The watermills depicted here still survive today – they are part of the former estate at Singraven, near Denekamp, one of the most easterly points of Holland. Hobbema seems to have been inspired to paint them because his teacher, Jacob van Ruisdael, had depicted the mills on several occasions.
While van Ruisdael was fascinated by the raw power of the water thundering through the sluices, Hobbema’s is a more tranquil vision, seen from upstream where the water is almost mirror still. Sunlight dapples the meadows and a man fishes quietly in the mill pond. But there is also plenty of energy in the painting. The leaves are composed of myriad dabbed brushstrokes, while longer, broader, sometimes swirling strokes are used for the blues and greys of the sky – short sweeps of the brush which evoke the breeze that rustles the leaves and lifts the birds wheeling above the treetops.
Many Dutch seventeenth-century landscape paintings were not literal representations of a particular view. They might be characteristic of a certain kind of topography, but they were very often composed or exaggerated for pleasing aesthetic effects. Here, however, Hobbema seems to have gone to some trouble to paint the scene accurately. We can tell this partly because other artists also depicted the scene, and because these watermills survive today.
They were powered by the River Dinkel in and part of the former estate of the manor house at Singraven, near Denekamp, which is one of the most easterly points of Holland, close to the border with Germany. We can’t be sure, but Hobbema seems to have been inspired to paint the mills because his teacher, Jacob van Ruisdael, had depicted them several times. Van Ruisdael had travelled to Bentheim in about 1650, five years before Hobbema became his pupil, and it was presumably on that trip that he visited the watermills. He used them as the prototypes for many paintings of watermills, as in Two Watermills and an Open Sluice at Singraven.
The contrasting approach taken by master and pupil in these two examples provides a neat illustration of a more fundamental difference in their perspective on landscape painting. Van Ruisdael, fascinated by the raw power and the forces of nature, depicts the mills close up and from downstream. The churning white water thundering through the sluices is the focus of the whole painting. He also dramatises the scene by adding hills and crags which don’t exist in reality. By contrast, Hobbema’s is a more tranquil vision. His view is a wider prospect and seen from upstream where the water is almost mirror still. The trees take centre stage – as they do so often in Hobbema’s work – especially the sweeping curve of the tallest which dominates the middle of the picture.
Despite this serene world, where sunlight dapples the meadows and a man fishes quietly in the mill pond, there is plenty of energy in the painting. The leaves are composed of myriad dabbed brushstrokes of green, brown, yellow and blue. And – invisible from a distance, but clear if you look closely – thousands of tiny flecks of white paint speckle the canvas and capture the gleam of sunshine and of light reflecting off the water. For the blues and greys of the sky Hobbema used longer, broader, sometimes swirling strokes – short sweeps of the brush that inject a sense of movement in the air, evoking the breeze that rustles the leaves and lifts the birds wheeling above the treetops.
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