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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Hendrick Avercamp/A Scene on the Ice/c. 1625,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, http://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/50721 (accessed September 04, 2015).

 

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Overview

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.

Entry

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.[1] Primary among those who created this idyllic image of Dutch winters was Hendrick Avercamp. In numerous landscapes such as this one he recorded the experiences of his compatriots as they skated, sleighed, talked, or just quietly observed the open expanse of smooth ice on a frozen waterway.

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 Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Flemish, c. 1525/1530 - 1569), such as the latter’s Winter Landscape with Bird-Trap, 1565 (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Brussels), a composition whose popularity can be measured by the frequent copies made by the Flemish master’s son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger (Flemish, c. 1564 - 1637/1638). Similar scenes appeared in prints and drawings by other artists, including Hans Bol Hans Bol (Netherlandish, 1534 - 1593) [fig. 1] and David Vinckboons (Dutch, 1576 - c. 1632). A number of ice scenes, including compositions by Bol and Vinckboons, were conceived as parts of series representing the four seasons of the year.[2] Other depictions of skaters appear in emblematic prints, where the difficulty of staying upright was associated with the slipperiness of human life.[3]

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 [fig. 2]. Drawings of other individual figures and figure groups also exist. A consequence of this working method is that the same figures continually recur in Avercamp’s paintings. Sometimes he places them in relatively the same position, but often they appear in new arrangements among a different cast of characters. In a finished watercolor from Berlin [fig. 3], a number of figures similar to those in A Scene on the Ice can be found, including the figure in the horse-drawn sleigh, the man leaning down to tie his skate, and, in reverse, the young couple skating hand in hand.[4] A painting that has close compositional relationships to A Scene on the Ice is one of Avercamp’s masterpieces, his Winter Scene on a Frozen Canal in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art [fig. 4]. Not only are the landscape elements identical, but there are no fewer than fourteen figure groups that equate to those in the Washington painting. Certain of these are in comparable locations, while others are repositioned, as in the vignette of the father pushing his wife and their pointing child in a sled, which appears on the right edge of the Washington painting and the left center of the LACMA painting.[5]

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.[6] A date for the Washington painting around 1620 is also consistent with the dendrochronological examination of the panel, which indicates a felling date for the oak panel between 1606 and 1616.[7] Logic dictates that Avercamp executed A Scene on the Ice shortly after the LACMA painting since  it is a somewhat simplified variant of that ambitious work. Not only is the landscape more schematically rendered, but the painting also contains far fewer figures and they are not as coherently integrated as they are in the LACMA version.

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.[8] The removal of extremely discolored natural resin varnish and old restorations in 2015  has revealed that the condition of A Scene on the Ice is far better than had been previously believed [fig. 5].[9] Although some of the figures have suffered from abrasion, and a few damages exist in the sky and immediate foreground, the painting has retained its soft atmospheric character to a remarkable degree. While the grain of the wood panel is evident, it does not have a particularly deleterious effect on the appearance of image. Moreover, the misconceptions of a previous restorer's repainting, which had negatively affected the appearance of the painting, were rectified during the painting’s recent restoration. For example, a pole with a fish hanging at its tip was previously seen stuck in the ice in the middle of the composition instead of being held by the boy skating hand in hand with a girl, as is the case in the LACMA painting. Another error in an earlier restorer’s interpretation was that the man tying on his skate in the lower left was being watched by a small bird. The “bird” was actually the restorer’s creation, and was a misinterpretation of the shape of the man’s right skate resting before him on the ice.

 

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

April 24, 2014

Inscription

lower left in ligature: HA

Inscription

Marks and Labels

null

Provenance

Said to have been at the Imperial Hermitage Gallery, Saint Petersburg.[1] (D. Katz, Dieren), by 1933; J.M.B. Beuker, Heelsum, by 1934;[2] 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.

Exhibition History
1933
Kunsttentoonstelling van 17e Eeuwsche Schilderijen, Gemeentelijk Museum, Zutphen, The Netherlands, 1933, no. 45.
1934
Tentoonstelling van Schilderijen van Oud-hollandsche Meesters uit de Collectie Katz te Dieren, Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem, 1934, no. 45.
1938
Meesterwerken uit Vier Eeuwen 1400-1800, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 1938, no. 52.
1969
In Memoriam, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1969, unnumbered checklist.
1997
Rembrandt and the Golden Age: Dutch Paintings from the National Gallery of Art, The Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia, 1997, unnumbered brochure.
Bibliography
1934
Niehaus, Kasper. "Oudhollandsche meesters in het Frans Halsmuseum." De Telegraaf, 29 (November 1934): 7.
1934
W., J. "Een Collectie der Firma D. Katz te Haarlem." Nieuwe Arnhemsche Courant (22 November 1934).
1938
Hannema, Dirk. Meesterwerken uit vier eeuwen, 1400-1800. Exh. cat. Museum Boymans, Rotterdam, 1938: no. 52.
1968
European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 2, no. 2315, repro.
1975
European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 14, repro.
1978
King, Marian. Adventures in Art: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1978: 54, 56-57, pl. 32.
1979
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.
1982
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.
1984
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 287, no. 372, color repro.
1985
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. Washington, 1985: 33, repro.
1986
Sutton, Peter C. A Guide to Dutch Art in America. Washington and Grand Rapids, 1986: 305, repro.
1995
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.
2001
Spolsky, Ellen. Satisfying Skepticism: Embodied Knowledge in the Early Modern World. Burlington, 2001: 146-147, fig. 7.3.
Technical Summary

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.[1] 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.

 

 

[1] Dendrochronology by Dr. Peter Klein, Universität Hamburg, February 12, 1987 (letter in NGA curatorial files).

Related IconClass Terms
23E41
winter
23F41
winter landscape
25H22
canals
25I1
city view in general
43C243
small sleighs
43C4143
kolf
46A
communal life
46A12
nobility and patriciate
46A131
burghers
46A15
the poor
46A16
the rich
48A1
patron +open market
48B
artist +Pieter Bruegel the Elder + influence of
48B121
model
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