The reappearance of this picture, known through an engraving, but untraced since it was offered for sale in 1879, returns one of Ruisdael’s celebrated wooded landscapes to his documented oeuvre. Described at the 1879 Kahn sale as ‘beau tableau du maître d’une parfait conservation’, this classic subject by the greatest landscape painter of the Dutch Golden Age depicts a transitional space, where the wild forest and the cultivated cornfield and nearby hamlet meet. With his characteristic compositional fair, the artist dramatises the encounter between raw nature and civilisation, contrasting the dark, mysterious forest in the left foreground with the sunlit, auspicious field and village in the right background. The thin silhouette of the wooden bridge in the middle distance provides a transition between these two worlds. Towering over the scene, a half-barren beech tree offers its majestic lines to the viewer. Leafless and covered with a sepulchral silvery white bark, it stands out defantly against the dark mass of the grove beyond offering a meditation on the transience of earthly things.
Ruisdael’s technique displays an astounding range in rendering different surfaces, from the reflective water, to the light, feathery touch visible in the foliage, or the fuid, painterly brushstrokes in the imposing sky. His attention to texture is further evident in the remarkable way he leaves some of his reddish-brown priming exposed to convey the damaged bark and moss on the tree trunks. Dated by Seymour Slive on stylistic grounds to the 1660s, the painting was certainly executed before 1664, the year inscribed on a replica now given to Jan van Kessel (see A. Davies, op. cit., no. 79). Another copy, by an unidentified hand, is recorded by Slive (op. cit., p. 306, fg. 404b). These copies attest to the popularity of this work, which can now reasonably be considered among the most successful and romantic wooded landscapes of Ruisdael’s maturity, albeit not on such an ambitious scale as such examples as Edge of a Forest with a Grainfield (Forth Worth, Kimbell Art Museum), or A Wooded Landscape with a Flooded Road (Paris, Musée du Louvre).
The picture was first documented in the possession of Alexander Hugh Baring, 4th Lord Ashburton, of the legendary Baring dynasty of bankers, philanthropists, and art collectors. Ashburton’s collection included paintings by Greuze and Weenix now in the Wallace Collection and Murillo’s The Infant Saint John with the Lamb today in the National Gallery in London. The Ruisdael landscape was later part of a group of distinguished Dutch pictures owned by Max Kahn in Paris before entering the collection of Léon Emile Brault (1825-1910) in 1879, in whose family it has remained ever since.