Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/9-82) is thought to have trained in Haarlem with his father, Isaack van Ruisdael, and his uncle Salomon van Ruysdael. Ruisdael had moved to Amsterdam by 1657 and stated before an Amsterdam notary in 1661 that he was 32, thereby indicating a birth date of either 1628 or 1629. He is generally regarded as the greatest of the seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painters.
In 1821, when John Constable saw Evening Landscape on display at the Royal Academy, his friend David Lucas, a printmaker, recorded that he particularly admired the ‘acres of sky expressed’. This vast expanse of sky dominates the composition, with its ominous clouds rolling over the carefully constructed scene below. Although only in his twenties Ruisdael seems to be honing his skills in this painting by repeating a landscape that he had created when aged 18: A Windmill near Fields (The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland). The location depicted in both works has not been identified; it may be a specific place, but is more likely to be an idealised landscape constructed out of various sketches and studies which Ruisdael would have made outdoors in the area around Haarlem. Ruisdael appears to have considered such sketches as working drawings, with the result that familiar motifs recur in many of his finished paintings.
The windmills in this and the Cleveland painting are old-fashioned ‘standard-mills’ (standerdmolen), meaning that the entire body of the mill rotates around a central pole (once the ladder has been raised), which is why it is entirely logical that the paintings show different alignments. Ruisdael has painted out smoke rising (in the wrong direction) from the chimney to the right and added some rising (in the right direction) above the cottage to the left. When comparing the composition of the earlier and later work it is as though the viewer has stepped backwards, in order to gain a clearer, more striking impression of the foreground. The greatest difference between the two paintings occurs in the sky. In the decade between the two works, Ruisdael perfected his ability to create dramatic visual tension, so that the heavy clouds in this painting imbue the scene with character and emotion. The questions remains: does such an image have a moral or religious meaning? The scene certainly reflects mankind’s dependence upon nature, but the main message lies in the prominence of the windmill – an enduring symbol of the Dutch Republic which played a significant role in the new country’s industry and resulting wealth.
Between 1646 and 1657 Ruisdael regularly dated his works, but this painting is undated. It has been placed in the mid-to-late 1650s on the evidence of the sophistication of handling and the unyielding, harsh colours which define the artist’s work of this period.
Signed: 'JvRuisdael' (JvR in monogram)
Text adapted from Dutch Landscapes, London, 2010
Acquired by George IV in 1810