This small work, so evocative of the windswept terrain near the dunes along the Dutch coast, captures the essence of early seventeenth-century landscape painting. With free and fluid strokes, Molijn has created a vigorous and animated scene, where sea breezes, which have molded the craggy form of the dead, vine-covered oak tree and the wood slats of the gate and fence, rustle the leaves of trees surrounding the farm. The painting does not have a composed feeling, but appears as though it were a view along a sandy road that we suddenly happened upon. From the low vantage point, nature rather than man takes precedence. The road, gate, and craggy tree are boldly depicted, while the only figures, a shepherd returning with his sheep just over the rise and a man behind the fence, are small and insignificant.
Landscape with Open Gate is not signed, but the attribution to Pieter Molijn is without doubt. Comparisons with his painting Dune Landscape with Trees and Wagon, signed and dated 1626 (Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig), and with his signed pen drawing of the late 1620s, Road between Trees near a Farm [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Pieter Molijn, Road between Trees near a Farm, 1626, pen and ink on blue paper, Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam. Photo © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, demonstrate the same approach to landscape. In each instance, this Haarlem artist has dramatically broken with pictorial tradition and situated the viewer below the horizon. Within vistas limited by low viewpoints, the roads that pass through the rolling, windswept landscapes have no beginning and no end. Only the small, insubstantial figures traveling just behind the crests of the rises suggest the world beyond. Stylistically, a particularly interesting comparison can be made between the vigorous rhythms of the pen lines in the drawing and the black chalk UnderdrawingA drawing executed on a ground before paint is applied. in Landscape with Open Gate, which is visible with Infrared ReflectographyA photographic or digital image analysis method which captures the absorption/emission characteristics of reflected infrared radiation. The absorption of infrared wavelengths varies for different pigments, so the resultant image can help distinguish the pigments that have been used in the painting or underdrawing. [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Infrared reflectogram, Pieter Molijn, Landscape with Open Gate, c. 1630/1635, oil on panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund and Gift of Arthur K. and Susan H. Wheelock, 1986.10.1.
Molijn was one of the most adventurous landscape artists of his day, one who instilled his scenes with an unprecedented sense of realism. Not only did he limit his range of motifs and color tonalities, he also organized his compositions with powerful diagonal accents that were reinforced through strong effects of light and dark. Through these means he gave his paintings both a specific visual focus and a unifying path into the distance. By 1626 his bold and vigorous brushwork had already attracted the attention of Frans Hals (Dutch, c. 1582/1583 - 1666), who asked Molijn to paint the landscape in the celebrated portrait Isaac Abrahamsz Massa (Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto). As early as 1628 Samuel Ampzing praised Molijn for these same qualities in his chronicle of Haarlem. At about the same time, Molijn’s influence in both style and subject matter is evident in the work of his Haarlem contemporary Salomon van Ruysdael (Dutch, c. 1602 - 1670) and in paintings by the Leiden artist Jan van Goyen (Dutch, 1596 - 1656).
Molijn’s distinctive style of landscape painting owed much to the drawings and etchings of three artists who already had been active in Haarlem at the time he joined the Saint Luke’s Guild in 1616: Esaias van de Velde I (Dutch, 1587 - 1630), Willem Buytewech (Dutch, 1591/1592 - 1624), and Jan van de Velde II (Dutch, 1593 - 1641). The restive character of Molijn’s line, however, indicates that he also drew inspiration from other artists, including Jacques de Gheyn II (Dutch, 1565 - 1629) and Abraham Bloemaert (Dutch, 1566 - 1651), whose landscape drawings often focused on old barns and rugged trees. While Molijn’s historical importance lies in his ability to translate these precedents into painted images, ones that helped usher in the tonal phase of Dutch landscape painting, he may have translated thematic concepts as well. Dilapidated farms and starkly silhouetted dead trees would have been understood in moralizing terms by some of his contemporaries. The dead tree in Landscape with Open Gate may have called to mind Roemer Visscher’s emblem “Keur baert angst” (“Choosing causes anxiety”) [fig. 3] [fig. 3] Roemer Visscher, “Keu baert angst,” emblem from Zinne-poppen, Amsterdam, 1614, which juxtaposes a rotten and a healthy tree to stress that false appearances and lack of knowledge often lead one to make wrong choices in life. This tree could also have been seen as a reminder of the transience of life, an idea taken up with even greater force somewhat later in Haarlem by Jacob van Ruisdael (Dutch, c. 1628/1629 - 1682) (see Forest Scene).
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014