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Jacob Maris, Dutch Poet of the Sky

Jacob Maris - Bomschuit op het Scheveningse strand 1880-1899
Bluff-bowed Fishing Boat on the Beach at Scheveningen, 1899

Jacob Hendricus Maris was a Dutch painter born on August 7, 1837 in The Hague, Netherlands. A key member of the Hague School, a group of Dutch landscape artists in the late 1800's known for their subdued, low-key palette, which gave them the nickname the Gray School. Not every single painting was gray, of course, but it was rather the way in which they used gray as inspiration for mood in depicting pastoral scenes. Clouds became the focal point instead of just a background element. Using gray to its fullest range, experimenting with temperature and values created beautiful and pensive landscapes that furthered the incredible work a couple of generations before in France with the Barbizon School and in particular the brilliant work of Corot.

In Bluff-bowed Fishing Boat on the Beach at Scheveningen above, we quickly understand how Maris used gray to full effect. We can almost hear those seagulls hooting in the distance with those thin waves lapping against the shoreline, and we can feel the humidity in the air. Maris engages all of our senses. His palette, using the clouds as the focal point, is more complex than it appears. The edges of the painting appear to have been scumbled with a dark, warm tone, while the vast array of sky is mostly blue-greys that become darker directly behind the fishermen's boat. Off center to the left of the mast he indicates a warm, yellow-gray tone of cloud to hint at a sun submerged behind those clouds. To achieve this level of accuracy and feel in a sky with this palette is challenging to say the least, requiring an enormous level of observation to hone those values next to each other, and Maris does this effortlessly. Maris's dry brushwork creates a tactile texture, especially in the wood of the boat and in the highlights of the waves. I love that there is no central concept or mind-wringing composition here: the entire simplicity and mood of this wonderful painting is all in the technique which serves to immerse us in this scene, and it is hypnotic. And genuine.

De molen Rijksmuseum SK-A-2986
The Windmill, ca.1886

Here Maris uses another seemingly mundane subject matter and yet under his brush, transforms it into a cool, breezy afternoon somewhere remote and airy. The palette is completely different than the one above, yet still achieves a strikingly somber tone. Maris uses the greens of the landscape as undertones in the sky above this time along with yellows to fashion a very complex warm grey mosaic of sky. The forms are painted much more loosely also, possibly indicating colder weather that may have been uncomfortable to paint in. Look closely and observe how he uses thick strokes for the darker areas, while using warm, earthy grays in the woods and base of the windmill. The main figure appears to be chopping wood, but looking closely he is barely a form on the canvas and yet Maris depicts him with the same mood and realism as the sky above. Note the shadow reflections in the water and how those strokes are so flat we would consider them "mud" on the palette, yet here, deep in that water, Maris's eye is very accurate. Pay attention to the edges of the windmill and surrounding trees against the sky, and how he softens them to indicate distance. The brushwork in the sky is once again, hypnotic and sensual, and we can see how Van Gogh would have been inspired by this to incite his own style. Here, Maris takes the ordinary and plunges us into the experience.

Jacob Maris - Girl knitting on a balcony, Montmartre - Google Art Project
Girl knitting on a balcony, Montmartre, 1869

Painted no doubt during Maris' six year stay in Paris, he changes style completely and uses his grays to extremely warm depth with Classical realism in the form of this pretty young girl. The brushwork, however, still utilizes his unique Impressionism and texture. The girl appears to be holding a pose for an uncomfortably long time yet the dreamy expression on her face indicates her thoughts lie far beyond knitting. The lower half of the painting has a palette that would have deeply inspired Van Gogh and others. This would be a treasure to see in person, if it is still at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag in The Hague. I always respect an artist who can hold his own with both figures and landscapes equally, because historically artists seem to favour one or the other.

Jacob Maris - View at Montigny-sur-Loing - Google Art Project
View of Montigny-sur-Loing, 1870

What I love about this view is the feeling of the air having cleared slightly after a recent rainfall. The composition is nothing spectacular, but the light and mood of this wide river in the Île-de-France region of Paris draws us in. Despite a seemingly drab, monochromatic palette in the houses along the bank, the way they are almost but not quite silhouetted against that cool sky is brilliant. Look very closely and you can see hints of purple scumbled into the shadow areas of those clouds. Maris' highlights seem to be bright white but upon closer inspection, they are really a dirty greyish-yellow white. The one interesting element of the composition is how the houses become smaller as we look from right to left, gradually merging into the distance. The condition of those houses and these women is a commentary on the standard of living in this region at that era. What really gives depth and realism to this painting, however, is the beautiful reflection along the river. It completes the painting.

De afgesneden molen Rijksmuseum SK-A-2458
The Truncated Mill, 1872

A more daring composition in this work. Maris goes against the grain and crops the windmill to instead focus on the foreground landscape and in particular, the figure with the cane near the fence. It looks like a scene from a film. There is a story here but Maris creates a deep mystery shrouded in those brushstrokes and instead we are left to stand in the cold and observe. The sky here is one of Maris' most dynamic yet, where he appears to almost smear those gray-yellow tones with his dirty fingers, which he repeats in the reflection of the water below. And the effect is nothing short of amazing. The rest of the painting is relatively simple in palette with some reds and greens and browns, but he juxtaposes them to create a visual harmony that is indeed compelling.

Landschap in de omgeving van Den Haag Rijksmuseum SK-A-2468
Landscape near The Hague, 1891

Note the looser brushwork in this painting. More like a sketch than a finished work, Maris manages to create a beautiful moment using a sparse palette but uses green to deep impact while using a more traditional gray tone in the sky. The brushwork is smoother, with only a hint of texture in those yellowish-grey highlights. Maris may have been experimenting with a new medium of some sort, and as a result we can see distinct cracking in this amazing sky. What is unique in this mood he depicts here is the glimmer of sunshine barely emerging from behind a cloud, and how that lights up the greens in this composition, adding that sharp glimmer on the water. We can learn so much from artists like Maris on how to really open our eyes and see. Art is all about observing the everyday.

Jacob Maris - The Five Windmills - Google Art Project
The Five Windmills, 1878

Maris' white sky here is a lesson in palette bravura. The level of difficulty in depicting these greys and whites without washing out the landscape requires serious value skills. In fact, it is so dizzying one can hardly discern when he is scumbling white on dark or dark on white. And, in contrast to the other paintings mentioned here, Maris uses a rather sophisticated perspective in this composition to indicate the various windmills and other structures. The level of detail and texture is also much more intricate, suggesting the use of smaller brushes for the various subject matter. While the overall mood may not be quite as intriguing or as personal as the previous works, he manages to stretch himself here in a way that, once again, invites a personal viewing of the original at the museum to further comprehend his brushwork.

Maris may not be a recognized household name, but he was a prominent landscape artist in his day, and for good reason. His work should be recognized in the highest order for what he was able to achieve using a limited palette and the relatively uninteresting subject matter of windmills. Mood. Values. And greys. Maris was master of all of these.


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