Art Through Time: A Global View
The Natural World Art: Bleaching Ground in the Countryside Near Haarlem
Seventeenth-century Dutch landscape artists did not paint en plein air (“in the open air”).
When Jacob van Ruisdael set out to produce an image such as the Bleaching Ground, he might have gone to the location, chosen a vantage point, and sketched the scene. The final work, however, would have been created in his studio. There he combined his observations with artistic convention. In the Bleaching Ground and similar works, the result was an image that appeared to be directly and meticulously copied from nature. Scholars often refer to this kind of representation of perceived reality as a “reality effect.”
A blue sky filled with puffy cumulus clouds dominates Ruisdael’s Bleaching Ground in the Countryside Near Haarlem. Depicted from a raised vantage point, the landscape, occupying the lower third of the canvas, is flat and expansive. In contrast to the large, amorphous clouds above, the land is marked by carefully plotted fields, tidy houses, and detailed greenery. Sky and earth are separated by a nearly straight horizon line, broken only by the towering architecture of St. Bavo’s left of center and the silhouette of another smaller church in the distance. Sunlight touches the clouds as it streams down, illuminating the bleaching field in the landscape’s middle ground.
Like similar paintings of the period, Ruisdael’s Bleaching Ground is not an image of nature unmediated, but of natural resources harnessed for the benefit of civilization. It is an image that speaks to the harmonious, but hard-won relationship between the Dutch and their land. From the 1560s until 1648, when the Treaty of Westphalia was concluded, the Dutch fought against the Spanish for self-sovereignty. Their fight for land was a matter of politics as well as one of geographic adversity. At or below sea level, the Dutch landscape in the seventeenth century was in large part comprised of polders, areas reclaimed from under water through the use of dikes, windmills, pumps, and containing walls. This reclaimed land, in turn, became a source of economic prosperity for the nascent Dutch Republic.
The critical role of land, cultivated through labor, is evident in Ruisdael’s painting, as is a sense of local identification with the landscape. A line of trees running diagonally from the right foreground of the work divides a swampy half-submerged area from the dry ground, where strips of linen are laid out for bleaching. Next to brewing, bleaching was the most important industry in Haarlem, and the renown of “Haarlem bleaching” was such that visitors from foreign locales as well as from the city proper visited the countryside to see the process in action. Outsiders might have purchased images like this one as souvenirs. More likely, though, the owners of such paintings were Dutch for whom the landscape was a point of pride. The presence of St. Bavo’s on the horizon identifies the city beyond as Haarlem, at the same time suggesting the role of divine providence in the success of the Dutch.
Alan Chong, Curator of the Collection, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
“A great writer once said that here is something called the ‘reality effect’—something does not need to be precisely accurate to give the impression of capturing the real world. And there is no doubt that the seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painter wanted to suggest something that was recognizable. The low skies that you see in seventeenth-century landscapes—these very flat horizons with a huge area of sky—this, of course, suggests the real Dutch landscape that one can still see today, but it was also a convention. It was an effect that was carefully calculated and manipulated by a whole generation of artists who share their ideas, and they manipulated all these elements as a Renaissance painter manipulated perspective in an interior. These are things that really require very sophisticated training and a lot of hard work to create the final effect.
Dutch landscape painting of the seventeenth century really tackled a tremendous variety of subjects. Let’s just look for a second at the views that seem Dutch. And here you can only applaud their ability to capture the look and the feel of the Dutch landscape. The change of the weather, for example, from light to dark often within a few seconds is really very beautifully captured by an artist like Ruisdael. And then the low horizon. Holland is a very flat country, much of it is reclaimed land, so it was originally under water, and is by definition under sea level. And this is something that began in the sixteenth century. You see these very low fields with cows and with waterways that bisect and divide the polders, this all for drainage, so that the land can be kept dry for farming or for agriculture production. This is absolutely typical and it’s really one of the great accomplishments of the Dutch painters at the time.
Humans are always present in seventeenth-century Dutch landscapes and often present in a big way, and not just in an obscure little figure tucked in the corner. And I think that’s particularly important. One is looking not just at nature, but people in nature. It’s that intersection that these paintings are concerned with—not just nature in itself.”
Alpers, Svetlana. The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Gibson, Walter S. Pleasant Places: The Rustic Landscape from Bruegel to Ruisdael. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000.
Mitchell, W.J.T., ed. Landscape and Power. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. New York: Vintage, 1996.
Slive, Seymour. Jacob van Ruisdael: Master of Landscape. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
Sutton, Peter, et al. Masters of 17th–Century Dutch Landscape Painting. Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum, 1987.