Encounters in the Fitzwilliam: Jacob van Ruisdael’s ‘Landscape with Waterfall’

Helena Heaton 20 March 2019
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Jacob van Ruisdael was a master of the Sublime. His 1670 painting, ‘Landscape with Waterfall’ is noticeably powerful in its ability to induce contradicting emotions of awe and fear, making it particularly engaging. Turbulent waters seem to burst forth from the picture plane as they cascade over a series of jagged boulders. Typical of the seventeenth-century Dutch School, the subject matter is not confined by the picture frame; it is cut off and therefore transcends the boundary between image and life, making the viewer feel consumed by Nature’s power.

It is fascinating how Ruisdael has succeeded in creating a realistic torrent of water without using impasto. Instead, a dry brush has been used to drag pigment thinly across the canvas, mimicking the transparency of water and creating varying marks which reflect the unpredictability of foam, which leaps from the waterfall in different directions. In contrast, the rocks are rendered by opaque patches of colour, which are layered and not blended, almost in a ‘paint by numbers’ technique. However, that is not to say that Ruisdael is anything verging on child-like; his clever opposition of brush-handling techniques highlights the solidity of the rocks and transparency of the water, bringing together the varying faculties of Nature.

The juxtaposition of foreground and background reinforces the ambiguity of the Sublime experience. Whilst the foreground is consumed with the raging movement of the water’s interaction with the rocks, the background is calm and foreboding. The trees, which lead the eye up into the sky, are void of movement but shrouded by heavy blue-grey clouds, creating a sense of impending trouble. The viewer subsequently finds themselves enthralled by incongruous feelings of nervous anticipation and existing horror. Ruisdael’s heavy handling of the water and rocks compared with the delicate definition of leaves and branches reinforces the paradox between areas of the painting. Over time, the middle-ground has unfortunately lost its intensity of pigment and the dark, undefined abridgement between the calm and turbulent instils a strong sense of mystery which contributes to the viewer’s consternation.

Whilst the emotional impact of the landscape creates an exploration of mankind’s relationship with nature, Ruisdael also seems to explore this by including a building, which might be a castle. The way that the man-made structure rises above the natural scene perhaps implies that Man dominates Nature. The use of colour, however, has a contradictory implication. The building is a deep grey which almost blends into the moody sky; it is dull and cold. Meanwhile, the trees, rocks and water all bear warm undertones which invoke a sense of life. Nature is thriving and commands the picture, taunting the viewer to try and compete with its power. One is reminded of mankind’s insignificance in comparison to Nature in a deeply emotive journey from the foreground to background of the image. Whilst Ruisdael’s composition and handling of medium is incredibly skilful and beautiful, the spiritual impact of this piece is what makes it so valuable.