An Examination of Aert van der Neer’s Moonlit River Landscape

Design by Anasthasia Shilov

In Dutch art class this week, we’ve been looking at drawings of insect guts; fascinating stuff, for sure, but not always particularly savory images. As much as I love diving into the intricacies of 17th-century life in the Netherlands, I long for an image to soothe my soul, to calm me, to let me breathe deep.

Moonlit River Landscape, by Dutch artist Aert van der Neer, fits the bill. On view in the Dutch art rooms at the YUAG, it is a masterful, atmospheric oil painting, measuring about 15 by 23 inches, and estimated to have been completed around 1650. Though it’s not a particularly large or ostentatious work, Moonlit River Landscape stands out on the wall due to its sheer beauty. Van der Neer expertly blends line, color, and light to capture a moonlit river scene. Standing in front of the painting is transporting—my mind goes blank as my eyes rove over the canvas.

The top half of the painting is devoted to a nighttime sky full of clouds, while the bottom half contains a river, a village stretching on the far bank from the middle ground to the background, and three indistinct men fishing in the foreground. Trees lining the painting on the left and right and a large swath of clouds in the sky and the bank of the river at the bottom of the composition create a kind of frame within the painting, echoing the actual frame around the canvas. These nested rectangles draw the eye toward the center, right to the moon. 

It is safe to say that I am a moon fan. When I exit Sterling Memorial Library late at night, my eyes weary from reading English poetry and modern experimental plays, my mouth watering at the thought of BK buttery mozzarella sticks, I am somehow always shocked to see the moon big and beautiful as it travels over Cross Campus. I’m from New York City, where the moon is a rare sighting among tall buildings and scaffolding. But at Yale, the moon hangs like a gift, and I often find myself standing and staring at it, mozzarella sticks forgotten. 

The moon is the focal point of Moonlit River Landscape, and I think that’s why I love it so much. Not only is the moon the brightest thing in the painting, even with slight cloud cover, but van der Neer uses diagonal lines to emphasize the moon’s presence. A break in the clouds leads down to the moon from the upper right of the painting, while the bank of the river leads up to the moon on either side of the painting. The moon’s reflection leaves a trail of white in the water below, surrounded by a haze of milky gray. No matter where the viewer’s eyes stray, they are eventually returned to the hint of the moon behind the clouds.

The painting is serene, but Van der Neer does not allow it to become solemn and still. He manages to add flashes of light in unexpected places. For instance, yellow light emanates from a window in the top floor of a faraway building on the far bank, while nearby, the chimney of a house exhales a tiny dusting of light gray smoke. These details make me feel like I’m looking at a memory, some tiny village I used to visit as a child but haven’t seen in ages. Did I live in that house? Have I walked on that bank?

Mysteriously, a blaze of orange lights up the far left background of the painting. It illuminates the dark tree before it, sending flashes of orange through the branches; in fact, at first glance, the tree almost seems to be on fire. In the context of the fiery orange light, the dark gray clouds in the top left of the canvas may actually be smoke or smog. Industrialization is just beginning to creep its way into my idealized memory. But this promise of future destruction only serves to make the unblemished night more beautiful. It might not beat the Cross Campus moon, but van der Neer successfully manages to capture the calm of a quiet, contemplative night with Moonlit River Landscape. The painting is nearly as good as the real thing.

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