This painting is unusual within Salomon van Ruysdael's oeuvre; known primarily for his landscapes with ferry crossings and travelers halting at inns, here he depicts a biblical subject, the dramatic story of the Levite and his concubine leaving Gibeah. The story is told in Judges (19: 1-30) and revolves around a brutal murder that galvanizes the tribes of Israel to come together and defeat the tribes of Benjamin. It begins with a concubine's trip from her home at Mount Ephraim to her father's house in Bethlehem and encompasses the trials of the journey home with her husband who had come to retrieve her. After spending some time with her father, the Levite and his concubine began the long journey and had to spend the night in Gibeah in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin. No one in the town would receive them and they remained in the streets until an old man, also a foreigner there, returned from the fields and offered them food and shelter. During their meal a group of men from the village appeared at the door demanding to see the Levite with the intention of doing him harm. The old man begged them not to abuse the Levite and offered them his virgin daughter and the Levite's concubine in his stead. They beat and raped the concubine all night until she fell on the doorstep at dawn, her hands spread over the threshold. Prepared to leave the following morning, her husband received no response when he told her to get up and ready herself for the journey. He concluded that she was not merely resting, but had died. He laid her body over a donkey andd returned to Mount Ephraim. When he got home the Levite divided her body into twelve pieces with a sword and sent them to the twelve tribes of Israel. Outraged, they vowed to avenge her death, and, in a series of battles, they killed all but six hundred men in the tribe of Benjamin.
Ruysdael depicts a moment in the story after the horrors of the night in Gibeah, as the Levite makes his way to Mount Ephraim with the body of the concubine. She is slung over the back of a white horse at the far right and the Levite, identified by his turban, speaks with men in contemporary dress before going on his way. Apart from the exotic dress of several of the figures, the scene is an otherwise typical seventeenth-century Dutch landscape - a sandy track dotted with clumps of trees and a village with a prominent church in the distance. This almost total integration of a biblical theme into an otherwise unremarkable landscape reflects the personalized interpretation of the Bible encouraged by Calvinism and the peculiarly Dutch fascination with the Old Testament.
In much of the patriotic literature that circulated in the Northern Provinces, the Dutch Republic is referred to as the New Zion, selected by Providence to be an example to all nations. The revolt from Spain was likened to the delivery of the Israelites from Egypt and the parallel had broad appeal for the group of seven provinces whose survival meant unity above all else. The Calvinist emphasis on reading scripture meant that these now obscure Old Testament stories were then widely known. The particularly Dutch interest in the Old Testament related to the Calvinist drive to rescue it from its secondary status in Catholic doctrine and subjects such as Naaman and Elisha and Esther, Ahasueras and Haman were popular among artists from Ferdinand Bol to Jan Steen.
In the case of Landscape with the Concubine carried by the Levite from Gibeah, the story has obvious appeal for the seventeenth-century Dutch viewer. The murder of the concubine ultimately served to unify the tribes of Israel against those of Benjamin and led to the Israelites' much-celebrated victory over their foe. The Dutch Republic was still at war with Spain in 1645, when Ruysdael executed this painting, and there were constant debates about whether to call a truce or continue the war. In this context, Ruysdael's painting could be considered a reminder of the fight that unified the northern provinces in the 1580s and an argument for not reconciling with the Spanish Netherlands too soon. Despite the subtle insertion of a biblical narrative, this scene has all of the qualities associated with Ruysdael's more commonly known works, among them the naturalistic appearance of the landscape and attention to the effects of light and weather. Ruysdael painted few biblical subjects during the course of his career and the majority of them depict the journey to the house of Emmaus.
Salomon Jacobsz. van Ruysdael was born in Naarden around 1600. His father was Jacob Jansz. de Goyer, a cabinetmaker from Gooiland. Early in his life, Salomon used his father's name, de Goyer (of Gooiland), but later followed the example of his eldest brother and adopted the name Ruysdael. The name is thought to have come from the castle of Ruijschdaal in Gooiland, which may at one time have been a family possession. Shortly after his father's death in 1616, Salomon and one of his brothers Isaack (1599-1677), who was also a painter, frame maker and art dealer, moved to Haarlem. Salomon entered the city's Guild of St. Luke in 1623 under the name Salomon de Goyer. He may have studied in Haarlem with Esias van de Velde (1587-1630) and seems to have lived and worked in the city for his entire life. In 1647 and 1669 he served as an officer of the Guild of St. Luke and, in 1648, was made dean. In 1651 Ruysdael was recorded as a merchant dealing in blue dye for Haarlem's bleacheries. He was buried in St. Bavo's Church in Haarlem in 1670.