Joe Self Contributing Writer
What might seem like a dusty old picture can offer fresh observations, and a recently acquired painting that’s more than 350 years old is now in Fort Worth for just this reason. Good art museums want to challenge their audience to see the world anew through old eyes. The Kimbell Art Museum issued this challenge by acquiring Edge of a Forest with a Grainfield by Jacob van Ruisdael (circa 1656). The new acquisition will complement the Kimbell’s Rough Sea at Jetty, another Ruisdael work from around the same time that is now on loan to another museum. When it returns in September, Rough Sea at Jetty will likely be placed very near the new Ruisdael for comparison.
I was able to walk the museum recently with Eric M. Lee, director of the Kimbell, and he said that for a long time views of the landscape often served as a backdrop in paintings, with people as the main focus. Over time, the landscapes became more dominant and the people less so. Classical landscape paintings were ideal versions of nature with trees to the side framing a distant view. In these paintings, the foreground would be dark and the background would be light to suggest distance and to draw the viewer into the painting. Meandering bodies of water were also used for the same effect. These were paintings of the imagination and were a dreamy respite for wealthy city dwellers. Ruisdael was important because what he painted looked more like real landscapes one might encounter on a walk in the countryside. This approach was later described as picturesque because it was a view of nature that one might actually see, versus what one might imagine. It’s worth comparing the work of another master influenced by Ruisdael – just a few steps away at the Kimbell is The Pond by Jean- Honoré Fragonard (1765).
Later landscape painters such as J. M. W. Turner explored the terribleness of nature with works such as The Fall of an Avalanche (1810) at The Tate Gallery in London. These types of paintings were also imaginary but were intended to show the overwhelming force of nature. A modern-day interpretation of the raw power of nature can be found by watching the movie Jaws (as I did during my formative years). Steven Spielberg’s landmark 1975 film in which a small seaside community battles a rampaging great white shark offers visceral insight into the timeless conflict between man and nature, much as landscape paintings did hundreds of years ago. Similarly, just as we’ve been culturally trained to read movie clues – the imminent crash when a driver lingers too long in conversation with a passenger, the nervous glance of a liar, the swelling of music to presage a climactic moment – a close reading of the paintings at the Kimbell will help to explain clues and cues from earlier times, and even show us that some such symbols have remained essentially the same. In the Ruisdael, two forces, man and nature, are depicted by contrasting a forest and a cultivated field. In this case, the ruin is in nature (see the fallen trees) and the human aspect is represented by a cultivated grain field, glowing in the light.
The sheep scattered in the tree-shade suggest that this is a tamed landscape – no wolves on the prowl. The birds in the sky serve to draw our attention upward while also reminding us of our gravity-bound limitations. The body of still water in the foreground (a symbol of death in classical literature and painting) undergirds the entire scene. But the glow of light through the trees suggests a path beyond the silky waters. Another note on the fallen tree: It almost appears to have been cut down with a saw or ax, connoting nature’s vulnerability to acts of man. Experts at the museum have gathered the whole story and have placed the new acquisition on view within a collection that encourages comparison with works from other times. When you go to the Kimbell, take a look at Claude Lorraine’s paintings and see how his landscapes always feature historical or mythical characters while the people in the Ruisdael are anonymous and made small in the scene. Lorraine painted ideal landscapes while Ruisdael’s ideas tended toward landscapes of the real. Now is a good time to see the landscape paintings at the Kimbell because the museum’s recent addition of the Renzo Piano Pavilion created a vibrant new showcase for the actual landscape between the buildings. The newly acquired Ruisdael and the new architecture combine to provide a unique venue to view landscapes and advance our understanding of how we relate to them.