RUISDAEL: Painter of heroic seas

IN almost any part of the world, a fresh breeze and a wide view across the water invigorate and lift our spirits. But why was it only in the 17th century that the seascape entered Western painting? The historian Ernst Gombrich persuasively argues that Renaissance painters first ``saw'' the Alps as ``beautiful'' rather than threatening only after hearing classical literary descriptions. This insight may extend to seascapes in one sense at least. The seascape first appears as a popular type of painting in successful, seafaring Holland of the mid-17th century. Was it a coincidence that in this culture the sea was experienced, not so much as a foe to be feared, but as a friend and worthy of an aesthetic response?

The very look of Jacob van Ruisdael's painting ``Rough Sea,'' painted about 1670, and now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, supports this notion. Like such contemporary still-life painters as Willem Kalf, who described with color the sparkle of light in a goblet, Ruisdael observed the feather-tipped whitecaps of the windchop, the moist majesty of the moving cloudbanks, the whites and shadows of the bright, taut, cat-rigged sail.

Man as an individual in action did not concern Ruisdael; rather he chose generic man - in balance with nature, shoulder-huddled against the wind but riding with its power - as his subject.

Was it wit or appreciation of this balance in the lives of ``everyman'' that led Ruisdael to paint, not the architecturally elegant merchant ships in harbor that Van Diest portrayed, but a common, nondescript sailing boat, with tricolor telltales flying in the yellow warmth of sunlight, as it moved from sun patch to shadow across the translucent, cold, green water? To the right, and farther in the distance, stands one of the tall ships, upright with sails unrigged, shooting a smoking volley toward shore.

Ruisdael's earliest biographer, Houbraken, wrote of his waterfall paintings: ``He could portray water splashing or foaming as it dashed on the surrounding rocks so naturally, tenderly, and transparently that it seems to be real water.''

This tenderness with which Ruisdael responded to the facts he recorded, however, is not equivalent to the projection of human emotions into the natural scene that the 19th-century Romantic critics believed they saw.

Rather, Ruisdael reconstructed an image in his studio after carefully observing and selecting from the world around him, and from precedents in painting. In the logic of the image, the wind comes in from the northwest, as the boat tacks toward the north, tackle tense with strain.

Rowers share the transportation lanes with small sailboats enjoying the free and easy lift of the wind from behind them, sails stretched wide, loose, and light as they run before the wind. And the wind seems to blow into the face of the viewer! Tiny white sea birds fly silhouetted against the shadowed water in the foreground; sunlight tips the posts nearby.

Beyond the measureless distance of the water, sharp profiles of the churches' west towers on the horizon serve as landmarks for the sailors. And, beyond the wind-filled mountains of cumulus clouds that fill the upper canvas, a porcelain-blue sky opens another immeasurable reach.

If this is a ``heroic'' seascape, as some scholars have suggested, Ruisdael surpasses the limits of the category. He certainly expanded the proportion of sky to water, and extended the penetration into the distance, far beyond the river-landscapists before him, including his uncle Salomon van Ruysdael of Haarlem.

And within the grand panoramic sweep and bold asymmetrical play of shadow and light, he may have thought of a drama of a human struggle with the forces of nature.

But if Ruisdael achieved a ``heroic'' seascape, it was not this quality, but his tenderness, which appealed to his contemporaries, and which provides the insights we value today.

As in the smaller-dimensioned but even more spacious panoramas of his Haarlem linen-bleaching field paintings, in the seascape Ruisdael discerned and described a vigorous and invigorating type of peace, which the Dutch had made with their environment.

The success of ``Rough Sea'' stems from this peace. Ruisdael clearly recorded the dynamic forces of sky and water working together, not in opposition.

Nature dwarfs, but does not terrorize, the small figures. They, in turn, control their wind power in order to traverse the surface of the water, an intermediate zone and the avenue of man's purposeful activities, in the buoyantly confident 17th-century United Provinces.

How could the seascape have been launched with more grace, or with more understanding?

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