Friday, December 31, 2010

Hendrick Avercamp and the “Little Ice Age”

Hendrick Avercamp and the
So what to you do in the winter when the ground is covered in snow and the rivers are frozen over? Get out and enjoy of course.

Though we have other, more familiar names associated with 17th Century scenes of gatherings on the ice of frozen rivers and streams in Dutch towns (notably Bruegel), Avercamp was the first to specialize in the subject, effectively making it into a genre.

Avercamp was born in Amsterdam but grew up in Kampen, on the river IJssel. He returned to Amsterdam to study and apprentice to the portrait painter Pieter Isacqs. He also apparently absorbed influence from Flemish landscape painters who were present in Amsterdam at the time, but overall his style was unique and somewhat idiosyncratic.

Historical records indicate that Avercamp was deaf and could not speak. After his time in Amsterdam he returned to Kampen and specialized in his winter ice scenes.

This was at a time, sometimes dubbed the “Little Ice Age” when the winters were so severe that the creeks, canals and even rivers in Europe and North America froze solidly enough to support walking, skating and winter festivals. The waterways became, in effect, a different kind of town square.

I love these scenes, they seem to give us a glimpse of everyday life and people from the time. Avercamp made a point of portraying the mix of classes and levels of society that mingled on the ice, with their accordingly different modes of dress, parading in their finery, skating, working or indulging in winter sports.

In the painting above, bottom, with detail (larger version here), he has emphasized the difference between the upperclass gentleman playing colf, a predecessor of golf in which the object was to hit a ball to a pole in as few strokes as possible, and a fisherman and (presumably) his son, who look on with interest.

This was pointed out in an excellent online feature from the National Gallery in Washington, which had a show of Avercamp’s work titled Hendrick Avercamp: The Little Ice Age, back in the summer of this year (sorry I missed it) and at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam before that. The online features are still accessible, however.

There are other sources for Avercamp’s work. notably Wikimedia Commons, which has reproductions large enough to see some of the fascinating details Avercamp has worked into his scenes.

His renditions of the towns buildings and bridges, sometimes specific, sometimes imaginary, are also interesting, as is his atmospheric evocation of the winter season in the “Little Ice Age”.

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