At Least Our Bad Winter Was No ‘Little Ice Age’

Posted March 17, 2010 at 6:00pm

For Washingtonians inundated by a record amount of snow this February, the wintry weather was more a nuisance than a source of pleasure, the crystalline beauty soon giving way to endless shoveling and plodding through prodigious mountains of slush. The ferocity of winter disrupted the daily rhythms of life.

Those who found it difficult to cope might want to visit the National Gallery of Art, where a new exhibition of winter landscape paintings by Hendrick Avercamp reveals how Dutch society adapted to the frigid realities of particularly harsh winters during Europe’s “Little Ice Age.” In Avercamp’s fastidiously detailed works, frozen lakes and rivers become the nexus in which all strata of Dutch society meet and mingle beneath a heavy gray sky.

Northern Europe endured a series of extremely harsh winters from around 1300 to 1900, earning the era the title of “Little Ice Age.” Avercamp’s paintings coincide with the coldest years of this icy era, roughly 1550-1650, a time in which protracted winters became an unavoidable feature of life and social interaction.

The 14 paintings and 16 drawings on display are all relatively small. But the complex layers of intimately rendered detail captured in each landscape merits a close look. Each one contains an incredible depth of field populated with numerous figures and groups. Avercamp’s use of colors is also stunning, as in the gradations of gray and brown that he used to create vast, impenetrable winter skies.

“Avercamp’s paintings, you have to stay with them,” said Arthur Wheelock, curator of northern baroque paintings for the National Gallery. “They are paintings that encourage you to gaze, to look into, to explore. … You have little groups, little vignettes, little stories that you can come back and explore.”

The paintings are for the most part suffused with a leisurely, joyful spirit. Brightly dressed people or arm-linked couples skate across the ice, children enjoy sled rides, groups of people mingle in conversation and men in aristocratic garb enjoy games of “colf,” a predecessor to golf. There is also a sense of suspension of everyday activities. Boats encased in ice signal a sort of stasis, especially as it pertains to the maritime trade that helped the Dutch economy to thrive.

What makes the paintings particularly interesting, however, is the wide range of social statuses and ages evident from the characters’ activities and style of dress — the partitions of class to some extent fall before the immutable dictates of the weather. For example, in “Ice Skating Near a Village,” a festively dressed man with a feather in his cap dances jauntily while a more modestly dressed couple passes by; behind them, a peddler with a cane, back laden with a bundle of straw, trudges off into the distance. In “Winter Scene on a Frozen Canal,” an opulently dressed noblewoman has her fortune told by a dark-skinned gypsy.

Although the figures are often united by what Wheelock called “a sense of joy,” the distance between them is also evident. In “Colf Players on the Ice,” a peasant dressed in a red hood and grasping an ax stands with his son, wearing tattered pants and holding a fishing net, as they watch a trio of gentleman in black suits, stockings and hats in the midst of a game of colf.

“All the kind of range of society are brought together on this ice — it’s a fascinating world,” Wheelock said.

In attempting to capture the full spectrum of society, Avercamp employs some elements that extend beyond carefully delineated indicators of class and status. Tattered Dutch flags and iconic windmills often appear. He also recognized that life was not all carefree ice-skating expeditions ­— in several of the paintings, a gallows appears in the background, and in one painting, a body hangs discernibly from the distant brown framework.

Also, certain characters seem to recur — for example, a woman sprawling on the ice, her bright undergarments visible to the viewer, is on display in several paintings. Some of Avercamp’s sketches are on view as part of the exhibition, and they underscore his work in recording human subjects before transferring them to canvass. The result is a sense that Avercamp is very much reproducing the circumstances in which he was immersed.

“Historically there’s been a lot of interest in identifying who these people [depicted in the paintings] were,” Wheelock said. “You get a feeling that there’s a community out there on the ice that Avercamp knew and depicted in his paintings.”

“The Little Ice Age” is on display at the National Gallery of Art from Sunday through July 5.