This is an autograph version of the painting in the Detroit Institute of Arts. Such repetitions are not uncommon in Hobbema's oeuvre, for example the four versions of the Wooded landscape with a cottage in the National Gallery, London; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Mauritshuis, The Hague; and that formerly in the Robarts collection. It is thought that many of the smaller-scale versions are in effect detailed studies for subsequent, large pictures (as, for example, the Stream by a Wood in the National Gallery, London, is for the painting in the Museum Boijmans-Van Beuningen, Rotterdam); no such larger-scale work is known or recorded for the present picture, but that one once existed remains a possibility. A later copy of the composition is also recorded (Broulhiet, op. cit., p. 420, no. 316).
The subject matter - a road leading through a wood with cottages amongst the trees - is archetypal of the artist's work. It is thought that he composed his idyllic views in the studio by re-arranging and juxtaposing familiar motifs and ideas. Here, the pathway leading the eye into the painting, and then the rough x-design of the trees carrying it around the composition. Both devices at the same time provide a sense of depth and space that is further enhanced by the judicious placement of areas of dark and light, by the use of scale in the figures, and the high, billowing clouds rising in the back of the landscape. Highly effective, it is found in varying degrees in many others of Hobbema's works - for example the Road winding past cottages of circa 1667-8 in the National Gallery, London - contrasting directly with his other principle device of a double vanishing point.
Hobbema worked as a young man in the studio of Jacob van Ruisdael but by the early 1660s had evolved his own mode of expression, having emerged from his master's shadow. Hobbema's interpretation of his native landscape presents a gentler side of nature to Ruisdael's occasionally sombre and brooding works. His palette, composed of characteristic greens, yellows, greys and browns, is softer and lighter, suggestive of details that caused John Smith to write of the artist: 'Whatever emanated from his pencil bears the true impress of nature, under her most engaging aspect; whether the rural scene presents the unripe freshness of the vernal season, or the varied foliage of mellow autumn' (J. Smith, A Catalogue Raisonné, etc., VI, London, 1835, p. 111).
Extraordinary though it may appear with hindsight, given his stature as one of the best-loved of all Dutch landscapists, Hobbema's achievements as a painter seem not to have attracted the plaudits in his lifetime that have subsequently been awarded to him. It was traditionally believed that this was due to his having greatly decreased his output by the end of the 1660s, having been appointed in 1668 to the post of wine-gauger to the Amsterdam octroi - a minor salaried position that he held until his death, and which involved the supervision of the weighing and measuring of imported wines. His powers, however, remained undiminished as is evident from the late date - 1689 - of execution of his most famous landscape, the Avenue at Middelharnis in the National Gallery, London.
The revival of Hobbema's reputation began in England in the mid-eighteenth century. The great landscapists of British art admired his pictures; Gainsborough held his work in great affection - he probably became familiar with him early in his career in the 1740s, when he worked on restoring Dutch landscapes - and was influenced by him, as was the succeeding generation of British landscapists including most notably Constable and Turner. Not surprisingly it was in England, therefore, that the collecting of Hobbema's work also grew apace during these years, culminating in 1850 at The Hague when Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford, paid what was then a record price for a landscape when he bought The Water Mill (London, Wallace Collection) for 27,000 florins.