Prolific and versatile, Ruisdael depicted a wide variety of landscape subjects. From 1646 he painted Dutch countryside scenes of remarkable quality for a young man. After a trip to Germany in 1650, his landscapes took on a more heroic character. In his late work, conducted when he lived and worked in Amsterdam, he added city panoramas and seascapes to his regular repertoire. In these, the sky often took up two-thirds of the canvas. In total he produced more than 150 Scandinavian views featuring waterfalls.
Ruisdael's only registered pupil was Meindert Hobbema, one of several artists who painted figures in his landscapes. Hobbema's work has at times been confused with Ruisdael's. There is difficulty in attributing Ruisdael's work, which has not been helped by the fact that three members of his family were also landscape painters, some of whom spelled their name "Ruysdael": his father Isaack van Ruisdael, his well-known uncle Salomon van Ruysdael, and his cousin, confusingly called Jacob van Ruysdael.
Ruisdael's work was in demand in the Dutch Republic during his lifetime. Today it is spread across private and institutional collections around the world; the National Gallery in London, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg hold the largest collections. Ruisdael shaped landscape painting traditions worldwide, from the English Romantics to the Barbizon school in France, and the Hudson River School in the US, and influenced generations of Dutch landscape artists.
A View of Egmond aan Zee (c. 1650) by Jacob van Ruisdael
Jacob Isaackszoon van Ruisdael was born in Haarlem in 1628 or 1629[A] into a family of painters, all landscapists. The number of painters in the family, and the multiple spellings of the Ruisdael name, have hampered attempts to document his life and attribute his works.
The name Ruisdael is connected to a castle, now lost, in the village of Blaricum. The village was the home of Jacob's grandfather, the furniture maker Jacob de Goyer. When De Goyer moved away to Naarden, three of his sons changed their name to Ruysdael or Ruisdael, probably to indicate their origin.[B] Two of De Goyer's sons became painters: Jacob's father Isaack van Ruisdael and his well-known uncle Salomon van Ruysdael.[C] Jacob himself always spelled his name with an "i", while his cousin, Salomon's son Jacob Salomonszoon van Ruysdael, also a landscape artist, spelled his name with a "y". Jacob's earliest biographer, Arnold Houbraken, called him Jakob Ruisdaal.
It is not known whether Ruisdael's mother was Isaack van Ruisdael's first wife, whose name is unknown, or his second wife, Maycken Cornelisdochter. Isaack and Maycken married on 12 November 1628.[D]
Ruisdael's teacher is also unknown. It is often assumed Ruisdael studied with his father and uncle, but there is no archival evidence for this. He appears to have been strongly influenced by other contemporary local Haarlem landscapists, most notably Cornelis Vroom and Allaert van Everdingen.
The earliest date that appears on Ruisdael's paintings and etchings is 1646.[E] Two years after this date he was admitted to membership of the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke. By this time landscape paintings were as popular as history paintings in Dutch households, though at the time of Ruisdael's birth, history paintings appeared far more frequently. This growth in popularity of landscapes continued throughout Ruisdael's career.[F]
Around 1657, Ruisdael moved to Amsterdam, by then a prosperous city which was likely to have offered a bigger market for his work. His fellow Haarlem painter Allaert van Everdingen had already moved to Amsterdam and found a market there. On June 17, 1657 he was baptized in Ankeveen, near Naarden. Ruisdael lived and worked in Amsterdam for the rest of his life. In 1668, his name appears as a witness to the marriage of Meindert Hobbema, his only registered pupil, a painter whose works have been confused with Ruisdael's own.
There is some speculation that Ruisdael was also a doctor. In 1718, his biographer Houbraken reports that he studied medicine and performed surgery in Amsterdam. Archival records of the 17th century show the name "Jacobus Ruijsdael" on a list of Amsterdam doctors, albeit crossed out, with the added remark that he earned his medical degree on 15 October 1676 in Caen, northern France. Various art historians have speculated that this was a case of mistaken identity. Pieter Scheltema suggests it was Ruisdael's cousin who appeared on the record. The Ruisdael expert Seymour Slive argues that the spelling "uij" is not consistent with Ruisdael's own spelling of his name, that his unusually high production suggests there was little time to study medicine, and that there is no indication in any of his art that he visited northern France. However, Slive is willing to accept that Ruisdael may still have been a doctor. In 2013, Jan Paul Hinrichs agreed that the evidence is inconclusive.
Ruisdael was not Jewish. Slive reports that, because of Ruisdael's depiction of a Jewish cemetery and various biblical names in the Ruisdael family, he often heard speculation that Ruisdael must surely be Jewish. The evidence shows otherwise. Ruisdael was buried in the Saint Bavo's Church, Haarlem, a Protestant church at that time. His uncle Salomon van Ruysdael belonged to the Young Flemish subgroup of the Mennonite congregation, one of several types of Anabaptists in Haarlem, and it is probable that Ruisdael's father was also a member there. His cousin Jacob was a registered Mennonite in Amsterdam.
Ruisdael did not marry. According to Houbraken, whose short Ruisdael biography does contain a few errors, this was "to reserve time to serve his old father". It is not known what Ruisdael looked like, as no known portrait or self-portrait of him exists.[G]
The art historian Hendrik Frederik Wijnman disproved the myth that Ruisdael died a poor man, supposedly in the old men's almshouse in Haarlem. Wijnman showed that the person who died there was in fact Ruisdael's cousin, Jacob Salomonszoon. Although there is no record of Ruisdael owning land or shares, he appears to have lived comfortably, even after the economic downturn of the disaster year 1672.[H] His paintings were valued fairly highly. In a large sample of inventories between 1650 and 1679 the average price for a Ruisdael was 40 guilders, compared to an average of 19 guilders for all attributed paintings. In a ranking of contemporary Dutch painters based on price-weighted frequency in these inventories, Ruisdael ranks seventh; Rembrandt ranks first.
Ruisdael died in Amsterdam on 10 March 1682. He was buried 14 March 1682 in Saint Bavo's Church, Haarlem.