Jacob van Ruisdael was a master of both landscapes and what we would now consider townscapes because they were paintings of what were then the urban vistas. Looking at his paintings allows seeing how he did these two kinds of paintings differently. That can supply the basis for generalizations about the nature of landscapes and cityscapes and, even beyond that, the nature of the human experiences that underlie aesthetic experience.
“View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds” is characteristic of van Ruisdael’s depiction of a town, which appears as a sliver in the middle of the painting, most of which is taken up by the grayish sky above or, beneath the sliver, a suburban part of town that contains a bleaching ground, where long strips of cloth are laid out to dry. The town itself is notable for a few church spires, one overlarge building, some windmills, and its rust color, while the bleaching ground is set amidst some trees and a few buildings, and its linearity can be taken to be an horizontal echo of the vertical linearity of the town. People, as everyone knows, make their marks on places by constructing with the use of straight lines. The other point to be made is that the downtown of Haarlem goes on for a while, stretching from the left to the right of the canvas, and gives a suggestion that it also bulges out, so that a bird’s eye view (there are birds in the picture) would see a great circle filled with houses, both residences and public buildings. The only people to be seen are, ironically enough, not in the town, but working the bleaching ground, and they are fairly small because the point of view van Ruisdael takes is remote from the scene, more concerned with the overall geography of the place than the life within it, many buildings to be found widely spaced from one another, in the plain between the bleaching ground and the town proper.
“Panoramic View of the Amstel Looking towards Amsterdam” is a townscape which is less parsimonious in that it gets close enough to its subject so as to portray much more of the way the city works. There is the Amstel River, filled with white sailed boats, broad in the south east corner of the picture, and then narrowing towards the bridge at the center of the picture, its horizontal line serving as the center point of the picture, the buildings of the city behind it, the far shore filled with buildings of various sizes, while the near shore has windmills, houses, and a promenade where the people who saunter up and down provide a sense of scale. The town is bustling with activity: men oaring a raft, fields with mounds of hay, and the activities that might be suggested to go on in windmills, residences and public buildings, though without the benefit of any particular story being unravelled, as was the case with the human interest sidebar provided in the portrait of Haarlem by the presence of the bleaching field, something remarkably noticeable then as it would be if one showed up today. A townscape is therefore a single place where people go about their business in close proximity to one another but where their stories do not intertwine. That remains the collective story of towns and cities.
Now consider how different is a landscape. In “Dunes”, perhaps his most famous painting, Ruisdael introduces an individual story into his portrait of a landscape. A man and his dog are trudging up a rutted path, one which can be traced back to where it disappears behind a hill. On either side of the path, interesting enough in itself because of its rise and falls, so that one would have a different perspective every few steps when wandering along it, are the brush that can be found on dunes, as well as some short trees. The plants go off in any number of directions, sometimes constituting a rough underbrush, sometimes a tiny copse of trees, sometimes the grass clinging to the tops of dunes, sometimes covering what is just a sandy stretch next to the road. There is no pattern in the flora to guide the eye, though an expert might know where and when different kinds of flora will grow on this kind of site. For the viewer to take hold of the scene, however, the man and his dog are very useful. The same is true of “Stag Hunt in a Wood with a Marsh”. The main pattern of the painting are the virticals of the trees, all of them leaning to the left, as if that is the way the wind blew them as they grew. They are planted both in the earth and in the marsh that takes up the center of the foreground of the picture. And yet Ruisdael relieves this landscape by putting huntsman into it as well as a stage being pursued by dogs who are catching up with it while it is in the marsh. Why this need to have a story going on rather than the landscape presented for itself alone. There needs to be a reason for the convention.
Not that all of Ruisdael’s landscapes have humans in the picture. Sometimes it is a waterfall that serves as a focal point, or an old ruined castle (the fact of which is proof of human engagement in the locale of the landscape). In “Waterfall in a Hilly Wooded Landscape”, the story line seems to be to be what I see as tree roots left over after, I presume, humans have harvested the lumber, though here again one would think that Ruisdael could have done without in that the broken tree in the foreground creates interest enough while the trees in the back stand tall and green.
Other Seventeenth Century painters follow the same convention of placing people in the landscapes, while not putting them in cityscapes. Meindert Hobbema, another Dutchman, includes people in his landscapes, “A Stream by a Wood” and in “The Avenue at Middelharnis”. The great Nicolas Poussin, a Frenchman painting in Italy at about the same time, has Orion, in “Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun”, stumble down a path very similar to the one found in “Dunes”, though this time people moving up the path have to scurry out of the way of the blind giant. This scene takes place in the midst of very lush scenery, the greenery of trees, leaves, bushes, grasses, painted with great care. That is very different from what Poussin does in the urban scene depicted in “The Rape of the Sabine Women”. Yes, it does contain people, but is an urban scene in that there are multiple individual stories going on in the midst of the chaos of the Roman men selecting and dragging off the Sabine women, the whole scene observed from afar by people on their balconies. City life may seem chaotic, but it is organized. The exception to the rule that contrasts townscapes and landscapes is Bruegel, another contemporary, who presents the boisterous and communal lives of villagers, each going about their own business and yet also involved in one another’s festivities, like a wedding. That liveliness of a village scene earns Brueghel the commendation that would be awarded by William Hazlitt, to William Hogarth a century and a half later: that he was one of the great comic writers.
Here is a suggestion as to why this convention makes sense. The portrayal of nature is always confusing because there is too little to focus the mind. Rather, a viewer of a landscape or someone out in actual nature is over stimulated by the ever new vistas of conflicting colors, different kinds of growth, none of which give off straight lines. There is nothing to steady the mind except, perhaps, a fallen tree or a rock filled brook that constitutes a mini-waterfall. There are too many objects-- trees, blades of grass, fallen brush-- to make it easy to concentrate the mind or to organize the picture. Cities, on the other hand, are dominated by their formal activities of milling, boating, manufacturing, it easy enough to identify a structure with a function, and so, indirectly, of human activity. For that matter, we consider landscapes to be domesticated when they show the signs of human organization, as in the hedgerows of Normandy, or Robert Frost’s New Hampshire stone walls, or even the stately planned trees of Hobbema’s “The Avenue at Middelharnis”. So painters know how the human mind organizes its perceptions, how it gives them order, so as not to make people overcome with the information they need to process, as would be the case if one were left alone, standing in a forest or looking at a landscape, not knowing where the eye is to settle, or where are the borders of the image, or how one green becomes a darker and then a lighter shade of itself, all of these shades following no particular order other than the rules of shading that apply when a place is sheltered from the sunlight. Nature is, in itself, overwhelming and so the portrayal of nature requires toning that down by the introduction of people or some clear dramatic interest, because people understand motives, which are either invisible or only indicated, far more easily than they understand nature all and to itself.Read More