Van Ruisdael spent his childhood in Haarlem, where his father, a frame maker, art dealer and painter, and uncle, the landscape painter Salomon van Ruisdael, had settled in 1623. The name van Ruysdael or van Ruisdael (which Salomon and his nephew Jacob spelt differently), was adopted probably in reference to the place of the family’s origin in the region of Gooiland.
It seems likely that Jacob served his apprenticeship either with his father or his uncle. He became a master in the Haarlem guild in 1648. In the following year he made a trip to Rhenen and probably in 1650 he visited Bentheim, a little beyond the Dutch/German border. In this region he saw the distinctive half-timbered vernacular buildings depicted in the etching The little bridge 1650-5, which he incorporated into his works for the remainder of his career. He made 13 etchings in total, including A thatched cottage on a hill c1650-5, though it is not known from whom he learnt the technique.
Between 1655-1660 he also painted Wooded hillside with a view of Bentheim Castle, a site he was drawn to paint on twelve occasions. Though it is a melancholy work full of foreboding and a sense of abandonment that might be read as the equivalent of a mental state, such works were a source of inspiration, and affirmation, to a later generation of romantic painters.
By 1657 he had settled in Amsterdam, where two years later he acquired citizenship. He seems to have made another trip to the German border country around 1660/1, accompanied by his pupil Meindert Hobbema. According to his biographer Arnold Houbraken, Ruisdael was also active as a surgeon and performed several operations which brought him ‘great fame’.
There is thus some chance that he is the ‘Jacobus Ruӱsdael’ who registered as an Amsterdam doctor in 1676, having received a medical degree from the university of Caen. Widely admired as one of the greatest 17th-century Dutch landscape painters, critics have variously stressed the naturalistic, the romantic, the poetic, and more recently the spiritual content of his art.