Art Guardi and Ruysdael

            Man has always been fascinated by the landscapes that lay before him.  As old as art itself, landscapes serve many purposes, from illustrating a hunt to showing emotion left unseen by the human eye.  Many painters have left their strokes on landscape paintings, each one bringing their own unique views and perspectives on both the view before them as well as that which lies within themselves.  However, in order to properly appreciate these artists’ subjects, one must first learn to appreciate the principle fundamentals of the form, with a focus on light and shadow, the use of color, and attention to detail.

            Depicting nature is universal; it is an image every individual can relate to.  People are raised with scenery all around, however an artist’s main concern is to make these people take a second look.  This is especially true in this age of the camera, where a moment can be captured by anyone at anytime.  Artist’s bring a sense of life to their projects that can not be caught instantly, but instead are caught by hours of dedicated work.  Everyone appreciates this thought-provoking art, analyzing it.

            In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, individuals were trained to paint.  One had to apprentice to become a master.  After they had mastered their craft, they put it at the service of the public.  The modern painter, however, is more interested with self-expression than service.  The modern painter paints for himself, then offers his work for sale.[1]

            Oil paints are the paints of choice for landscape artists.  Oil paints will adapt itself to the artist’s whim.  Because it takes several days for oil paint to dry, one can begin a landscape outdoors, then move it indoors, finishing it at the artist’s leisure because the paint on the canvas will stay soft and pliable.[2]

            Typical of oil paintings, the focal point is off-center, making the scene seem wider and less crowded.[3]  This is evident in both Ruysdael’s and Guardi’s paintings.  In Ruysdael’s scene, the church is the focal point of the painting.  The church is to the left of the frame.  In Guardi’s scene, the bridge is the focal point, which is also toward the left.  Although both scenes depict different focal points, both set them off to the left of the painting.

            Juxtaposing warm sunlight and cool shadow seem to be the point of most landscapes.  Many landscapes use a colored, toned surface instead of a medium gray.  Sunlight is used to add warmth to most landscapes.  The sunlight filtering through another object creates shadow that juxtaposes the warm light.  Most landscape paintings are about the light, or lack thereof.  Lighting gives a painting depth and feeling.[4]

            Landscape paintings are about the effects of light.  The figures in the background have less detail and are not lit very well than the figures in the foreground because the figures in the foreground are usually more important.  The light is usually the center of a landscape painting; some even create a bull’s-eye effect.  Strong light or color, as a general rule, should never be placed at the edge of a painting.  By doing this, the artist tends to take the viewer’s attention right out of the scene.[5]

            The View of the Town of Alkmaar by Salomon van Ruysdael was painted in the seventeenth century.  A Dutch painting, Ruysdael used oil on wood with the dimensions of 20 ¼ by 33 inches.  The painting depicts a small town, with only a white windmill and a church clearly visible.  On the river by the town are two boats, both holding people who seem to be looking either at the sky, or at the town itself.  The sun is setting, ushering in the darkness that seems to permeate the scene.[6]

            Warm colors were mostly used in Ruysdael’s painting, however, cool colors are incorporated.  The cool colors seem to accent the work, making small things, such as the sky, water, and boat in the background, stand out.  The shadows cast on the brown ground tend to keep the viewer’s eye at the bottom of the painting.  The boats do not seem as important as the church and the windmill, although the boats hold people.  The scene has a cold feel to it despite the use of warm colors.  For example, the tree between the windmill and church looks bare, or looks like it is beginning to lose its leaves, as trees tend to do at the end of fall and beginning of winter.  This is what gives the painting a cold feel.

            There is a firm contrast between light and dark in this painting.  The darkening sky is light blue, while the ground is dark brown, made even darker by shadow.  However, the light seems to penetrate the darkness on the right side of the painting where one of the boats is in the lighter water.  Moving along these lines, the two boats seem to be at odds with each other, a battle between good and evil, so to speak, with the church in the background as mediator.

            It is obvious that Ruysdael used long brush strokes, creating a smooth effect.  There seems to be a painstaking attention to detail.  For instance, the people depicted on the boat in the foreground look as though they were painted in great detail.  They do not look like blotches that resemble people; they look like actual people.  Another example would be the hat that the person standing in the boat in the foreground has on.  Because the hat was painted in such detail, the viewer can make out a dark band just above the brim.

            The Grand Canal Above the Rialto by the Italian artist Francesco Guardi was painted in the eighteenth century.  Guardi used oil on canvas for his painting, with the dimensions at 21 by 33 ¾ inches.  The bridge of the Rialto with the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi and the vegetable market is depicted.  Guardi created a snapshot-like effect by cropping the buildings on the left.[7]

            This painting made abundant use of cool colors, with some warm colors incorporated on the buildings and the canal.  Shadow is kept to a minimum, however, there are a couple of shadows on the canal made by the buildings.  Long brush strokes  were used, making the figures in the painting look smooth.  The warmer colors accent the buildings and the row boats on the canal.  For example, the building in the foreground is peach-colored, drawing the viewer’s eye toward this building instead of toward the bridge behind it, which is obviously the focus of the painting.

            This painting is overwhelmingly light-based.  Since there are only a couple of shadows, the painting takes on a lighter feel.  There is no difference between the ground and sky; it is all engulfed in light.  The boats, however, are dark, possibly to make them stand out from the rest of the scene.  Although the use of shadow is kept to a minimum, the painting is not lacking in depth.  Depth is created in other ways.

            There is great detail in this scene, giving the painting depth.  For instance, the buildings in the background on the left side of the painting seem to go on forever.  On most of these buildings, windows can be seen.  Also, the people in the row boats are painted in great detail.  Like in Ruysdael’s painting, the viewer can make out the form of a person, not a blotch resembling a person.  For example, an individual in the row boat in the foreground on the right has his arm up and is wearing a yellow shirt and dark pants.  The viewer can also see that there is an oar in this hand.  The viewer would not be able to see such things if not for the detail.

            These two paintings are more similar than they are different.  Both use oil paints, great detail, shadow, and warm and cool colors.  Both artists use the people in the boats to express the detail of the painting.  The viewer can see the small things, such as the person’s hat in Ruysdael’s painting and the oar in Guardi’s painting.  Both use shadow to accent figures.  For example, Ruysdael uses shadow to accent the windmill, church, and boat in the background; Guardi uses shadow to draw the viewer’s eye to the canal to take in the figures of the row boats and people.

            However, there are a couple of substantial differences relating to the similarities.  For instance, Ruysdael uses mostly warm colors with accents of cool colors to make the painting a whole, while Guardi does the exact opposite; he uses mostly cool colors with accents of warm colors.  These accents make the figures in the contrasting group of colors “pop.”  Another substantial difference between the two paintings is that shadow is also used differently.  For example, Ruysdael uses shadow to make the scene appear darker, while Guardi uses shadow to make his scene appear lighter.

            Another noticeable difference is the time depicted in the paintings.  As neither painting was finished anywhere near the time they started painting, the time of day shows the impression left on the artist.  Guardi’s painting, for example, shows the artist is familiar with the subject, while Ruysdael’s painting shows that the artist was so impressed with the lighting and atmosphere at dusk that the painting could not be considered complete if it did not succeed in capturing this aspect.

            In conclusion, both paintings depict different scenes, however, both capture the essence of light and shadow.  There are several fundamentals of oil painting and landscape painting used, adding to the generalization that art can be learned and mastered.  It is believed that both Ruysdael and Guardi mastered their craft, and it shows in their art works.  It is interesting to note that both of these works were painted several centuries ago, and they still have influence today and sets the modern public’s minds to thinking and analyzing.  The images of landscapes are universal and will forever be a part of the fabric of the world.

–  Blake, Wendon.  The Oil Painting Book.  New York: Watson-Guptill Publications.  1979.

–  Canaday, John.  Metropolitan Seminars In Art: Tempera and Oil.  New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  1958.

–  Guardi, Francesco.  “The Grand Canal Above the Rialto.”  Metropolitan Museum of Art.  2009.  18 May 2009.

–  Ruysdael, Salomon van.  “View of the Town of Alkmaar.”  Metropolitan Museum of Art.   2009.  18 May 2009.

–  Schaeffer, S. Allyn.  Color, Composition, and Light In the Landscape: A Guide for the Oil Painter.  New York: Watson-Guptill Publications.  1986.

[1]    John Canaday, Metropolitan Seminars In Art: Tempera and Oil.  (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art), page 5.
[2]    Wendon Blake, The Oil Painting Book.  (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1979), page 99.
[3]    Wendon Blake, The Oil Painting Book.  (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1979), page 162.
[4]    S. Allyn Schaeffer, Color, Composition, and Light In the Landscape: A Guide for the Oil Painter.  ((New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1986), page 86-89.
[5]    S. Allyn Schaeffer, Color, Composition, and Light In the Landscape: A Guide for the Oil Painter.  (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1986), page 16.
[6]    Salomon van Ruysdael, “View of the Town of Alkmaar.”  Metropolitan Museum of Art.   2009.
[7]    Francesco Guardi, “The Grand Canal Above the Rialto.”  Metropolitan Museum of Art.  2009.

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