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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Jan van Goyen/Ice Scene near a Wooden Observation Tower/1646,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, https://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/165221 (accessed July 17, 2019).

 

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Overview

Jan van Goyen was one of the great proponents of the innovative “tonal” style of Dutch landscape painting that celebrated local scenes and subjects in hues of brown, gray, and ochre. The tonal landscapes of the 1630s and 1640s ushered in the golden age of Dutch landscape painting, and Van Goyen’s body of work spans the beginnings of this style through its transition into more colorful and atmospheric depictions.

Ice Scene near a Wooden Observation Tower illustrates an important transitional moment in Van Goyen’s career, as he moved away from the tonal style. Here he concentrates on weather and atmospheric effects, such as the swiftly moving clouds that convey the day’s cold breeze and the bright blue sky peeking from behind them.

This winter scene also provides a perfect opportunity for admiring Van Goyen’s technique as well as for enjoying the narrative presented. Couples skating, passengers riding a horse-drawn sled, and men setting out to ice fish indicate the range of activities enjoyed by the Dutch during the severe winters in Western Europe in the 17th century, an era known in climate history as “The Little Ice Age.” Van Goyen’s range of techniques mirrors the range of activities, from the thickly painted clouds to the quickly brushed-in outlines of figures and boats.

 

Entry

Jan van Goyen was one of the most innovative Dutch landscape artists of the 17th century. He began his career in the early 1620s in his native Leiden by depicting the daily activities of the lower and middle classes, often as they traversed the dunes that protect the country from the North Sea. In the 1630s, following the example of his Haarlem colleague Esaias van de Velde I (Dutch, 1587 - 1630), he developed a “tonal” style of painting that rendered the Dutch landscape in subtle hues of grays and ochers to harmonize atmospheric effects.[1] Gradually, Van Goyen’s works took on a greater sense of visual drama, both through his introduction of imposing trees or structures to his foregrounds and through his ability to capture the varied cloud formations that activate the Dutch skies. He also developed an interest in panoramic views, which he often explored by observing a city from across a wide expanse of water.[2] All of these elements are found in this beautifully preserved winter scene, signed and dated 1646.

This painting features a remarkable wooden tower that also served as a beacon to help mariners navigate the country’s network of waterways. Ship captains could see this towering structure during the day; then, at dusk or during foul weather, a caretaker could mount the ladders to reach the uppermost platform and light a beacon situated in the small wooden structure to help guide ships. Here, in the dead of winter, this tower is the setting for a communal gathering. While many on the ice are skating, others push small sleds carrying people or cargo. Some just stand and talk in tightly knit clusters. In one particularly engaging vignette, an enterprising young skater hitches a ride behind a horse-drawn box sleigh filled with passengers. Beyond the tower is a rustic home with smoke drifting from its chimney. Clouds sweep across the sky, while along the far shore one sees a distant city with a windmill, a massive stone tower, a large church, and a number of ships along the quay.

Van Goyen’s painting must be based on reality, but, as is characteristic of the artist, it probably does not precisely record an existing scene. Van Goyen was likely inspired by a tall beacon he observed in the mid-1640s during one of his trips near Dordrecht.[3] The specific location of this structure, which he rendered twice in a sketchbook now in Museum Bredius, The Hague [fig. 1] [fig. 2], is not known, but was likely situated southwest of Dordrecht and on the opposite side of the Oude Maas.[4] This beacon, rising on a single pole from a wooden landing, is comparable in height to the one in the painting. In both instances a small wooden shelter atop the pole protects the beacon from wind and rain. Notably, however, the tower in the drawings is a much simpler structure and lacks the complex arrangement of supporting beams, ladders, and platforms that gives the tower such a dynamic presence in the painting.

The evidence that this wooden structure was the inspiration for Van Goyen’s painting stems in part from other pictorial elements in the sketches that relate to the painting. In the first of these sketches, which Van Goyen made to the left of the tower, one sees the same house that appears in the painting, as well as the church. In the second drawing, made to the right of the tower, comparable large structures—including the church, a stone tower, and a windmill—are visible along the far shore. In conceiving Ice Scene near a Wooden Observation Tower, Van Goyen elaborated upon and combined motifs from these two drawings, a working process that is consistent with the way he often used drawings as a basis for compositional ideas in his paintings.[5] He also transformed the season from summer to winter, which enabled him to enliven his scene with numerous figures skating and pushing sleds across the frozen water.

Van Goyen’s painting has a dramatic character that belies its small scale. This effect is partly the result of the vertical format, rare in his work, which he chose in order to properly feature the verticality of the wooden observation tower.[6] This orientation also allowed him to juxtapose the beacon against the winter sky, where steel-gray clouds swirl overhead and birds circle the tower, reinforcing the sense that humans and nature are intimately intertwined in this frigid landscape. Cold, wintry light pervades the scene, not only in the sky but also in the variety of light effects on the broad sheet of ice covering this stretch of water.

The painting’s freshness is enhanced by its remarkable condition. Van Goyen’s vigorous brushwork is evident throughout the painting, whether in his rendering of the wooden structure, the figures, or the branches of the trees. Interestingly, upon close observation one sees that Van Goyen initially blocked in figures and buildings in brownish-ocher paint, and then refined their shapes and gave them color in his final layer. Although he made small adjustments in the scale and position of compositional elements throughout his painting, he seems to have had a clear sense of the pictorial effects he wanted to achieve in this winter scene, which he executed with great verve and surety.

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

May 7, 2019

Inscription

lower right on the boat, VG in monogram: VG 1646

Provenance

Jacques-Phillippe Le Bas [1707-1783], Paris; (his estate sale, at his residence, Paris, 1-6 December 1783, no. 1);[1] Dulac. (Eugene Slatter Gallery, London), in 1949.[2] (Thomas Agnew & Sons, Ltd., London);[3] purchased 1976 by private collection, United States; (sale, Sotheby's, London, 30 January 2014, no. 37); (Richard Green [Fine Paintings], London); sold 30 May 2014 to NGA.

Exhibition History
1949
Exhibition of Dutch and Flemish Masters, Eugene Slatter Gallery, London, 1949, no. 4, repro., as Skating Scene.
Technical Summary

The wooden support consists of one panel with horizontal grain that was cradled during a past treatment. The support is 0.6 cm thick (1/4 in.), and the top edge of the reverse is slightly beveled. There is no evidence that the panel’s size was altered during any past treatment.

The topmost visible ground layer is off-white in color. Examination using a binocular microscope indicates there is a white layer applied throughout the sky, on top of the ground, but this layer does not extend into the foreground. The paint medium is estimated to be oil, and the layers were applied thinly with little to no impasto. The figures and objects were likely painted in stages on top of an off-white/gray layer, and it appears that the shape and contours of these elements were adjusted as Van Goyen also reworked areas of the foreground. These numerous small revisions are visible in the infrared reflectogram (IRR), but they are also easily visible in normal light; the artist only applied thin off-white/gray strokes on top of the darker paints of the figures and objects in the foreground.[1] Although the paint was applied in stages, wet over dry, many elements were worked up wet into wet during those stages, including the observation tower and the trees on the right side of the composition.

The panel is currently structurally sound, though old woodworm tunnels are visible in the x-radiograph.[2] The ground and paint layers are in very good condition. There are a few pinpoint losses in the foreground and there are several small losses along the edges. There are only minor amounts of retouching on the damages along the edges, as well as a few small, scattered areas throughout. The varnish is even and saturating.

Dina Anchin

May 7, 2019

Bibliography
1972
Beck, Hans-Ulrich. Jan van Goyen 1596-1656, ein Oeuvreverzeichnis. 4 vols. Vol. 2: Katalog der Gemälde. Amsterdam, 1973: 16, no. 30, repro.
2014
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. "Gifts and Acquisitons: Jan van Goyen, Ice Scene Near a Wooden Observation Tower." National Gallery of Art Bulletin no. 51 (Fall 2014): 21-22, repro.
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