I can’t recall how I got my hands on the postcard – perhaps a teacher gave it to me – but it showed one of the seminal paintings of world art, the one that opened the eyes of European painters to the realities of landscape painting. It bore a name that enchanted me, and from the first moment I saw it, it has been enshrined in my memory, to be recalled whenever I chance to see a row of fine trees leading down a country lane. The Avenue at Middelharnis, by the Dutch painter Meindert Hobbema (1638-1709) seems at first to simplicity itself – it is a perfectly flat landscape with minute distant building showing and down the dead middle of the canvas runs a dirt road flanked on either side by a row of very tall, scraggly trees of almost repugnant form, totally bare of limbs for 90 percent of their height but topped by misshapen crowns of small, heavy branches. It would seem as if almost anyone could paint a better picture than this, but if it commanded my attention and affection at age seven, so also did it captivate the artistic world; it proved that noble landscape painting could be achieved by using simple color, simple design and straightforward execution. People who love painting love Avenue, Middelharnis, and I am pleased to say that as a child I made that discover on my own.
(that one’s at the National Gallery of London)