The date of his birth is deduced from a document which gave his age as thirty-two in June 1661. Born in Haarlem, the son of Isaack van Ruisdael, originally de Goyer (c. 1599-1677), a minor painter and dealer, under whom he may first have studied. He joined the Haarlem guild in 1648, by which time he appears to have learned from the works of his uncle Salomon van Ruysdael (1600/03-70) and Cornelis Vroom.
He travelled in the Dutch-German border region c.1650-1 with his friend Berchem. He had settled in Amsterdam by 1657 (when he was baptised as a Mennonite) and Hobbema, was amongst his pupils there c.1657-60. He was possibly the Dr. Jacobus Ruijsdael of Amsterdam who received a medical degree at Caen in 1676. In his early career he made thirteen landscape etchings, but he is best known as one of the greatest and most versatile of Dutch landscape painters. He died, almost certainly, in Amsterdam and was buried in Haarlem on 14 March 1682.