HOBBEMA, Meyndert
(b. 1638, Amsterdam, d. 1709, Amsterdam)

The Alley at Middelharnis

Oil on canvas, 103,5 x 141 cm
National Gallery, London

Hobbema painted a narrow range of favourite subjects over and over again. In 1668 he became a wine gauger with the Amsterdam customs and excise, and thereafter seems to have painted only in his spare time. His new position, which he held until the end of his life, probably accounts for the slackening and a certain unevenness in his production during his late decades. A few works of this later period show his compositions broken up into too many detailed areas. The trees acquire an almost linear sharpness, and the pictorial effect hardens.

Yet there are some notable exceptions, one of which almost seems a miracle, because in this work Hobbema not only revives his old grandeur, but surpasses himself as a composer and painter of the Dutch countryside. This is the rightly famous The Alley at Middelharnis. It does not take away from the glory of this picture that there are precedents in Dutch landscape painting that date back for the first decades of the century for the conception of a strongly foreshortened road lined with trees in a wide flat landscape.

Hobbema altered earlier schemes by centralizing the whole composition, focusing interest on the middle and far distance as well as the immediate foreground with its uncultivated grove on one side and an orderly arrangement of saplings on the other, and by the unprecedented height of the lopped, thin trees which carry interest to the towering sky (regrettably, the sky was extensively damaged before the picture was acquired by the gallery in 1871; much of its paint surface is the work of modern restorers). The painting offers a topographically accurate view of the village of Middelharnis on the island of Over Flakee (Province of South Holland) in the mouth of the Maas; the view of the village from the Steene Weg (formerly Boomgaardweg) looks much the same today. This masterpiece is the swan song of Holland's great period of landscape painting which fully deserves its high reputation.