Hobbema here depicts a landscape like those often found on the edge of a wood or in the dunes. Clumps of trees alternate with open stretches of land and farmhouses over a rather hilly terrain. A sandy track in the foreground bends off to the left, leading to a cottage. Figures rest in the grass alongside the road, while a group in front of the dwelling watches a man walking off to the right. Tall trees standing out against the cloud-filled sky dominate the right-hand side of the picture.
Hobbema borrowed this use of groups of trees from Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/29-1682), who had introduced the motif around 1650 as an aid in the creation of his impressive monumental landscapes. Hobbema had in fact studied with Ruisdael following the latter’s move from Haarlem to Amsterdam in 1657. On 8 July 1660 Ruisdael testified before a notary that Hobbema had ‘served and learned with him for several years’ and that he had not been ‘either unseemly or reckless’ with his money, but rather ‘used and spent it sparingly and properly’.1 Hobbema was an orphan and this reassuring report was probably destined for his guardian.
Oddly enough, Hobbema’s earliest paintings, executed in the period 1658 to circa 1661, bear little resemblance to those of his master. At the time he painted mainly riverscapes in the manner of Salomon van Ruysdael, Jacob’s uncle. Only around 1662 did Hobbema begin to follow Jacob van Ruisdael’s example. He was at his best and most productive from 1663-1668, when he was named gauger of wine casks, a job that consisted of re-measuring imported wine for sale according to Amsterdam standard volumes. This led to a substantial decrease in his output of paintings.
A wooded landscape with a roadside cottage was probably painted at the beginning of the fruitful period 1663-1668.2 This is supported by the painting’s still-close relationship to the work of Jacob van Ruisdael (fig. 1). Another Hobbema landscape that is reminiscent of the work of Ruisdael and which must have been painted around this time is Woodland path with farmhouses, Philadelphia Museum of Art. Hobbema would later lighten his landscapes with sun-drenched open spaces and employ a loose brushstroke that gives the pictures a playful and lively aspect. Nonetheless, the painting clearly bears Hobbema’s own stamp. The vistas that would soon become a hallmark of his compositions can already be seen here, and create a vivid sense of depth with the view of the farmhouses behind the foliage and even towards the horizon. The lack – for example – of dead trees, moreover, makes the work far less dramatic and foreboding than Ruisdael’s landscapes. In Hobbema’s countryside one can while away the days with pleasure.