7.1 Landscape conventions and the question of meaning
Examination of the role of conventions in determining the content and format of Dutch paintings can also help us to identify the significance that may have been attached to the representation of particular subjects and motifs, and the ways in which artists modified existing forms of depiction in pursuit of new expressive possibilities. We shall conclude this discussion of landscape painting by comparing two paintings that depict the quintessentially Dutch subject of a windmill in a rural setting. Summer Landscape (Figure 26) by Adriaen van de Venne (1589–1662) is a pendant to his Winter Landscape (Figure 27); both are signed and dated 1614 by the artist. Venne’s painting pre-dates the ‘tonal phase’ of Dutch landscape painting, in which artists such as van Goyen employed a muted palette of browns, greys and greens, and it retains the bright sky and busy activity to be found in the work of earlier Dutch and Flemish landscape painters. Jacob van Ruisdael’s Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede (Figure 28), painted about 1668–70, belongs to the later, so-called ‘classical phase’, in which artists strove to achieve a grander and more monumental type of landscape painting.
Look carefully at the reproductions of van de Venne’s Summer Landscape (Figure 26) and Ruisdael’s Windmill at Wijk (Figure 28). Windmill at Wijk depicts a real place, the village of Wijk bij Duurstede on the river Lek as viewed from the south, but Ruisdael has altered the topography by omitting the Vrouwen Port (Women’s Gate), which would have been positioned where the three women walk. It is uncertain whether Summer Landscape also depicts an actual location; it appears to be a composite of elements, which the artist has fused together in the studio.
How would you characterise the features that the two paintings have in common and what would you say were the most important differences, bearing in mind the problems of meaning and interpretation discussed in this section?
The most obvious shared feature is the prominence given to the windmill, which in both cases is seen from below and set against the sky. Moreover, in both paintings the viewpoint is located at a distance that allows the artist to show the windmill in relation to the surrounding landscape. The windmill in Ruisdael’s painting is built of stone, whereas the windmill in van de Venne’s painting appears to be made of wood. There is a great deal of activity in Summer Landscape: a beggar stretches his hand towards a wagon crossing a stream, on the left hunters are shown under trees and on the right a quarrel has broken out over a dropped basket of eggs. Windmill at Wijk also contains human figures, but the man on the platform of the mill and the three women walking beside the water provide little narrative interest. Attention is focused instead on the dramatic contrast between the solid form of the windmill and the vast expanse of the cloud-filled sky. In both paintings the motif of the windmill can be given a symbolic reading. Art historians might look to emblem books, sermons and other religious texts to discover a ‘hidden’ moral and religious significance, noting, for example, that the blades of a windmill form a cross and that the grinding of corn can be related to the Eucharist.
Rather than treating the windmill in isolation as a transplantable symbol it is important to examine the way it actually appears in each of the two paintings and its role within the expressive organisation of the image as a whole. In van de Venne’s Summer Landscape the windmill is integrated into a richly populated landscape in which emphasis is placed on the time of year and the characteristic human activities associated with it. By contrast, in Ruisdael’s Windmill at Wijk the windmill dominates the surrounding landscape, taking on a heroic, monumental quality that is reinforced by powerful oppositions of light and dark. Both paintings accord with the convention in Netherlandish painting of showing the windmill from a low viewpoint and both invite a wide range of different responses, ranging from awareness of nature’s providence and the rewards of human industry through to a more specific appreciation of the windmill’s contribution to Dutch prosperity and economic success. Contemporary viewers, especially among the predominantly urban population, whose experience of the countryside derived primarily from travel and excursion, could have found in these images a powerful assertion of Dutch nationalism. However, the presence of divergent and sometimes conflicting allusions and associations is resistant to any attempt to impose a single, determinate meaning.