Although Hendrick Avercamp (1585–1634) did not invent the winter landscape, the emergence of it as a distinct and popular genre in Dutch art can be attributed almost entirely to Hendrick Avercamp. His lively paintings, full of frost and silvery air, capture the joy that arose in the Netherlands when temperatures dropped, canals and rivers froze, and crowds of skaters ventured onto the ice. The harsh winters which occurred during Avercamp’s lifetime gave the artist ample opportunity to witness first-hand the effects of frigid weather on everyday life. Between the fourteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, the Northern Hemisphere experienced a climatic shift known as the Little Ice Age. Winter often arrived early and lasted well into spring, marked by heavy snowfall and frozen waterways. Dutch artists, inspired by the arctic weather of the Little Ice Age, painted winter landscapes throughout the seventeenth century, often moving toward an increasing naturalism in their depictions. None, however, managed to capture the imagination of viewers so thoroughly as Avercamp did with his elaborate scenes of diversions on ice, which for generations have defined the image of winter in the Netherlands.
The present winter scene represents one of Avercamp’s finest creations and shows his advanced approach to landscape painting, with emphasis on a realistic rendering of the landscape in all its aspects. A frozen waterway under a pale winter sky functions as a stage for lively diversions, such as skating and “kolf” (an early form of golf on ice). The atmosphere of freezing cold is not only wonderfully portrayed by such subtle details as the blurred horizon and the opaque palette but is simultaneously symbolized by the figure of “Jack Frost”, standing in the far right. Avercamp typically used a combination of bluish green in his paintings. His use of schmaltz on top of the preparation of his panels, yet underneath the surface layer of paint, enhances the already strong sensation of winter.
Avercamp’s paintings almost exclusively depict scenes of people amusing themselves on the ice. He had a keen eye for anecdote and gesture. To create the livelihood on the ice, he cleverly used his figure studies to enrich his painted composition with anecdotal detail. Most of the main characters in the foreground of the present landscape can also be found in drawings by the artist (see images 1 to 5). The two figures in the right foreground, for example, are identical with two figures in a coloured pen drawing at the Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam (Welcker no. T19), (see figure 1). To the far right stands the symbolic figure of “Jack Frost”, recognizable by his ice axe and earthenware jug. He uses the axe to cut a hole in the ice for fishing. The woman accompanying may be a fisherwoman, looking down at the braided basket she uses to fish with (although on the drawing she serves as a duck seller). Similarly, the man standing at the end of the stage, in a fur-lined hat, can be found in at least four other works, including the painting recorded by Welcker (op. cit., no. S33.1, pl. IX).
Clara Welcker, who published the standard monograph on Avercamp in 1933, suggested the possibility, that his own family members often served as figures in the lively skating scenes. The reason for her assumption was that Hendrick was unable to speak, which probably indicates that he was also unable to hear. He sold his works under the name “Mute of Kampen.” His condition, it seems, did not deter his ambition; indeed, the need to rely on sight may even have sharpened his tremendous powers of observation. It was not unusual at the time for those who were deaf to lip-read or even to read and write, and Avercamp (who came from a highly educated family) must certainly have learned to communicate well enough to advance his career. He counted wealthy collectors among his patrons, and his drawings were valued as much as his paintings. Still, the artist relied on his family for support, especially his mother with whom he lived. It would be a logical line of thought, Welcker suggested, that because of his handicap, the artist communicated best with his siblings who accompanied him, and therefore they appear on his figure studies and paintings. Although this cannot be said with any certainty, it is at least remarkable that we indeed see the same people frequent his winter scenes, as is the case in the current picture.
The center of attention in our picture is a couple to the left holding hands. The lady may be identified as Femmetje Averkamp, Hendrick’s youngest sister, skating together with Jacob Roelofsz. Steenberch, her (future) husband. They too frequent his drawings (see for instance figure 2) and were to be married in 1624. The two swans flying in the sky, placed centrally in the picture, may very well be seen as symbolic for (marital) fidelity. Swans are monogamous animals and stay together as a couple during their entire lifetime.
In the center, we can spot another recognizable figure, possibly Hendrick’s brother Lambert, seen in profile. Lambert appears on multiple drawings (for instance figure 3) and paintings. There is one painting in particular which seems to provide a clear hint at Lamberts identity and physical features (figure 4), and perhaps even that of Hendrick’s. In this painting, currently in a private collection, we see in the left foreground four kolf players on the ice, two are directly involved in the game, while the two outer figures seem to pause (see figure 4a). The player dressed in a brown costume with a black hat, is depicted with portrait precision and is looking right at us. His opponent, dressed entirely in black with blue socks, is about to swing his kolf club. This scene alone may not seem sensational but a particular element to their left gives the scene an entire new meaning. In the ice to their outer left we see carvings, as if the score of the players was recorded (see figure 4b). Indeed, as the author Hein Beuth observed, by adding his initials ‘HA’, Avercamp may well reveal his identity who at that time, around 1615, must have been about thirty years old. Moreover, as Beuth notes, it is plausible that his opponent who is about to swing his bat is his six-year younger brother. The letters ‘LA’ in ligature next to the lower scorecard cut in the ice, undoubtedly refer to the Kamper apothecary Lambert Avercamp, and indeed the features of Lambert in this painting share a striking resemblance to the man in our current picture.
In addition, it is likely that the two children standing out most prominently against the background in our current winter scene are based on figure studies of Hendrick’s younger nephews and nieces (see images 5 and 6), possibly Lambert’s children; the detailed attention given to them and their costumes seems to suggest that they too were included in this ‘family portrait’.
During the early part of the 17th century in The Netherlands it was customary for icy winters to last up to six months, hence it was very normal for people’s social lives to take place outdoors and also outside the city walls. Historically, the significance of having gallows situated outside the city walls served as a symbolic and moralistic warning to abide by the local laws. It was directed not only to the inhabitants but also to those visiting from elsewhere. This was accomplished by using life-size dummies. The use of gallows was common place and served to enhance a sense of justice and security to the community.
The presence of the gallows could surprise us as a gruesome detail in the otherwise happy scene. To our modern eyes it may look brutal. But in the past, when compared to burning, quartering, or breaking upon the wheel, the gallows was considered to be a relatively mild way of carrying out the death penalty.
In the current picture, to the far left, we can also see two men playing ‘kolf’. It was one of the most popular activities on ice and depicted in nearly all of Avercamp’s winter scenes. A precursor of golf, kolf originated in The Netherlands and could be traced back to 1297 in Loenen aan de Vecht. It entailed hitting a small wooden or sheepskin ball with a metal-headed club either toward specific targets or for as long a distance as possible. Kolf could be played on grass, but on ice it was particularly lively, as the ball could go quite far on the slippery surface. Kolf typically was a gentleman’s game, as indicated by the smartly dressed men in Avercamps winterscenes.
Since few of Avercamp’s paintings are dated, his oeuvre is hard to place convincingly in order; there are, however, dated paintings for the years 1605, 1608, 1609, 1626 and 1632, which indicate certain stylistic developments in his work. Very different from the early compositions Avercamp made in Amsterdam which show a strong influence of Flemish artists, and different from the works he made in the period following his return to Kampen (which were usually taken directly from the artist’s immediate environment), the current picture is more consistent with Avercamp’s later works. That is when he, like other Dutch artists of the period, began to portray the world in an increasingly naturalistic manner. As is the case in this picture, he painted radically fewer figures than are found in his earlier paintings. The vantage point is from ice level rather than above it (as was typical of the Flemish tradition) and no pictorial elements such as trees or buildings frame the view. Additionally, the costumes worn by the figures help determining the picture date between 1610 and 1620. This was in the time of the twelve-year period of truce in the Eighty-year war between the Seven Dutch Provinces and Spain.
The Winter landscape as a specialism originates in mid-sixteenth-century Flanders, with Pieter Bruegel the Elder as its founding-father. In Holland, the development of this particular subject reached its peak during the first decades of the seventeenth century, called the small Ice Age. Avercamp certainly knew winter depictions by his immediate predecessors from Flanders. During his formative years in Amsterdam, Avercamp had plenty of occasions to see winter scenes by Hans Bol, Gillis van Coninxloo and David Vinckboons who had emigrated from the Southern Netherlands and settled in that city. Drawing from their pictorial vocabulary and further enriching his stock of motifs, Avercamp in turn became the most popular winter scene painter of the Dutch Golden Age. His earliest works indeed bear the stamp of Flemish influence and show colourful, crowded scenes viewed from an elevated vantage point and idealized atmospheres.
Hendrick Avercamp was the eldest son of Barent Avercamp (ca. 1557-1603), a Frisian teacher at the local Latin School, and Beatrix Vekemans (ca. 1563-1604), the daughter of the school’s Flemish headmaster. In 1586, the family moved to Kampen on the eastern shore of the Zuider Zee, where Hendrick’s father filled the town post of apothecary, becoming town physician ten years later. The Avercamps were well-travelled people of culture and remained so after father Barent’s death in 1603. Hendrick must have received a good education, despite his muteness. He was probably apprenticed for a while to the mannerist painter Pieter Isaacsz (1569-1625) in Amsterdam. He lived opposite Van Coninxloo in the Jodenbreestraat and stayed in Amsterdam for over eight years. Around 1611, he went back to Kampen, where he spent the rest of his life. His younger cousin, also a Barent Avercamp (1612 – Kampen – 1679), followed Hendrick’s tradition a generation later and made a name for himself as an excellent painter of winter-scenes.
Information on the panel:
On 28 September 2009, dendro-chronological research on the oak panel was done by Prof. Dr. H. Klein from Hamburg. It stems from the Polish or Baltic regions and consists of one single board. The youngest heartwood ring was formed in the year 1590. The earliest felling date could be 1599, but more probable is a date between 1603 and 1609. With a drying process of two years, the earliest possible date for use of this panel is 1601. But given a realistic assumption of an average of fifteen sapwood rings and two years for seasoning, a creation of 1607 upwards is more plausible. When the supply of wood from the Baltic regions was hampered, panel makers held on to their stock. Experienced painters who demanded the best quality knew how to choose from that seasoned stock, as Avercamp might have done.
– With Edward Speelman, London, 1966;
– With art dealer John Mitchell Fine Paintings, London 1996;
– private collection Anton C.R. Dreesmann, The Netherlands
– 1996 – 2002 (inventory no. A-84);
– Sale Christie’s London, 11 April 2002, lot no. 528;
– from a private Dutch collection;
– courtesy of Douwes Fine Art (since 1770) in Amsterdam/London.
– Dordrecht, Dordrechts Museum, ‘Nederlandse Landschappen uit de zeventiende eeuw’, 1963, not in catalogue.
– San Francisco, California Palace of the Legion of Honor/ Toledo, Toledo Museum of Art/ Boston, Museum of Fine Arts 1966/67, no. 43;
– Maastricht, Museum aan het Vrijthof, ’25 Years of TEFAF Masterpieces’, 13-25 March 2012.
– “The Age of Rembrandt”, exhibition catalogue San Francisco, California Palace of the Legion of Honor/ Toledo, Toledo Museum of Art/ Boston, Museum of Fine Arts 1966/67, no. 43, with ill.;
– Clara J. Welcker, “Hendrick Avercamp 1585-1634 bijgenaamd `De Stomme van Kampen’ en Barent Avercamp 1512-1679 ‘Schilders tot Kampen’ “, Doornspijk l979, no. S57.7, p. 214;
– Peter C. Sutton, “Dutch and Flemish Seventeenth-century paintings: The Harold Samuel Collection”, Cambridge 1992, p. 14, ill. fig. 1 (discussed under the entry for catalogue no. 1, a painting by Arent Arentsz alias Cabel, who later based some of his figures on the two figures to the far right in the present Avercamp painting or the Avercamp drawing (T19) );.
– M. Schapelhouman & P. Schatborn, “Dutch Drawings of the Seventeenth Century in the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam: Artists Born Between 1580 and 1600”, Amsterdam & London 1998, Vol. I, no. 10, p. 6.