Hobbema was a specialist landscape painter – this is his only known city view, a depiction of the ordered and harmonious relationship between people and water. We are looking towards the Haarlem Lock at the point where two of Amsterdam’s most important waterways meet – the Singel on the right and the Brouwersgracht in the immediate foreground. Hobbema seems to have chosen this view to focus the viewer’s mind on the connection between this carefully regulated system of canals and the wider world.
Beyond the lock and the lock-keeper, who is controlling the water with a long lever, are the clustered masts of a dozen or so square-riggers, part of the huge Dutch merchant fleet which had mastered the high seas for Holland. To the right is one of the look-out towers which were part of the town’s fortifications from the fifteenth century. It was called the Herring-Packers' Tower (Haaringpakkerstoren), a nod to the work done in the adjoining warehouse.
We are looking towards the Haarlem Lock (the Haarlemmersluis) at the point where two of Amsterdam’s most important waterways meet – the Singel on the right and the Brouwersgracht in the immediate foreground. This was one of the main entry points to the concentric rings of canals that formed the city’s main transport system. Along the quays that lined them were the grand merchants‘ mansions and the warehouses used to store the goods, spices and exotica which – in the mid seventeenth century, when this picture was made – were the source of a spectacular economic boom in Holland.
Hobbema seems to have chosen this view deliberately to focus the viewer’s mind on the connection between this carefully regulated system of canals and the wider world beyond. Beyond the lock, framed by the high beams, chains and cables of the lifting bridge, we can see the clustered masts of a dozen or so square-riggers. These were part of the huge Dutch merchant fleet which traded around the world, and especially with the Spice Islands and the Dutch East Indies. They are moored just outside the city walls; access to the South Sea and subsequent access to the North Sea was just a few miles down river.
To the right of the masts, you can just see the sail of a smaller vessel passing close to the other side of the bridge. In fact, this picture is full of activity. Two figures on the quay are moving a huge basket, and great sheaves of reeds, the necessary raw material for making such things, lay next to it. Meanwhile a lock-keeper is manning the lever which operates the sluice. It must be high tide, because water is gushing out of the lock to lower the level. A boat in the right foreground, held in position by a crewman, is waiting for the gates to open; behind the wooden staging we can see the heads and shoulders of two men who must be standing in their boat waiting to leave the lock and enter the canal system. Behind them a workman brushes his sweepings towards a bonfire which flares up against the wall. The clock on the tower behind him says five to five: he must be tidying up at the end of his working day.
Although the tower looks like a church spire, it is actually one of the look-outs which were part of the town’s fortifications from the fifteenth century (the top was added at the beginning of the seventeenth century). It was called the Herring-Packers’ Tower (Haaringpakkerstoren), a nod to the work done in the adjoining warehouse. The fish were one of the staples of the time.
The view shows the area before alterations of 1661–2, but may have been painted later. Hobbema was living in the Haarlemmerdijk, the corner of which is shown here in the left background, by late 1668. As a specialist landscape painter, he normally concentrated on idyllic woodland scenes evocative of country life, and the scenery around Amsterdam where he lived and worked. This is his only known depiction of a city view.
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