Sunday, June 20, 2010

Jan van Goyen's skies

Watching the marvelous documentary film Dutch Light,* which explores the distinct atmospheric glow shown in paintings by 17th-century Dutch masters, has given me a new frame of reference for looking at their landscape paintings.

Take for example Jan van Gruyen's Landscape with Two Oaks, painted in 1641:

The realism of most Dutch paintings usually doesn't afford much opportunity for thematic interpretation, but this one presents quite a mystery. What have the three men been doing, are they travelers, or have they been out gathering edibles in their sacks? Have two of them paused to rest, or has one perhaps hurt his foot, while the third marches down the hill, in a hurry to get back to town before the gathering storm breaks? Do the two oaks, towering ominously over the two men in the foreground, have a symbolic meaning?

One doesn't often need to ask questions like this about Dutch paintings of the period; "What's going on here?" is not a common issue. One thing however is totally obvious: the lowering sky dominates the painting and threatens all that lies below it: the earth, the three men, the town in the distance, even the monumental presence of the broken, towering oak trees.

A less direful, but nonetheless commanding sky, radiant with "Dutch light," is shown in van Groyen's View of Dordrecht, 1644, one his favorite landscape subjects:

Known as the oldest city in (the county of) Holland, different waterways meet to flow into the North Sea at Dordrecht, where clouds continually sweep in from the west. Here the working men do the things they do in places where the land becomes water and joins with the overwhelming sky. The cathedral church is an anchor point between both; it remains in place there to this day, as does the Dutch light.

*The documentary film Dutch Light (2003) is available at Netflix.

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