Jacob Van Ruisdael

Dealing With Imperfection by Geoff Harrison

“Always look on the bright side of death…..just before you draw your terminal breath”.  So sang the Monty Python crew in the film Life Of Brian.


A recurrent theme in Alain De Botton’s School of Life is the concept that life cannot be perfected, and the sooner we acclimatize to this the better off we will be.  This is not to say we should be dismissive of the pain of others.  I could get into deep depressions over the state of the arts in Australia, how governments seem to ignore the benefits the arts can bring to a nation in terms of creative thinking, mental health and economic activity.  But is this going to prevent me from painting?  Never.

I only have to visit my father at his nursing home to make me realize that I have to make the most of my remaining years in spite of everything that has happened in my life.  Perhaps there is nothing sadder than to listen to a 90 yo talk about the regrets in his life.  The question I ask is “now what?” 


Vincent Van Gogh knew all about pain yet he was still able to engage with the beauty of nature.  The light of southern France captivated him, as became clear in his many letters to his brother Theo and to Gauguin, who he hounded to join him.  De Botton argues Van Gogh’s paintings of Arles “express a cheerfulness that has taken complete stock of all the reasons for despair”.


Seventeenth century Dutch painter Jacob Van Ruisdael knew that the sun needn’t be shining to make fine art.  “His paintings reveal an accommodation with the flawed but endurable and occasionally beautiful nature of reality.”  He made a case for overcast skies, muddy river banks and infinite gradations of grey where he saw a special kind of beauty.


The wise know that all human beings, themselves included, are prone to folly: they have irrational desires and incompatible aims, fantasies and delusions.   After several cost overruns and an almost complete re-engineering during development, the DeLorean DMC-12 was finally released onto the market in 1981.  The car was made famous in the feature film “Back To the Future” starring Michael J Fox.  But for all the hype, the DMC-12 was sheer folly.  Only 9000 were built and in 1983 the DeLorean Motor Company went bust.

The Bliss Of Solitude 2018 Oil On Canvas

The Bliss Of Solitude 2018 Oil On Canvas

Do we really need a 24 hour news channel?  Do we need a torrent of bad news from around the world (about which we can do little) to assail our ears?  As De Botton asks, what impact would knowledge of an earthquake in Peru have on Australia’s aboriginal people?

When I produce my images of Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens, I’m not running away from reality, I’m seeking some solace within it.  The appreciation I get is that there are places like these where we can regain some sanity in a world seemingly full of tumult.

The Irritatingly Versatile Jacob Van Ruisdael by Geoff Harrison

I've always been an admirer of the gloomily beautiful works of Jacob Van Ruisdael (Dutch 17th century).  The sun rarely shines in Van Ruisdael's scenes, yet there is light, airiness and stillness.

The Watermill (ca. 1660)                        Oil On Canvas                                        NGV Melbourne

The Watermill (ca. 1660)                        Oil On Canvas                                        NGV Melbourne

He was also a highly talented draftsman, as the drawing below testifies.

The Watermill, Sun

The Watermill, Sun

He also tried his hand at etching very early in his career (around 1646) and some of his prints contain almost dazzling intricacy.  

The Little Bridge(ca 1652)

The Little Bridge(ca 1652)

Would Van Ruisdael have been such a fine landscape painter without possessing excellent drawing skills?  I doubt it.

Selling Holland by Geoff Harrison

My favourite Dutch 17th Century artist Jacob Van Ruisdael is often credited with presenting the Dutch landscape as it really was - overcast and damp.  "He carefully studied the fascinating characteristic movements in the sky: he was entranced by the infinite gradations of grey and how you'll often see a patch of fluffy brightness drifting behind a darker billowing mass of rain cloud.  He didn't deny there was mud or that the river and canal banks are sometimes messy.  Instead he noticed their special kind of beauty and made a case for it." THE BOOK OF LIFE


But the Dutch tourist board would prefer a different image of the country to be presented. (below)  There may be the occasional place and a few times of year when the Netherlands may actually look like this, but the countryside that Van Ruisdael depicted is something the tourist board would prefer to stay quiet about.  In it's determination to lure visitors to it's country, the Dutch tourist board engages in exaggeration, or at worst - lies.

Jacob Van Ruisdael by Geoff Harrison

"Bleaching Ground In A Hollow Near A Cottage"  Oil on Canvas   1645-1650

I've always admired the dark, brooding work of this artist.  He is able to invoke an intimate relationship with the landscape so that the viewer becomes a participant in the scene rather than a detached observer.  Direct observation of Van Ruisdael's scenes can lead to inward meditation and he achieves this by capturing a particular light or moment.