For Jacob van Ruisdael, decayed trees with bare, twisted branches could speak as eloquently as thriving ones. The aged tree was a long-standing theme in Dutch and Flemish landscape imagery, but in Ruisdael's hands it became a very personal expression.
Ruisdael focused this composition around a hollow tree whose bare limbs reach upward: a heroic element in the landscape. Its lifeless skeleton symbolizes the transience of human life, a favorite Ruisdael theme, and reminds viewers of the suffering and endurance required in life. Yet Ruisdael also set the dead tree amidst healthy ones, showing that both life and death have a share in nature. To balance the scene compositionally, Ruisdael contrasted the dramatic tree with a placid stream and picturesque footbridge on the left.
Ruisdael began by sketching the composition in black chalk. He then brushed in a range of tones of gray wash, creating a rich diversity of textural and light effects, especially on the right.
Subjects reflecting life's uncertainty and brevity were popular in post-Reformation Holland, where religious painting had nearly disappeared. The vanitas themes adopted by Dutch still life painters came from the same urge to record the fleeting character of nature.