During the Covid pandemic, there was a boom in pet adoptions. For a while, there was even a puppy shortage, as people who had long dreamed of adding an animal to their households found themselves more or less locked into their homes, with the time on their hands that a pet, especially a toothy maniacal puppy, requires. It turned out that lot of people had been waiting for just such an opportunity: I was one of these people.
A few months into lockdown, Basso, a lagotto romagnolo with floppy ears and dirty blond curls, entered our household. He was a truffle hunter by breed; by birth, less romantically, he was from the Rotterdam suburbs. A proud parent, I was convinced that there had never been a softer, cuter, smarter puppy in all the history of puppies. He was the sweetest thing that ever chewed a shoe.
Lagotti are athletic: they need at least three nice long walks a day. For owners if almost never for dog, this can get repetitive, and so, in order to avoid circling the same few blocks, we started taking Basso into the countryside, or what passes for the countryside, near Utrecht, where I had moved 20 years before on the heels of a love affair. This was dispiriting. In one of the most densely populated countries in the world, you could always see or hear a freeway, a railway, a power plant.
As Basso ran through forests whose trees all stood in straight lines or along the shores of rectangular lakes, I thought about the energy you need, in this country, to imagine something natural here, to edit those manmade things out of the frame. The neatness and organization foreigners have noted for centuries – so pleasant in Dutch cities – is less pleasant in the countryside, and starts to feel oppressive and inescapable.
At its most wild, Holland is no more wild than Central Park – but without the glacial outcroppings, grassy knolls or wide vistas. There is more nature in the middle of Manhattan than there is in most of this country. At its best, Dutch nature is a nice park, good for taking a jog or throwing a stick to your dog, but it’s not what most people imagine when they hear the word “nature”. If you stay long enough, this becomes an absence you feel physically.
But even without the accretions of modern ugliness, the Dutch countryside’s most striking feature, its flatness, makes it a challenge for painters. On an unvaried surface, only nearby things can be seen, and everything else fades into the distance. You need a little height, a little variation, in order to arrange a view into something worth looking at.
Yet it was in this country where, at the beginning of the 15th century, landscape painting arose. The medieval artist painted bodies to look like sculptures, setting them against backgrounds of gold. But once the need was felt to make them look more real, convincing decors had to be devised. This was the “naturalism” of the Dutch. But it was no more natural than a bar code on an apple. Like the invention of perspective, it was an intellectual revolution.
Any child can draw a thing – a flower, a house, a person. This is the beginning of art. Tens of thousands of years ago, on the walls of the caves of Spain and France, people drew animals, individually or in groups; but they never placed them in a landscape, and wouldn’t for thousands of years. The Romans attempted it, but it would be a millennium after the fall of Rome that artists would understand how to arrange figures in large spaces.
I tried to think myself into the mind of the great landscape painters, trying to mold what I was seeing into something striking enough to hang on the wall. It was not easy. Not because the land was hideous – it had a certain charm – but because it simply lacked much in the way of drama or romance.
There was not a lot you could do with this land of square fields and flat horizons. But people had. I started thinking about Jacob van Ruisdael, reputed to be the greatest of the landscape painters. In museums, I rarely lingered in front of his pictures, since there was almost always something more exciting than his trees and clouds. “Exciting”: it was an embarrassing word to use in connection with art. It was embarrassing to want excitement, but never more than when looking at a Ruisdael did I realize how wholly I was a creature of the age of entertainment.
I had walked past Ruisdaels in the greatest museums. And though I had heard them praised by the greatest critics (“Whoever has the good fortune to see the original is penetrated by the insight into how far art can and should go” – Goethe) and read of their influence on the most eminent artists (“It haunts my mind and clings to my heart” – John Constable), I realized that I had never really looked at Ruisdael as I ought to have.
And when I did, I started to see what he had done. Because I knew what this land looked like, I could see how he had shaped it. He had infused a flat country with something like majesty – and majesty is not a quality that naturally belongs to the Dutch countryside. It is not, in any event, an external quality. It was an internal quality – one the artist projected on to his subject. The majesty was his.
In the single year of 1646 – he was about 17 – he painted more than a dozen canvases. Some are huge, and testify to the young man’s ambition. They combine an attention to the most minute botanical detail with an unerring feeling for the monumental: that nearly impossible marriage of microscope and telescope that was a hallmark of the early Netherlandish painters.
In the twists of the trees, in the stormy clouds, they have something brooding, something romantic…