Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Avercamp's Winter Scenes: Now or Then?

The Dutch climate dictates many facts of life in The Netherlands. The winters are long and dark and the summers are short and glorious, with long, perfect sunny days. At the first sign of warm weather, the Dutch are out in the sun. To walk past any Amsterdam café any afternoon in the summer is to pass rows of patrons enjoying the hospitality of the café almost as much as they enjoy basking in rows in the glorious sunshine.Sitting at the table together, they turn all chairs to the sun, as if they are there to pay homage to it rather than to converse with each other. In fact, passing some cafes, it is hard not to be reminded of turtles lined up in the sunshine on a partially submerged log.

With the recent cold snap, I have learned a winter habit of the Dutch as interesting and nature related as their famous love of sunshine. As soon as the canals freeze, out come the skates. The temperature in Amsterdam recently has not reached above freezing and the Prinsengracht and the Keizersgracht are frozen solid. The moment the ice was thick enough people were on it. In fact, the first night people started venturing out onto it there were several accidents where someone fell through the ice. Now, as you can see, the ice is plenty thick for pedestrians, skaters and posers.

The scene of all this activity on the frozen canals reminds me of paintings by Hendrick Avercamp. He lived from 1585 to 1634, and between 1610 and his death, specialized in scenes of people frolicking on the frozen waterways of The Netherlands. This painting from the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is called Winter Landscape with Skaters, and dates from 1608, but it is much more than that. It is a social history textbook for the 17th Century Netherlands.
His scenes include people from all walks of life pursuing many different activities, preserving a great deal of social history. Where else do you see how upended rowboats were used as privies (look just above the little bridge at the lower left hand side and see someone relieving him or herself in such a structure)? Look behind the large brick building on the left, between it and the church, where you see a giant haystack with a conical roof. Look closely and you will find a pair of lovers trysting in the hay just under the roof.

In some of Avercamp’s scenes you may find a lady with exposed bum, having fallen on the ice without any undies, or a man relieving himself against a wall. Sometimes someone has fallen through the ice and people come to the rescue with ladders. The man just to the right of the center of this canvas has fallen on the ice and lost his hat.

Boats are frozen in their berths; someone walks across the ice carrying a load of hay. Teams of boys play kolf, a game related to both hockey and golf. A woman washes clothes through a hole in the ice and well dressed people skate in a group.
A group of thrillseekers rides a horsedrawn sleigh on the ice.
All these snippets of life are available if you take a moment to examine an Avercamp painting. In that moment you will discover an artist with a wicked sense of humor and keen powers of observation of both the natural and social world.

Known as “the mute from Kampen,” Avercamp was deaf and unable to speak. His handicap may have contributed to his ability to observe and express the variety of details of life that he so deftly displays in his many panels. Though he comes from a long tradition of northern landscape painters who include anecdotal scenes of everyday life, and he also comes from a long tradition of paintings of the seasons, Avercamp is the first to specialize in winter scenes with such rich social detail.
This painting was made in about 1608-1610. Caravaggio died in 1610. The Renaissance had happened. Mannerism was dying a slow death in Rome. The baroque had not really gotten going. Bosch and Breughel were gone. Rembrandt and Vermeer were a few years off. And here was this little guy who was deaf and couldn’t speak, who studied in Amsterdam under a Danish landscape painter, recording in his studio in Kampen some of the most interesting social history of any painter - in incredible detail and with an obvious sense of humor. Though he is not well known today, once you have discovered the magic of Avercamp’s winter scenes, you can appreciate that he was quite popular and well known in his day, and you have an insight into the Dutch culture of self-effacing humor. Looking at those Avercamps and watching the residents of Amsterdam playing on their frozen canals this week, I have to note: the more things change, the more they remain the same.


  1. Fascinating, as Mr. Spock would say. I had read that when the the English first settled Jamestown the world was in the grip of a mini-ice age, so perhaps this extended to the Netherlands as well. The time frame is absolutely right.

    Take care and watch for thin ice!