What I have always wanted to know is, firstly, what kind of trees are they, and, secondly, would they really have looked like that?
Some think they are alders, but the most common opinion is that they are poplars. And it seems that trees really were trained to grow like this – and still are – with their side branches being lopped off so that they grow fast and straight. On the right we can see a nurseryman raising smaller versions of them, taking off the side shoots as they grow.
Sir Walter Scott, the novelist, who saw the painting in Scotland in 1829, evidently thought the trees were accurate. He described it as “a middle sized landscape with a view of a Dutch road with two ditches specially well painted and two side rows of trees nipd and punchd and pruned up to the very top giving you a most perfect idea of the originals and thereby making a planters very skin creep.”
Scott had a country estate himself, at Abbotsford, so he was himself a “planter” of trees. Did this picture make his flesh creep just because it was so true to life, I wonder, or was he also shocked by the treatment of the trees?
Do Hobbema’s trees suggest an analogy with human life? We have baby trees on the right, slightly older trees next to them, and then the tall trees of the avenue, which look as if they won’t live much longer. They are frail and bent, like old men. Like Paul Nash in the 20th century, perhaps Hobbema also felt that trees were people.
It looks as if a sword and scabbard have been hung on the tree above a sculpture of a saint, raising his hand in blessing. The sculpture is protected from the weather by a canopy, and beneath the tree is a man lying on the ground, with something silvery in front of him and what looks like cut flowers beside him.
All this suggests to me that trees in the Roman campagna were sometimes made into shrines, and that pilgrims made offerings to them – an indication of pagan tree worship surviving into Christian times. The man in front of the tree might be an old soldier who has retired from active service.