Jan van Goyen’s painting – his view of the wide sweep of the Netherlandish landscape – is a poetic vision. Seen from a sandy rising, the horizon is low and the sky vast. Just a few birds wheel in the towering clouds.
Van Goyen was very influential in the development of the ‘tonal phase’ of Dutch painting, in which tones of the same shade rather than a mixture of colours were used to achieve an effect or atmosphere. He made many exquisite drawings of the countryside. Later, in his studio, he used them to paint pictures so evocative and atmospheric that they‘re seemingly ’emotion remembered in tranquillity' – which is how William Wordsworth, the English poet, described poetry.
What does a poet do if they deal in pictures not words? Jan van Goyen’s painting, his view of the wide sweep of the Netherlandish landscape – bleak chalk rocks, still water, a distant church tower – is a poetic vision. Seen from a sandy rising, the horizon is low and the sky vast. Just a few birds wheel in the towering clouds. He left fine brush marks in the sky, sweeping downwards to make sure we know that rain is moving in little squalls across the landscape.
The windmill watches over the vast space, its sails fragile but indomitable. Close by, lit by a watery ray of sun, tiny figures sit hunched up, heft a heavy weight or plod placidly on horseback. They’re turned away from us, faceless – each back with a personality of its own, but in its own world. Further out, on the left at the water’s edge, there’s a rustle of life. Even smaller figures, little more than pinpricks, dig in the mud for bait or tend the small boats. Their sails look transparent, frail as a fly’s wings. Beyond them, in the grey distance, the spires of village churches break the horizon, the furthest perched on a steep sloping cliff, the clouds gathering over it. The cliff is seemingly out of place in the flat Dutch terrain, but it gives the eye a focus to ease the feeling of unrelenting distance.
Van Goyen made many exquisite drawings of the countryside. Later, in his studio, he used them to paint pictures so evocative and atmospheric that they‘re seemingly ’emotion remembered in tranquillity‘ – which is how William Wordsworth, the English poet, described poetry.
Although van Goyen lived and worked in The Hague, he travelled widely. He is associated with and was very influential in the development of the ’tonal phase' of Dutch painting that started in Haarlem, in which tones of the same shade rather than a mixture of colours were used to achieve an effect or an atmosphere. As here, van Goyen worked in a restricted colour palette – mainly browns, white and greys with green and a touch of ochre or deep blue here and there. Other artists experimented alongside him, particularly Salomon van Ruysdael – look at his A View of Deventer seen from the North-West.
These artists were aiming at an image of the Dutch countryside that was realistic and uncompromising. Perhaps this can be accounted for in their religious beliefs – Calvinism, a strict branch of Protestantism – or by a love of a country that had been hard won from the sea by the building of dams and was as yet uncultivated. Or perhaps the many people who bought them liked a reminder of the cold northern weather outside when sitting in their new and comfortable Dutch homes.
These all may play a part, but it was the experiment in tonal painting and his unique vision of reality that gave van Goyen the ability to turn his landscapes into visual poetry.
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