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To hunt or not to hunt?

Posted on by tamsp

For years, MIA curators have suspected that the enthusiastic sportsman in the foreground of Meindert Hobbema’s Wooded Landscape with a Watermill was added at a later date. Slide the bar over the image above to see the painting with and without the hunter in red.

So, when did the hunter make his appearance?

Based on descriptions of the painting found in 18th and 19th century auction catalogues, we are able to determine that the figure in the red frock was added between 1810 and 1828. Wooded Landscape with a Watermill can be placed in England by 1806, where it appeared at the estate sale of a “Mr. Crawford, who on account of commercial pursuits, had resided many years in Holland,” where he likely purchased the work. The painting was next found in an 1809 sale of artworks owned by Charles Offley. The description in the auction catalogue reads:

“The chef d’oeuvre of this celebrated painter, a beautiful landscape with a water mill – the figures and cattle are judiciously introduced, with appropriate spirit of pencil, by [Nicholas] Berchem.”

Nearly twenty years later, in 1828, Wooded Landscape with a Watermill is described in the estate sale catalogue of a Mr. Michael Mucklow Zachary of London thusly:

“The celebrated watermill. A rich and beautiful woody landscape, in which the artist has happily introduced his celebrated watermill, situated on the borders of a running stream, whereon is a boat and figures unlading its stores; on the left of the landscape is a group of cottages on the side of a road, which passes thro’ the wood; in the foreground, on the right, a sportsman dressed in red, is shooting at wild fowl, and a herdsman driving cattle (by Berchem) between a clump of trees, judiciously introduced.

This picture has ever ranked a chef d’oeuvre of the master, and known by the name of “The Water Mill” – for beauty of composition, faithful delineation of nature, and elaborate finish, it cannot be surpassed.”

Note that the catalogue entry relies heavily on the 1809 account, even including that key phrase, “judiciously introduced”. Our front-and-center huntsman could hardly be described as such. Also worth mentioning in this brief history are the two Dutch sales of 1768 and 1781, where the Hobbema is described in detail – with no mention of a hunter.

Why was the huntsman added?

It’s impossible to know the exact reason, but we do know that in the early 19th century, sporting subjects were extremely popular, particularly in England. Perhaps it was added at the request of the owner, or to make the work more desirable (therefore commanding a higher price) at auction.

Hobbema, one of the great landscape painters of 17th century Holland, was primarily associated with sunlit, summery woodland scenes – many of which featured watermills. Such scenes were much in demand by the wealthy patrician class in Amsterdam that patronized Hobbema.

Thanks to the magic of digital photography, we have a glimpse of how Wooded Landscape with a Watermill originally appeared. On the far right of the painting, a herdsman drives his livestock along a deeply rutted road. One canine companion sticks close to his master, while the other charges ahead, flushing out a group of birds from the shoreline. The overall mood of the composition has shifted; now there is a bucolic, peaceful quality to the painting. There is also a noticeable difference in the perception of depth related to the size of the figures and animals. The inclusion of the hunter unintentionally affects the recession of space, drastically compressing the entire scene.

What do you think?

Does the painting benefit from the removal of the sportsman? Should a paintings conservator mask the 19th century addition of the sportsman (this process is completely reversible)? Or is the figure now part of the painting’s history?

Take a look at the “before and after” images above, and enter your vote. We’re interested in your opinion.

16 Responses to To hunt or not to hunt?

Eric Koeckeritz says: March 31, 2011 at 12:30 pm

I think taking it out completely would hurt it from an historical perspective, if it is able to be masked in a way that the painting would appear as it originally did without completely removing the added hunter, that would be my choice. At some point it may be of interest to see it as it was changed and added to, hard to say what the future holds.

Elizabeth Saylor Kronstad says: March 31, 2011 at 2:05 pm

Because of the historical information provided here, and because the figure was added, it is suggested, to add monetary value to the painting — even if it was added by the painter — and becaus the painter’s reputation is related more to landscapes, I chose to cover the figure in red. I liked it that way, as well, and it seems to me to be a bit more authentic in its original form as conceived by the artist originally. I poosted it to my FB page, as I think this is a lovely idea you’ve sent out to us. Thank you! Liz SK

Philip says: April 1, 2011 at 5:27 pm

Dear Michelle and Eric;
It says above that the making process “is completely reversible”. So I voted for masking it.

Sarah Cortell says: April 2, 2011 at 4:05 pm

The artist’s intent should be considered. If the figure was not painted by the artist, it is common practice in the United States to remove or cover the figure, understanding that it is reversible should new scholarship come to light. But in the end, it’s really about the philosophy of the museum and its curators.

elisabeth legge says: April 4, 2011 at 4:41 pm

The hunter is indeed part of the paintings history. To remove something, even though it is objectionable, seems false, a bit like a rewrite of history.

Lauren says: April 5, 2011 at 4:23 am

I’m a conservator, and rule number one… If it’s ‘questionable’ step back and don’t make the decision. But, do use photoshop to mask the hunter and provide a wall text to the viewer explaining the dilemma.

Elisabeth Wroth says: April 5, 2011 at 6:06 pm

I have to agree with Lauren’s comment. Whether or not we believe that it was added at a later date since there is a debate about whether we should remove it the responsible thing to do as a conservator is to leave it and not make a decision (which I realize it is) but I would leave wall text with a photoshopped version. It also serves as a great way to involve the viewer.

Joan C Samuelson says: April 21, 2011 at 5:55 pm

The addition of the hunter destroys the proportions as well as the peace of the original. I voted to mask it.

Ron Ackerley says: April 21, 2011 at 5:56 pm

I agree with Laurens solution, as well as Elisabeth’s idea that it serves to involve the viewer.

Matthew Nelson says: May 31, 2011 at 9:08 am

I think it depends on who added it. If the original artist added it, independent of when, then whether we agree with it being there or not, it should stay. If, on the other hand, someone else added it, it should be removed.

trevor says: May 31, 2011 at 9:11 am

I think you should leave it there, and print a reproduction and put it next to it, with a text field saying this is how the painting was originally painted, and that the hunter was added after the fact. That way viewers can draw their own conclusion and see both images. granted, they won’t be the same, one will be a reproduction, but I think that gives you the best of both worlds, and it gives a good story as well.

Tim Brott says: May 31, 2011 at 9:23 am

I can understand the arguments for both the artist’s intent and the complete history of the painting. But from a purely aesthetic standpoint, the proportions of the hunter are clumsy and the bright red coat calls more attention to its awkwardness. Even in the few paintings where Hobbema has included figures, they look natural and the colors work with the rest of the composition. I think the hunter has to be taken out, or perhaps a compromise in which the figure is modified to conform with Hobbema’s style and skill.

GG says: May 31, 2011 at 9:28 am

I agree with Lauren’s proposal. I voted not to mask the hunter, since that addition is part of the painting’s story. As an avid museum-goer, I also like the suggestion to add pictures to the wall text explaining the history of this piece; anything to draw visitors in to the work is a good idea.

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