This is the kind of painting that I would have overlooked when I was much younger. Too gray and too boring, I would have thought. Its subtleties would have been lost on me.
But not any more; today it's one of my favorite paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and so it is the subject of this edition of my series, "Permanent Collections."
Painted around 1679, Rough Sea depicts boats struggling to sail violent waters off the coast of Amsterdam. It is one of a handful of seascapes painted by Jacob Isaacksz. van Ruisdael, who is regarded as one of the greatest Dutch landscape painters of the 17th century. (Take a look at the MFA's View of Alkmaar, and you'll see why Ruisdael's landscapes are so esteemed.)
I remember first seeing Rough Sea nearly twenty years ago, shortly after I had returned to Massachusetts after living elsewhere for a long time. I think I was initially struck by the subject. I saw no other painting in the MFA's Dutch gallery that depicted the ocean, which seemed odd, considering the importance of the sea to life in the Netherlands. As the MFA's website states, "The sea was an integral part of Dutch life and landscape; a powerful navy and ships that traded as far as Asia and the Americas made this small nation one of the wealthiest in Europe."
After considering the scant presence of the sea in the room, I looked closely at the painting's choppy waves, tilting boats, and flapping flags. Ruisdael depicts these elements with such compelling precision, that I could almost feel the strong wind that causes such tumult. I imagined myself on one of the boats cold, miserable, and, above all, afraid.
Nearly two decades later, I still often picture myself in the same predicament when I look at Rough Sea. What a horrible existence, I think. Once you reach the safety of shore, what do you have to look forward to? Another day at sea, another day risking your life.
As if to underscore a seaman's peril, Ruisdael includes weather-beaten logs peeking out of the water at the bottom left of the painting. Sunlight has broken through the clouds there to bathe the logs in a glow that makes that area of the painting almost as bright as the white sail
on the front-most boat. I'm not sure what these logs are--perhaps the remnants of a pier? Whatever their purpose, they seem old and broken, and by making a formal connection between the logs and the white sail, Ruisdael reminds us of the shipwreck the boats will become if they don't weather this storm.
Nonetheless, the situation is not hopeless in Rough Sea. A substantial amount of blue peeks through the clouds, and clear skies seem to be just out of view at the left edge of the canvas. The rightward direction of the gale suggests that the clouds and storm will blow away, and peace will return.
I love that blue sky. It's a hue that, if seen alone on an otherwise blank canvas, would seem dull. But here among Ruisdael's mostly gray clouds, it has a quiet vibrancy, and, most importantly, it looks real. If Ruisdael had chosen a more intense, unnatural blue, the sky would feel artificial, and the painting's optimism less genuine.
Other Ruisdael seascapes are less hopeful. About forty miles to the west of Boston, his View of the IJ on a Stormy Day hangs in the Worcester Art Museum. In this painting, the boats teeter severely, on the verge of capsizing. And the wind seems more likely to blow in a deadly storm than to bring the calm that seems to be moments away in Rough Sea. I imagine if I were on one of the boats in the Worcester Museum's painting, I would huddle in a corner, petrified with fear and useless to everyone else aboard.
In Rough Sea and View of the IJ on a Stormy Day, Ruisdael created two palpably intense and riveting depictions of humans' vulnerability to the capricious whims of nature. I feel fortunate that both these great works found their way to Massachusetts collections.