- Hendrick Avercamp
- A panoramic winter landscape with a multitude of figures on a frozen river
- oil on oak panel
Francis William Browne, 4th Baron Kilmaine (1843–1907), The Neale, Co. Mayo, Ireland;
Thence by direct family descent.
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The current appearance of the painting is shown here, but a reconstruction of its original appearance is shown as well, which includes a small section of the added plank, to recover the original proportions (see fig. 1). The lower two planks of the current panel thus comprise about 95% of the originally visible panel, allowing for the rebate of a frame. The proportions and the high horizon line are a key pointer to an early dating, and this is supported by tree-ring analysis (see below). Few of Avercamp’s pictures are dated, and latter-day scholars wisely suggest a relatively broad span of dates for undated works. Nonetheless, a comparison with one of his earliest dated pictures, the small landscape in Bergen, Norway, of 1608 shows a similarly high horizon line, also to be found in other works thought to date from the years around 1610 and the early teens. Avercamp was not consistent with horizon lines, but it is clear that by circa 1620 they are consistently lower, usually around the centre-line of the composition, and by the mid-1620s they are generally lower still. Avercamp’s early pictures are, like the present work, packed full of figures on the ice – too many to count – while many of his later works are sparser.
Details of Avercamp’s life are scant, and no biography of him was written until the latter part of the eighteenth century. His nickname was ‘De Stomme van Kampen’ (the Mute of Kampen), but we do not know for certain if he was in fact deaf or mute or both, and it is more likely that he was man of few words. It has become fashionable to make a romantic connection between his alleged affliction and the isolation from the world which it implies and his subject matter, so that one exhibition a few years ago was even entitled ‘Frozen Silence’. He lived for much of his life and died in Kampen, a city without a strong native artistic tradition in the eastern Dutch province of Overijssel. Avercamp included its fortified walls in several of his winter landscapes. He was however born in Amsterdam and spent some years there, perhaps as many as six, during his apprenticeship to the painter Pieter Isaacsz., whose elegant mannerist style, however, left no visible imprint on him. The present work was very likely painted during Avercamp’s Amsterdam sojourn.
Avercamp liked to re-use particular figures and elements in diverse compositions. Some of these evolved through several pictures over a span of dates, but many are generally found in paintings of roughly the same period. In many-figured paintings such as the present one, a list of such motifs would be a long one, but here follows a sample with its location in the present work listed first:
The rough wooden privy with a naked arse in the moment of defecation to the extreme left occurs first in a work of circa 1605 in Vienna. Similar structures occur in later pictures, but of different architecture and with greater modesty.
Several motifs from the present picture are found in a painting in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, of circa 1608.2 These include the figure kneeling on the ice tying the laces of his skates in the extreme foreground, who is similarly placed in the Amsterdam work, the bird trap to the centre-left – a motif made famous in the works of Pieter Brueghel the Younger where a re-used old wooden door also serves as the trap – found in the lower left of the Amsterdam work, and the man right-of-centre stepping forward on his skates holding a fishing spear found nearer the right foreground in the Amsterdam picture.
A similar, though not identical castle with round tower that dominates the central background occurs in reverse in a similar position in a tondo winter landscape, also of circa 1608, in the National Gallery, London. The boat equipped with runners and flying a flag from its stern sailing away from us close hauled that occurs in the distance is to be found in several winter landscapes by Avercamp.3 Likewise the cartwheel fixed horizontally to a post found to the left, the largely submerged rowing boat to the right, and the remains of a horse frozen in the ice to the extreme left.4
Many other figures are similarly attired stock types that recur, though not identically depicted, in many works by Avercamp. There is a rich variety of lavishly dressed figures, both male and female, in the present picture, in which everyone who can is showing off their finery. Many of the ladies are wearing black sleeveless full-length cloaks, with headdresses with upstanding spikes. These cloaks, of which Avercamp painted in a number of forms, were called huiken, and originated in North Africa, passing via Spain to the Spanish Netherlands, and are often seen in Flemish painting from the late sixteenth century onwards. They would have been less common in Avercamp’s Kampen in the Eastern Netherlands, but were the height of fashion in Brabant, and Avercamp may have seen them in Amsterdam.5 They occur in several other works by him, including the winter landscapes on long-term loan from the Rijksmuseum to The Mauritshuis, The Hague, of circa 1610, and in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, of circa 1620.6 Groups of couples skating away from the viewer, like the ones in the centre of the present picture, are found in several other early works, including the picture dated 1608 in Bergen. Most of the ladies are wearing bell-shaped hooped skirts, originally Spanish, called verdugado or farthingale in English, which were fashionable in Flanders at the end of the sixteenth century, but one has the slightly later drum-shaped hoop skirt which arrived from France in the first decade of the seventeenth century.7 Many of the women in the present picture and many other Avercamps wear black masks, whether to remain incognito or to preserve a desirable complexion, or most likely to protect them from the cold.8 Familiar too from many of the artist’s works are figures playing colf on the ice – here near the river bank to the left.
A familiar characteristic of many of Avercamp’s ice-scenes are the shadows of figures that the artist first included and then, changing his mind, painted out. The gradually increasing translucence of the overpaint often causes these to re-emerge. Perhaps because the artist used thicker paint in the present picture, they are less evident to the naked eye, but several of them can be seen in the infra-red image reproduced here (Fig. X), especially in the right foreground.
We are most grateful to Pieter Roelofs of the Rijksmuseum for his help in cataloguing this picture. He has suggested that the soldiers laying down arms in the left foreground, a motif not found in other works by the artist, may indicate that the painting dates from shortly after the signing of the Treaty of Antwerp in 1609, an armistice which initiated the Twelve Years Truce between the Dutch Republic and the Spanish Netherlands.
A tree-ring analysis of the three planks currently comprising the panel was conducted by Ian Tyers of Dendrochronological Consultancy Ltd in April 2013.9 The two lower planks were sawn from the same slow-growing and long-lived Baltic oak tree which was felled after 1590, and they were almost certainly available for use during the first decade of the seventeenth century. The original panel was composed of these two planks alone. The added upper plank, also of Baltic oak, was sawn from a tree felled after 1627, and thus unlikely to have been available for use during Avercamp’s lifetime.
An X-Ray taken by Art Access Research in June 2013 shows clearly the consistent character of the lower two planks, and the very different appearance of the upper one, which seems to have a different ground layer (see Fig. 3). Remnants of a painted structure in the upper right corner suggest that the added plank had previously been used as part of the support of another panel painting. This makes it likely that the present panel was enlarged rather later than the earliest likely date of use of the upper plank in the mid-seventeenth century.
Infra-red imaging (IRR) made by Art Access Research in June 2013 underscores the different character of the upper plank, and clearly shows a pattern of receding black and white floor tiles in the upper right corner, indicating that the previous use of this plank was as the right-hand plank of an upright panel, probably a portrait (see Fig. 2).
The early history of this painting is as yet unknown. Although not securely documented in the present family until 1907, it is very probable that the painting entered the collection at a much earlier date. According to family history, the 2nd Baron Kilmaine, M.P. for Carlow 1790–1794, was acquiring paintings in the 1790s as his diary entry records when visiting London on 20 October 1795: ‘Go to Christy’s auction in Pal Mal’. Despite the fact there is no documentary evidence, some of the seventeeth-century Dutch and Flemish paintings and eighteenth-century Irish landscapes purchased at this period are illustrated in nineteenth-century watercolours of the Interiors of The Neale.
The painting is listed in the 1907 Inventory and Valuation of Paintings at The Neale produced by Bennett & Sons at the death of the 4th Baron Kilmaine and a letter and bill addressed to the 5th Baron Kilmaine (1878–1957) at The Neale in September 1909 from John & Edward Tracey, ‘Picture Cleaners, Restorers and Liners to the National Gallery of Ireland’, 13, Heytesbury Street, Dublin: ‘the panel picture, Skating Scene, is also very good. For setting 5 pictures to rights, this including touching up the frame will be £3’.
The painting remained at The Neale until 1925 when the 5th Baron Kilmaine sold his estates in Ireland and the family moved to England. The painting has remained in the collection of the present family hidden from public view until its recent discovery.
1. On the basis of a photograph, Dr Roell, Director General of the Rijksmuseum, wrote in a letter dated 21 February 1949 that in his opinion the present work is ‘a genuine and excellent work by Hendrick Avercamp’. Earlier attributions to Molenaer and Brueghel are recorded.
2. See P. Roelofs, Winter landscape with skaters. Hendrick Avercamp, Amsterdam 2013, 78pp.
3. See P. Roelofs, Hendrick Avercamp, exhibition catalogue, Amsterdam 2009, p. 62, fig. 61.
4. Idem, p. 73, fig. 88.
5. See B. M. du Mortier, in Roelofs, op. cit., pp. 154–6, figs. 201–05.
6. See Roelofs, op. cit., pp. 46, 50, reproduced figs 35 and 42.
7. See du Mortier, op. cit., p. 148, fig. 187 and p. 151, figs 191 and 192.
8. Idem, p. 152.
9. Report 603. A printed copy of this is available on request and will be posted with the online catalogue of this sale.