Hobbema has created a remarkable effect in this unusual painting, using the trees of the avenue to funnel our view directly into the heart of the picture and as strong verticals to take the eye upwards. Our gaze is also drawn sideways into the landscape, through both the track which turns off to the right and the strong lateral lines of the paths and fields on the left. It’s as though there is a three-dimensional grid – an invisible geometry – underlying the whole painting.
The composition proved to be a powerful influence on later artists. It was admired by Van Gogh, who emulated its effects in several paintings after he first saw it in the National Gallery in 1884, and it probably also inspired Camille Pissarro’s The Avenue, Sydenham. David Hockney even made his own version in 2017, Tall Dutch Trees After Hobbema (Useful Knowledge).
The National Gallery has many landscapes by Meindert Hobbema, but none of them look quite like this. The vast majority of his paintings are either pictures of watermills, or the woodlands around his native town of Haarlem. In these, he typically used conventional ruses such as a winding track, a pond or a gap in the trees to add a sense of depth and lead our eye subtly into the picture.
The visual devices in The Avenue at Middelharnis, which is by far his most famous painting, are very different. As the artist David Hockney pointed out when talking about the picture in 2018: ‘what’s fascinating is that… there are two vanishing points. One is in the centre of the painting, with the disappearing road. But the other is in the sky. You’re always looking up, because the trees are so tall.’ A vanishing point is the theoretical spot where parallel lines, such as the sides of a road, appear to converge in the distance. Here, this illusion is emphasised by the avenue of trees set right in the middle of the picture. Hockney’s comment about a second point is something of an exaggeration; strictly speaking, there is no second spot in the sky where the vertical lines meet. But Hobbema has created a remarkable effect, using the trees to funnel our view directly into the heart of the picture and as strong verticals to take the eye upwards. Our gaze is also drawn sideways into the landscape, through the track that turns off to the right and the strong lateral lines of the paths and fields on the left. It’s as though there is a three-dimensional grid – an invisible geometry – underlying the whole painting.
The positioning of the figures enhances these effects. The head of the man in yellow walking towards us is precisely level with the horizon and only slightly to one side of the vanishing point: it’s another way of attracting our attention towards the distant town. He is looking directly at us, so we feel tempted to step forwards down the track to meet him, but he is also positioned exactly at the junction of the two main paths, introducing an element of uncertainty. He clearly intends to continue straight on, but his dog, which also gazes directly at us, seems to want to wander off on the other track, towards the courting couple on the right. They stand outside the frame of the trees, another distraction which frees our eye from the strictures of the avenue.
Hobbema’s radically new approach to painting a landscape came relatively late in his life. The vast majority of his works were produced before 1668, when he turned 30 and got a well-paid job with the wine-importers‘ association of Amsterdam. After this, he no longer made his living as an artist, and painted only occasionally. The present picture, made about 21 years after he changed professions, is one of only a handful which survives from this period.
We don’t know whether he was commissioned to make it or was simply inspired by the view of this regimented landscape of straight lines. But The Avenue at Middelharnis was clearly composed after or during a visit to the spot. Middelharnis is on the north coast of the island of Over Flakee in southern Holland, and the view we see here is from the south-east. The road still exists – it is now called Steneweg, and is now almost entirely lined with houses – and as far as we can tell the painting is an accurate reflection of the view at the time. The fifteenth-century church (St Michael’s, now generally referred to as the Grote Kerk or the Reformed Church) still stands but the tower has been partly rebuilt and the spire with the bulbous top removed. Hobbema did not just copy the scene, however. X-ray images show that he had originally placed two other trees in the foreground, one on either side of the avenue, and subsequently painted them both out. He may have felt that the extra – and even taller – pair of trees put too much emphasis on the avenue, and took too much away from the views of the landscapes.
The choice of an avenue as the subject of a painting was unusual for the time and has interesting resonances. They were an integral part of landscape design, both in parkland gardens and the approach roads to towns, grand houses and estates. Their decorative function is alluded to in the nursery gardens we can see on either side of the road. In the right foreground, a gardener is clipping a box tree – one of many which are being grown into the sort of ornamental shape that was popular in the highly regimented gardens of the elite in the seventeenth century. What seem to be more mature examples are being grown on the other side of the road. The trees which line the avenue also have a distinctive shape, but this is not for aesthetic reasons. They are alders, a species native to the Low Countries that flourishes in wet ground, such as riverbanks, the edges of a canal or the ditches in this picture. We don’t see trees looking like this today – the strange, spindly look has been caused by the now largely defunct process of ’shredding'. This method of managing trees involved regularly removing the side branches and brushwood for fuel and animal fodder, leaving the branches at the top so that the trunk could continue to grow straight and tall for future felling (alder was used to make scaffold poles, for example).
The composition proved to be a powerful influence on later artists – even David Hockney made his own version in 2017, Tall Dutch Trees After Hobbema (Useful Knowledge). The Avenue at Middelharnis was admired by Van Gogh, who emulated its effects in several paintings after he first saw it in the National Gallery in 1884. It probably also inspired Camille Pissarro’s The Avenue, Sydenham, which he made while living in south London; the National Gallery had acquired the work a month before Pissarro left London in June 1871, and it is highly probable that he saw it when it first went on display.
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