From the 1640s to the 1660s the Low Countries experienced a series of severe winters, and canals and rivers froze hard for weeks at a time. This wintry transformation of the towns and landscapes caught the imagination of many local artists, and Aert van der Neer was one of those who specialised in such scenes.
This image of an unknown town is one of dozens of similar landscapes which van der Neer made around this time. Here he seems to have relished evoking the deep ice-green surface of the river as it reflects back a dramatic sky. Dark clouds tinged with the russet from an unseen sunset billow up like smoke from behind the buildings, and high above, dark sweeping brushstrokes suggest a wind is blowing up.
The figures here are types, carefully positioned for effect, rather than representing a snapshot of people at a real moment in time. They seem a rather lonely collection, with lots of single figures scattered about the ice.
From the 1640s to the 1660s the Low Countries (and indeed much of Europe) experienced a particularly intense phase of what has become known as the Little Ice Age. A series of severe winters froze the canals and rivers hard for weeks at a time.
The wintry transformation of towns and landscapes during this period caught the imagination of many local artists and their clients, and there was a sharp rise in the number of paintings depicting winter scenes. Aert van der Neer was one of those who specialised in such works, and this image of an unknown town and a frozen river is one of dozens of similar landscapes which he made around this time. This one probably dates from about 1665, towards the end of this phase of sub-zero temperatures; by this point, the population must have been used to the canals and rivers icing over. Perhaps we can sense this in the ease with which the figures are casually skating along with their hands behind their backs. It seems as though they have had plenty of practice.
As we can see, this is not a scene of heavy snow drifts. Indeed the vast majority of van der Neer’s winter scenes are set under a relatively light dusting or a heavy frost. We don’t know enough about these winters to know whether this reflected cold but relatively dry weather, or whether van der Neer was more interested in this effect than in depicting blankets of snow. He definitely seems to have relished evoking the deep ice-green surface of the river as it reflects back a particularly dramatic sky. The dark clouds, tinged with the russet from an unseen sunset, billow up like smoke from behind the buildings. High above, dark sweeping brushstrokes suggest a wind is blowing up.
This and van der Neer’s other landscapes are almost certainly not intended to be accurate records of real scenes or places, though some may be based on particular views which now can’t be identified. In this case there are similarities with another painting by van der Neer (National Trust Collection, Tyntesfield, Somerset), though in the latter example the viewpoint is further away from the church and the windmill. The figures in his paintings are types, carefully positioned for effect. Here they seem to represent a rather lonely collection, with lots of single figures scattered about the ice. On the left, a kolf player (the game is a sort of cross between golf and ice hockey) knocks a ball about on his own, while another also plays a single game on the opposite side of the picture.
The squatting figure behind the tree in the right foreground appears to be a man defecating. Although this kind of earthy humour was not uncommon in Dutch painting (van der Neer includes a man urinating in the foreground of another of his winter scenes, now in a private collection), a later owner clearly found it distasteful. In 1969, cleaning revealed that his lower half had been overpainted sometime after the original painting was made.
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