A rutted road leads into a wood and winds round to the right and over a rise to disappear. This is an often repeated theme in Jacob van Ruisdael’s early paintings – scenes of the Dutch countryside designed to please busy city dwellers wanting a moment of tranquillity in the home, or a reminder of pleasant days out among nature.
But X-ray images show that the picture once looked very different – the whole of the small scene beyond the two figures climbing up the rise is a late addition. Why van Ruisdael made the change, we don't know. Without the sun tipping the leaves of the distant trees, the picture would become much darker and more sombre. The oak tree against the sky would be almost overpowering – something far removed from a comforting rustic scene.
A rutted road leads into a wood, winds round to the right and over a rise to disappear. It doesn‘t reappear, but may lead away among distant trees and beyond them to a cottage, or it may wind again to the left towards the sunshine. Similar scenes of the Dutch countryside – designed to please busy city dwellers wanting a moment of tranquillity in the home or a reminder of pleasant days out among nature – appear in many of Jacob van Ruisdael’s early paintings. But this one seems a little different.
A lone tree quite often features in van Ruisdael’s landscapes, but seldom quite as prominently and close up as the one in this small painting. It’s an oak tree – in many of his pictures since they’re common in Holland – but he seems to have treated it as a specimen rather than part of a larger scene. He has paid great attention to detail: almost every leaf seems to have been shown in colours varying from deepest green to autumnal copper and bronze. The dark blue of the jacket and the warm yellow of the hat pick out the man taking a rest by the roadside. But these colours were carefully chosen – when mixed, they achieve some of the darker greens of the foliage. The man is picked out but still blends in with his surroundings, not disturbing the eye.
A closer look reveals that perhaps all isn‘t well with the tree. Threading through the foliage are many bare, crooked branches and twigs. A fallen branch stands at its foot. There’s a second, almost indistinguishable, trunk directly behind it – perhaps the closer tree is almost at the end of its life, and the mass of foliage standing out against the clouded sky belongs to the second. So this doesn’t become simply a portrait of a tree, rather than a landscape, van Ruisdael has crowded shrubs and saplings on to the left-hand side of the road as background. Unusually, he has included a flowering shrub to break the wall of green, to bring in light and allow a peep through the leaves at the woods beyond.
All this is perhaps not unusual – there are aspects of this composition in many of van Ruisdael’s early works. But X-ray images show that the picture once looked very different. The trees beyond the two small figures climbing up the rise, the cottage with its sunlit thatch and the distant blue hill – all of these were late additions. Why van Ruisdael made the changes, we don't know. But without them, the work would present a very different mood. With no sun tipping the leaves of the distant trees the picture would be much darker and more sombre, and the oak tree against the sky would be almost overpowering – something far removed from a comforting reminder of a rustic scene.
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