Haarlem’s Painter Sons

In the early seventeenth century Haarlem was the cradle of Dutch landscape art. Many artists of note – among them Esaias van de Velde, Salomon van Ruysdael and Hendrik Vroom – were born, apprenticed or worked in the city. It would be difficult to overestimate the influence these and other renowned masters exerted. Art history, however, has failed to give full value to the world of a host of other masters who, in their wake, also helped to bring Haarlem landscape painting to its prominence.

A hallmark of the painters of the Haarlem landscape school is that they discovered and were inspired by the beauty of the nature in their own surroundings. Around 1660 they took off into the Kennemer dunes to draw directly from life. Back in the studio they worked up their sketches into paintings or kept them for use later in a larger context. From that time on the polder and dune landscapes with their bleaching fields have formed an essential part of Dutch landscape art.

Drawing directly from nature brought about a radical change in the representation of the landscape. The artificial compositions of the late sixteenth-century Flemish masters in which the viewer looks down on the earth like a bird – a way of creating depth that became known as bird’s eye view – gave way around 1615 to a more naturalistic representation of the immediate local surroundings. Esaias van de Velde, Pieter de Molyn and Jan van Goyen placed their trees and bushes in the composition in an almost nonchalant manner, while a sandy path or a small stream quite naturally united foreground and background. In addition the lively colourism of the Flemish landscapes was replaced by a palette of more sober colour accords.

Heroic trees
Further innovations were introduced in the mid-1640s. Jacob van Ruisdael (1625-1682), for instance, placed the focus of his images on one or two individual trees, which stood out like giants wholly dominating the eye. In this period monumental oaks and willows, but also the ephemeral nature of these heroic trees, continued to fascinate artists. Frequently a few trees were shown in isolation on one side of the picture plane while a variety of other landscape motifs – dead tree-stumps or a graceful plant – counterbalanced the composition on the other. Van Ruisdael generally provided his pictures with a vista or a sandy path that served to draw the viewer’s eye in towards the wood. This influential and far-reaching pictorial scheme offered artists such endless possibilities for variation that Ruisdael’s compositional devices were adopted by nearly all painters of wooded landscapes!

A flat landscape beyond
In contrast to Van Ruisdael, whose varied oeuvre includes marine pieces alongside a wide range of landscapes, his only pupil Meindert Hobbema (1638-1709) devoted himself almost exclusively to depicting woods and forests. After completing his training, which is attested in a notarial act of 1660 at Amsterdam’s Municipal Archives, Hobbema struck out on his own. His landscapes seem to be painted more from direct observation and are less mysterious and deep in mood than those of his master. Characteristically Hobbema breaks open his wooded scenes providing an outlook into a flat landscape beyond. And by bathing the distance in a sparkling sunny light, the artist emphatically connects the background to the main action in the middle-ground. Hobbema’s best-known work, The Avenue, Middelharnis (National Gallery, London) owes its fame not just to the unusual perspectival effect but also to its theme. It is the artist’s last work (1689) and unique in his oeuvre. With their different approaches, Van Ruisdael and Hobbema both had a profoundly innovative impact on the development of the Dutch woodland scene.

The presence of such a celebrated artist as Van Ruisdael in Haarlem attracted countless other painters to the city and consequently it remained the preeminent centre of Dutch landscape art for the greater part of the seventeenth century. The very fact that so many artists followed in his footsteps served to enhance Van Ruisdael’s own reputation. This interaction was of enormous significance: it was not simply that the landscapists became famous because they were inspired by Van Ruisdael, but the lustre of his highly skilled followers had a correspondingly favourable effect on his work. Indeed this mechanism of imitation and inspiration partly accounts for Ruisdael’s outstanding position.

Haarlem’s painter sons
In addition to these two world-famous artists Haarlem also produced many other painters, among them Cornelis Decker, Claes Molenaer, Jan Vermeer II of Haarlem, Gerrit van Hees, Guillaume Dubois, Gillis and Salomon Rombouts and Roelof van Vries. Setting their sights high, this extensive group of painters succeeded in achieving ingenious and surprising results. Mostly they worked for the open market in their own distinctive styles and therefore their paintings were highly prized. This makes it all the more difficult to understand why in the past their pictures were attributed to Van Ruisdael and Hobbema. The mistake, however, can be partly explained by the interaction between inspiration and imitation, because the art of these masters occasionally came deceptively close to that of their celebrated models.

Gillis Rombouts
Gillis Rombouts’s Wooded Landscape with Horseman, for instance, was at one time attributed to Jacob van Ruisdael. And indeed the landscape does show many resemblances to similar images by Van Ruisdael of around 1660. In the foreground a withered tree-stump is seen standing apart from the woodland behind. The artist has underscored the sense of space by the use of light contrast between the front plane and the middle distance. The structure of the composition is determined by a couple of intersecting diagonal lines that are given direction by the ruts in the sandy track. And the trees are aptly placed to enhance the previously noted diagonal schema. On the right of the composition, water and a river bank lead the eye towards the background with its vista of typical Haarlem bleaching fields backed by a row of dunes. On the woodland path marked by cart tracks, the mounted horseman and the figure walking at his side, along with the shepherds and their sheep, adorn the scene as staffage. By accentuating the light on the fields Rombouts counterbalances the sunlit sandy path winding its way towards the wood. In just one aspect Rombouts deviated from the Haarlem manner: it seems he could not resist including a fashionable Italianate structure in the distance.
At that time there was a ready market for pictures of this type. And Rombouts was expert at targeting his work to potential clients, which probably encouraged his son Salomon Rombouts to follow in his father’s profession.

Roelof van Vries
Roelof van Vries whom we have already mentioned was also a thoroughbred landscapist of the Haarlem school, and his woodland and river views are fine examples of that tradition. Although the Wooded Landscape with Travellers gives the impression of having been painted from life, the composition could equally have been devised in the studio. Dominating the scene are several densely packed trees whose foliage rendered in a green and brown tonality emphatically sets the mood of the landscape. On the left of the image we see the wood stretching out, while on the right our gaze is guided along a sandy path past trees and boscage to the horizon. Several small figures lend animation to the scene and also serve as a measure of the scale and majesty of nature. Painters of this type of landscape were sometimes difficult to tell apart, exemplified by the fact that in 1937 in the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco our Wooded Landscape with Travellers by Van Vries was exhibited as a work by Hobbema. In appearance this piece does indeed recall Hobbema’s well-known woodland scenes that were much in vogue at the time. Like Van Vries, Hobbema also opened up his images with an outlook into the distance, and by bathing the horizon in sunlight he brought it forward to form a distinct part of the composition. The minuscule figures serve chiefly to point-up the grandeur of nature.

Own merits
For a long time Hobbema was simply regarded as a skilful imitator of his teacher Van Ruisdael. Today however he is esteemed for his own qualities. The same holds true of Roelof van Vries and Gillis Rombouts who achieved greatness through the exhilarating interaction between them and other, some more, some less, celebrated Haarlem contemporaries. Inspired as they were by their models, their youthful enthusiasm in turn brought new stimuli to the established masters. And it was precisely this cross-pollination which gave birth to the fascinating world of Haarlem landscape painting.

The Rombouts family, who probably moved from Flanders to the Northern Netherlands at the end of the sixteenth century, produced several famous landscapists. Born around 1620 Gillis Rombouts, whose Christian name is variously given as Jillis or Gilbert-Aegidius, joined the Haarlem painters’ Guild of St Luke in 1652. Little is known about his training but given that he came from an artistic background it is likely that he studied under a member of his own family. Gillis worked both in the style of Jacob van Ruisdael and Meindert Hobbema.

Probably born in Haarlem around 1631, Roelof van Vries – also called De Vries – joined the Leiden painters’ guild in 1653. He married in Amsterdam in 1659. He specialised as a landscapist and because of stylistic similarities, and more particularly the resemblance of Van Vries’s monogram (the letters V and R intertwined) to that of Jacob van Ruisdael, his landscapes have been frequently attributed to the latter in the past.

    Meindert Hobbema

    Amsterdam 1638 - 1709 Amsterdam

    Dune Landscape with Travellers and a Pool

    Monogrammed and dated MH 1659 (below right)
    Panel, 54.5 x 71 cm
    Kunsthandel Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, The Hague

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    Gillis Rombouts

    Haarlem 1620 - before 1678 Haarlem

    Wooded Landscape with Horseman

    Panel, 58 x 89.5 cm
    Painted circa 1660
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, The Hague

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    Jacob van Ruisdael

    Haarlem 1628/1629 - 1682 Amsterdam

    Sandy Path Through an Oak Wood

    c. 1646/1647
    Canvas, 65 x 85 cm
    National Museum of Art, Copenhagen

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    Roeloef van Vries

    Haarlem c. 1631 - after 1681 Amsterdam

    Wooded Landscape with Travellers

    c. 1660
    Panel, 61 x 84.5 cm
    Kunsthandel Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, The Hague

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