We know little about Van der Neer’s early life or even his place of birth, but his earliest dated painting is a genre scene from 1632. His first dated landscape is from the following year and by the mid-1640s he had established himself as a landscape painter and was beginning to specialize in the subjects for which he became best known: moonlight subjects, twilight landscapes and winter scenes. In the last category, his debt to Hendrick Avercamp is clear. Moving away from the tonal landscapes and more focused depictions of his more immediate predecessors, Van der Neer returned instead to the broader views and compositional motifs that Avercamp had made famous earlier in the century. He even included the depiction of snow itself – bright white on the ground, buildings and tree limbs, which had largely disappeared in the more monochromatic landscapes of the intervening years.
From about 1660 onwards, Van der Neer began to focus primarily on winter landscapes, and the present work is among the finest examples from this extraordinarily productive period in his life. While the broad frozen river stretching out to the horizon is reminiscent of Avercamp’s compositions, Van der Neer choses a lower viewpoint and reduces the number of figures, allowing our eyes to more comfortably follow the banks of the river as they appear to recede in the distance. Enhancing this sense of recession are the carefully arranged trees, backed by a row of houses and sheds, providing a rhythmic line of verticals along the left bank. On the opposite bank is a wall enclosing a grander brick establishment and in the distance the roofs and towers of a town. On the road in the foreground stands an elegant couple, the father with his back to us looking at the figures on the frozen river, their son waiting patiently with his kolf club in his hand and their dog mesmerized by the figure passing in front of him holding a brace of waterfowl. The artist’s control is astounding, using the most delicate brush strokes to create the brown weeds in the foreground and the tree branches rimed with snow.
But it is Van der Neer’s treatment of light, both ambient and reflected, that is most extraordinary and what lifts him far above his contemporaries. Although the sky is blue and pink, lit by the setting sun, a range of cumulus clouds boiling on the horizon, these colors are barely reflected by the icy surface of the river. It is leaden in color, touched with shades of yellow and green, and chills us to look at. The details of the foreground are set crisply before us, but in the distance a mist seems to rise from the ice, blurring the windmill and the buildings around it, and finally disappearing into the cloud bank. It is a cold day and although the people skate and walk about, there is a certain restraint and inwardness about them as if in response to the frigid surroundings.
There are various schools of thought as to why winter landscapes were so popular in the Netherlands in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. One theory suggests the paintings were a response to the onset of the Little Ice Age, which began in the mid-16th century and lasted until the mid-19th century. It brought temperatures that had not been experienced in about 10,000 years, freezing the rivers and the canals and bringing people out onto the ice so that there was greater focus on cold weather activities. At the same time, throughout the entire field of Dutch landscape, there was a new-found interest in depicting the actual surroundings rather than painting more fantastical scenes. Also, the practice of painting series of the four seasons and twelve months still being in vogue, though to a somewhat lesser degree, so winter images continued to be produced. Finally there is the sheer joy of watching people perform on the ice, skating and slipping and creating poses one would never see on a less slippery surface. Whatever the reason, Van de Neer was clearly captivated by the Dutch winters, and they inspired him to create this remarkable scene, which captures a specific moment in 17th century life, yet has a timeless beauty that captures our imagination today.
1. W. Schulz, op. cit., pp. 84 and 87.
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