Nature's cure

Art - Richard Cork marvels at Jacob van Ruisdael's open-eyed grasp of the world

What is the most moving tribute ever paid by one artist to another? An outstanding contender must surely be Constable's awed remarks in 1826, after gazing excitedly at Jacob van Ruisdael's painting Thatched-Roofed House with a Water Mill. For the rest of that late November day, Constable could think of nothing else. "It haunts my mind and clings to my heart," he told his close friend Archdeacon Fisher, "and has stood between me and you while I am now talking to you."

Soon after Ruisdael's death in 1682, British collectors began vying with one another to acquire his work. His intense observation of nature proved a revelation, enabling viewers to gain a new, open-eyed grasp of the world. Landscape painting, previously belittled in comparison with religious or historical images, was reassessed. Around 1747, the young Gainsborough made an exceptionally detailed chalk drawing of Ruisdael's Wooded Landscape with a Flooded Road. The care he lavished on this copy shows how much Gainsborough, normally a swift and spontaneous draughtsman, venerated the Dutch artist. All Gainsborough's early landscape paintings are equally indebted to Ruisdael, who was fascinated by even the slightest shift in the sun's rays and the most mundane expanse of flat, shadow-heavy terrain.

Astonishingly precocious, Ruisdael appears to have defined his vision from an early age. He was only 17 when he painted the large and uncompromising Dune Landscape, dominated by the arid sandiness of a foreground where a broken tree lies heavily on dry ground. A traveller rests nearby, his modest bag of possessions tied to a stick. But he seems insignificant pitched against the immensity of the sky, and the young artist already knew just how to catch the unstable dynamism of cloud and light.

Ruisdael was a single-minded loner who never married and spent most of his adult life based in Amsterdam. His decision to move there (he was born in Haarlem) suggests he was confident, from a young age, about competing with the best and most ambitious painters in Holland's most sophisticated city. But that does not mean his vision was essentially optimistic. Quite the opposite: time and again, he was drawn to images of violence, isolation and decay.

Take the dramatic view of Egmond aan Zee that he produced at the age of 19. The figure who crosses the water with a few animals seems to be heading for the town beyond, where a four-square church tower rears into the air with reassuring solidity. Even so, he stares askance in the direction of a blasted elm twisting up from the ground. The day is bright, and leaves are still visible on some of the branches, but the elm is an anguished presence. While the tree silently protests against its predicament to a solitary bird, which hovers as if in shock close by, Ruisdael makes sure that we feel its contorted suffering in our own bodies, just as Constable was haunted by the emotion in the watermill painting he encountered in 1826.

As Ruisdael grew older, he began to take startling liberties with the places he visited. Travelling to the border country between Holland and Germany, he was captivated by the rugged, pinnacled mass of Bentheim Castle surging from its richly foliated hill. He had no hesitation in transforming the hill into a mountain, so that the castle presides over a landscape heroically removed from the flatness of Ruisdael's own country.

He was even more enthralled by ruins. Egmond Castle, destroyed during Spain's brutal invasion of Holland in the late 16th century, provided him with a melancholy backdrop for his most emotionally tortured canvas. Its focus is three elaborate tombs he discovered in the Portuguese-Jewish cemetery at Ouderkerk on the Amstel. Although the town was not far from Amsterdam, Ruisdael placed the tombs in a setting as overgrown as a wilderness. Blanched by eerie light, a dead beech tree curves over the cemetery like an exclamatory spectre. Burgeoning foliage threatens to engulf the tombs, and a waterfall frothing across the foreground seems symbolic of life's insubstantiality. As if to ram home this emphasis on transience, Ruisdael signed his own surname prominently on a tilting gravestone that may have been dislodged by the foaming water.

Taken as a whole, The Jewish Cemetery could hardly be more ominous. It is a painting overloaded with symbolic meaning. By contrast, View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds is a placid, luminous celebration of a major Dutch industry: the bleaching of linen on open ground outside the town. Long, lean strips of white cloth laid out at right angles on the terrain look like an epic piece of land art. And the monumental bulk of Sint Bavo, Haarlem's renowned church, bestows its implicit blessing on the diminutive people tending the linen with seasoned skill and diligence.

Religion was clearly important to Ruisdael: he changed his faith in 1657 and joined the Calvinist Reformed Church. But conversion failed, in the end, to make him less pessimistic. During his final years he began producing winter scenes where everything is reduced to glacial stillness, or he explored the opposite extreme in tumultuous images of vessels pummelled by gales and menacing seas. These are the paintings admired by Turner, who paid open homage in an equally turbulent canvas entitled Port Ruysdael. The prolific and versatile Dutchman had opened up many possibilities for landscape artists of the future, encouraging them to scrutinise nature with an ever more bold and revolutionary gaze.

"Jacob van Ruisdael: master of landscape" is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London W1 (020 7300 8000) until 4 June