“River Landscape with Fisherman” by Salomon van Ruysdael
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Ruysdael’s painting captures a landscape of a river speckled with ten boats, a grove of trees on a riverbank, and the skyline of a town off in the distance. The horizon of the painting is formed by the town in the center and the coastline to the right which sits only four inches from the bottom of the canvas.
Almost three-fifths of the composition is occupied by a light blue sky interrupted with shifting tones of dark grey and white clouds.
Starting with the riverbank, Ruysdael paints a coastline which begins a few inches from the left of the canvas and extends horizontally across the midground of the composition. Here, the sparse details of church steeples and rooftops provide a distanced perspective of a town sitting on the riverbank. Two sailboats and six rowboats meander across the waters close to the town, their occupants similarly abstracted through distance.
In the bottom left corner of the canvas, a thicket of sticks pokes out of the surface of the water with two small birds caught mid-flight. The reflections of the thicket on the river stretch towards the viewer and distort through the ripples of the water.
Moving along the foreground, a rowboat containing three passengers and a dog idles in the river. One figure in this boat faces towards the viewer seated with a basket by their side. The other two figures face away from the viewer one standing hunched over and the other positioned with their arms resting on oars. Finally, at the bow of the boat, the dog stands at attention, looking across the water. The small size of these figures obscures the details on their clothing save for the colors of muted grey and red.
Following the dog’s gaze to the right of the canvas, another rowboat sits atop the water with four figures. Again, Ruysdael’s clean brushstrokes clearly outline the figures occupying the boat but the muddy browns of their clothing fade into the mass of foliage situated in the painting’s midground. Here, in the midground, the right third of the canvas forms a river bank populated by a dense pocket of hardwood trees. Sunlight illuminates the left half of the bank, creating a gradient that moves from rich ochre yellow to the murky brown and black of the right half of the canvas. Likely a mix of poplars, elms, and birch, the slanted trunks and winding boughs appear through thick brushstrokes of darker brown. Speckled across these branches, Ruysdael’s delicate brushstrokes create an airy haze of leaves that spans this wooded bank. Finally, the trees which tower over the two nearby boats that sit by the bank.
A storm is brewing. I first notice the sky in this painting. I imagine all the people out on their boats would have been concerned as well. The whole scene is full of transitions, in weather, in technology, and perhaps unseen, in the environment. The rowboat, a simple design with small impacts, is centered and flanked by the more complex sailboats that would transform human travel and with it ways of life around the globe through brutal colonization, enslavement, and natural resource extraction. The rowboat holds three people, a pup, and fishing rod and nets. I imagine the work of three people, catching fish in this slow way and wondered what they might think of a 21st century fishing operation, or depleted fish populations. I wonder too, what they might think of the different threats that storms can bring to coastal communities with the pressure of sea level rise. A storm is brewing.
– Caela O’Connell is Assistant Professor in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Department of Anthropology and joint faculty for the Environment, Ecology, and Energy Program
Salomon van Ruysdael, Dutch, c. 1602-1670, River Landscape with Fishermen, 1643, oil on panel, frame: 41 13/16 × 29 9/16 × 2 1/2 in. (106.2 × 75.1 × 6.4 cm) panel: 20 1/2 × 32 3/4 in. (50.8 × 83.2 cm). The William A. Whitaker Foundation Art Fund, 2002.15.
First impression: Scudding clouds, shifting patterns of light and shade, distant sailboats gliding on calm waters, fishermen working their nets. Ruysdael’s River Landscape suggests a fleeting moment captured on the spot. His sketchy brushstrokes enhance this impression. What a lovely day! And how cheering it is to see humans and the environment together in harmony.
A closer look: For all its appearance of immediacy, a second, closer look reveals that Ruysdael’s composition is carefully constructed. The dark river bank extends diagonally across the picture plane from the lower left corner, creating the illusion of spatial recession and forming a wedge between the blue-gray sky and water. The “pie-shaped wedge” is a device, a formula even, that Ruysdael used repeatedly in composing his river landscapes.
First and second looks: Does a closer look detract from one’s first impression? Not in my view. For me, Ruysdael’s River Landscape remains as compelling as ever. It is a testament to the artist’s skill in creating a pleasing balance between the calculated and the casual, between art and nature.
– Carolyn Wood is an expert in seventeenth-century European art who has taught, researched, published, and curated exhibitions on various aspects of the field. As a former curator at the Ackland, she participated actively in the process of acquiring Ruysdael’s River Landscape.
The size of this river, coupled with the smooth, glassy appearance of the water, indicates that this is a tidal estuary near the mouth of a large river system. Although a large volume of water is visible in this scene, the horizontal alignment of the water surface implies that the ocean is close by if not visible in the background.
The wispiness of the clouds makes me think they are remnants of a recent rainstorm. The smoky-gray color suggests that ice crystals are present and appear to be blowing out over the water. In the background, small, single-mast fishing boats are making their way toward shore, while several rowboats, each with a few occupants, are trolling in the shallower water. Even-aged copses of trees
appear along the shoreline. If these trees are similar to those in the foreground, they are robust enough to withstand recent weather.
The most puzzling part of this painting is the small length of fencing in the bottom left corner. It may be high tide, and the fence is attached to the land where the artist is standing, or it may be a shallow water trap for fish.
– Nicholas Allmendinger is a geomorphologist with expertise in watershed-scale fluvial processes. He works for the Washington State Department of Transportation.
- Spend time looking at this scene. What are the first five things you notice?
- Imagine you are in this place – what would it be like to be on one of the boats? What would you hear around you? What might your conversations be about with the people in the scene?
- In the seventeenth century, the Dutch Republic was an economic superpower, trading around the globe. What evidence do you see here of industry and trade? What natural elements pictured would have aided their efforts?
- River Landscape with Fishermen was painted in 1643 – imagine what this landscape might look like today. What would be the same and what would be different? What environmental concerns might affect this landscape?
- The Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (CRC), led by UNC-Chapel Hill, conducts research and education to enhance the resilience of the nation’s people, infrastructure, economies, and the natural environment to the impacts of coastal hazards such as floods and hurricanes, including the effects of future trends. Learn more about their projects at the CRC’s website.