Today is Winter Trails day in the States, a national sports day that aims to get people out and active in winter weather by offering them the chance to try snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and other outdoor pursuits.
Snow or no snow, the winter months are a wonderful time to get out into nature, provided you bundle up and are safe about it. It can be refreshing to exit our warm homes and breathe cool air into our lungs. It can be exhilarating to see a landscape responding to extreme weather. It’s at this time, when skies are unsettled, trees leafless and buds cramped deep underground, that we start to get a sense of the power of nature and the cycle of the seasons.
There’s a Dutch artist called Jacop van Ruisdael (c. 1628 – 1682) who excelled at bringing winter scenes to life. The 17th century was a ‘golden age’ in Dutch painting, with many artists attracting clients by specialising in one particular subject area (these ‘brand’ artists are sometimes called the “Dutch minor masters”, to distinguish them from generalist painters such as Rembrandt). Ruisdael established his reputation by cornering the market in landscapes, and his works became the culmination of the genre.
In a prolific career Ruisdael portrayed many types of Dutch scene. What you’ll often see is a low horizon-line and a big sky (much of the Netherlands is low marsh, formed by the deltas of the Rhine and Maas rivers) as well as massive oak trees and rugged terrain. What sets him apart from other Dutch landscape painters is the way he interprets nature: his work conveys the grandeur and visceral power of land and sky. So here in his Forest Scene (1655) there’s tangible energy in the waterfall splashing and foaming over those great boulders. There’s something almost sinister in the way the fallen birch tree strikes the painting from the right, bark curling away from the branches. There’s unease in the great cloudy billows that thicken the sky overhead. In short, he’s tapping into the might of his surroundings and revealing to us forces bigger and beyond our own lives.
Now I know this isn’t a winter landscape: there are far too many bushy leaves on the trees for that (the NGA doesn’t have a winter Ruisdael on view). But what caught my eye was the hikers getting out and about in nature. Because, look closely and you’ll see that, in the midst of all this wilderness, Ruisdael has added two tiny figures. A man and a woman are walking along a path near some grazing sheep in the middle distance (they’re small but definitely noticeable because of their bright clothing). It’s inspiring on Winter Trails day to see that these two almost become part of Ruisdael’s magical woodland, surrounded and enriched by his breath-taking landscape.