Ruysdael was one of the most gifted of the generation of Northern landscape painters who came to the fore in the second quarter of the seventeenth century. The artist joined the Haarlem guild of Saint Luke in 1623 under his given name Salomon de Gooyer; soon afterwards, however, he followed the example of his eldest brother, Isaack, and adopted the name Ruysdael from the castle of Ruijschdaal near their father's home in Gooiland. He quickly established his reputation in the 1630s, along with Jan van Goyen, as one of the pioneers of the so-called 'tonal' school of landscape painting, innovative for the unprecedented naturalism and atmospheric effects they brought to the genre. River landscapes with ferries of this format were one of his most popular specialities. Numerous pictures attest to the seemingly limitless visual possibilities of the theme: humans and buildings all take subordinate place to the trees, whose reflections animate the water, while his low horizons allow Ruysdael to paint the wide skies of which he was so instinctive a master.
The present work is a classic mature treatment of the theme: Ruysdael employs a strong diagonal, wedge-shaped composition established by the line of the treetops and the flow of the river from the right foreground into the left background. The recession of the river bank caused by the latter device is subtler in comparison with works of the 1630s (for example the River landscape of 1632 in the Kunsthalle, Hamburg; inv. no. 627) and early 1640s, by the use of inlets and promontories to stagger the effect. The ferry serves, as in most such works of this period, as a repoussoir on the left side, its compositional prominence balanced by the large group of trees in the centre-right middle ground. The placement of boats at intervals along the river leads the eye downstream out of the shaded foreground towards the sunlit horizon. This, combined with the effect of the buildings that punctuate the horizon on the left, and the castle in the right background, produces a strong sense of distance and spatial harmony. This clear structure characterises much of Ruysdael's work from around this time, By 1650, the trees in his landscapes are reduced in scale, his palette becomes brighter and more varied, and greater precision is given to the detail of his pictures, be it in the wonderfully fluid ripples and reflections in the water, the leaves on the trees or, echoing their shape, the high cumulus clouds, gently scudding over the polder landscape.
The castle in the background of this picture, recognisable by the distinctive octagonal tower with an ancillary turret, recurs in more or less the same form in five other works by Ruysdael: the River landscape with a ferry near a castle of 1649 in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (inv. no. 3983); the River landscape with a small ferry of 1653 in the Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem (inv. no. 598c); the River landscape with a ferry of 1653 in the Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio (inv. no. 67.15); an undated River landscape with a ferry with a horseman (private collection; W. Stechow, Salomon van Ruysdael, revised edn., Berlin, 1975, p. 133, no. 414); and the River landscape with a ferry with peasants celebrating of 1644 sold from the Henle collection, Sotheby's, London, 3 December 1997, lot 11. Although by no means a rule, in Ruysdael's works such building are frequently depictions of real places: for example Nijenrode, Loevenstein and Egmond castles, or the Pellecussenpoort, near Utrecht. It is interesting, therefore, that in the files of the RKD, the Rijksmuseum picture mentioned above is described as a River landscape with a view of Herwen en Aerdt in Gelderland: if that is indeed the case, then the present work may also be intended as a view of that location.
Stechow (op. cit.) records five other pictures with the same date: a River landscape in the Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace (inv. no. 90); a Landscape with a distant view of Arnhem in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg (inv. no. 3649); a River landscape with a kaag and other vessels near a landing stage sold in these Rooms, 25 November 1960, lot 82; a View of Rhenen in the E.G. Bührle Foundation, Zurich; and a River landscape with a view of Alkmaar in the collection of the Marquess of Bath, Longleat, Wiltshire. The variety of locations depicted might suggest that Salomon was travelling in or shortly before 1651 (although he lived in Haarlem his whole life it is thought that he made extensive trips around the country, also painting views of Leiden, Amersfoort and Utrecht at different times in his career); however, in 1651 Ruysdael is recorded as a merchant dealing in blue dye for Haarlem's bleacheries - like many of his contemporaries, he supplemented his earnings in areas that had no connection with painting - making it unlikely that he would have had the time to travel in that year. More likely, the artist worked up these pictures in his studio either from memory or using topographical prints as an aide mémoire. This notion is supported by the fact that many of his pictures from the late 1640s and '50s were applied directly onto the support without evidence of underdrawing, as seems to be case in the present picture, although no technical photographs of it have been made.
The two bulls in the ferry, leaning over the side of the boat, were also depicted by Ruysdael in a River landscape with a ferry of 1649 in an English private collection (ibid., p. 123, no. 357).