Saturday, December 6, 2014

Pointing to the Sea

Dutch landscapes in the 17th century were often carefully constructed, rendered in ways that were probably not entirely veristic. The landscapes are all quite realistic, but if one were to search for many of the scenes depicted, they might not ever find exactly what any one object is portraying. So to what end did these painters organize their landscapes? Many answers to this question exist, but one ironic explanation is that Dutch 17th century landscapes emphasized the sea. The objects do this by reorganizing their subjects in ways that give usually dominance to everything but the land. They imbue coastal themes into the fabric of their depictions. Their subjects cannot

This reorganization is not a negative, nor a positive. These landscapes are more subtle than that. There is no great, romantic tribute to a dominant Dutch navy, nor are there that many crashing waves and shipwrecks. Landscape artists carried commitments to making the scenes look natural, so the preeminence of the ocean and the winds seems natural too. These compositional choices had to look real because this was the reality that these objects were viewed in. The choice to submit to the ocean was an ordinary one to the Dutch, and this is very evident through these landscapes.

Jan van Goyen, Castle by a River, 1647

Oil on wood, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 64.65.1

In this piece by van Goyen, the castle is not just by a river; it is part of the river. It rises up out of the river, so old and so much a part of its surroundings, it is a clear example of how a man-made structure has been co-opted by the unrelenting sea. Even though the main subject of this painting is a castle, it has been painted in such a way as to make it seem equal, if not secondary, with the nature surrounding it.

Jan van Goyen, View of Haarlem and the Haarlemmer Meer, 1646

Oil on wood, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 71.62

In View of Haarlem and the Haarlemmer Meer¸ van Goyen takes a different approach. Here nature is shown to dominate by sheer space. For a landscape, most of this picture is dedicated to the sky. The clouds above totally control the ground below, which seems sparse and even desolate in comparison to the rich and full plumes. Most of the land is cast in shadow underneath the clouds, further showing how the weather is ultimately in control.

Philips Koninck, An Extensive Wooded Landscape, 1670s

Oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980.4

Koninck is much more subtle in how he directs the eyes to the sea, which is not explicitly in the painting. The clouds run along lines that are not really parallel with the ground, leading focus to the horizon. The road on the shore runs diagonal, pointing the same direction, before turning away. The hillside in the background trails downward, giving way to what appears to be a coastal plain. These visual cues suggest that An Extensive Wooded Landscape is more than it says it is.

Salmon van Ruysdael, Marine, 1650

Oil on wood, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 71.98

Marine by Ruysdael is definitely setup like a Dutch landscape and bears all the visual markings of one, but it is interesting to note that actual land occupies only a tiny fraction of space in the image. Ruysdael is not just reorganizing our gaze; he’s replaced solid ground with the ocean and instead of windmills or castles, the primary manmade objects are boats. This highlights the Dutch reality, since so much of their life was lived on the sea. Their identity was tied to it.

Aelbert Cuyp, Landscape with the Flight into Egypt, c. 1650

Oil on wood, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1973.155.2

Landscape with the Flight into Egypt is a more unique take on how Dutch landscape attempted to permeate every aspect of Dutch culture with the same visual themes. Cuyp takes a biblical narrative, the flight of Mary and Joseph into Egypt, and places it in a scene that seems identical to the Dutch coastal countryside. Without the title, there is very little to suggest that this is about Mary and Joseph. Christianity was made Dutch by Cuyp’s ability to use the Dutch landscape style in a spiritual scene.

Frans Post, A Brazilian Landscape, 1650

Oil on wood, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1981.318

A Brazilian Landscape shows the furthest reach of how landscape was being used to communicate a penchant for the sea, and even exploration and domination. Like Flight into Egypt, this landscape is not of the Dutch countryside, but unlike Flight, there are clear visual cues (the dress of the figures, the species of the tree) that indicate that this is not European. But the landscape style is still similar. By imposing the same style on a land thousands of miles away, Post might have been suggesting that through their seafaring power, the Dutch were making the whole world more Dutch.

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