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Alexandra Libby, “Adam van Breen/Skating on the Frozen Amstel River/1611,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, https://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/150754 (accessed July 20, 2017).

 

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Overview

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.

Entry

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.[1] The ladies’ equally stylish escorts sport breeches and jerkins, boots and spurs, tall hats bursting with ostrich feathers, and swords hanging from bandoliers. At right, three stately men, more solemnly dressed and without skates, quietly converse, seemingly pleased by the festive ambiance. Nearby, a boy propels himself with sticks on a prikslee (small push sled), while an orphan from the Amsterdam Burgerweeshuis, recognizable by his red- and black-paneled shirt,[2] carries a colf stick over his shoulder. He greets a couple who glide hand-in-hand on long-bladed skates, dressed in the height of 17th-century Dutch fashion: he with a green jerkin and gold breeches tied at the knees with ribbon and she with a black vlieger, a long garment worn over her bodice and skirt. Farther back, in front of the large pink windmill, two figures race perpendicular to the rest of the river traffic. Although the leading skater wears a huik, his breeches identify him as a man. His quick pace and the presence of the second figure in hot pursuit suggest that the first skater is more likely a thief than a cross-dresser, who is fleeing the scene of the crime.

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 David Vinckboons (Dutch, 1576 - c. 1632), who immigrated to Amsterdam from Antwerp in the mid-1580s and was likely his teacher, Van Breen relished capturing the rhythms of the skaters, the intricacies of their costumes, and the subtleties of the weather. Indeed, atmospheric conditions permeate Skating on the Frozen Amstel River as wind blows smoke from a chimney, causes flags to flutter, and fills the sails of an iceboat.

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 Hans Bol painted in 1589 [fig. 1]: the large, wide building at the left is the Nieuwe Kerk and the distant church to its right with a tall steeple is the Oude Kerk. The third church, which overlaps with the Oude Kerk and is in the southernmost part of town, is the Zuiderkerk. This church does not appear in Bol’s view of Amsterdam because it was not built until 1603–1611.[3] Interestingly, the church spire was not constructed until 1614, three years after Van Breen executed Skating on the Frozen Amstel River. It is possible that the deeper blue paint defining the Zuiderkerk’s tower was a compositional revision Van Breen made to the completed painting after the church’s spire had been added.

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 [fig. 2], who indicated a sawmill belonging to the family of Jan Reyersz near a bend of the Amstel River [fig. 3].[4] The relative position of this mill and the “groene molen” or green mill De Rij identified closer to the city limits on the opposite side of the river is precisely the same as in Van Breen’s painting [fig. 4]. De Rij’s map also indicates that Jan Reyersz’s mill was situated on a small island, which Van Breen suggests with the two skaters engaged in a chase along the small canal perpendicular to the 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.[5] Borssenburg’s history is remarkably well-documented. It is mentioned as early as 1583 as belonging to the patrician Amsterdammers Marie Jacob Dobbesdr (d. 1596) and Jacob Bors (d. 1564), from whom the house took its name. Located only about a kilometer south of the Amsterdam city gates, Borssenburg presumably functioned as a country retreat for the Bors family. After Marie Jacob Dobbesdr died in 1596, the Bors family sold the property to Abraham Verbeeck (d. 1613) and his wife, Anna Broen.[6] Abraham, who was in the arms trade, established a gunpowder manufacturing business on the property. He listed the house, its property, and a “gunpowder mill” as collateral in a business deal in 1603, and in 1609 he described himself as a bossecruijtmaecker or gunpowder maker.[7]

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.[8]

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.[9]

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 Hieronymus Cock (Flemish, c. 1510 - 1570) issued two series of prints known as Small Landscapes that illustrated the bucolic Antwerp countryside, including its castles and manor houses.[10] About 1608–1609, Claes Jansz Visscher (Dutch, 1586/1587 - 1652) made several drawings and one etching of the country house and orchard of the Amsterdam merchant Jan Deyman [fig. 5]. Circa 1611–1612, Visscher also published a condensed and re-etched version of Cock’s Small Landscapes called Pleasant Places, which integrated identifiable castles and country houses outside the city of Haarlem into scenes of rural life.[11] Remarkably, however, there is only one example of a painting featuring an identifiable country house in a landscape prior to the 17th century: in 1578 the Flemish painter Jacob Grimmer (1525/1526–before 1590) portrayed the rural estate of the prominent Antwerp merchant Cornelis de Schot in a painting of the Kiel Canal near Antwerp.[12] Van Breen’s Skating on the Frozen Amstel River, thus, may be the earliest 17th-century Dutch example of a country house “portrait.”[13]

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,” [14] Van Breen seems to have conceived Skating on the Frozen Amstel River for Verbeeck as a portrait of his home in the festive context of the bustling activities along the frozen Amstel.

Alexandra Libby

June 30, 2017

Inscription

on gable of manor house: 16011

Inscription

Provenance

D'Estampes family, Château d'Ancise, Douy, France;[1] (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.

Bibliography
2010
Landsman, Rozemarijn. "Adam van Breen, Skating on the Frozen Amsetel River." National Gallery of Art Bulletin 43 (Fall 2010): 32, repro.
2010
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.
2010
Mitchell, William J. "Foreword." Gallery Notes [John Mitchell Fine Paintings] (June 2010): repro., as Winter Landscape.
2011
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).
Technical Summary

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.[1] There are areas in the foreground where the ground layer is easily visible, used by the artist as part of the final composition. The sky and landscape were applied broadly and wet-into-wet, while in general the trees, buildings, and figures were painted wet-into-wet over drier layers, and details were built up with small, fine brushstrokes.

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.