Salomon van Ruysdael delighted in depicting the rhythms of daily life along the banks of the Dutch waterways. Such scenes included boats sailing gently across placid waters, fishermen casting nets under the shadow of overarching trees, and travelers packed tightly into a ferryboat, sharing their ride with wagons, horses, and cattle. One often finds a small village nestled on the distant shore, replete with a large church towering over the gabled homes surrounding it. In River Landscape with Ferry Salomon chose to depict a massive turreted stone castle, indicative of the historic role that prominent Dutch families played in establishing the political and social structure of this proud land.
Ruysdael painted this masterpiece in 1649, when the full scope of his artistic personality had come to maturity. The work is imposing in scale and visually compelling, both for its harmonious composition and for the rich variety of its pictorial elements. It has wonderful atmospheric qualities, subtle reflections in the water, and delightful figures crowded into the ferry. The large clump of trees, accented by the rugged white trunk of a broken birch in its midst, centers the composition and, silhouetted against the sky, provides a sturdy framework for the people and animals activating the scene. Furthermore, Salomon effectively used this clump to create a deeper sense of space, for not only does the ferry pass in front of the trees, but wagons loaded with passengers also travel behind them.
In this painting one can almost sense the gentle breezes moving across the water and the rustling of leaves under the splendidly fresh, windswept skies. The relatively low-level cumulus clouds passing overhead are of a type found on cool, refreshing days in mid-to-late spring when leaves still have the yellow-green tonalities of new growth. This is also the season of mating for many animals, a strong and compelling instinct that Ruysdael vividly rendered amidst the cattle awaiting a ferry ride. The scene is further enlivened by other entertaining staffage elements, including a boy hitching a ride on the back of the open carriage passing the castle, and the fat and happy Dutch travelers in the carriage on the ferry who share their ride with, among others, a woman clutching a child in her lap. Ferries carried people from all levels of society, and scenes such as this suggest the broad sense of community among the Dutch population during this period.
The painting’s fine state of preservation adds to the freshness of the scene. Still visible are vigorous striations left by Ruysdael’s brush where it swept across the canvas to create the low clouds near the horizon, striations that disappear in areas where he subsequently inserted buildings, boats, or trees over the wet paint. The delicacy of his touch is also remarkable in the foreground trees, where blue green, pale green, and yellow capture the sparkle of light illuminating the foliage. Ruysdael enhanced this quality of airiness by painting the trees’ thin, rhythmic branches with a stiff brush. Strokes of paint applied with this tool are thicker at their edges, and in this way they create a modulated range of color across the width of a branch, an effect that not only gives the trees great visual interest but also creates the appearance of light reflecting off their surfaces.
River Landscape with Ferry has a visual force that reflects the pride they felt in the Dutch Republic around 1648, when the signing of the Treaty of Münster formalized the independence of the Dutch Republic following the Eighty Years’ War with Spain. In no other painting, however, does Ruysdael express the sense of well-being as fully as he does in this work. The Dutch could travel throughout their peaceful and prosperous realm by carriage and boat to explore its myriad visual delights without fear of marauders or foreign troops. Many went east, along the Rhine River, to see historic cities such as Nijmegen and Rhenen that had been so important to the formation of the Dutch Republic. Ruysdael may have passed along the same routes, for he depicted cities in the eastern part of the Netherlands around mid-century; yet, unlike the case of Jan van Goyen (Dutch, 1596 - 1656), no drawings from his hand survive to document any such journey. The large crenulated castle in this painting is a fanciful construct, but it is reminiscent of fortresslike structures situated along the Rhine in the eastern region of the Dutch Republic.
When creating this painting in 1649, Ruysdael built upon a framework developed in a number of his earlier works from that decade. Pictorial precedents exist in paintings by Dutch and Flemish artists of a previous generation, including Jan Brueghel the Elder (Flemish, 1568 - 1625) [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Jan Brueghel the Elder, River Landscape, 1607, oil on copper, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons' Permanent Fund and Nell and Robert Weidenhammer Fund, 2000.4.1. Ruysdael’s genius lay in his ability to make each work, even if conceived from his imagination and painted in the studio, seem to be a fresh and direct encounter with nature. The grandeur of this particular image, however, is unmatched by his earlier works and, more than any of his other landscapes, it emphatically introduces the “classical” period of Dutch landscape painting. This type of Dutch art was made famous by a generation of artists that, in addition to Ruysdael, includes Aelbert Cuyp (Dutch, 1620 - 1691), Meindert Hobbema (Dutch, 1638 - 1709), and Salomon’s nephew Jacob van Ruisdael (Dutch, c. 1628/1629 - 1682), a group remarkably well represented in the National Gallery of Art collection.
Beyond its outstanding artistic qualities, River Landscape with Ferry has had a fascinating place in the complex history of the Nazi and postwar eras that adds to the work’s cultural significance. In 1930 Jacques Goudstikker, a prominent Jewish dealer of Old Master paintings in Amsterdam, acquired this painting at a Christie’s sale in London (see Provenance). Goudstikker was a great admirer of Ruysdael’s work at a time when his importance for the development of Dutch landscape painting was little understood. Goudstikker even organized the first monographic exhibition on the artist in 1936, in which this painting featured prominently. In 1940, however, Goudstikker fled Amsterdam just days prior to the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in May of that year, but he died tragically on the ship that was taking him and his family to safety in London. The Nazis seized Goudstikker's gallery in Amsterdam; this painting and many other works were eventually acquired by Hitler’s second-in-command, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring.
After the war, the Allies recovered the painting and turned it over to the Dutch authorities in 1946. A special Dutch Recuperation Commission decided against returning the painting to the family despite years of protest by Goudstikker’s widow, Desirée. In 1960 the painting was placed on view at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, where it hung in pride of place until 2006. The complex story of the Goudstikker case was reexamined by a special restitution committee in 2005, which recommended that the Dutch government reverse its earlier decision. The painting was returned to the Goudstikker heirs, who sold it privately to the National Gallery in 2007.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014