The wind seems to chase the clouds across this painting, letting through a fitful sun to light up the tumbling water for one moment. In another it will be gone, falling instead on the sheep on the steep hillside across the valley, perhaps, or the distant windmill and church steeple beyond. The man on the bridge of the sluice is about to close the gate to stop the water pouring through. He seems to pause, perhaps to summon his strength, perhaps just pondering the flickering light on the rushing torrent.
The setting of the mill is entirely van Ruisdael’s invention: there are no hills of the height he shows anywhere in Holland. He travelled quite widely, making sketches and drawings that he used imaginatively in his landscapes. He also used the drawings of Allart van Everdingen, who had been to Scandinavia and returned with mountainous views quite new and exciting in their rough grandeur.
The mill house is old and semi-derelict, its thatch bolstered up with bundles of reeds. The sound of water would be unceasing in this place: sometimes the waterfall, or a gentle stream when the gates were shut; sometimes rain or, when that stops, perhaps just the sound of water dripping through the roof.
In the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, there is a van Ruisdael painting entitled A Thatch Roofed House with a Watermill. It’s thought to show the same mill seen from the back, but in warmer colours than the cool blues and grey-greens of this painting. In 1826, after seeing the Rotterdam picture, the British landscape painter John Constable wrote to his friend J. C. Fisher: ‘I have seen an affecting picture by Ruisdael. It haunts my mind and clings to my heart – a man and a boy are cutting reeds in a running stream (in the tail-run) – the water so true clear and fresh – as brisk as champagne.’
It’s thought that the water mill shown belonged to the manor house of Singrave near Denekamp, a small village close to the German border, but another at nearby Haaksbergen has also been suggested as the model for the picture. Whichever is correct – if either of them is, bearing in mind that many Dutch pictures of the time were given titles long after their making – the setting of the mill is entirely van Ruisdael’s invention. There are no hills of the height he shows anywhere in Overijssel, the Dutch district where both villages are to be found. Van Ruisdael travelled quite widely, making sketches and drawings that he used imaginatively in his landscapes. He also used the drawings of Allart van Everdingen, who had been to Scandinavia and returned with mountainous views quite new and exciting in their rough grandeur. It’s unlikely that any of van Ruisdael’s more dramatic pictures are taken exactly from life, but were given a romanticised atmosphere that appealed to collectors living in the flat Dutch landscape.
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