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Dutch Master

In search of Meindert Hobbema.

Jan 17, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 17 • By JOE QUEENAN
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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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