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.
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
An excellent example of a tonal landscape is Van Goyen’s View of Dordrecht from the Dordtse Kil (National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1978.11.1).
See Van Goyen’s View of Rhenen (National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2014.136.33).
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.
The Dutch erected numerous tall warning markers along their inner waterways. Many of them, as seen in Simon de Vlieger’s Estuary at Day’s End (National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1997.101.1), were simple structures, often with a barrel placed on top of a tall pole. These structures warned sailors of the presence of dangerous sandbars that would not have been visible at high tide. Shorebirds nested in the barrels, and in foggy weather or at twilight, when the markers were not visible, sailors would watch the birds’ flight patterns as an indicator of what lay ahead. For paintings by Van Goyen that depict similar wooden structures, see Hans-Ulrich Beck, Jan van Goyen, 1596–1656: ein Oeuvreverzeichnis, vol. 2, Katalog der Gemälde (Amsterdam, 1973), 321, cat. no. 704; 341, cat. nos. 757 and 759; 356–357, cat. nos. 795, 796, and 798; 367, cat. no. 819; 390, cat. no. 871; 398, cat. no. 885.
See Edwin Buijsen, The Sketchbook of Jan van Goyen from the Bredius-Kronig Collection (The Hague, 1993), 1:15–16, 67, fol. nos. 43 and 44. The earliest sheet in this sketchbook dates from 1644. Buijsen notes that these two drawings of a landing with a beacon were probably made near Dordrecht because the large squat building in the background of fol. no. 44 superficially resembles the tower of the Grote Kerk, also known as the Onze Lieve Vrouwe Kerk, in that city. Hans-Ulrich Beck connected these drawings to two paintings by Van Goyen (but not to Ice Scene near a Wooden Observation Tower). See Hans-Ulrich Beck, Jan van Goyen, 1596–1656: ein Oeuvreverzeichnis, vol. 2, Katalog der Gemälde (Amsterdam, 1973), 364, cat. no. 811; 370, cat. no. 825. Should the large structure on the far shore be Dordrecht’s Grote Kerk, it is likely that Van Goyen drew this wooden beacon near the village of Lijnde, just south of Zwijndrecht.
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.
For further examples of this approach, see Ilona van Tuinen, “Jan van Goyen,” in Ger Luijten, Peter Schatborn, and Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., Drawings for Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt (Milan, 2016), 127–129.
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.
Beck only lists three other winter scenes in vertical format. See Hans-Ulrich Beck, Jan van Goyen, 1596–1656: ein Oeuvreverzeichnis, vol. 2, Katalog der Gemälde (Amsterdam, 1973), 15–16, cat. nos. 27, 28, and 29a.
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
lower right on the boat, VG in monogram: VG 1646
Jacques-Phillippe Le Bas [1707-1783], Paris; (his estate sale, at his residence, Paris, 1-6 December 1783, no. 1); Dulac. (Eugene Slatter Gallery, London), in 1949. (Thomas Agnew & Sons, Ltd., London); 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 of Dutch and Flemish Masters, Eugene Slatter Gallery, London, 1949, no. 4, repro., as Skating Scene.
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.
Infrared reflectography was carried out using a Santa Barbara Focalplane InSb camera filtered to 1.1–1.4 microns (J filter).
The panel is currently structurally sound, though old woodworm tunnels are visible in the x-radiograph.
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 30 kV, 5 mA, 30 seconds, and 40 in. distance (from source to plate). The resulting digital images were composited and processed using Adobe Photoshop CS5.
May 7, 2019
- Beck, Hans-Ulrich. Jan van Goyen 1596-1656, ein Oeuvreverzeichnis. 4 vols. Vol. 2: Katalog der Gemälde. Amsterdam, 1973: 16, no. 30, repro.
- 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.