In the seventeenth century the Little Ice Age settled over Northern Europe. Rivers and canals in Holland froze over and people took to the ice for work, leisure – and accidents. Hendrik Avercamp, just starting out as an artist, took to it too. His life’s work became the depiction of winter scenes full of incident with the people he knew and had grown up with as his characters. Under the grey light of a winter’s day, they continued their lives almost unchanged – they did business, gossiped, tended children, had fun – but sped up on skates.
Avercamp’s painting is one to explore. Endless stories and character sketches are there for the curious eye to discover: the man pointing up the skirts of a girl who has taken a tumble; people playing kolf, forerunner of golf; an old man on a chair, thought to personify winter. Over all is the flag of the newly independent Dutch Republic, to be regarded by the Dutch owner of the picture with pride.
In the seventeenth century the Little Ice Age settled over Northern Europe. Rivers and canals in Holland froze over and people took to the ice for work, leisure – and accidents. Hendrik Avercamp, just starting out as an artist, took to it too. His life’s work became the depiction of winter scenes full of incident.
These are the people he knew; he had grown up among them. Under the grey light of a winter’s day, but warmed by the soft pink of a cloud creeping across one side of the vast sky, they continued their lives almost unchanged – they did business, gossiped, tended children, had fun – but sped up on skates.
On the right, a huge barrack-like building, made less forbidding by cheerful red bricks tinged by the pink of the cloud, is possibly a brewery. In front of it, where the light on the snow is brightest, an old man sits on a wooden chair, a blanket over his knees. He is said to personify winter, often shown as an aged person, wrinkled and frail. The man leaning against the stone vat outside the building seems untroubled by the cold, unlike the young woman huddled up in the boat stuck in the ice close to us, her hands under her black apron to keep them warm. In the corner, a fashionable young couple show off their new outfits, determinedly stylish in spite of the chill breeze that riffles her sash.
The view opens up behind the outbuilding at the end of the bridge, bringing more incidents to catch the curious eye. In the distance, men play kolf, the forerunner of golf. A little nearer a mother bends over a small wooden sledge to tuck in her children and make them cosy. But her husband, holding the sledge reins, has eyes elsewhere. A young woman has taken a tumble. She has lost her hat and her skirts are dishevelled. A cloaked man with a peaked cap points at her with a skip of glee as he looks up her petticoats.
Not everyone is as frivolous. To the left, stately women are driven past the incident in a horse-drawn sleigh with a tiny white horse on the back as a coat of arms. Over by the outbuilding a man hurries home, his long fishing pole over one shoulder, dangling a meagre catch. Behind him a square hole in the ice cut for fishing. He passes a gossiping group of smart people, the woman with her hands in a muff, her face covered in a mask to cover her complexion from the cold.
A little further away a red, white and blue flag flies proudly. It’s the flag of the Dutch Republic, newly released from years of rule from Spain. Avercamp, like many artists of the time, made it a feature to appeal to the newly independent burghers who would buy his work. His pictures would hang in their homes to entertain and amuse, but also to be regarded with patriotic pride.
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