With our friend the author Rita Törnqvist we went to the Stedelijk Museum in Alkmaar. On the occasion of the 500 years of the St. Laurens church of Alkmaar a number of paintings by Salomon Ruysdael (1600/1603-1670) giving different views of the church were gathered in a small but very impressive exposition. Ruysdael was a contemporary of Rembrandt, birth and death within years of each other. But whereas Rembrandt rarely painted landscapes Ruysdael was truly a landscape painter, certainly one of the best of his time. I love Rembrandt but I wouldn’t want to have one of his paintings (uhm, a reproduction of course) in my house. Too overwhelming, too overpowering, too disturbing, too penetrating. A Ruysdael on the wall however would please me to no end. The sumptuous details, the wonderful skies, the trees painted leaf by leaf, the cows, the waters…peace, infinite peace. But then there are intrigues, mysteries that have enough bite to keep you ruminating for a while. The first one I would like to draw your attention to is a strange figure in the 1664 view of the church from the south, from the museum in Budapest. From a distance it looks like some sort of ghost or little devil. I hadn’t seen the hind legs, and therefore I thought it was a biped, as gods and demons are. Being very dark added to the impression it must be evil.
In reality, the mystery is immediately solved when I looked at an enlargement of the picture I took. It is really a dog. What I took to be its head is the dog’s tail, and that’s all there is to it. It certainly is a mean beast, frowning and baring its teeth; I’m glad it’s only a painting…it must be carrying rabies. The second painting is very similar, done in 1669, from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. These two paintings have a lot in common. Both figure a May pole or May tree and a group of rowdy men walking around with musical instruments and an ox decorated with a garland of flowers, apart from the church, trees and some houses. The group of trees is quite different in the two paintings, which suggests he didn’t paint them from life but rather added them according to his own liking for the composition.
In both paintings we also see stray animals—the city is surrounded immediately by rural grounds. There is a story behind the ox and the May pole: the May pole used to be erected on the 30th of April, and the night from the 30th to the first of May was one of merrymaking to celebrate spring. This goes back to ancient traditions of fertility (the greek goddess Maia from which the name May is derived was the goddess of fertility): the decorated ox would go around the village and be slaughtered and his meat distributed among the poor. Beer would flow freely and young men and women would go into the forest to have sexual intercourse. The sad ending of the decorated ox gave occasion to father Cats (Jacob Cats, dutch poet 1577-1660) to write one of his moralistic stories: you may look beautiful at one moment, but the next you are dead.
So what about the young lady who is standing in the puddle? At first we thought that she might be a harlot or a floozy, some sort of an outcast who had to stand in the pool as a sign of immoral behaviour. This impression was strengthened by the misreading of the 1664 painting, where I saw an evil spirit in the foreground. On closer inspection the evil spirit turned out to be a growling dog. I wrote to the museum to ask if they knew why the girl was in the pool. The conservator, Dr. Christi Klinkert, kindly answered that she didn’t know, but judging by her simple dress she might be herding the pigs to her right. That is not impossible: in the 1664 painting the dog is clearly snarling at the pigs, and in the 1669 version it seems the girl has taken the place of the dog in the foreground. Moreover she clearly has her left hand in her apron or bag, where there might be some snacks for the pigs or other animals. However, the girl is clearly smiling at the rowdies with the ox, and given that it is the May fest she might be looking forward to a wild night in the forest. In the village where I grew up the peasants traditionally would never marry a virgin, they had to be certain a woman could have offspring, and pregnancy was the only way to know for sure. So, what would generally be considered immoral behaviour was the custom: premarital sex. That the girl in the water represents a desire for love making is therefore quite probable. Spring, symbolised by the May pole, is the time when such feelings are aroused. As Hyder Zahed says beautifully: “Water is nourishing as it brings nutrients to the dry field to allow sprouting and blossoming for an abundant harvest. Like water, Love is the great nurturer. So too is Love like water: Love is the natural medium that carries messages, that flow incessantly and silently, bringing us together”. The link between water and sexuality is studied in depth by Michel Odent in his Water, Birth and Sexuality: Our Primeval Connection to Water and Its Use in Labour and Therapy. In many 17th century dutch paintings the chaste housewife is represented by a crisp clean dress, including a covered head (see e.g. Vermeer’s Woman with a water jug). Water, in such paintings, symbolises purity. But Ruysdael’s image is very different—the dress is far from immaculate, her hair is uncovered (note how in many paintings Maria’s hair is covered while Magdalene’s is not), her neck is quite open and her gaze towards the men is not exactly bashful. Moreover, the puddle and the vicinity of the pigs do not radiate purity, but rather a powerful earthiness. From a different perspective, water—as in bathing—has been a basis for nudity in painting. And perhaps Ruysdael’s paddling girl is the suggestion of a preliminary stage.
Still, it is also not impossible that she provides an extension of Cats’ story of the ox: she may be young and beautiful now, but that doesn’t last. We keep looking for meanings, for symbols, for explanations. On the other hand, when we see the pleasure that oozes from the many details in Ruysdael’s work, the little animals, the trees, the people and what not, we could also think the girl is enjoying to paddle on this first warm day of the year…Anyway, please have a look at all the paintings and many close-ups I took. And if you can, go and see the exhibition. There’s more than only the Ruysdaels.