What Windmills Mean

Jacob van Ruisdael’s Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede, c. 1670.

The landscape paintings of the seventeenth century Netherlands are most remembered for their incredible realism and careful attention to detail, but not often for their symbolism and meaning. As noted by Mariet Westermann in the beginning of the fourth chapter of A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic 1585-1718, “Because many Dutch paintings seem so realistic, and others appear to represent time-honored historic truths, it can be difficult to discern their ideological charges” (Westermann, 99). To the layman, Dutch realist landscapes will probably appear striking and evoke emotional responses, but it is unlikely that they will hint at a clear message or theme. However, even in a straightforward painting of scenery as it appears in reality, there are choices the artist can make which impact the way said scenery is interpreted and lead the audience toward a deeper theme. In the following essay, I will examine how Jacob van Ruisdael’s Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede, a quintessential seventeenth-century landscape, is a fantastic example of how elements of scenery can become symbols and how a painting’s perspective and form can serve to further emphasize those symbols in a work.

The central subject of Ruisdael’s painting is a windmill, whose prominent position in the work mirrors its status as perhaps the most ubiquitous symbol of the Netherlands today. The country’s landscape (and the landscape of the painting) is so uniquely dominated by them that, even though they exist all over the world, a windmill built in the depicted style immediately evokes a sense of Dutch-ness. However, in this painting, the windmill represents more than just the Dutch in general, as this association between structure and country would have been obvious to any educated Dutch or European audience of the time. Contextual aspects of the painting emphasize more specific ideas about Dutch culture and the Netherlands as a country, turning from “windmills are Dutch” to “windmills represent cultural and historical traits largely unique to the Dutch.”

To understand this deeper symbolism, it is crucial to understand what windmills actually do. They are most commonly known as wind-powered devices which grind grain into flour, which is evidently where that name comes from. However, many of the windmills of the Netherlands were not grain mills at all, but instead could be more specifically referred to as windpumps, a fact I only learned while taking this course. These structures were built to pump water out of swampy Dutch land, forming arable polders upon which larger settlements and vast tracts of farmland could be constructed. Though I am unsure whether the windmill depicted here was a windpump or not, the Dutch windmill was as much an engine of land reclamation as it was a food processing site, and serves as a symbol of Dutch ingenuity and industriousness. The windmill reminds us not only of the Dutch, but of the Dutch’s history of shaping their environment and literally building their country from the ground up.

If the windmill represents Dutch might and energy and serves as the centerpiece of the painting, the next most dominant force in the painting is the sky. It looms ominously over the windmill, dark clouds billowing and gathering and threatening a storm. Westermann states that “Although Ruisdael’s packed clouds may imply God’s power, the painting does not obviously allude to these pictorial traditions. The formidable capability of this grain mill, as an ingenious human and Dutch tool to harness natural wind power, may have come to mind as readily” (Westermann, 105). The author introduces religious imagery but immediately undercuts it, acknowledging the lack of real support for this. Earlier on, she also mentions the windmill’s cruciform structure as inviting Christ imagery but again, I see little support for this interpretation, at least in this painting. Only three of the sails are shown, and they are turned sideways, less cruciform than X-shaped. However, the characterization of the windmill as formidable and ingenious strikes me as spot on.

Considering these factors, I see two primary possibilities for interpreting the relationship between the windmill and the sky. The first is that of a sentinel, as the way the windmill has its sails turned towards the oncoming storm, tilted to form an X, almost makes it appear to be standing against the impending threat. If the windmill is personified, its back is turned to the audience and we see what it sees, as if it is protecting us as well. The second interpretation is that the windmill is looking up towards the gap in the otherwise darkening and cloudy sky, where the sun shines through and illuminates the windmill’s face. These two ways to view the symbolism of the windmill and the sky frame it either as a protector, specifically guarding the Dutch from the unchecked power of nature, or a symbol of innovation and progress, gazing through oncoming hardship to a brighter future beyond. The two interpretations are complementary and by no means mutually exclusive, as either way, the windmill remains a formidable presence, representative of the Dutch knack for ingenuity in solving the problem presented by a challenging natural environment.

This brings us to another lens through which to view this work: that of perspective and lines of sight, which draw our eye towards the windmill. The first visual lines to examine lie in the vertical division of the painting into three sections, the upper two dominated by the sky and the bottom third consisting of the waterway and land. This technique, known as the rule of thirds, is quite common in visual art, but it is used masterfully here. Rising up prominently out of the bottom third and into the middle third is the windmill, which stands contrasted against the lighter colors of the sky. The bottom third also becomes progressively darker as one moves their gaze from the lightly colored water on the left to the darker land on the right, just as the whole painting becomes darker as one looks from top to bottom. The darker colors are concentrated in the bottom right corner, creating both a sense of converging inward movement from the sky to the land and expanding outward movement from the land to the sky. At the vanguard of this movement is, once again, the windmill, facing out from the land towards the open sea and sky.

The angle from which the artist paints the scene aids in this sense of motion, and also serves to foreground the windmill in front of other smaller symbols. To its near left is Duurstede Castle, to its right a cottage and church tower. There are ships visible in the left distance as well, but all are relegated to tiny background images, barely breaking up the skyline. The windmill towers over everything, including more outwardly political, religious, domestic, and economic symbols, suggesting its preeminence over these facets of Dutch life. Without this towering figure, the painting suggests, none of these other places would even exist. Ruisdael could have chosen any other angle to paint this scene from, but the angle he chose creates a unique argument which is not immediately obvious. It is worth noting, as Westermann did, that there was in reality a wall which existed in this spot, which would have obscured the windmill to some extent. The artist chose to remove this wall in his interpretation of the landscape, reinforcing his central object’s importance and visibility. Where the wall’s gate would have existed, there instead are three women, who stand out from the shadowed riverbank, gazing to the left of the painting and contributing to that ever-present motion of the eye up and to the left.

Returning to A Worldly Art after considering these factors, we find that the passage I referenced at the beginning of this essay becomes all the more true. The ideological charge, that is to say the underlying statement Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede is making about the Dutch, is hidden beneath a layer of apparent objectivity and realism. In fact, the sentence which follows that passage states that “Realist strategies make depicted situations or relationships seem natural or immutable, hence true” (Westermann, 99). The whole painting revolves around its hidden ideological statement, and the fact that it is built into the painting and not immediately evident makes it all the more potent. The painting’s genre, a work of realism rather than an overtly romantic scene, means the painting’s statement feels just as real as the windmill itself.

The title of the fourth chapter is “Dutch Ideologies and Nascent National Identity,” which places this painting and its central symbol in the context of a greater phenomenon. This painting was produced during what is often considered the “Dutch Golden Age,” and though nationalism had yet to develop as a clear ideology, there was a Dutch historical and national identity beginning to form at the time. The windmill was a point of pride, serving as the centerpiece of a historical narrative about the Dutch’s unique ingenuity, tenacity, and underdog story. It had essentially enabled them to create their country in a way few other proto-nations had done, going from little more than a swampy backwater to a superpower and the center of a global trade network in the space of a few hundred years. Like the windmill, reads the implicit text of the painting, the Dutch have stood defiantly against all odds, pulling themselves up from the muck and mire and building something great from barely anything at all.

Works Cited

Jacob van Ruisdael. Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede, c. 1670. Oil on canvas. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Mariët Westermann. A Worldly Art: the Dutch Republic, 1585-1718. Yale University Press, 2016.


One thought on “What Windmills Mean

  1. Nice multi-faceted reading of this painting–especially playing out the alternate but not contradictory readings of the windmill’s literal (and symbolic) stance vis-a-vis the sky. Also nice to move beyond Westermann, while still drawing on her insights.


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