Jacob van Ruisdael represents the pinnacle of seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painting. This great artist, the son of a painter and the nephew of Salomon van Ruysdael (see NGA 2007.116.1), began his career in Haarlem but moved to Amsterdam in about 1656. His long and productive career yielded a wide variety of landscape scenes that reflect Ruisdael’s vision of the grandeur and powerful forces of nature.
In this landscape, a waterfall transforms the gentle flow of a small river into a turbulent stream that rushes toward a wooden bridge. A mother and child, accompanied by their dog, cross the bridge toward a path into a densely forested, somewhat hilly terrain. Three large oak trees—one dead, one withering, and one sturdy specimen—dominate the center of the composition. The juxtaposition of dead and broken trees with a fast-flowing stream in a rocky landscape is likely an allegorical reference to the transience of life. Ruisdael often composed his scenes so as to limit the viewer's easy access into the landscape, thereby increasing the tension in his art. This painting offers a good example of that principle: The opposite shore can be reached only by way of the bridge, but the juncture of the bridge and the near shore is inaccessible to the viewer as it occurs outside of the picture.