The recent purchase of characteristic landscape by Meinhert Hobbema, seventeenth-century Dutch painter who ranks high in the portrayal of his native country, adds notably to the importance of the Institute's collection of Dutch paintings. The picture, entitled Landscape with Watermill,
was formerly in the collection of the Baroness de Rothschild. It was acquired through the Dunwoody Fund, and has now been installed in gallery C-5.In his approach to nature, Hobbema differed from Ruysdael, whose contemporary and friend he was. Ruysdael, who was more of a poet than Hobbema, found nature exciting and dramatic, and he preferred to portray it in a romantic mood. To him it was something to be addressed with reverence. To Hobbema, on the other hand, it was as familiar and comfortable as an old shoe. One senses his simple acceptance of it in all his works, many of which achieve rare insight into its mysteries. He was completely absorbed by the commonplace scenes within his orbit, finding in their various aspects a quantity of sympathetic material for his brush.It might be supposed, in view of the general sameness of Hobbema's subjects, that his paintings would be oppressive in their monotony. Some of them are, no doubt, for he was a prosaic man, but in others he succeeded in presenting the Dutch landscape in such a fresh and convincing fashion that he produced, not infrequently, works that rank among the best of the Dutch landscape school.To this group the Rothschild Landscape with Watermill,
now in the Institute's collection, is generally conceded to belong. It represents the same scene as that depicted in the famous Mill in Louvre,
but it has been painted from another point of view, so that the mill is seen from the front rather than from the side.During his lifetime (1638-1709), Hobbema appears to have known little success. Like many other Dutch artists, of whom Rembrandt is the most distinguished example, he knew misery and neglect instead. Until after the first quarter of the eighteenth century his work was not mentioned even in the important sales catalogues of Holland. The English were among the first to appreciate him, and the popularity experienced by his paintings there eventually spread to this country, where some of his finest works are to be found. Among them, the landscape now owned by the Institute deserves an honorable place.The quality of the painting is in no sense conveyed by the title, which has been so ubiquitously used to describe Hobbema's work that this might well be supposed to be just another landscape with watermill. It is, on the contrary, a luminous and beautiful example in Hobbema's best manner; the manner he employed when producing landscapes that entitled him to a place on a level with Ruysdael in the history of Dutch painting.The landscape here depicted is presented in a broad view with the watermill, seen from the front, occupying the left central portion of the canvas. From the sluice at the right, through which the water rushes in a small whirl of white foam, a stream flows on placidly to the foreground of the scene. Beyond the mill, in a lightly wooded landscape, is a gable-roofed cottage before which tiny figures busy themselves at various tasks. Below them, on the far bank of the stream, two men are occupied in unloading bags of grain from a rowboat drawn in to the shore.The right section of the canvas is more heavily wooded, with a thin line of trees bordering the bank of the stream. In the center foreground a huntsman in a scarlet coat kneels to take aim at a duck flying across the water. Behind him and to the right, a cowherd drives a group of cattle along the deeply rutted road. It has been suggested that the figures, which were once attributed to Wouvermann, are the work of Lingelbach. Hobbema was incapable of painting figures, and the fact that such widely recognized artists as Berchem, Wouvermann, Van de Velde, and Lingelbach were willing to lend their talents to him indicates that he was held in high repute by his fellow artists, if not by the general public. The painting measures about fifty-three by forty inches, and is signed at the lower right.The atmosphere of the scene portrayed is spacious and free, washed with clear, silvery light from a vast sky in which masses of clouds move lazily. As it approaches the earth it becomes warmer in tone, reflecting the faded red of the tile roofs on the mill and cottage. To the right, in the narrow aisle between the trees, it assumes a luminous, pale green tone, giving this passage a vernal quality at marked variance with the riper character of the foreground. Here the dark maturity of the trees is heightened by the accent of the huntsman's coat.In construction and execution the painting is typical of the manner in which Hobbema interpreted his native landscape. Since his subject varied little, it is possible to obtain an unusually clear picture of his method. He appears to have liked best a fairly open landscape, in which trees were distributed singly or in small groups, giving him the opportunity of broadening and diversifying his composition by the introduction of well-spaced buildings, such as the mill and the cottage in the Institute's painting. The light falls strongest in the middle plane, and it is there that details occur if they occur at all. The apparent indirection of this method, which might be expected to result in a loose and straggling composition, is seen to be not without purpose when one observes how adroitly Hobbema fuses the whole by his free and spacious treatment of air and light.His color and drawing reveal the same skill. The greyed green tones of the Institute's landscape is one that appears so universally in his paintings it has come to be regarded almost as a second signature. The softness of the color is frequently pointed up, as here, by a red coat, or by red tile roofs over which the spreading branches of great trees hand low. The trees themselves are so individual and so sharply defined that one familiar with Hobbema's paintings recognized the same tree again and again.The satisfaction and contentment that Hobbema derived from paintings familiar scenes is perhaps the direct result of his character. He was an honest, steady, matter-of-fact man who had a gift for interpreting to others the beauty that lay beneath the every-day guise of nature. He didn't color it with his own imagination—probably he hadn't any—and he was therefore able to give a true picture of his country as it appeared day after day to those who inhabited it.To give a true picture of their country was the foremost aim of Dutch artists in the seventeenth century, when painting experienced a renaissance in Holland. After years of terror and conflict the Dutch had thrown off the yoke of oppression that had weight upon them. Once more life could assume its accustomed way, and their beloved country become their own again. Its life and every physical aspect engrossed them.In painting it as they did, their artists gave expression to this universal desire and need for security; for the orderly routine of an existence no longer menaced by cosmic events. The Dutch were tired of tumult; tired of uncertainty; tired of having to be forever on their guard. Now that they had won through to victory they wanted only to get on with their ordinary, private affairs, and to savor to the fullest their daily comforts.In this state of affairs the painters of seventeenth-century Holland seem to have found the one inspiration that would impel them, temporarily, to revive their great tradition. Almost without exception they reflected the Dutch national spirit; in portraits, in seascapes, and in the small genre scenes that have never been surpassed by any group.Hobbema expressed it in his landscapes. The spinning of the waterwheel, the outline of the trees, a country road, and above all the radiant, moist air that bathed this peaceful landscape, were the things that prompted him, in his simple, and frequently moving, way to pay homage to his fatherland.Referenced Works of Art
- Detail of Landscape with Watermill by Meindert Hobbema. Dutch, XVII Century. Dunwoody Fund.
- Landscape with Watermill by Meindert Hobbema. Dutch, XVII Century. Dunwoody Fund.
- Wooded landscape with herdsman and cattle. Detail of Landscape with Watermill by Hobbema.