Great Works: View of Haarlem (with bleaching fields) (c1670) by Jacob van Ruisdael

Kunsthaus, Zurich

Very flat, the Netherlands. And the horizon of this landscape is an almost perfect horizontal. In the dark foreground the land rises, offering a vantage point, from where we look down upon the scene. But in the distance, where the sky and the earth meet, a straight and level line cuts through the view.

Jacob van Ruisdael's View of Haarlem has an industrial subject. Its fields here are filled with the business of bleaching. Its flat bright white strips of linen are visible in the vicinity of the city. It was one of Haarlem's specialisations, and one of Ruisdael's specialisations too. His perspectival angular views of the pegged-out cloth emphasises in another way our awareness of the ground. In the fields, as on the horizon, flatness dominates this world.

The land is flat, then. It is also quite low. The proportions of sky to earth in this picture are about two to one. And though the bleaching area has one major highlight, the main contrast is between bright sky and dark earth. Bright and dark meet in two pronounced bands, and are sharply defined by their boundary. It's like a demonstrative chart. This dramatic visual effect makes it clear how the land lies low.

True, the cathedral of St Bavo in Haarlem rises above the city. It is the main feature here that breaks the line of the far horizon, and it pierces it with its spire. But this human tiny effort is upstaged and overawed by the sky itself. Its vast cloud formation floats calmly above, in a gradual diagonal of cumulus.

Now these sky-earth proportions are not in themselves so important. A landscape might have the same proportions, but with a wide panoramic view. And there are Ruisdael landscapes where the flat ground is actually shallower than here, but the view is wider; in that case, the weight and the force of the sky are neutralised.

The important thing in this landscape is its upright format, its shape that is higher than broad. It's a question of how the scene is experienced. A horizontal format creates a spreading, sideways, earth-bound view. But a vertical format – this rare narrow view – gives it an up and down orientation, descending and ascending. This is what abases the land, and makes the sky rise above it and press down upon it.

The cathedral is only a minor factor in comparison to the relationship of sky and earth. It is like a secular vision. It could be a symbol. The lowness and the flatness of the land stress the humility of humanity. And in the middle of the ground there is a building by the bleaching fields; with its pitched roof it's like an arrow, pointing upwards.

Or it could be an imagined apocalypse. The space of this sky might accommodate a large hovering saint, close up to the viewer, caught up to heaven in an act of levitation. It might even hold – in the midst of this Dutch productive and present-tense landscape – a hint of the end of the world. Jesus is asked: "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?" "I am," said Jesus. "And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven."



ABOUT THE ARTIST

Jacob van Ruisdael (1628-82) was a most versatile Dutch landscape painter. His subjects are by no means flat. He deals in storm-tossed waves, turbulent rivers, broken tree trunks, dark forests, as well as his serene views, set around his local Haarlem. His most atmospheric and romantic subject is 'The Jewish Cemetery'.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there