Jacob van Ruisdael was one of the greatest Dutch landscape painters. His earliest works date from 1646, two years before he was admitted to the guild. This remarkable picture is datable to this early period, before Ruisdael travelled to Bentheim in 1649/50. The dune landscape is closely related to a picture with the same subject in Munich (Slive 607).
The dunes near Haarlem have been a beloved motive for landscape painters since the early seventeenth century. It is a specifically Dutch motif, and one that is particularly associated with the area around Haarlem.
In addition to being a popular subject for painters, these areas of virgin nature were also celebrated in seventeenth century Dutch literature. One early example is in the Lofdichten by Karel van Mander, poems written in praise of the city of Haarlem. “Long wide and broad dunes appear where rabbits run like ants in the grass.”
The low viewpoint gives the dunes an impressive (non existing) height. A motive Ruisdael used more often, see for example the pictures of Bentheim Castle.
The savage nature is strengthened by the cloudy sky.
A small pond in the foreground leads us up the dune. The yellow sand of a path between the wild vegetation of the dunes, sparkles in the sun. Two people meet at the top of this dune. Behind them the wide sky. On the horizon lower dunes. This composition gives the surprising suggestion of standing in the middle of dunes near a pond and being so close to the sea which is indicated by the beaken, blown askew by the wind.
The beacon was a often used motive in Dutch dune landscapes See for example dune compositions by Jan van Goyen, or the picture by Philips Wouwerman in Leipzig.
In the nineteenth century a restorer repainted it with a tree not recognizing this coastal motive, and not knowing that there are no such threes in the Harlem dunes.
It has been suggested that beacons in pictures are related to those found in seventeenth century Dutch emblems which allude to virtue, good understanding or guidance, and by implication to salvation. However, there is no way of establishing that Ruisdael intended them to convey such notions.