Now that winter is drawing in, here’s a look at one of the typical and incredibly detailed wintry landscapes by Hendrick Avercamp. Visit the Rijksmuseum website if you want a closer look at what the people in this painting are up to.
Who was Hendrick Avercamp?
Hendrick Avercamp (Amsterdam 1585 – Kampen 1634) was one of the Netherland’s most prolific winter landscape painters. Winter landscape with skaters, painted around 1608, is a typical Avercamp with lots going on. Avercamp was a deaf mute but that doesn’t seem to have stood in his way. His mother encouraged his artistic abilities and he trained as a landscape painter in Amsterdam.
Is this real?
The chilly tableau depicted here is not an artist’s fiction: Europe experienced a little ice age between 1450 and 1850 and the final quarter of the 16th century proved particularly cold. Avercamp loved to go ice skating with his parents and no doubt that is when he witnessed many of the small incidents he later painted.
Avercamp did not paint in the open air. He very wisely preferred to work in front of a nice fire from sketches he’d made from memory. Often he would combine different scenes. This is said to account for the different perspectives apparent in the painting: the house in the middle and the trees in the foreground are at eye level but the brewery is seen from above.
Ice fun and games
Then as now frozen lakes and rivers signal the beginning of ijspret, or fun and games on the ice. The ice is a great leveller, not only because people tend to fall flat on their face – as illustrated in the centre of the painting – but because this was the sort of fun everybody could enjoy. That’s as far as it went, however: look at the beggar being studiously ignored by the group of richly attired burghers just underneath the hapless skater.
Not everybody could afford to loiter on the ice: some of them had jobs to do. There’s the brewery on the left where someone is hauling up water through a hole in the ice to make beer. From the sign we can infer it’s probably called De Halve Maan, or the Crescent Moon. There was a brewery called Die Maene in Bruges in the 17th century and Dutch winter landscape painters were heavily influenced by their Flemish counterparts.
Other people going about their business are the eel catcher with his hook – also handy for fishing out those who fall through the ice – and the reed cutter, both in the right-hand corner of the painting.
Left of centre some gentlemen are engaged in a 17th century variety of ice hockey known as ‘kolf’ while old and young are skating or sledging. The tie-on skates people are wearing don’t differ greatly in design from those the Dutch wore not too long ago.
Boy meets girl
It seems as if the general jollity of larking about on the ice also allowed for a bit of hanky panky. On the right a beau is getting fresh with his fair companion and what on earth is going on in that hayloft on the left? Avercamp also paints people relieving themselves, including someone sticking out what must be a very cold bare bottom. He’s in that upturned old boat on the left.
The graffiti on the door to the left, a manikin and a boat, mirrors the artist’s signature to the right, on a shed. It’s as if an urchin drew a picture of the painter and had just time to write Haenricus Av before being chased off.