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This mysterious landscape of a wood bounded by the sweeping curve of a river was, for its time, highly innovative. Instead of using trees to create a frame for an attractive view, which was the traditional approach, Cornelis Vroom has made the wood itself the focus.
Yet he has still managed to create a sense of depth. The low vegetation, the river bank and the glimpse of a sandy track catching the evening light form a deep foreground. Meanwhile the fields, bathed in sunshine, here become a distant view stretching behind the trees. Vroom has backlit the scene with a bright sky so we see the effects of light filtering through leaves, and the myriad shades of green and brown as the sun catches the treetops, breaks through the tiny gaps in the canopy or is lost altogether in the black depths of the wood.
This mysterious landscape of a dark wood bounded by the sweeping curve of a river was highly innovative for its time. The artist, Cornelis Vroom, was the son of Hendrick Vroom, a well-known painter from Haarlem who specialised in seascapes.
Cornelis began his career working in the same genre as his father but he soon developed an interest in landscapes. He was extremely successful and highly regarded. Records show that he (or just possibly, his younger brother Frederick) received a very substantial payment of £80 from Charles I, and he had a relationship with the Stuart court for some years, though he continued to base himself in Haarlem. He also worked for the most important political figure in Holland, the Stadtholder, Frederik Hendrik.
Not many of his paintings survive, but this important early example shows why he was so admired as a new force in landscape painting. Instead of using trees to create a frame for the composition, with a gap through which you can see an attractive view – the traditional approach – Cornelis has focused on the wood. Yet he has still managed to create a sense of depth. The low vegetation, the river bank and the glimpse of a sandy track catching the evening light on the left form a deep foreground. Meanwhile the fields, bathed in sunshine, become a distant view stretching behind the wood.
The trees are backlit with a bright sky, throwing them into heavy shadow and allowing Vroom to explore the effects of light filtering through leaves. Look closely at the foliage and you can see the myriad tiny brushstrokes and shades of green and brown, used to evoke the sun catching the treetops, the tiny gaps in the canopy and the deep almost black shadows in the depths of the wood.
Despite the precision of the painting, it’s hard to identify the trees definitively. The trees on the left are probably willows, which thrive near rivers; the one furthest right in the main group has more the shape of an oak. Willows make excellent trees for harvesting timber through coppicing, so in a country short of woodland we might expect to see more signs of human intervention in this landscape. But Vroom prefers to play down man’s impact – there is just a single lollipop-shaped coppice on the far bank. The other trees seem neglected, with dead trunks and branches clearly visible.
The tiny figures in the skiff – an oarsman and two hunched passengers – are bit players, as are the two cows ruminating quietly under the canopy’s edge. Their presence alerts us to the rough picket fence which runs along the edge of the wood – the only other sign of human activity, apart from the tower of what appears to be a windmill on the knoll in the far distance. If it is, then even this seems neglected: it has no sails.
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