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The Cover
August 16, 2000

A View on a High Road

Author Affiliations

The Cover Section Editor: M. Therese Southgate, MD, Senior Contributing Editor.

JAMA. 2000;284(7):805. doi:10.1001/jama.284.7.805

With the enormous number of painters working in 17th-century Holland, it is not surprising that some of them should turn to specialization, hoping perhaps to improve their income. Indeed, some of them may be said even to have chosen subspecialties. Thus, Meindert Hobbema (1638-1709), while a master of landscape painting, became a subspecialist in the wooded landscape. Whether he specialized because he was good at wooded landscapes or whether he was good at wooded landscapes because he specialized is probably unanswerable. Perhaps he was a perfectionist who felt a more defined subject would be less daunting, perhaps the market was more favorable for wooded scenes, or perhaps he simply enjoyed painting trees. The truth probably contains all of these elements, in varying degrees.

What can be discovered about Hobbema comes from the works themselves: some 250 paintings over a half century or so (not a large number compared with many of his contemporaries), predictable motifs—winding roads, meandering streams, billowing clouds, lacy leafage, watermills, ponds, half-timbered cottages, tiny human figures—and predictable colors—greens, yellows, blues, tans, all with a kind of silvery tone, and two or three tiny accents of red. But the combinations are endless; each landscape is a fresh look at nature. Like a new day, it is the same yet unique. This sameness brings comfort, like a favorite food, and yet is not boring, for just beyond the horizon, at the end of the winding road (though still invisible to the eye), are more—and greater—delights to come. Hobbema touches on the universal human need to believe in a better future.

Hobbema was born in Amsterdam and lived there his entire life. His father was a carpenter, but he and the boy's mother apparently died or otherwise disappeared, because when Hobbema was 15 he is recorded as being in the care of the Amsterdam orphanage, along with a younger brother and sister. He left the orphanage at around age 17 and served as apprentice to the landscape painter Jacob van Ruisdael, who would become a life-long friend. For a time his style was quite similar to van Ruisdael's, but beginning around the mid-1660s Hobbema's style become distinctively his own, falling into the pattern that today characterizes his work.

In 1668 Hobbema married Eeltien Pieters Vinck. He was 30, she was 34 and worked as a kitchen maid in the house of Lambert Reynst, a burgomaster of Amsterdam. It was through her connections that Hobbema secured a steady, well-paid job as a civil servant in the revenue department of the city. He was responsible for checking the weights and measures of imported wines and translating them into Dutch units. After his marriage he painted little, perhaps because of time constraints. Quality also dropped off. Yet his acknowledged masterpiece was produced some 20 years later, in 1689. The bulk of his best work, however, was done before his marriage and full-time employment, from about 1663 to 1668. A View on a High Road (cover ), dating from 1665, belongs to this period and is characteristic of his best work.

A View on a High Road is generic Hobbema: the shaded foreground, gnarled tree trunks, the filigree of leaves against a threatening sky, the nest of cottages among the trees, and the graceful, curving road that passes in and out of sunlight as it leads the viewer's eye to the horizon and beyond. Billowing clouds, light and dark, blow in from the sea. The huge, white one echoes the shape of the large tree on the left. Token humans pursue various activities. At the left, a threesome includes a figure with a cane whose growth appears stunted. A traveler with a red cap and a knapsack rests on a log. A couple talks in the doorway of a sunlit cottage. Children play at the edge of the pond. An elegant couple, certainly city folk, strolls along the road, toward the viewer. Moving away from the viewer is a falconer on horseback and his aide. Several dogs complete the population. It is a scene as serene and as idyllic as a late summer day. One can almost hear the insects hum and smell the sea, carried inland on a freshening breeze.

The exact location of Hobbema's rural scenes has not been determined. Based on the style of the architecture it has been suggested that at least some reflect the landscape in the eastern provinces of the Netherlands, perhaps in Overijssel. The tiny human figures also await further study. For example, it was not unusual for a hand other than the landscapist to add the figures, but in A View on a High Road, at least one other additional hand has been involved. The elegantly dressed city couple are believed to have been added sometime after the painting left the artist, perhaps as late as the 18th century. Painters of that time often felt free to add figures to the foregrounds of landscapes (Wheelock AK Jr. Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art; 1996).

Hobbema was virtually ignored during his own century. Only when the great 19th-century English landscapists John Constable and J. M. W. Turner began praising his work did collectors, especially English collectors, take notice. By the middle of the 19th century, one of Hobbema's works fetched what was at the time a record price for a landscape. Hobbema died in Amsterdam in 1709 at the age of 71, having outlived his wife and five children. He was given a pauper's funeral.

Meindert Hobbema(1638-1709)A View on a High Road

1665, Dutch. Oil on canvas. 93.1 × 127.8 cm.

Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (http://www.nga.gov); Andrew W. Mellon Collection.