AVERCAMP ON ICE
One of the all-time favorite paintings at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam is this winter landscape by Hendrick Avercamp. Small children in particular can spend ages staring breathlessly at the countless people depicted on and near the frozen river. Most of the figures enjoy themselves with ice-skating, sleighing and playing kolf (a sport similar to hockey), while others are busy selling merchandise or performing daily chores such as chopping wood and washing clothes. Avercamp didn’t forget to add some naughty details, such as the love couple in the hay stack on the left and other persons who are defecating, urinating or just show their buttocks.
Avercamp (1585-1634) lived and worked in the relatively small town Kampen, in the Dutch province of Overijssel. Here, far removed from known centers of artistic production such as Haarlem and Leiden, he became one of the first landscape painters of the Dutch School. Avercamp (nicknamed ‘The Mute of Kampen’ for his inability to speak) specialized in paintings depicting ice-skating people, not a very odd choice given the abundance of water in the Netherlands and the harsh winters of that period.
This painting from 1608 is typical for his work: its high horizon and bird's-eye view offer the artist the opportunity to show as many aspects of winter life as possible. But, due to Avercamp’s refined use of color and atmospheric perspective (colours and shapes that fade into the distance), the spectator experiences depth instead of just an accumulation of elements.
Besides such carefully conceived artistic concepts, Avercamp’s winter landscapes also provide an insight into historical reality, namely that in the Low Countries, skating fun brought together a wide range of people (and in a sense still does). All different strata of society, young and old, poor and rich, were enjoying themselves on the slippery ice. Avercamp shows them all, with their respective practices, specific accessories and apparel, thus presenting a wonderful visual overview of 17th-century society.
(text: Maarten Levendig)