Gateway to the Classics: The Story of Dutch Painting by Charles H. Caffin
The Story of Dutch Painting by  Charles H. Caffin

Van Goyen and Hobeema

T HE greatest name in Holland landscape, second only to Rembrandt, as many believe, in Dutch art, is Jacob van Ruisdael. Of the comparative merits of the other two leaders of Dutch landscape, opinions may differ; but personally I give the palm to Van Goyen.

Jan Josephsz van Goyen, to give his full name, was born in Leyden, in 1576. He was the pupil of several teachers, including Esaias van de Velde. At about the age of twenty-one he made a journey to France in the company of one of his teachers. Later he visited Belgium and the northern part of France, the sketches of this trip being still preserved in the Print Collection of Dresden. Moreover, from the subjects of his pictures, it is evident that he traveled extensively in Holland. Toward 1634 he settled at The Hague, continuing to work there until his death in 1656. His pictures found ready sale, but he speculated unfortunately in houses and pictures and was a victim of that Dutch "South Sea Bubble," the speculative mania in tulips. Consequently he died poor.

His work embraces three manners. The first, which lasted until about 1630, shows a tendency to brown, with highly colored figures in which notes of red predominate. This is the period of Esaias van de Velde's influence. In the second period he begins to be himself; the color becomes more subdued, the skies more clear, and the tonality mingles grayness with the browns or becomes greenish. This lasts for some years, and then gradually a finer sense of picturesqueness regulates the compositions; the technique gains in breadth and authority; the tonality is attained almost without color.

An example of the early method is View of Dordrecht,  in the Hague Gallery. The town is seen in the distance across an expanse of water, furred by the wind; in the left foreground, the harbor bank with figures and horses; a sail-boat scudding toward the right. It is a gray day, translated into tones of brown; an exquisitely impressionistic vision of the occasion and scene.

A very remarkable picture of the transition stage between the first and second periods is the Landscape  (No. 990) of the Rijks Museum, illustrated in this book. In the coat of the man on the left the vivid spot of red appears; his companion's coat is blue; and these two notes of color vibrate sharply against the drabbish lowering sky. The ground is buffs green and the oaks brown. It is a picture of extraordinary dramatic effect.

Two fine examples of the artist's middle and later period are in the Berlin Gallery: View of Arnheim,  (1646) and View of Nimwegen  (1649). The former shows a horseman in the foreground and a cart farther back, where a gleam of light strikes, while the distant town is in shadow; and above this striking contrast is a magnificent height of sky filled with light and scattered with a few loose, well-constructed clouds. The tonality is composed of cream, gray, brown, and green. The later example already shows the prevalence of brown. The architecture is constructed in tones of pale brown and buff; the water in front is grayish white, and the ample sky admits a little rose amid the grayish blue. It is a picture of large feeling, and yet the details are still drawn in with that wriggling stroke of the brown brush which characterizes Van Goyen's work, especially in the beginning and more or less to the end. It exhibits the feeling of one who is an engraver, as indeed he was; it is drawing rather than painting. The result is that some of his pictures seem more than a trifle niggling in their method. On the other hand, while he never gets away from it, he gets the better of it. He continues to model with these diminutive curlicues of vermicelli, now brown, now green, but the method disappears in the big impression aroused by the ensemble. Other notable examples of his later period are The River  and Banks of a Canal,  in the Louvre.

But in the final analysis it is not the manner of an artist that is of most account, but the quality of his appeal. In the case of Van Goyen it is spirituel,  not infrequently expressive of spirituality. Transmuted by his vision, the corporeality of the scene has been dissolved into a spiritual impression. It is, as it were, a mirage of nature that is offered to one's imagination. Van Goyen lacks at once the height and depth of Jacob van Ruisdael; his moods are dreamy rather than poignant, and he appeals where the other compels. But his moods are those of a highly rarefied spirit, that seeks to interpret the bigness and the subtlety of what it feels by means as abstract as possible.

Meindert Hobbema

Hobbema is the very contrary to Van Goyen. A plain, practical, matter-of-fact man, he is content to paint what he sees, the objective appearances of the landscape, viewed through the unimaginative medium of a healthy naturalism. He was as little addicted to moods of feeling as to dreams; neither curious for new experiences nor moved to artistic ambition, for, having found a motive to his liking, he repeated it again and again with slight variations. Gifted with a strong sense of form and with an unusual faculty of representing it, he learned from Jacob van Ruisdael to cultivate both, but was too phlegmatic to receive inspiration from the master's genius. Now and then he rose from his usual level to a height of objective grandeur; but for the most part was a prosy bourgeois, pottering round the parish.

He was born in 1638, his birthplace being variously assigned to Haarlem, Koevorden, and the village of Middelharnis, though it may have been Amsterdam, where he spent his life. At the age of thirty he married a maid-servant four year his senior. She had been in a well-to-do family, and through the influence of the latter a place was found for Hobbema in the Wines-customs. It was sufficient to keep him from actual want, but the fact did not spur him on to artistic effort. He painted, it would seem, only when he "felt like it," which was not often, for the number of his pictures is for a Dutch artist inconsiderable. The earliest date on any of his pictures is 1650; the last that can be assigned with certainty is 1670, for though it is generally accepted that the date of The Avenue of Middelharnis,  in the National Gallery, is 1689, the "8" is scarcely decipherable. If this date is accepted, it leaves the last twenty years of his life, for he died in 1709, unproductive. No reason for this is known, nor whether he retained his official position; the only fact ascertained being that, like his great master and so many other Dutch artists, he died in extreme poverty.

Neglected by his own countrymen, his best works found their way into English private collections, from which they are beginning to emerge into the hands of American collectors: witness The Water Mill,  known as the "Trevor Landscape," and the Wooded Landscape,  or "Holford Landscape," now owned by Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan, and the Wooded Road,  in the possession of Mrs. William L. Elkins. Meanwhile Hobbema's masterpiece is The Avenue of Middelharnis,  in the National Gallery, while the Louvre also owns a fine example in The Water Mill,  and the popularity and reputation which these works have so worthily obtained has led to an overestimation of this artist's rank. He has even been classed with Van Ruisdael. On the evidence of The Avenue  this is intelligible, but unfortunately this picture is a unique example. The other pictures mentioned above are also examples to stir enthusiasm, but they, too, are exceptional. You will not find their equals anywhere in the galleries of Europe. On the contrary, those which you do find are dryly objective reiterations of oak-trees, water, mills, and houses, perfunctorily seen and rendered. They inspire little enthusiasm and weary by repetition.

The Avenue,  on the contrary, is an extraordinary instance of a moment's heightened vision of the facts, boldly grasped and carried through unerringly to a grand conclusion. Again, in the other pictures named, especially in Mr. Morgan's The Water Mill,  there is evidence of something more than talent. A consummate knowledge of forms, skill of compositional construction, and ability to create an ensemble of tonality are here reinforced by a comprehension of the feeling of the scene, that has lifted it out of mere representation and enhanced its significance. But unfortunately the talent, transfigured in these examples, is, in the general run of this artist's pictures, squandered; used without conscience and permitted to drift into heartless mannerism.

The fact is that, judged by the final test of the quality of the painter's mental and artistic attitude toward his subject, the majority of Hobbema's pictures rank considerably below par. It is such work as the generality of his, which makes the student of Dutch art sometimes pause in his wanderings through the galleries and ask himself whether there is not a great deal of perfunctoriness and tedious iteration among these old masters of Holland. There is, and the fact may as well be grasped first as last. It is a school of great craftsmen, who sometimes worked indifferently, punctuated with a considerable number who rise conspicuously above their fellows, but among these exceptions, save on rare occasions, Hobbema is not to be reckoned.

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