THE AVENUE OF MIDDELHARNAIS

(HOBBEMA)

PAUL LAFOND

Some small and slender trees, branchless almost to their tops, border the two sides of a road, which occupies the centre of the picture, and extend all the way to a village which closes the horizon with several masts and hulls of ships in profile against a sky where the sun is veiled; to the right, a nursery-garden of shrubs and rose-trees separated from the road by a wide ditch full of water; then, in the middle distance, the buildings of a farm; to the left, a clump of trees and another ditch, and further back the spire of a church; a huntsman, with a gun on his shoulder and preceded by his dog, is walking on the road, and two peasants—a man and a woman—have stopped to chat on the path that leads across to the farm; a horticulturist is grafting the shrubs in the nursery-garden; and this corner of a landscape has sufficed for Hobbema to produce a masterpiece which the National Gallery of London is justly proud to possess. This youngest of the great European Museums is not the poorest and owns very considerable works of every school.

The Avenue of Middelharnais. Hobbema.

The Avenue of Middelharnais.
Hobbema.

What is most admired in this picture of the Dutch Master? The firmness of touch, the brilliancy of the key, the ease and breadth of execution without the slightest sign of hesitation or alteration, or the extraordinary perfection with which the perspective is rendered? We do not know. Despite the complexity of the subject, the one defect of which may be a slight lack of unity in the composition, the general effect of the picture is simple and powerful, and the gradation of colour harmonious and correct. It would be impossible to go any farther than this artist has done in the interpretation of this tranquil Dutch landscape. The deep values of the trees, the yellowish greys of the road, and the sluggish water of the ditches, together with the blue sky flecked with little grey and white clouds produce an ensemble of absolute calm. The little figures which give life to this canvas are so fine and delicate in execution that they leave nothing to be desired. Here, as very rarely happens, the multiplication of details does not spoil the effect of the whole.

This is a picture absolutely without a peer, and a page by itself in Hobbema's work. This is true in every sense, even in the choice of subject; for most frequently the painter borrows the motives for his pictures from a different phase of nature. Ordinarily he interprets forest-clearings; the skirts of a wood with poor huts hidden by great trees; calm and fresh pools; and streams feeding humble mills. Witness the one in the Louvre for which he showed so great a predilection and which he reproduced under so many varied aspects.

But whatever may be the subject he treats, he always remains the happy interpreter of the calm scenery of his own country of low and drowned horizons; the painter attracted by the light which with him envelops everything it approaches—trees, cottages, ground, waters, and distances bathed in delicious depths.

Nature, gentle and friendly to man, which he saw with a simplicity and a clearness approached by no other painter, attracted and charmed him above all else, in contrast to his contemporary and friend, J. Ruysdael, who, led away by heart-breaking melancholy, would never see any side of her but the energetic and lugubrious, the sad and troubled.

In his forests, on the banks of his ponds and rivers, in the neighbourhood of his huts and mills, Hobbema wants to have company; so he has sown his landscapes with figures, and they are constantly animated with people and animals. Are these figures always his own? It would be imprudent to affirm this, although they harmonize in most cases so marvellously with the rest of the picture, and it would therefore seem difficult for them to be by another hand. However, if we must defer to his historian, von Wurzbach, they are very frequently the work of Nicholaas Berghem, Adriaen Van de Velde, Lingelbach, Philip Wouwerman, Isack van Ostade, Pijnacker, etc., which would prove, at least, that he knew how to select his collaborators.

The painter of the Avenue of Middelharnais in the National Gallery, of the Mill in our Louvre, and of many other masterpieces was yet unknown, or rather despised, not very long ago, and it is quite recently that his name has emerged from the unjust neglect in which it was buried. This great name of Hobbema had fallen into such discredit that when one of his pictures fell by chance into the hands of an amateur or merchant the signature would be effaced as quickly as possible and replaced by that of J. Ruysdael, the sole painter worthy of entering into competition with him.