Hobbema was a master of rearranging frequently used compositional elements in his paintings. One encounters time and again familiar vistas, houses, groupings of trees, and figures who wander along meandering paths that pass through wooded landscapes. He built his scenes along established compositional principles, which included leading the viewer gently into the distance, either along paths or by means of alternating zones of light and dark. Remarkably, though, Hobbema’s delicate touch and ability to suggest the varied light conditions of a partly cloudy day invariably transmit the feeling of a scene painted directly from life.
Three other versions of this composition exist, none of them dated. Slight differences in the shape and position of the houses and in the treatment of light suggest that the Washington painting is the earliest of the four. It is the only instance in which the house on the right is so dilapidated, with large portions of its thatched roof missing. In all the other versions the house is less oblique and lacks the small addition on the side. In these paintings the path swings slightly to the left and a large broken tree trunk in the lower left arches upward, whereas in Hut among Trees the path continues diagonally to the right and the tree trunk is less substantial.
Because Hobbema’s compositions tended to become more open during the course of the 1660s, the comparatively dense band of trees that stretches across the middle ground in this work adds further support to the idea that it is the earliest in this sequence of related scenes. In the version now in the Mauritshuis [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Meindert Hobbema, Huts under Trees, c. 1664, oil on panel, Mauritshuis, The Hague, the trunks are comparatively thinner and the view into the distance is less obscured than in the Washington example. Since Hut among Trees is slightly more open than A Wooded Landscape, which is signed and dated 1663, and less so than A View on a High Road, signed and dated 1665, one can ascribe to it a tentative date of about 1664. To help confirm this date, a similar comparison may also be made among the respective structures of the trees in these three works. The trees in this painting are less compact and dense than the ones in A Wooded Landscape, but more so than those in A View on a High Road. This approximate date is also consistent with the distinctive light gray green color of the trees that Hobbema used in 1663 and 1664.
The painting is in excellent condition, except for the figure group and the area surrounding them. In 1984 it was discovered during conservation treatment that the mother and child figures as they then appeared were not original and were probably nineteenth-century creations. At that same time, the vestiges of two other figures, slightly larger and somewhat to their left, were discovered under the additions. The old remains were then reconstructed. More figures, including a horse, may once have accompanied them. Why these original figures were at some point physically removed and replaced is not known. The original staffage painter has not been identified.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014