreground.

[1:10] If you look closely, those are not the fields of a farm in the foreground, but rather they’re broad areas where linen is laid out so that the sun can bleach it. This is a partly cloudy day, and the sun is only partially reaching that. In fact, Ruisdael has effectively used both light and shadow to draw our eye back into the depth of the landscape.

Dr. Harris: [1:30] There are alternating planes of light and dark. We start in the very foreground in shadow. We move to those bleaching fields, which are in the sunlight, then another area of shadow, and then another area of sunshine where we see an open field. Then shade, and then light, and then the church in the distance. This helps our eye to move into space and to travel through the landscape.

Dr. Zucker: [1:54] And to do it slowly and to lead our eye lovingly through the space. Now, Holland is a very flat country, so one might wonder where the artist is standing to have this great perspective. If you look carefully at the very foreground between the grasses, you can just make out that that’s sand and this is likely a dune that is giving him this kind of elevation.

Dr. Harris: [2:14] He’s probably sketched outside. We’re so used to thinking about artists painting outside with tubes of paint, but this was likely constructed in the studio.

Dr. Zucker: [2:24] 70 percent of this canvas is given over to the sky. To these beautiful, billowing clouds and the sense that everything is in motion.

Dr. Harris: [2:32] Right, and it’s a very specific landscape. In Italy at this time the Italian painters, and French painters too, are painting idealized, classicizing landscapes where it’s always perfectly sunny. It’s always the spring.

[2:46] Here we have a sense of weather, time, specificity, that makes this town enduring, even as time passes, even as those clouds go by, even as the dappled light changes on the landscape.

Dr. Zucker: [3:00] That change is such a hallmark of this historical moment. Stylistically, we call the Baroque, the 17th century, where a kind of dynamism, even within the static landscape, is brought to the foreground.

Dr. Harris: [3:12] That’s right. Even within portraits, we get a sense of the dynamic of movement. Even in genre scenes, there’s this interest in things that are in process. We certainly have that here in this beautiful landscape by Ruisdael.

[3:25] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Jacob van Ruisdael, View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds," in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed April 12, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/ruisdael-view-of-haarlem/.