Hendrick Avercamp would bring something relatively unique to the Dutch Golden Age, with a series of winter-themed landscape paintings. His scenes would typically capture the lives of all levels of Dutch society, out together in the snow.
Avercamp would depict all manner of different activities being performed out in these cold environments, and they help to remind us of how the Dutch would adapt to the seasons and find possibilities in each. Ice skating features particularly frequently and this was a pastime that was restricted to just a small part of the year, and so the public would rush out with excitement to take advantage of their local frozen lakes and rivers. There was a particularly cold period in the Netherlands at around that time which made these pursuits all the necessary. Some have since termed it the Little Ice Age, and several notable artists would capture winter scenes within their careers. Hendrick Avercamp would take on other content within his career, but these were very much of the fringes and do not tend to receive much exposure as compared to artworks such as Fun on the Ice, Winter Scene on a Canal and Winter Landscape with Skaters.
Dutch art had been blessed with the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder some years earlier and his approach much surely have influenced Avercamp. Although most of his scenes were based outside of winter conditions, they were similar in how the local public were dispersed right across the scene and in all manner of different postures and poses. Avercamp stuck to the flat landscapes of the Netherlands, with any vertical balance being provided by the occasional building. There would also be trees carefully laid out in the foreground to frame one side of his paintings, just as the Bruegels would do years earlier. He would sometimes lift the horizon to above the half way point in order to free up more space for his charming figures, and the winter theme often created something of a relaxing atmosphere within his paintings. His figurative abilities were developed during his time as a draughtsman and many of his drawings would also be sold on.
The majority of this artist's paintings and drawings now reside within a number of public collections in the Netherlands and the UK. The artist only left behind around one hundred and fifty artworks in total, and he was always regarded as something of a niche artist within the overall Dutch art scene of the 17th century. The scenes themselves hold a timeless charm which ensures he is regularly discussed even today, and his work is positively promoted in a number of high profile art institutions such as the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Mauritshuis in The Hague, as well as the National Gallery in London, UK. There is a historical quality to his figurative work which reveals to us what life was like for different levels of society in the Netherlands at that time, and Avercamp always instilled a positive mood within his work. His work can therefore be appreciated by both academics and also those who prefer more accessible artworks.
Hendrick Avercamp was born in Amsterdam and would study here under a number of established artists. The most likely tutors would have been Peter Isaacsz and Peter Vinkboons, though there is relatively little documentation available on his life which makes these connections more of an educated guess. We do know that he would also have come across the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder from around half a century earlier too, and many stylistic similiarities can be drawn between the two. In 1608, whilst in his early twenties, he would relocate to Kampen and this is where he would develop as an artist towards what we remember today. Despite the many opportunities that lie for him elsewhere, Avercamp would stay in Kampen for the rest of his life, and this is how he earnt the nickname of De Stomme van Kampen, which referred to his mute nature. The artist would sketch various items of architecture around Kampen before returning to his studio from where he would develop these ideas in oils.
Style and Techniques
The artist's remarkably astute nature allowed him to spot all manner of different activities that were being carried out by local people in their winter environment. He would sketch some of these and make simple notes about others before attempting to display as many of these as possible across his sprawling landscapes. He likely would have produced a landscape painting as any other artist would do, before then appending the charming figures on top afterwards. Castle walls and windmills can be seen in some of his backgrounds, as well as a plethora of single storey homes that were dotted about in his local town. The frozen lakes would always take centrestage, as well as the many interesting characters that would fill them. You will find the rich and the poor all playing together, along with horses, sleighs, and all manner of innovative games being played. The Netherlands looked a happy and sociable place judging by the style and content of Hendrick Avercamp's paintings, when in reality the region as going through a trying time as temperatures continued to drop, year on year.
What Activities could be seen in the winter landscapes?
Ice skating was the most common pastime to be found in Avercamp's snowy scenes. You will see characters spread across his paintings, many of whom appear to have been waiting all year for this opportunity. There seemed a rare moment of community spirit and a connection between different levels of society, a little like Christmas, where anyone and everyone gets together on the ice. Aside from skating, there is also tobogganing and snowball throwing. There is also an early form of ice hockey on show here too, many years before it would develop into what it is today. There are horses included in some examples which carry the elderly across the ice on sleighs, allowing them to enjoy some of the atmosphere but without any of the danger. Finally, there are also many figures who are simply standing around chatting to their friends, or perhaps having a slow stroll with their family as the people of Kampen enjoy some sunshine and light before the latest long night sets in.
The Mute of Kampen
The artist would become known as The Mute of Kampen, having spent most of his life in this Dutch town. It is quite likely that he was deaf and rarely, if ever, spoke, though it remains unclear as to whether he was actually entirely mute or just particularly quiet. As someone who was born as long ago as the late 16th century, many aspects of his life are hard to precisely understand, and we are left with elements of second and third hand stories from the generations that followed on after. It must also be remembered that anyone suffering significant disabilities at that time would have found it particularly difficult to survive and succeed across their lifetime, even more so than today, meaning that his achievements were all the more impressive. He may have been used to witnessing people from afar because of these problems, and perhaps that aided his ability to notice the subtle behaviours of the public.
Hendrick Avercamp's Most Famous Paintings
The most famous paintings by Hendrick Avercamp are all fairly similar, featuring his signature style of multiple figures out playing on the ice. They would be dispersed around a breaktaking landscape, with the artist varying some of the background details, as well as the activities involved. Into this category we find the likes of Winter Landscape with Skaters, Ice-skating in a Village, A Winter Scene with Skaters near a Castle and A Scene on the Ice near a Town. There are then another ten or twenty paintings which follow this format. Beyond those, we then find a large number of sketches, some of which focus on individual figures in greater detail, as well as other scenes from across the Netherlands in a brighter, more summery season. The prominence of some of the artworks meantioned here over others can sometimes be more about the significance of the gallery that owns them, rather than the qualities of each individual painting. A recent exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, for example, would have given Avercamp's paintings from their own collection a renewed focus.
Which other Artists produced Winter Landscape Scenes?
Hendrick Avercamp is regarded as the earliest notable landscape painter within the Dutch Golden Age but there have been a number of others who have addressed the same winter theme. He would have seen the earlier work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, for example, who gave us the likes of Hunters in the Snow, but only a small selection of his work was based in this season. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of these other artists would come from European regions in and around Russia. The combination of long winters and exceptionally skilled artists would bring about the careers of the likes of Alexei Savrasov, Ivan Shishkin and Ivan Fedorovich Choultsé. Another notable name was Ludwig Munthe who produced most of his work in Germany and devoted most of his oeuvre to scenes set in the European winter. The majority of the artists featured here followed the Realism style, in which detail is broadly depicted in a precise manner, accurate to what the artist would have originally seen at the time.
What was the Little Ice Age?
The Little Ice Age may have influenced the artist direction of artists like Hendrick Avercamp. It was a period of lower temperatures which occured across large parts of the world, including Northern Europe. It lasted from around the 15th to the early 19th century but was part of a wider drop in temperature that had begun many centuries before that. Local people within the Netherlands, during the time of Avercamp, would notice lakes and rivers freezing more frequently, and they quickly started to adapt to these changing conditions by holding social occasions and events on them, including toboganning and ice skating. The cold weather would also have caused problems for the poor, but this artist's work would always focus on the more positive impact that it made. One can track the changes in climate by how Bruegel first included these scenes within his work in the mid 16th century, with Avercamp following on around fifty years later. The winters would also be a little longer as temperatures dropped, giving more opportunities for artists such as these to study and paint these themes.
Hendrick Avercamp contributed a unique body of work to the Dutch Golden Age, widening its scope within the visual arts. His legacy was to continue the use of multi figure landscape scenes which were popular within Dutch art at that time, but to also bring winter themes into this genre. Additionally, he captured different classes of society together and perhaps hoped that a more equal world could be strived towards. Whilst he is not one of the biggest names of the Dutch Golden Age, like a Rembrandt, or a Vermeer, he is still highly regarded and much loved by the public today who appreciate the content and style of his paintings. The Rijksmuseum continue to draw attention to his achievements, with exhibitions of his work and publications of his oeuvre still fairly common all these centuries later. Considering the disabilities that he endured, this is an impressive and innovative figure who deservedly remains in our thoughts.