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Jan Hendrik Weissenbruch, Lord of the Skies

Jan Hendrik Weissenbruch - Landschap met boerderij bij een plas
Landscape with a farm near a lake, ca.1880's

Born on June 19, 1824 in The Hague, Netherlands Jan Hendrik Weissenbruch was a Dutch landscape artist. Weissenbruch was heavily influenced by Dutch landscape Master Jacob van Ruisdael who was among the first of landscape artists to emphasize clouds as a key component to the composition and mood of his paintings. Weissenbruch is in fact quoted as saying that "painters can never pay too much attention to the sky." Often bucolic in theme with Impressionist brushwork, Weissenbruch's work is characterized by the use of light and how it defines the landscape itself. Weissenbruch seemed to prefer a limited palette that often emphasizes greens and greys while using warmer colours more as accents.

In Landscape with a farm near a lake above, the brushwork is so loose it appears dream-like, and the hazy reflection of the trees and sky in the lake seem to immerse us in this view as if we are standing in this very spot. The sky itself is a smoky mixture of yellows and grays, blending some of the greens from the trees into certain areas also, particularly in the top right corner. On the horizon Weissenbruch creates the illusion of a glowing white sunset by darkening the areas around it and backlighting the trees as amorphous silhouettes. I love how the grassy areas are nothing but swathes of muted green strokes that get brighter near the foreground. The reflection in the pond area is what makes this painting shine, adding a depth and richness that defies description.

Doorkijkje in het onderhuis van Weissenbruchs woning in Den Haag Rijksmuseum SK-A-3618
A glimpse into the lower house of Weissenbruch's home in The Hague, 1888

Here is an exercise in variety of brushstrokes. The walls in the foreground are smooth and warm, glowing faintly with the reflection of sunlight, yet look at how he changes hue to green as our eyes gaze down toward the stone floor. Weissenbruch paints the floor in very warm tones, with thick patches of the brush that fade into shadow as it leads toward a small flight of stairs in the middle of the composition. From there both the floor and woman in the distant room are painted with juicy, unabashed strokes, yet Weissenbruch is always acutely aware of colour temperature and value. The window above the woman is an impasto of warm yellow that when squinting, appears to be a warm glow of daylight through a large window. Weissenbruch takes bucolic simplicity and transforms it into a moment that once again, he invites us to share, standing in that room with him, as if uninvited guests. Weissenbruch intuitively knew the supreme importance of light and it shows in this great piece.

Jan Hendrik Weissenbruch - De Molen
The Mill, ca.late 1800's

Weissenbruch depicts this grassy view more like an urban sketch of the day, with minimal detail in the livestock and figures and even the path they walk on is a morass of indistinct greys and browns with green undertones. Even the structure of the windmill itself is a bit shaky. The sky however, is a dream that lures us into his world. Weissenbruch does not even paint clouds themselves, only areas of grey and light across the expanse of sky. Just look carefully at the palette in his brushwork and see how he effortlessly melds a weak yellow underpainting with grays, muddy greens and even a copper-like hue in certain areas to suggest the hint of a faded sun that has disappeared behind the looming dark sky. You can almost smell the rain in the air. This is painting.

Jan Hendrik Weissenbruch - Boereninterieur
Farm interior, ca. late 1800's

Such luscious brushwork. I almost think Weissenbruch may have even used a palette knife in some areas. Look at that window! You can clearly see not only a warm yellow glow but he actually uses yellow ochre right across the middle of the window itself, and it works beautifully. The room is basked in warm green shadow with those strokes of yellow sunlight across the floor. The woman herself is actually quite an elegant study for a sketch, and the glint of sunlight on her face and hands is superb. Despite the utter simplicity of such a study I'm sure that to replicate this would not be as easy as it looks, and far less so to depict in an original composition. If you look at the range of greens he uses in this room you can see how much knowledge of value and colour this man had. There is much to learn from Weissenbruch.

Jan Hendrik Weissenbruch - Herfstlandschap
Autumn Landscape, ca. late 1800's

Love this elegant horizontal asymmetrical composition. What makes this piece unique from Weissenbruch's other work is how he pays more attention to the texture of the foliage and trees, indicating that he spent more time on this painting. Again, the grassy areas are loose brushstrokes that blend seamlessly into the painting. And here, the sky is so dominant and ethereal...Weissenbruch uses a variety of blending and dry brushwork to create his mood. I love how the sky along the horizon is a greenish grey to indicate fog, and in some areas he drags the brush upward to suggest rain in the far distance. Some of that drybrush is repeated in the tall grass areas of the right hand foreground. It is clear that Weissenbruch lays down each stroke of the brush carefully, never repeating...always describing with his brush the way a poet does with his words.

Ophaalbrug bij Noorden Rijksmuseum SK-A-2453
Drawbridge at Noorden, ca. 1890

An example of Weissenbruch's many watercolour landscapes that reveal his understanding of value and temperature still translates into the tricky medium of watercolour. Despite the blotches of sky that are blooms that he adjusted with a dry rag of some sort, from a distance the sky is as brilliant as one of his oils. He makes full use of granulation in the rock and tree areas, which add character and texture in a way that no other medium can achieve in the same way. Even the boat is a painting in itself. The way he reflects the sky in this narrow river must have required thin glazes of grey that are a flawless match to the sky above. Noorden is a small village in southern Holland that to this day has a very small population, and Weissenbruch has preserved its unique charm and character with his own simple yet very astute eye.

Weissenbruch is a modern Impressionist of the highest order and is sadly underrated in a world of brand name artists. Like many other greats of Northern Europe where the weather does not often see sunshine or warm temperatures, Weissenbruch crafted moments of light and character that are an inspiration to this day. Even Van Gogh himself expressed deep admiration for his brush. Weissenbruch truly deserves the moniker Lord of the Skies even though many before him and after attained brilliance in this area. Weissenbruch not only understood skies, but mood and presence. I will never look at the sky the same way, having seen his work here and how he painted them.


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