No painter in history is more taken for granted than Meindert Hobbema.
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.