Thirty years ago UC Berkeley art historian Svetlana Alpers published The Art of Describing, which is a study of the 17th-century Dutch way of seeing the world; a study of the art a culture possessed of that visual epistemology produces; and a study of the (inadequate) art historical methodologies that had been brought to bear thus far on that art representing that epistemology.
Alpers argues at the local level that the approach of Dutch art historians, which relied on emblem books to decode hidden moral meanings in Dutch art was not only often wrong, but unintellectual, while at the global level, she challenged the prevailing iconographical methodology, claiming it had been developed for the study of Italian Renaissance art, where it worked (when practiced by scholars such as Panofsky) because Italian art was textually-based, but had been extended to the study of northern art, where it did not work.
All of the above was merely an introduction to The Art of Describing, the main goal of which was construct a framework for understanding Dutch art, that was derived from indigenous Northern visual and artistic practices, conventions and skills. That indigenous Dutch way of visually construing the world, according to Alpers, involved description (rather than rhetoric), empiricism (not classicism or idealism), mapping and surveying (as opposed to inventing), and other visual practices, particular to the Protestant, Dutch republic at the time of the advent of capitalism.
The genre of landscape painting, with its interests in topography, recording and plotting, plays an central role in The Art of Describing and pictures by Jacob van Ruisdael (1626-82) support Alpers’ thesis. Surveyed from above, the landscape seen in View of Haarlem with Bleaching Fields, (c. 1670) resembles a map, which correctly charts relative distances while at the same time, it provides an empirically-observed record of topographical features.
Ruisdael was a prolific artist, his studio producing over 700 known paintings and 100 drawings in his lifetime and, naturally, emphases and interests fluctuate within this large body of work over time. Later in his career, Ruisdael continued to work in an objective, descriptive mode, but gradually shifted over to a more subjective, imaginative, and inventive mode. Many of the visual tropes associated with Romanticism appear routinely in the later Ruisdael—ruined buildings, abandoned cemeteries, stormy weather, blasted trees, torrential waters, castles and even sublime mountain peaks. Pictures with tiny single figures, facing away from the viewer and gazing at primeval landscapes could be by Caspar David Friedrich.
Ruisdael never traveled far from the Low Countries, which had no mountains or waterfalls to describe; nevertheless, these rugged, dramatic landscapes were the result of on-site, observation—done by another artist. Amsterdam painter Allart van Everdingen visited Scandinavia in 1644 and made a number of drawings of rocky mountainous scenes with torrents and waterfalls, from which other artists, including Ruisdael, borrowed motifs to create views of topographies they had never seen (A Norwegian River Landscape with Waterfall, c. 1665). Ruisdael also created detailed images of ruined buildings (Ruins in a Dune Landscape, probably 1650-5), the individual bricks of which are discernible and from which ground plans could be made, that never existed.
This is not to say, however that Ruisdael is a fraud, cutting empirical corners and making convincing fakes. Ruisdael invented and composed landscapes may have been a response to the changing tastes of the art-buying public and/or necessitated by the increased demand for for his work which meant less time out in the field and more composing from memory and models.
On a less material level, Ruisdael’s fictive landscapes do not contradict Alpers’ theory. His use of another artist’s visual record of a place is not unlike citing an authoritative work in a written argument—a drawing’s informational value is not diminished by reproducing it. Furthermore, Ruisdael’s use of another artists testimonial could be seen as observing description, and insofar as his work draws on visual rather than textual sources, Ruisdael’s seeming exception actually confirms Alpers’ thesis, which holds that works of art were accepted as visual information as much as maps and diagrams and a practical, rather than (Italian) decorative, function.