Rich and poor mingle on the frozen waters of a river. From the lower left corner, a man quietly observes the many skaters. At the center, well-dressed ladies ride in an elegant sleigh driven by a groom; the horse’s shoes are spiked for traction on the slippery surface. Two little boys in the right corner play a game of colf (or kolf), a cross between modern-day hockey and golf. And in the background, sledges transport people and commercial goods on the frozen waterway.
Avercamp, who combined the Dutch love of landscape with scenes of daily life, was among the first European artists to specialize in depictions of winter. The pearly gray tonality here becomes ever paler and the forms less distinct as they move into the distance, subtly conveying a sense of deep space on a frosty day. The setting may be the IJssel River at Kampen, the Hanseatic town northeast of Amsterdam where Avercamp resided most of his life. Mute since birth and likely deaf as well, Avercamp was called "de Stomme van Kampen," meaning "the Mute of Kampen." Despite this disability, Avercamp had a successful and independent career as a painter of popular winter scenes.
The smooth ice of a frozen river or canal was (and is) a source of great pleasure for the Dutch. The sense of freedom it provided created an almost holiday spirit for both young and old, rich and poor. For the upper class it was a time to enjoy the brisk winter air in beautifully crafted horse-drawn sleighs; for the young at heart it offered a chance to skate along holding hands with a loved one; for others it provided a chance to play kolf, to ice fish, or just to watch the array of humanity enjoying their shared experience. Frozen waterways also served as transportation arteries that enabled the movement of people and goods, so winter days spent on the frozen ice may not always have been as carefree as this description would imply; still, the pictorial and literary traditions from the seventeenth century certainly highlight the positive aspects.
See Jan Six van Chandelier, ’s Amsterdammers Winter, ed. Maria A. Schenkeveld-van der Dussen (Utrecht, 1988).
Avercamp, who lived in Kampen, far removed from the artistic centers of Haarlem and Amsterdam, worked his entire career in a style that derived from sixteenth century prototypes, where landscape vistas were viewed from above to allow for a panoramic overview of the scene below. The specific type of winter scene favored by Avercamp follows a rich tradition that goes back to
See, in particular, Hessel Gerritsz’s engraving after Vinckboons, Heyms., illustrated in Albert Blankert et al., Hendrick Avercamp, 1585–1634; Barent Avercamp, 1612–1679: Frozen Silence—Paintings from Museums and Private Collections (Amsterdam, 1982), 150–151, cat. 33.
A print by Johannes Galle after Pieter Bruegel the Elder of an ice scene, dated 1553, is entitled “De slibberachtigheyt van’s menschen leven.” For a discussion of emblematic literature of ice scenes, see Evert van Straaten, Koud tot op het Bot (The Hague, 1977), 43–48. See also the colored drawings of ice scenes by Adriaen van de Venne in Martin Royalton-Kisch, Adriaen van de Venne’s Album (London, 1988), 326, 336–342.
While Avercamp never strayed very far from these traditions, he did develop this subject matter into a specialty with its own distinctive feel. His work differs from that of his predecessors primarily in the attention he pays to the individuality of the figures in his scenes and the prominence he gives them over the surrounding landscape elements. These characteristics are particularly evident in A Scene on the Ice, in which landscape elements are rendered almost schematically while differences in the social classes and even the individuality of the figures are emphasized by their activities, costumes, and attitudes. Little vignettes can be identified: the solidly middle-class burghers who watch more elegant members of the upper class glide by in their horse-drawn sleigh; the two friends who skate in tandem; the working-class family unloading barrels from a transport sledge; or the couple in the far distance whom others help to their feet. Avercamp does not appear to have been interested in using his winter scene as a means for expressing abstract concepts, such as those associated with seasons of the year or emblematic images. On the contrary, he delighted in capturing the variety of social interactions that occur when whole communities share the pleasures of the ice.
Avercamp, as is characteristic of Dutch seventeenth-century painters, did not paint such scenes from life; rather, he composed them in his studio on the basis of drawings. One such drawing depicts the standing couple to the right of the sleigh
For other paintings in which figure groups found in the Washington painting occur, see Clara J. Welcker, Hendrick Avercamp (1585–1634), bijgenaamd “De Stome van Campen” en Barent Avercamp (1612–1679), “Schilders tot Campen” (Zwolle, 1933; rev. ed. by D. J. Hensbroek-van der Poel, Doornspijk, 1979), pls. 22 and 25. See also: Pieter Roelofs, et.al., Hendrick Avercamp: Master of the Ice Scene (Amsterdam, 2009).
The relationship between these two paintings was thoughtfully analyzed in 1986 by Kathleen Pedersen in a graduate seminar paper at the University of Maryland (in NGA curatorial files).
The many relationships between the Washington and LACMA paintings suggest that these two works were created in close chronological proximity. Stylistic evidence indicates that Avercamp executed the LACMA painting around 1620, at a time when he favored compositions with relatively small figures and with a loosely structured pictorial organization.
For the chronology of Avercamp’s paintings, see: Pieter Roelofs, “The Paintings,” in Pieter Roelofs, et.al., Hendrick Avercamp: Master of the Ice Scene (Amsterdam, 2009), 48–54. For an excellent analysis of the LACMA painting, see John Walsh Jr. and Cynthia P. Schneider, A Mirror of Nature: Dutch Paintings from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Edward William Carter (New York, 1981), 3–7
The LACMA painting is so finely conceived that it seems probable that it was a commissioned piece. The Gallery’s painting was most likely painted for the open market; in any event, Avercamp did not give it the same degree of attention that he allotted to Winter Scene on a Frozen Canal.
Because of somewhat more simplified composition of the Gallery painting in relation to that in LACMA, George S. Keyes doubted its attribution to Avercamp. See: George S. Keyes “Hendrick Avercamp and the Winter Landscape,” in Albert Blankert et al., Hendrick Avercamp, 1585–1634; Barent Avercamp, 1612–1679: Frozen Silence—Paintings from Museums and Private Collections (Amsterdam, 1982), 55 n. 25.
See the assessment of the painting in the 2014 archived version of this catalog, http://purl.org/nga/collection/catalogue/17th-century-dutch-paintings/2014-04-24.
A gradual loss of material on the surface. It can be caused by rubbing, wearing, or scraping against itself or another material. It may be a deteriorative process that occurs over time as a result of weathering or handling or it may be due to a deliberate attempt to smooth the material.
Paint applied after a work is finished.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
June 12, 2015
lower left in ligature: HA
Marks and Labels
Said to have been at the Imperial Hermitage Gallery, Saint Petersburg. (D. Katz, Dieren), by 1933; J.M.B. Beuker, Heelsum, by 1934; by inheritance to his widow, Mrs. J.C. Beuker [née De Kruyff van Dorssen]; sold 5 April 1967 through (A. Martin de Wild, The Hague) to NGA.
- Kunsttentoonstelling van 17e Eeuwsche Schilderijen, Gemeentelijk Museum, Zutphen, The Netherlands, 1933, no. 45.
- Tentoonstelling van Schilderijen van Oud-hollandsche Meesters uit de Collectie Katz te Dieren, Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem, 1934, no. 45.
- Meesterwerken uit Vier Eeuwen 1400-1800, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 1938, no. 52.
- In Memoriam, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1969, unnumbered checklist.
- Rembrandt and the Golden Age: Dutch Paintings from the National Gallery of Art, The Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia, 1997, unnumbered brochure.
- Niehaus, Kasper. "Oudhollandsche meesters in het Frans Halsmuseum." De Telegraaf, 29 (November 1934): 7.
- W., J. "Een Collectie der Firma D. Katz te Haarlem." Nieuwe Arnhemsche Courant (22 November 1934).
- Hannema, Dirk. Meesterwerken uit vier eeuwen, 1400-1800. Exh. cat. Museum Boymans, Rotterdam, 1938: no. 52.
- European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 2, no. 2315, repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 14, repro.
- King, Marian. Adventures in Art: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1978: 54, 56-57, pl. 32.
- Welcker, Clara J. Hendrick Avercamp (1585-1634), bijgenaamd "De Stomme van Campen" en Barent Avercamp (1612-1679), "Schilders tot Campen". Edited by D.J. Hensbroek-van der Poel. Rev. ed. Doornspijk, 1979: 216, no. S73.3.
- Blankert, Albert. Hendrick Avercamp, 1584-1634; Barent Avercamp, 1612-1679; Frozen Silence: Paintings from Museums and Private Collections. Exh. cat. Waterman Gallery, Amstersdam; Provenciaal Overijssels Museum, Zwolle. Amsterdam, 1982: 55 n. 25.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 287, no. 372, color repro.
- National Gallery of Art. European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. Washington, 1985: 33, repro.
- Sutton, Peter C. A Guide to Dutch Art in America. Washington and Grand Rapids, 1986: 305, repro.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, 1995: 9-14, color repro. 11.
- Spolsky, Ellen. Satisfying Skepticism: Embodied Knowledge in the Early Modern World. Burlington, 2001: 146-147, fig. 7.3.
The support, a single oak panel with a horizontal grain, has been thinned and a cradle attached. Dendrochronology shows the panel to be from a tree felled between 1606 and 1616. Triangular wood inserts replace the bottom right and left corners. The wood grain is quite prominent, due to increased transparency of the aged oil paint and moderate abrasion overall. A thin, smooth, white ground layer is followed by a coarse, granular, gray imprimatura. The horizontal, striated strokes of the imprimatura application, visible through the thin sky, are incorporated into the design of the foreground figures.
Paint was applied in thin, smooth transparent layers with more opaque paint used in the details and white highlights. Very fine contours were applied around the figures with liquid black paint. While discrete losses are few, the paint surface has been heavily abraded, most notably in the sky near the right and along all four edges. Some figures in the middle ground were almost totally reconstructed when the painting was restored in the early twentieth century. The horse and most foreground figures have also been reinforced, sometimes quite inaccurately (see text). No conservation treatment has been carried out at the National Gallery.
 Dendrochronology by Dr. Peter Klein, Universität Hamburg, February 12, 1987 (letter in NGA curatorial files).
Related IconClass Terms
- winter landscape
- city view in general
- small sleighs
- communal life
- nobility and patriciate
- the poor
- the rich
- patron +open market
- artist +Pieter Brueghel the Younger