The Magazine

Dutch Master

In search of Meindert Hobbema.

Jan 17, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 17 • By JOE QUEENAN
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No painter in history is more taken for granted than Meindert Hobbema.

Dutch Master

‘The Avenue at Middelharnis’ (1689)

Bridgeman Art Library / Getty Images

Every great museum has at least one of Hobbema’s austere landscapes, often hanging in a place of great prominence, but just about nobody realizes this. This is because most people looking at a Meindert Hobbema canvas think that they are looking at a Jacob van Ruisdael. There are Hobbemas in the Louvre, the National Gallery in Washington, the National Gallery in London, and the Metropolitan Museum. But there are also Hobbemas in Indianapolis, Brooklyn, St. Louis, and Detroit. At the Frick Collection, the jewel-like Manhattan museum that probably boasts more masterpieces per square foot than any institution in the world, Hobbema’s Village with Water Mill Among Trees is positioned directly between two Vermeers. Another gorgeous Hobbema sits in the main gallery, flanked by two Franz Hals portraits.

Yet not once in my life have I heard anyone talk about Hobbema or say how much they enjoyed his work. Not once. This is bizarre, since the pride of place accorded the artist by the Frick tells us one thing: Museumgoers may not know who Hobbema is, but curators certainly do.

I fell in love with Meindert Hobbema in my late thirties when I would take my son to the Frick, hoping to plant an interest in the visual arts that never quite took root. My son was not interested in the Turners or the Rembrandts, and he was certainly not interested in the Gainsboroughs, where the human figures look like well-heeled cadavers. The one painting he did take a fancy to was Hobbema’s Village Among Trees, a typically bittersweet landscape that fuses a love of the outdoors with a sense of isolation, and perhaps even loneliness. My son liked the painting because it was sort of a puzzle, where if you gazed deep into the swirling trees of the forest you could make out human figures that were not apparent on first glance. We never went to the museum without playing our little game in front of the painting, trying to spot the hidden figures.

Like everyone else, I started out thinking the work was by Ruisdael, Hobbema’s uncle and teacher, and only later realized that it was not. After that I started to notice Hobbemas everywhere, because once you get to know him he no more resembles Ruisdael than Pissarro resembles Monet. (Hobbema’s paintings are less dramatic than Ruisdael’s, with less color, and he does not draw human figures as well.) I immersed myself in the painter’s life story, and would make special trips to museums in cities I had no other reason to visit just so I could see his work. 

A certain point would always arrive at a dinner party where I would begin inveighing against those who denied Hobbema the renown he so richly deserved, both in his own lifetime and in mine. I would go on and on about how unfair it was that a master like Hobbema was hiding in plain sight, condemned to be eternally confused with another painter, while clowns like John Currin, whose only selling point is the distinctive quality of his crummy work, got huge shows at the Whitney. Friends would look at each other with expressions that said, “Don’t get him started on Meindert Hobbema. The next thing you know, he’ll be railing about the underappreciated Rockwell Kent.”

The facts of Hobbema’s life are hopelessly muddled. He was probably born in 1638 and probably died in 1709. He may have been born in Haarlem; he may have been born in Amsterdam; he may have been born in Koeverdam. There is some evidence that he died in poverty on the same street where Rembrandt, 32 years his elder, died in poverty; but even that is not certain. Most of his great paintings were completed by 1667; after that he seems to have given up art, taking a civil service position as a wine gauger, though he did come out of retirement in 1689 long enough to paint his wistful Avenue at Middelharnis, which hangs in the National Gallery in London. (His contemporary Albert Cuyp also gave up painting after marrying a woman who was pretty well fixed financially.)

Hobbema is thought to have been a student of Ruisdael, but even this is not definite, as Jacob van Ruisdael had a cousin named Jacob van Ruisdael, who was also a painter who died penniless. About Hobbema, almost nothing can be said for sure.

Most of Hobbema’s paintings hang outside of his native Holland, because Dutch landscapes became insanely popular with the English in the 18th century and they had the scratch to buy them. They were also prized by Americans of the Gilded Age, men like Henry Clay Frick. At least one of the Hobbemas in Holland today had to be repatriated by the Rembrandt Association, a group that came into existence in 1883 with the express purpose of reacquiring Dutch art that had left the country. This Hobbema, Wooded Landscape with Cottages, was given to the Canadian government after the Second World War in gratitude for the Canadians’ role in liberating Holland from the Nazis. The Dutch bought it back in 1994. My suspicion is that if the Dutch were really grateful to the Canadians, they would have sent them a Rembrandt; and if they had shipped a Rembrandt to Ottawa, I doubt that the Canadians would have shipped it back, no matter what the price.

That’s just the way it goes with Meindert Hobbema.

The most remarkable thing about Hobbema’s career is that almost all of his great paintings were done when he was in his mid-twenties. Matisse, by contrast, did not produce a great painting until he was in his thirties. Gauguin was almost 40 before he produced anything of note. The Hobbema painting that hangs between the two Vermeers at the Frick was completed by the artist at the ripe old age of 27. Thus, Hobbema was not only brilliant; he was precocious. But only a few people know it. Basically, me and a couple of art historians. That’s about it.

A few snooty critics have dismissed Hobbema’s work as “pedestrian,” particularly when compared with the darker, more dramatic canvases of Ruisdael. This is like dismissing Ravel because he resembles, without being quite as good as, Debussy. Others say that Hobbema became widely collected only because Dutch landscapes were hard to come by in the 1800s, that all the Ruisdaels were gone, that his relative ubiquity is the result of market forces. But you need only look at Hobbema’s contemporaries (other than Ruisdael) to see that this is nonsense. By comparison with him, they are slight and unambitious, and generic. If we think of a museum collection as an orchestra, Ruisdael is the first-chair violin and Hobbema is the first-chair viola. Ruisdael may be the more gifted, more prolific, more glamorous painter, but if there were no Hobbema paintings in the collection, you would eventually sense that something important was missing. Or at least I would: Just because you’re not Michael Jordan doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with being Scottie Pippen.

For me, Hobbema, like Guardi and Greuze, constitutes the acid test when I visit a museum for the first time. Anyone can hang a Bellini, but it’s the Pontormos that provide the spice. If a collection does not have a Hobbema, I do not consider it to be a great museum. It’s fine and dandy to array all those Picassos and Raphaels and Titians​—​there are seven Rembrandts, two Hals, and two Vermeers in the tiny room at the Met where Hobbema’s Entrance to a Village is housed​—​but it’s the Louis Le Nains and the Sisleys and the Hobbemas that give a museum sinew. These are the slightly-less-than-immortal painters of yesteryear who are, without question, far superior to just about any painter working today.

They are the artistic equivalents of Gabriel Fauré and Paul Hindemith and Francis Poulenc: brilliant artists who are not quite as brilliant as the titans. But without them, our lives would be greatly diminished.

I have spent the past 20 years or so talking up Hobbema among my friends, to no great effect. Two years ago, I actually flew all the way to Amsterdam​—​a city I had never visited and did not enjoy once I got there​—​with only one objective: to see the Hobbemas. Arriving at the Rijksmuseum I found that 90 percent of the building was closed off, the result of a massive structural overhaul. Not a single Hobbema was on display that day; I had to go next door to the basement of the Van Gogh Museum to see one.

Lamenting the situation to a woman working at the front desk of the Rijksmuseum, I asked why there weren’t more Hobbemas on offer. “Who’s Hobbema?” she asked.

The Rijksmuseum sits right around the corner from a street called Hobbemakade. Perhaps the woman at the front desk thought it was named after Dieter von Hobbema, or Ralph Hobbema, or Posh Hobbema.

This guy don’t get no respect.

Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Closing Time: A Memoir.

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