In this winter landscape, aristocrats, burghers, countrymen, and orphans take to the ice of the frozen Amstel River. From a young boy propelling himself with sticks on a prikslee (small push-sled) to the group of three stately men with no skates conversing by the riverbank, each of Van Breen's figures colorfully brings to life the possible actions and interactions of a winter's day on the ice. On the right, a man and woman glide hand-in-hand with the wide stride typical of Dutch 17th-century skating. The man's green jerkin and gold breeches tied at the knees with ribbon and the woman's black vlieger, a long garment worn over the bodice and skirt, reflect the height of early 17th-century fashion. As they skate, a young boy from the Amsterdam Burgerweeshuis (city orphanage), recognizable by his red and black shirt, approaches them clasping a kolf stick. Further back, men and women leisurely glide together, and a pair of boys race alongside a painted, pink mill.
Unlike many winter scenes that represent imaginary locales, this evocative landscape depicts an identifiable location on the Amstel River just south of Amsterdam. The profiles of three of the city's churches are visible in the distance: the large, wide building at the left is the Nieuwe Kerk; the distant church to its right with a tall steeple is the Oude Kerk; while the third church nearest the Amstel is the Zuiderkerk. Remarkably, the painting also depicts a large house surrounded by a painted wooden fence that can be seen on a contemporary map of the area.
In Adam van Breen’s engaging painting, people of all ages and classes take to the ice near Amsterdam on a bright, wintry day. In the foreground, a stylish group from the highest echelon of society has gathered. The woman, who is having her skates tied onto her shoes by a young attendant, wears a lemon, hooped skirt known as a farthingale and a raspberry-toned vlieger. Her hair is coiffed in high-piled curls, the latest fashion during the first decade of the 1600s. The woman standing near her wears a Brabant huik, a popular headdress consisting of a flat, round disc with a small upstanding spike and floor-length black veil.
For regional differences between huiken, see Bianca M. du Mortier, “Aspects of Costume: A Showcase of Early 17th-Century Dress,” in Hendrick Avercamp: Master of the Ice Scene, ed. Pieter Roelofs (Amsterdam, 2009), 142–143.
On the dress of orphans in 17th-century Amsterdam, see Bianca M. du Mortier, “Aspects of Costume: A Showcase of Early 17th-Century Dress,” in Hendrick Avercamp: Master of the Ice Scene, ed. Pieter Roelofs (Amsterdam, 2009), 147.
Skating scenes were highly popular in the Netherlands in the first half of the 17th century, likely in part due to a series of severe winters in the Low Countries known as “the Little Ice Age.” Van Breen, who was active in The Hague, Amsterdam, and Oslo, was particularly adept at such scenes, which belong to a rich tradition that originated in the Southern Netherlands. Much like
Unlike many imaginary winter landscapes, Skating on the Frozen Amstel River depicts an identifiable location on the Amstel just south of Amsterdam. The profiles of two of the city’s churches visible in the distance also appear in a view of Amsterdam
Van Breen dated Skating on the Frozen Amstel River “16011” on the gable of the house. The construction of the date with the “0” inserted in the middle is unusual. However, based on the style of the costumes and the character of the painting, there is no reason to doubt that the painting’s date is 1611.
The specificity with which Van Breen captured the temporal and physical qualities of Amsterdam extends to the two prominent foreground structures: the house on the left bank of the Amstel and the mill on the right. The house is a handsome building replete with a stepped gable facade, four chimneys, and a surrounding fence painted in red, white, and black—the municipal colors of Amsterdam. The mill, painted pink and enriched with gray chevron-patterned bands strikes a festive tone. The vertical position of the uppermost sail signals that the mill is in use.
The identity of the mill can be determined from a map drawn in 1629 by city surveyor Cornelis Danckertsz de Rij
In 1629 the Amsterdam City surveyor Cornelis Danckertsz de Rij drew a map of the inner and outer Amstel from the Kloverniersburgwal to the Windrak as the city was designing a new road along the Weesperzijde. The map, which is located in the Stasdarchief, Amsterdam (inv. nr. UZFA00023000001), identifies the boundaries and owners of all the plots of land on the western side of the South Amstel.
Although De Rij did not survey the west side of the Amstel across from the mill, a document from 1626 indicates that the Borssenburg estate was located at that site.
“Quytgescholden te hebben Jan reyersz vyff vee[r-]/tiende parten in een houtsagers molen met huijs entt betimmert en/alle het geene daer op aent ende nagelvast is staende . . . gelegen aen den amstel over borssenborgh.” See Noord-Hollands Archief, nr. 184, Oud-Rechterlijke en Weeskamer Archieven, inv nr. 2365, 3e katern, fol. 1. Quoted in Rozemarijn Landsman, “Schilderachtig Borrsenburg: Schaatsen op de Amstel door Adam van Breen,” Amstelodamum 98, no. 1 (2011): 22–24, 29, n. 15.
After Marie Jacob Dobbesdr and Jacob Bors’s daughter, Lijsbeth Jacobsdr (1552–1591), married the soap boiler Jacob Frans Oetgens (1540–1595) in 1568, the two first lived at the Oetgens family home “the Gilded Lily” in Amsterdam, then relocated to Borssenburg from 1583–1590. They returned to Amsterdam the following year and spent only summers at Borssenburg thereafter. Their son Jacob Bors (1573–1640) also took up a brief residence at Borssenburg in 1593, the year he married Stijntge Gerritsdr Burgherts (b. 1572), but then relocated to Amsterdam in 1594, again using Borssenburg as a summer retreat. When Marie Jacob Dobbesdr died in 1596, Jacob and Stijntge inherited the property, but they sold it the following year to Abraham Verbeeck (d. 1613) and his wife, Anna Broen. See John Elias, De Vroedschap van Amsterdam, 1578–1795, 2 vols. (Haarlem, 1903), 1:101; J. W. Groesbeek, Amstelveen: Acht eeuwen geschiedenis (Amsterdam, 1966), 174–175.
J. W. Groesbeek, Amstelveen: Acht eeuwen geschiedenis (Amsterdam, 1966), 174–175.
When Verbeeck died in 1613 his widow inherited the property, but sold it that same year. The inventory of the house she commissioned just prior to its sales describes it as:
a well carpentered stone dwelling with a front room, office, side room, and a vaulted basement, separated in two sections, a kitchen, three lower level rooms, each with a fireplace, four upper level rooms of which one also has a fireplace, four attic spaces including a peat storage area without a crawl space, in addition to this two privies, one upstairs and one downstairs, an interior courtyard, a rain barrel, a flower garden on the west side along the two lower rooms all of this surrounded by water, with a drawbridge along the Amstel road, and with a painted fence on the east and south side.
J. W. Groesbeek, Amstelveen: Acht eeuwen geschiedenis (Amsterdam, 1966), 175.
Not only does the description of rooms, chimneys, courtyard, and drawbridge accord with the house in the National Gallery of Art’s painting, but so, too, does the painted fence on the home’s south and east sides.
“Een wel betimmert Steenen woonhuijs met een voorhuijs cantoir sijdelcaemerken ende een over gewelffde kelder daer inne twee kelders affgeschut, een keucken, drie Neerkaemers ijder metheure schoorsteen, vier bovenkaemers daer van de eene mede een schoorsteen is hebbende, vier solders soo cleer als turffsolder sonder vlieringe, daer boven, twee secreten, een boven ende een beneden met een binnen plaetse ende een regenback, eenen bloemthuijn int westen lancx de twee beneden caemers tsaemen rontsomme in sijn waeter leggende, met een op treckende brugge aenden amstel wech, ende met een geschildert stacketsel int Oosten ende suijden.” Noord-Hollands Archief recht. arch. 2363 fol. 267v; J. W. Groesbeek, Amstelveen: Acht eeuwen geschiedenis (Amsterdam, 1966), 175; quoted in Rozemarijn Landsman, “Schilderachtig Borrsenburg: Schaatsen op de Amstel door Adam van Breen,” Amstelodamum 98, no. 1 (2011): 25.
As a “portrait” of a home situated within a lively landscape, Skating on the Frozen Amstel River belongs to a well-established graphic tradition. For example, in 1559 and 1561
Given the rarity of painted fences in 17th-century Dutch painting, it is not surprising that the story behind the remarkable painted fence with its red, white, and black diamond pattern is unknown. Because the colors accord with those worn by the orphans of the Amsterdam Orphanage, one of whom is shown skating down the Amstel, and the diamond shape appeared on the outer courtyard of the orphanage, there may be a connection between that civic organization and the house. Unfortunately, archival and cartographic research into a possible link between Borssenburg and one of Amsterdam’s civic institutions before the Bors and Oetgens families owned the property has been inconclusive. Prosopographic research, in combination with the detailed map by Cornelis Danckertsz de Rij of 1629, reveals that the properties on either side of the Amstel River in the vicinity of Borssenburg were owned by several powerful Amsterdam families, including the Oetgens clan. In the decades around the turn of the 17th century, males of these landowning families served either as Weesmeester (regent) of the municipal orphanage or as Heemraad (governor) of the Nieuwer-Amstel water board, or both. Whether such offices are related to the painted design on the fence is not known.
Jacqueline Burgers, ed., In de Vier Winden: De prentuigeverij van Hieronymus Cock 1507/10–1570 (Rotterdam, 1988): cat. nos. 31–32; Walter S. Gibson discusses the Cock and Grimmer images in Pleasant Places: The Rustic Landscape from Bruegel to Ruisdael (Los Angeles, 2000), 1–26; Stefaan Hautekeete, “Van Stad en Land: Het beeld van Brabant in de vroege topografische tekenkunst,” in Met passer en penseel: Brussel en het oude hertogdom Brabant in beeld (Brussels, 2000), 46–57; and Alexandra Onuf, “Local Terrains: The Small Landscape Prints and the Depiction of the Countryside in Early Modern Antwerp” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2005).
Visscher’s drawings of the Deyman house are discussed in Jan Peeters and Erik Schmitz, “Belangrijke aanwinst voor Gemeentearchief: Een blad met twee onbekende tekeningen van Claes Jansz Visscher,” Amstelodamum 84 (1997): 33–44.
Jacob Grimmer, A View of the Kiel near Antwerp, 1578, oil on canvas, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp.
In Skating on the Frozen Amstel River, Borssenburg is part of a broader narrative about winter in Amsterdam and the pleasures to be had when the frozen surface of the Amstel was strong enough to welcome activity. Borssenburg is not simply a backdrop, however, but also a character in this carefully orchestrated composition. It is likely that Abraham Verbeeck commissioned this image of his house and it is tempting to imagine that he and his two brothers, Jacques (1575–1612) and Isaac (d. c. 1607), are those three men portrayed in the right foreground. Much as Visscher’s Pleasant Places, which contained images, according to its title page, for those “who enjoy the varied view of country houses and the surprising turns in ever delightful roads,”
Although the tradition of depicting manor homes and castles in northern art dates back at least to the 15th century, when the Limbourg Brothers portrayed royal French castles in the calendar pages of Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (c. 1412–1416, Musée Condé, Chantilly), there are no known 17th-century Dutch paintings of identifiable homes before 1611. For a discussion of early representations of country houses, see Woueter Kloek, De kasteeltekening van Roelant Roghman, 2 vols. (Alphen aan den Rijn, 1990), 2:77–104; Diane Mankin, “Dutch Seventeenth-Century Images of Classicizing Palaces and Villas Inside the Netherlands” (PhD diss., University of Kansas, 1996), 9–10. There are, however, many examples in later 17th-century Dutch art of “portraits” of country homes, for example in the work of
June 30, 2017
on gable of manor house: 16011
D'Estampes family, Château d'Ancise, Douy, France; (sale, at the Château de Cheverny by Philippe Rouillac, 7 June 2009, no. 40); (John Mitchell Fine Paintings, London); purchased 12 March 2010 by NGA.
- Landsman, Rozemarijn. "Adam van Breen, Skating on the Frozen Amsetel River." National Gallery of Art Bulletin 43 (Fall 2010): 32, repro.
- Mitchell, William J.. "Adam van Breen (ca. 1585-1640)." Gallery Notes [John Mitchell Fine Paintings], Special Edition (February 2010): 13-16, repro. 15, as Winter Landscape with Skaters.
- Mitchell, William J. "Foreword." Gallery Notes [John Mitchell Fine Paintings] (June 2010): repro., as Winter Landscape.
- Landsman, Rozemarijn. "Schilderachtig Borssenburg. Schaatsen op de Amstel door Adam van Breen." Amstelodamum 98-1 (January-March 2011): 18-30, fig. 1, figs. 3, 4, 8 (details).
The painting support is an oak (est.) panel consisting of two quarter-sawn, horizontal boards that are butt-joined along the panel center. Uneven vertical saw marks across the center of the reverse indicate the panel likely retains its original thickness of one centimeter, and all four edges are beveled.
There is a thin off-white ground layer, and the paint (est. oil) is applied thinly with only low impasto. An underdrawing was not visible in the infrared reflectogram, but the x-radiograph helped to identify reserves, which were used for sections of the left-hand house, the right-hand windmill, and the bridge.
Infrared reflectography was carried out using a Santa Barbara Focalplane InSb camera filtered to 1.5–1.7 microns (H filter). X-radiography was carried out with a Comet Technologies XRP-75MXR-75HP tube, and the images were digitally captured using a Carestream Industrex Blue Digital Imaging Plate 5537 (14 × 17 in.). The parameters were 20 kV, 5 mA, 30 seconds, and 100 inches distance (from source to plate). The resulting digital images were composited and processed using Adobe Photoshop CS5.
The panel, ground, and paint layers are all in good condition. The panel has a slight convex warp, and it is likely the top and right edges of the panel have been slightly trimmed. This possible adjustment does not appear recent, and, based on the composition and size of the bevels, it would have been minor. There is a horizontal split in the upper right quadrant that extends 30.5 centimeters into the panel. There are minor losses to the paint layers and old campaigns of retouching throughout. Some of the dark birds in the sky are not original; they are painted simplistically, delineated by only a few curved brushstrokes, and the pigment mixture used to paint them differs from the birds that are clearly original. Furthermore, these birds are not visible in the infrared reflectogram, whereas those assumed to be original are visible.