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The iceman cometh: Jonathan Lopez applauds the joy implicit in Hendrick Avercamp's wintry landscapes.

Hendrick Avercamp: The Little Ice Age 21 March-5 July 2010 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC Catalogue by Pieter Roelofs (ed.) ISBN 9789086890590 (paperback), 24.95 [euro]/$45 (Rijksmuseum)

The Dutch, fond as they are of ice skating and winter sports, often lament that their nation's extensive network of canals and waterways doesn't freeze nearly so often as it once did, last year's cold snap notwithstanding. It is said, for instance, that the winter of 1608 was so frigid that the ice on the Zuiderzee--a bay then open to the North Sea but now largely filled in by earth and dykes--measured more than two feet thick at the shore. This was the chilly environment, the so-called 'Little Ice Age' of the early 17th century, in which Hendrick Avercamp worked and flourished. The first painter from the northern Netherlands to specialise in winter landscapes, Avercamp--a mute in life but richly eloquent in his art--is currently the subject of a handsome and judicious exhibition on view in Washington, after its original showing at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (20 November 2009-15 February 2010), where it was organised by Pieter Roelofs.

As an artistic genre, the winter landscape traces its origins to medieval calendars and illuminated books of hours. One thinks of the image representing February in the early 15th-century Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, where a group of peasants huddle for warmth in their home, at the base of a snow-covered hillside, while a woodsman explores a nearby forest for kindling. Accompanied by scriptural references and tableaux depicting other months of the year, such a scene operates within an established framework of prayer and devotion to evoke the cycle of life. The Christian religious context becomes somewhat more subtle as winter landscapes make the transition into panel painting. In the Flemish tradition, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, whose winter scenes are among the most significant in the history of art, offers a clear biblical narrative in The Census at Bethlehem (1566; Musees Royaux, Brussels), in which the Holy Family go unnoticed amid the worldly commotion of an icy town. But Bruegel employs only the most cryptic of clues linking his motif to the themes of mortality and earthly transience in The Hunters in the Snow (January) (1565; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), where birds, traditionally understood to symbolise the soul or spirit, are the hunters' prey.


Perhaps reflecting his own temperament as well as the larger culture of the Protestant north, Avercamp deviates sharply from the southern Netherlandish tradition by displaying scarcely any trace of spiritual foreboding in his work, which consists, by and large, of a closely observed celebration of the habits and customs of the community, not a meditation on the end of days. Working just one generation after Bruegel, Avercamp adopts the older artist's pale backgrounds and bright local colouring, but Bruegers gravitas gives way to what the Dutch might call gezelligheid, a term sometimes translated as 'cosiness', although it also implies numerous other qualities, such as charm, festivity and a broad sense of good fellowship.

Looking at Avercamp's work, one surmises--perhaps erroneously--that winter was a very gezellig time of year during the 17th century, that men and women, young and old, rich and poor, all took gamely to the ice in order to skate, sled, fish, play 'colf' (a precursor to hockey), toss snowballs, or simply enjoy the company of neighbours. Although Avercamp's subject is, in essence, sheer joy, he manages to avoid insipidness not only through his craftsmanship and attention to telling details, but through his ability to capture an evolving and important aspect of his society's underlying ethos: from a nationalistic standpoint, the very contentment of the Dutch could be taken as a manifestation of their rectitude and their right to stand independent from the oppressive designs of outside powers, namely Catholic Spain (a concept broadly analogous to a line of thinking I discussed in Apollo, March 2009, with reference to 17th-century Dutch cityscapes).


One impediment to giving Avercamp his due in an exhibition is that the popularity of his work has, over the centuries, inspired the efforts of innumerable imitators and copyists, resulting in an oeuvre crowded by dubious pictures of feeble quality. It is to the great credit of Roelofs and his counterpart in Washington, Arthur Wheelock, that the current show contains only the artist's best works, yielding a display that sparkles and, at times, surprises. Although Avercamp basically produced only two kinds of paintings--ice scenes in which the figures are seen at a distance from a high viewpoint, and ice scenes in which the figures are seen at close quarters from a low viewpoint--there is more variety within those constraints than one might imagine. For instance, Winter Landscape with a Peat Boat, c. 1608, from the Musee d'Art et d'Histoire, Geneva, is uncharacteristically sombre in tone, but one could hardly doubt that it is by Avercamp's hand (Fig. 2). Not only do the figures and handling recall the artist's other works, but the ingenious devices employed to create a sense of recession into depth--including a few conveniently placed cottages, boats and tree limbs--give the painting the gracious and measured impression of space that sets Avercamp apart from most of his imitators.

It is regrettable that the allotted galleries in Washington cannot accommodate more of Avercamp's drawings. The extensive selection of finished pen-and-brush pieces (many tinted with watercolour), as well as rare and fascinating preparatory sketches that were assembled at the Rijksmuseum by drawings curator Marijn Schapelhouman, revealed a versatility to Avercamp's output--farm scenes, genre studies, marine subjects--that the paintings do not suggest. Schapelhouman discusses this issue and the larger subject of Avercamp's draughtsmanship in an excellent and amply illustrated catalogue essay. Also noteworthy in the catalogue is a biographical study by the Rijksmuseum's research curator, Jonathan Bikker. Without sentimentalising Avercamp's affliction, Bikker explores the status of deaf-mutes within 17th-century Dutch society, making frequent recourse to archival documents, thus lending much-needed context to the scarce details of Avercamp's life--yet another instance in which the seemingly 'light' subject of Avercamp has benefited from this exhibition's sober and scholarly approach.

Jonathan Lopez is author of The Man Who Made Vermeers, e biography of the forger Han ven Meegeren.
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Title Annotation:'Hendrick Avercamp: The Little Ice Age 21 March-5 July 2010 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC'
Author:Lopez, Jonathan
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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