Jacob van Ruisdael represents the pinnacle of seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painting. This great artist, the son of a painter and the nephew of Salomon van Ruysdael (see NGA 2007.116.1), began his career in Haarlem but moved to Amsterdam in about 1656. His long and productive career yielded a wide variety of landscape scenes that reflect Ruisdael’s vision of the grandeur and powerful forces of nature.
His most characteristic paintings include massive trees that tower above a rocky countryside, in which human figures seem dwarfed by the elements of nature. The scale and solemn dignity of Forest Scene make it one of Ruisdael’s masterpieces. The man and woman walking along a path near some grazing sheep in the middle distance are insignificant in comparison to the broad waterfall, the massive rocks, and the huge fallen birch tree in the foreground. The somber mood is reinforced by ominous clouds and by the dark green of the grass and foliage. Trees with twisted roots survive precariously on rocky outcroppings. The broken trees in the foreground are important not only as compositional devices but also as symbolic reminders of the transience of life and the inevitability of death.
Ruisdael’s majestic forest landscape overpowers the viewer with its large scale and the forcefulness of the image. The view is across a broad waterfall to a forest glade, in which a small flock of sheep grazes. In the middle distance, a man and a woman travel along a path that crosses the rolling hillside. The figures, however, seem all but insignificant in comparison to the massive trees and rocks that surround them. The broad, rocky ledge with its waterfall and gigantic, broken birch trees in the foreground is at once forbidding and foreboding.
The identification of the foreground trees as birches was made by Dr. Henry M. Cathey, director, U.S. National Arboretum, Washington, DC, in conversation on September 25, 1985. According to Peter Ashton, Alice Davies, and Seymour Slive, “Jacob van Ruisdael’s Trees,” Arnoldia 42 (1982): 2–31, Ruisdael depicted beeches rather than birches. For the purposes of this entry the trees will be referred to as birches.
Ruisdael painted such forest scenes of water roaring over a rocky ledge many times during his long and productive career. As suggested by the half-timbered house visible in a similar landscape in Frankfurt
Seymour Slive, Jacob van Ruisdael: A Complete Catalogue of His Paintings, Drawings, and Etchings (New Haven, 2001), 244, no. 296. Slive also identifies a related composition from the mid-1650s in a New York private collection, 219, no. 243.
Few of Ruisdael’s paintings after 1653 are dated, so a precise chronology of his work is not possible. The general evolution of his style and range of interests, though, is now understood, and a framework exists for placing his works within certain time periods. The Uffizi painting, with its loose brushwork and more open composition, belongs to the 1670s, while the National Gallery’s landscape with its closed composition and densely painted trees, is characteristic of works from the mid-1650s. Also distinctive for this earlier period of Ruisdael’s career is the combination of the scene’s rather heavy and somber mood and the delicacy of the artist’s painterly touch. In this work, for example, he carefully articulated individual blades of grass and leaves, patterns of bark, and the flow of the water cascading over the rocks.
In many respects Forest Scene shares characteristics with The Jewish Cemetery in Dresden
Seymour Slive, Jacob van Ruisdael (New York, 1981), 68. Here, in the bibliography to his catalog entry for the Detroit version of The Jewish Cemetery, Slive lists the dates that various authors have ascribed to each of Ruisdael’s two treatments of the subject. (Slive places both paintings in the mid-1650s.) E. John Walford, Jacob van Ruisdael and the Perception of Landscape (New Haven, 1991), 95, dates the two versions of The Jewish Cemetery to “about 1653/4.”
A much later date for Forest Scene is not likely because by the mid-1660s Ruisdael had begun to paint his large vertical Scandinavian waterfall scenes that were derived from the example of
Given the compositional and stylistic similarities between Forest Scene and The Jewish Cemetery, one must also ask whether thematic ones exist as well. As has been frequently discussed, the presence of tombs, ruins, broken tree trunks, dead birches, and rainbows in the two versions of The Jewish Cemetery have explicit allegorical significance. They allude to the transience of life, particularly the temporal nature of man’s endeavors, and also to the hope for renewed growth.
See Seymour Slive, Jacob van Ruisdael (New York, 1981), 34; also Yuri Kuznetsov, “Sur le symbolisme dans les paysages de Jacob van Ruisdael,” Bulletin du Musée National de Varsovie 14 (1973): 31–41.
The visual power and symbolism of the dead birch captured the imagination of the art critic Sanford Schwartz in 2006: “the fallen, broken bough of a huge white birch, trapped between rocks and the waterfall, and set off to the side of the scene, has the presence of the painting’s chief actor of conscience. Presenting an image of loss and pain but also of virility, anger, and gracefulness, the tree is like one of Rembrandt’s people. . . . In its stark, chalky white and black bark, the birch is at once a victim, a hero, and a figure who stands outside the drama, thinking about it.” Sanford Schwartz, “White Secrets,” New York Review (February 9, 2006), 8.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014
lower right: J v Ruisdael (JvR in ligature)
Probably owned by Francis Nathaniel, 2nd marquess Conyngham [1797-1876], Mount Charles, County Donegal, and Minster Abbey, Kent. Sir Hugh Hume-Campbell, 7th bart. [1812-1894], Marchmont House, Borders, Scotland, by 1857; (his estate sale, Christie, Manson, & Woods, London, 16 June 1894, no. 48); (P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., London); sold 1894 to Peter A.B. Widener, Lynnewood Hall, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; inheritance from Estate of Peter A.B. Widener by gift through power of appointment of Joseph E. Widener, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; gift 1942 to NGA.
- British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom, London, 1866, no. 59 (possibly also 1855, no. 54, and 1857, no. 9).
- Exhibition of Works by the Old Masters and by Deceased Masters of the British School. Winter Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1877, no. 199.
Exhibition History Notes
 Hugh Hume Campbell lent a Ruisdael painting to three British Institution exhibitions, in 1855, 1857, and 1866. None of the three exhibition catalogues, however, gives any description of the pictures exhibited, making positive identification difficult. By the time Gustav Waagen wrote his Treasures of Art in Great Britain in 1854-1857, Campbell owned three Ruisdaels, and so it is not necessarily correct to assume that the Ruisdael painting Campbell lent to the 1855 exhibition (Landscape), or to the 1857 exhibition (Landscape with Figures), was Forest Scene. In the case of the 1866 exhibition, however, the more specific title of Rocky Landscape with Waterfall does not fit either of the other two Campbell Ruisdaels described by Waagen. Assuming that Campbell did not acquire another comparable Ruisdael painting between 1857 and 1866, it seems certain that Forest Scene was the painting shown in 1866.
The support is a medium-weight fabric with a somewhat uneven weave. The painting was lined to two pieces of fabric in 1942, at which time an old lining was removed, as was a discolored varnish. The tacking margins have been flattened, inpainted, and incorporated into the picture plane, extending the painting’s dimensions by approximately one inch on all four sides. The support was prepared with a thin, white ground. The paint was applied thinly in areas such as the water and some of the clouds, but thicker with some impasto in other areas such as the foliage and the highlights. The X-radiographs reveal that the artist originally painted the top of the waterfall to extend all the way to the large rock on the left side of the painting.
Minute paint losses are scattered throughout the painting, particularly in the tall tree on the left and the large tree on the right. The paint has blistered in the top left and top center of the painting. Although the painting is in relatively good condition, there is a fair amount of abrasion in the sky. The painting was treated again in 2000 to remove the then discolored varnish and inpainting from the 1942 treatment. Dark stains in the clouds were inpainted at this time.
 This treatment is documented in an unsigned report from M. Knoedler & Company, Inc. (see report dated April 9, 1942, in NGA Conservation files). Presumably this treatment was performed by Louis de Wild, a New York restorer who worked on paintings for Knoedler & Company (see notes dated February 2, 1968, in NGA Conservation department files).
 This was probably caused by a previous lining procedure during which too much heat was used. The blisters were already present at the time of the 1942 treatment, and they are documented in the April 9, 1942, report (see Technical Summary note 1).
- Waagen, Gustav Friedrich. Treasures of Art in Great Britain: Being an Account of the Chief Collections of Paintings, Drawings, Sculptures, Illuminated Mss.. 3 vols. Translated by Elizabeth Rigby Eastlake. London, 1854: supplement 441.
- British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom. Catalogue of pictures by Italian, Spanish, Flemish, Dutch, French and English masters with which the proprietors have favoured the Institution. Exh. cat. British Institution. London, 1855: possibly no. 54, as Landscape.
- British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom. Catalogue of pictures by Italian, Spanish, Flemish, Dutch, French and English masters with which the proprietors have favoured the Institution. Exh. cat. British Institution. London, 1857: possibly no. 9, as Landscape and Figures.
- Waagen, Gustav Friedrich. Galleries and Cabinets of Art in Great Britain: Being an Account of more than Forty Collections of Paintings, Drawings, Sculptures, Mss., &c.&c., visited in 1854 and 1856, ..., forming a supplemental volume to the "Treasures of Art in Great Britain". London, 1857: 441.
- British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom. Catalogue of pictures by Italian, Spanish, Flemish, Dutch, Franch, and English masters. Exh. cat. British Institution. London, 1866: no. 59, as Rocky Landscape with Waterfall.
- Royal Academy of Arts. Exhibition of Works by the Old Masters and by Deceased Masters of the British School. Winter Exhibition. Exh. cat. Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1877: no. 199.
- Catalogue of Paintings Forming the Collection of P.A.B. Widener, Ashbourne, near Philadelphia. 2 vols. Paris, 1885-1900: 2(1900):274.
- Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century. 8 vols. Translated by Edward G. Hawke. London, 1907-1927: 4(1912):92, no. 285 (possibly also 119, no. 367, 134, no. 418, 203, no. 643c).
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- scenes symbolizing vanitas
- birch +used symbolically
- tombs +used symbolically