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Why the paintings of this Dutch master help me see the world differently | Well actually

During the Covid pandemic, there was a boom in pet adoptions. For a while, there was even a puppy shortage, as people who had long dreamed of adding an animal to their households found themselves more or less locked into their homes, with the time on their hands that a pet, especially a toothy maniacal puppy, requires. It turned out that lot of people had been waiting for just such an opportunity: I was one of these people.

A few months into lockdown, Basso, a lagotto romagnolo with floppy ears and dirty blond curls, entered our household. He was a truffle hunter by breed; by birth, less romantically, he was from the Rotterdam suburbs. A proud parent, I was convinced that there had never been a softer, cuter, smarter puppy in all the history of puppies. He was the sweetest thing that ever chewed a shoe.

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Lagotti are athletic: they need at least three nice long walks a day. For owners if almost never for dog, this can get repetitive, and so, in order to avoid circling the same few blocks, we started taking Basso into the countryside, or what passes for the countryside, near Utrecht, where I had moved 20 years before on the heels of a love affair. This was dispiriting. In one of the most densely populated countries in the world, you could always see or hear a freeway, a railway, a power plant.

As Basso ran through forests whose trees all stood in straight lines or along the shores of rectangular lakes, I thought about the energy you need, in this country, to imagine something natural here, to edit those manmade things out of the frame. The neatness and organization foreigners have noted for centuries – so pleasant in Dutch cities – is less pleasant in the countryside, and starts to feel oppressive and inescapable.

At its most wild, Holland is no more wild than Central Park – but without the glacial outcroppings, grassy knolls or wide vistas. There is more nature in the middle of Manhattan than there is in most of this country. At its best, Dutch nature is a nice park, good for taking a jog or throwing a stick to your dog, but it’s not what most people imagine when they hear the word “nature”. If you stay long enough, this becomes an absence you feel physically.

But even without the accretions of modern ugliness, the Dutch countryside’s most striking feature, its flatness, makes it a challenge for painters. On an unvaried surface, only nearby things can be seen, and everything else fades into the distance. You need a little height, a little variation, in order to arrange a view into something worth looking at.

Yet it was in this country where, at the beginning of the 15th century, landscape painting arose. The medieval artist painted bodies to look like sculptures, setting them against backgrounds of gold. But once the need was felt to make them look more real, convincing decors had to be devised. This was the “naturalism” of the Dutch. But it was no more natural than a bar code on an apple. Like the invention of perspective, it was an intellectual revolution.

Any child can draw a thing – a flower, a house, a person. This is the beginning of art. Tens of thousands of years ago, on the walls of the caves of Spain and France, people drew animals, individually or in groups; but they never placed them in a landscape, and wouldn’t for thousands of years. The Romans attempted it, but it would be a millennium after the fall of Rome that artists would understand how to arrange figures in large spaces.

I tried to think myself into the mind of the great landscape painters, trying to mold what I was seeing into something striking enough to hang on the wall. It was not easy. Not because the land was hideous – it had a certain charm – but because it simply lacked much in the way of drama or romance.

There was not a lot you could do with this land of square fields and flat horizons. But people had. I started thinking about Jacob van Ruisdael, reputed to be the greatest of the landscape painters. In museums, I rarely lingered in front of his pictures, since there was almost always something more exciting than his trees and clouds. “Exciting”: it was an embarrassing word to use in connection with art. It was embarrassing to want excitement, but never more than when looking at a Ruisdael did I realize how wholly I was a creature of the age of entertainment.

I had walked past Ruisdaels in the greatest museums. And though I had heard them praised by the greatest critics (“Whoever has the good fortune to see the original is penetrated by the insight into how far art can and should go” – Goethe) and read of their influence on the most eminent artists (“It haunts my mind and clings to my heart” – John Constable), I realized that I had never really looked at Ruisdael as I ought to have.

And when I did, I started to see what he had done. Because I knew what this land looked like, I could see how he had shaped it. He had infused a flat country with something like majesty – and majesty is not a quality that naturally belongs to the Dutch countryside. It is not, in any event, an external quality. It was an internal quality – one the artist projected on to his subject. The majesty was his.

Why the paintings of this Dutch master help me see the world differently | Well actually
Weg door een eikenbos (Road Through an Oak Forest) by Jacob van Ruisdael, oil on canvas, 1646/7, Photograph: IanDagnall Computing/Alamy

In the single year of 1646 – he was about 17 – he painted more than a dozen canvases. Some are huge, and testify to the young man’s ambition. They combine an attention to the most minute botanical detail with an unerring feeling for the monumental: that nearly impossible marriage of microscope and telescope that was a hallmark of the early Netherlandish painters.

In the twists of the trees, in the stormy clouds, they have something brooding, something romantic, that would have appealed to Goethe: not the sun of the Italians – or of Ruisdael’s French contemporary Claude Lorrain, whose landscapes are dotted with fantastic temples and washed in the warm pink light of the south – but the range of black and gray and green that characterizes rainy northern marshlands.

In these meetings of water and clouds and brick, you get the mood of Holland. The effect these paintings have is on you, the viewer, and not on whatever tiny painted people might be wandering through them, doing this or that: it never matters what they are doing, and though Ruisdael could paint figures – staffage, in the language of art – he often farmed them out to other painters. They are only there to provide scale.

Personality is reserved for trees. If people are staffage, trees never are: they are pompous or humble, depressive or optimistic, tired or vigorous, with as many shades of feeling as they have tones of green or brown. Ruisdael’s trees have the monumentality, the individuality, of people in great portraits.

Look, for a moment, at this blasted elm. It looms over the town of Egmond aan Zee, a town up the coast from Haarlem that, like Haarlem, is protected by beachside dunes. Atop one dune, a tree rears toward the sky, like a dying soldier falling from his horse. It is still alive, barely – a few green leaves cling to its twisted branches – but to look at it is to feel a pathos that only the greatest painter could evoke in a picture of a dying person.

Jacob van Ruisdael’s View of Egmond aan Zee.
Jacob van Ruisdael’s View of Egmond aan Zee. Photograph: Alamy

Or look at my favorite Ruisdael, The Wooded Marsh in the Hermitage. The foreground is water dotted with lilies. Like the floor of a cathedral, the water recedes in a rough triangle that points deep into the background. At the farthest edge of the water, a minuscule fisherman – you have to strain to locate him – throws into relief the enormous trees that crowd out almost all the light from the strip of sky above.

The word “cathedral” seems unequal to the scene. Yet its hushed grandeur– those trees lined up on either side of the triangle like the columns of an ancient temple – conveys an unmistakable religious feeling: a counterpart, in paint, to the pantheism of Spinoza, who equated God with the world. Ruisdael is not one for moralizing messages, but this might be the most moving portrait of passing time that I know.

There, in the right foreground, is the trunk of a once mighty tree, collapsed, headfirst, into the water. Behind it is a gnarled oak. It is still erect, but not for long: if it were a person, it would be an old baron, a haughty magnate, humiliated by the indignity of age. Just behind it, a tender white sapling is fighting its way toward the light still denied it by the elderly oak. This is a tragedy – in which the only actors are trees.

Today, the municipal authorities would have whisked away the fallen trunk as soon as it hit the water, and the ageing baron would have been chopped up posthaste in order to make sure its rotting branches didn’t crush a commuter on the neighborhood bicycle path. But The Wooded Marsh shows the same land that I see on my walks with Basso: green and dark and spongy, stretching out to a low, distant horizon.

Though Ruisdael’s paintings show nature and not humanity, they also show moral qualities – elevation, dignity, thought – that are not to be found in amoral nature, and thereby leave a strong impression of the man who made them. His season, the art historian Max Friedländer wrote, was “high summer, already somewhat autumnal, vegetation in full bloom but near to the fall, seldom winter, never the youthful freshness of springtime”.

As Basso and I walk through what passes for the Dutch countryside, I see the generosity with which he looked at this land, the way he lifted it up, turned it into something it doesn’t quite deserve to be. I notice his paintings’ mood of introspection and meditation, and of a stillness that, in some way, lets you feel the movement of air and earth. I feel close to this invisible man.

Then I notice something that I am embarrassed not to have noticed before. I sought their subjects in trees and waterfalls and dunes – looking down, at the bottom of the pictures. But when I raise my eyes, I see that their real subject was – had to be – the clouds. The skies have all the relief, the drama, that the land lacks, and are all the more visible because of its flatness: a more varied land would push them into a supporting role.

The sky gives this country layers, depth. And because so little interferes with the view of the sky, and because the watery land reflects so much light back onto the clouds, the skies in Holland have an animation they lack in countries at similar latitudes, in the gray drizzle of England or Germany. Neither does Holland have the constant glare of the south. Here, the sky flashes: the instantly recognizable “Dutch light”.

landscape painting with a windmill
Landscape With a Windmill, 1646, by Jacob van Ruisdae. Photograph: CMA/BOT/Alamy

In Ruisdael’s art, people may be staffage. But trees aren’t, and neither are skies. Many of his pictures are nearly all cloud. In some, the skies take up three-fourths of the picture, and make the very word “landscape” ring false. These are pictures of the sky in which the land is often only incidental, and they reflect the pantheistic feeling that pervades his paintings: nature as a temple, and skies like the vault of a cathedral.

As light streams through stained glass, it tumbles through Ruisdael’s clouds. Far below, the doings of man – including me, the man looking at them – are never reduced to pettiness or inconsequence. As in a cathedral, we are elevated by this superior construction, and to see Ruisdael studying it is to be reminded of the peace that comes, in a world saturated with images, from the contemplation of a great subject.

When I think about the energy with which this solitary wanderer painted these skies – nearly 700 paintings survive – I feel how wrong I was to seek these views amid the mud and dirt of the external world. These are views of a spirit, of a mind, that let you see the man who painted them, and let you to feel as he did: that the world will go on with or without you – and that, just maybe, love of clouds is love enough.