Hobbema specialised in landscapes which present a positive, even idealised, evocation of carefree country life, where the trees are always heavy with summer leaf, the tracks are dry and there is only a gentle breeze in the air.
This didn’t necessarily reflect day-to-day realities. Woodland of this kind was not a backdrop to an idyllic pastoral life, but an important economic resource, a place to graze animals and harvest timber. Yet the figures we see in this landscape are not hard at work trying to make a living – they are going about life in a very relaxed fashion. A fisherman sits quietly on the bank; a woman stands idly in the cottage doorway, while others stroll along the track.
Though the overwhelming atmosphere is one of a peaceful summer’s day, there are subtle hints of nature’s destructive side. The tree stump in the foreground has obviously been fractured only recently, presumably by strong winds.
Dutch painters in the seventeenth century tended to specialise in particular genres, and even subgenres, concentrating on a certain type of scene or style that they knew would allow them to make a living professionally. Hobbema found his niche within landscape painting, perfecting a vision of picturesque woodland scenes based on countryside near his home town of Amsterdam.
They are often based around the same compositional structure. For example, in five of the nine Hobbema paintings owned by the National Gallery, the artist has used the device of a winding road or track leading the eye from the foreground into the woodland glades beyond. His skies – like this one, filled with billowing, white and grey cumulus clouds – are also a trademark of this work.
Hobbema’s pictures present a positive, even idealised, evocation of carefree country life where the trees are always heavy with summer leaf, the tracks are dry and there is little more than a gentle breeze in the air. It was a vision which appealed to his clients, but which didn’t necessarily reflect the realities of living in this environment. The figures we see in this landscape are not hard at work trying to make a living – as they would have had to do for much of the time. Or if they are, they are going about it in a very relaxed fashion. A fisherman sits quietly in the dappled sunshine on the bank of the pond on the left. A woman stands idly in the cottage doorway while a man ambles past holding the hand of a child. Meanwhile another man, accompanied by his dog, strolls towards us, a pole over his shoulder.
Despite this carefree mood, merging into the woodland undergrowth there are some subtle indicators of a more active human interaction with the landscape. The hurdle fence in the left foreground has been almost overgrown by the bushes which surround it. The blue-green leaves of the willow pollards – which may have provided the switches for those hurdles – form a parallel line of colour on the other side of the pond (its water almost invisible in the heavy shadow of the oak tree). And the broad staves of a picket fence line the boundary of the cottage garden. These are a distant reminder that woodland of this kind was not, in reality, a backdrop to an idyllic pastoral life, but an important economic resource, a place to graze animals and harvest timber, the most important construction material of the time.
Though the overwhelming atmosphere of the painting is one of a peaceful summer’s day, there are also subtle hints of the more destructive side to nature. The stump of a rotten tree in the left foreground has obviously been fractured relatively recently, presumably by a gale – the edges of the fracture are still bright and fresh. Perhaps the broken branches scattered across the cart track came from this. It can’t be long since they fell as they are lying across wheel ruts – clearly no cart has passed this way since the branches came down.
Another version of this composition (Kunsthaus Zürich) is dated 1665; the National Gallery’s picture was probably painted shortly before.
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