The Wonderfully Dark Undertones of Hendrick Avercamp’s Winter Landscape
In the new year of 1608, an exceptionally cold winter gripped much of Europe.
In Germany, the River Rhine froze over all the way up to Cologne. In London, it was so cold that the Thames froze solid and became an impromptu fairground, with ice-skating and amusements set up on the ice.
Across the continent, Arctic snow and ice petrified towns and countryside. Birds froze to death, wild animals and livestock starved, and trees perished from the “great frost”.
“The cold was so extreme and the freeze so great and bitter, that nothing seemed like it in the memory of man,” wrote the Parisian diarist Pierre de l’Estoile, in whose city hundreds died from cold and hunger.
The harsh winter of 1607–08 would inspire some of the great winter landscape paintings of the era, including Winter Landscape with Skaters by the Dutch artist Hendrick Avercamp.
Joy and Darkness
On first impression, Winter Landscape with Skaters is a merry invocation of that extreme winter. It was painted around 1608, the same year as the great frost.
The Netherlands was hit particularly hard by the winter. At one point, the large inland sea of the Zuiderzee — 30 miles at its widest point — froze over entirely, allowing horses and sleighs to travel directly across it. The Dutch chronicler Theodorus Velius noted, “it was a winter whose like was unheard of in human memory.”
Avercamp’s painting gives us a frozen river overrun with ice skaters and all manner of other revellers. What I love about this image is the misty bloom that sits across the scene, that silky light — as fine as spiderweb — that gives everything a sort of smoky glow.
This hazy glare imbues the scene with a sociable, festive atmosphere. The intense activity of the iced-up riverway seems joyous and exuberant. There are sleigh rides and games of IJscolf — an early form of ice hockey. Men and women…