Several important paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, of which Winter Landscape with Iceskaters (circa 1608) by Hendrick Avercamp is a particularly fine example, show us socially levelling, panoramic glimpses of a people going about its deep-locked winter business in thrillingly icy conditions. Dutch painting abounds in such celebratory winter scenes. What is more, skating in winter is as popular a pastime among the Dutch as it ever was – in the winter of 2008-9, for example, nearly one million pairs of ice skates were sold to a population of approximately 16-and- a-half million. It was the 16th-century Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder who had first established the winter scene as a legitimate subject for serious painters, and his treatment of the subject in such a celebrated painting as Hunters in the Snow (1565), with its high horizon line and its panoramic view across a mountainous landscape, would be copied again and again.
And so it is here in this painting by his junior admirer Avercamp, where we have an extraordinarily panoramic view of a village on the banks of a frozen canal. It feels as if the entire population, young, middling and old, is out of doors, enjoying the winter air, in the grip of ice fever. The scene positively teems with skaters. Some are playing; others are gliding along as they gently rock from side to side; yet others have taken a comic tumble. Almost everyone is on the move. You can almost hear the noise, the excitable commotion, of it all – which is interesting in itself because its painter was deaf, and during his lifetime he was known as "the Mute". The breadth of view from left to right and bottom to top seems to be enormous, with a sweeping, coppery-cum-roseate sky inhabited by birds that seem to be flinging themselves about in all directions – the gaiety of the birds, some perched precariously on the wintery-skeletal branches of trees, mirrors the high spirits of the humans frolicking, skating and playing on the frozen surface of the canal.
It is a truly democratic scene, socially inclusive in content, upbeat in mood. We can almost sense that the rebellious Protestants of the Low Countries, under the leadership of William of Orange's son Maurice, is on the brink of throwing off (albeit temporarily) the shackles of Spanish domination in the rebellious Northern Provinces, though the conflict – an on-and-off war that dragged on for a scarcely credible 80 years – would not finally end until 1648. We also recognise from the subject matter of this work that painting is becoming a common cultural currency among the prosperous trading classes, that it is no longer the preserve of an aristocratic minority. This is the kind of painting that would be purchased for, and shown in, the houses of merchants. Averkamp was back living in his native Amsterdam when he painted it, but one interesting detail may suggest that it was painted for an immigrant from the Southern Netherlands, of which there were so many in Amsterdam at this time. The Coat of Arms of the City of Antwerp (a double-headed eagle and the city wall, upheld by a brace of rampant lions) appears on the facade of the brewery in the left foreground of the painting. But there is something else that feels instinctively democratising (if that is not too high-flown a word) about this painting. There is no particular point at which the eye is being coaxed to come to rest. It has no focal point, no single eye to engage us, no flourishing head or magnificent rearing horse. We range and range about it, our own eyes in a perpetual swirling motion of delight. Nothing is more important than anything else. A building is equal to a man, which is equal to the limb of a tree. There are no hierarchical highs and lows here. Ice is the great leveller. And this perpetual movement on our part is exactly what the painting seems to be expecting from us, we feel. It too is a rollicking, blaring scene in perpetual motion – we feel that we are lucky to have caught it at rest, tantalisingly arrested, for one split second. And yet it is more than a single moment of arrest. It is also a kind of summarising of every day spent on the ice, year after year. Nothing will ever change very much, even though the people will change.
This is the kind of painting that deserves the attention of the magnifying glass, to such an extent does it teem with anecdotal detail. It is a fashionable mirror held up to its times – as were so many of Avercamp's paintings and drawings – and a place to observe social customs of so many varieties. How, for example, did the Dutch keep themselves from starving during these long winter days? This painting provides one answer to that question. Look at that left-hand corner of the painting once again, letting your eye stray down from the Coat of Arms that we have already scrutinised. There you can see what looks like a large grey wooden door, propped up with a stick. A length of cord seems to be trickling its way away from it, almost surreptitiously, across the frozen ground. This is a bird trap – the cord ends at a window, at which a grasping hand and a keen eye will be waiting for a bird to be tempted into the trap, at which point the cord will be given a good yank, and the door will descend. These bird traps were relatively common sights in 17th-century Holland during these difficult winter days, and this particular trap is almost identical in appearance to the trap that Pieter Bruegel the Elder depicted in Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap, painted about 40-odd years before his disciple Avercamp dusted off the motif. In spite of the fact that it is facing in a slightly different direction, it is virtually that same grey, bird-hoodwinking door. And what human on Earth does not love a serviceable old door?
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Hendrick Avercamp (1585-1634), who was born in Amsterdam, was the undisputed master of winter landscape painting during the Dutch Golden Age. His dynamic, panoramic scenes, usually painted on wooden panels or copper, bring an entire society to vibrant life – its manners, its fashions, and even its street games.