In the Dutch Republic at this time, paintings were a means of entertainment – scenes of outdoor life were meant to hold moments of interest that had to be teased out. Although it’s not immediately evident, this picture does exactly that.
The huge expanse of sky is grey; the pub roof is almost falling in; the tree raises stark, bare branches; and a white horse hangs its head under a threadbare blanket. But in among the greyness there are warmer colours and moments of relief. At one side of the snow-filled sky is a tinge of pink: the sun isn't far away. Winter flowering plants bloom in the thatch of the dilapidated inn.
The picture was once thought to be by Isack van Ostade, a skilled Haarlem artist who died young. When it was cleaned, it was discovered to be inferior to his work – the painting is rough, with faces little more than a couple of brushstrokes. It was probably done by a follower.
Many seventeenth-century Dutch skating scenes raise the spirits. They tell, usually with a sense of fun, of life on the ice – on the frozen rivers and canals during the ‘Little Ice Age’ that hit Europe and the Netherlands in particular. They were painted as a kind of entertainment. This doesn‘t appear to be one of them; the artist seems to tell us, perhaps more truthfully, of the hardship of such a winter. Life did go on, but was laborious and took its toll.
The huge expanse of sky is grey, with clouds banked up ready for snow; the pub roof is almost falling in; the tree raises stark, bare branches; and the white horse outside the pub hangs its head under a threadbare blanket. Wind rustles through the yellow grass. The wide, distant landscape is misty; a journey across it hardly tempting. Two men cross the ice, their sledge heavy with barrels, and an old woman, bundled up and pushed along, slumps over. The set of her driver’s shoulders suggest it’s not a merry journey.
In the Dutch Republic at this time, paintings were a very important means of entertainment – they were on the wall to be enjoyed, discussed and constantly rediscovered. A picture of real life that was unrelieved gloom wouldn’t have been saleable, unless perhaps it held a moral message. These scenes of busy outdoor life, summer or winter, were meant to hold moments of interest that had to be teased out. Although it’s not immediately evident, this picture does exactly that.
In among the greyness are warmer colours and moments of relief. At one side of the snow-filled sky is a tinge of pink. The sun may not be visible, but it’s not far away. The many different browns – in the clothes of the peasants, the animals and the run-down inn – bring warmth. The two men have a faithful old dog to keep them company and those barrels are going somewhere to be opened and enjoyed. Another dog sniffs about, tail wagging. The man on the boat stuck in the ice puts on his skates. If his boat won't move, he will.
The woman in black outside the inn braves the elements. She wears no hat over her carefully coiffed ringlets and high bun, and no coat over her expensive satin dress and pristine white collar: pride wins over comfort it would seem. She bends over to adjust the scarf of the man sitting in front of her, their long-suffering maidservant at one side, her hands under a flimsy cloth to keep out the chill.
For some years the picture was thought to be by Isack van Ostade, a skilled and successful Haarlem artist who died young. When it was cleaned, it was discovered to be inferior to his work. It was probably done by a follower or a student. The painting is rough, faces little more than a couple of brushstrokes, but an artist, however humble, who puts winter flowering plants among the thatch of a dilapidated inn on an icy winter’s day perhaps deserves celebration of a different kind.
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