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An eye for detail

Looking from the foreground hill in Brueghel's famous "Hunters in the Snow," 1565, the viewer sees in the distant valley below a crowd of small figures in all sorts of lively pursuits on a frozen lake. The picture by Hendrick Avercamp shown here was painted some 50 years later and it is as if this artist has walked down into Brueghel's populated valley and is part of the scene he paints -- on a level with the skaters, walkers, talkers, gazers, workers, players, standers, fallers, sitters, leaners, and wanderers on the ice. Some of the Flemish followers of Brueghel settled in Amsterdam, and Avercamp (who was born there but spent most of his life in Kampen) may have come under their influence. In turn, he influenced several painters of ice scenes which, with his own, today seem to epitomize a particular aspect of the Dutch seventeenth century.

The change of viewpoint from the Brueghel picture to the Avercamp is not just a difference in character between two painters (the first far greater than the second). It also signifies a shift in sensibility. Seventeenth century Holland produced artists able to view the contemporary world with great directness. The Mannerist underpinnings of Flemish sixteenth century painting -- very much present even in a realist like Brueghel -- with its expansive, universal, almost heroic imaginativeness, gave way to something specific, often local, and certainly factual. This was assisted in landscape painting by a low viewpoint and a growing skill of Dutch artists to paint, realistically, their own flat countryside.

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Avercamp felt no need to raise his horizon in order to avoid a vast sky. Indeed he doesn't treat the sky as so much empty space, but as a great and positive canopy of light and atmosphere dominating the scene. The lake and the marvellously observed and various figures recede into the distance where sky and land meet, and the sense of bracing open air combined with a winter stillness is partly the result of the contrast between the overcrowded activity of the icescape and the spaciousness of the sky, punctuated only by the faintest suggestion of cloud formations and by two or three birds.

In his "Observations Upon the Province of the United Netherlands," the Englishman Sir William Temple remarked that ". . . Many times their havens are all shut up for two or three months with ice, while ours are open and free," so that Avercamp's specialization in lively and entertaining icescenes was not just a personal whim, but the study of a national phenomenon. Relaxation, enjoyment, and a sense of the naturally theatrical antics of humans on ice (a rich combination of buffoonery and ballet) pervades Avercamp's art. Some of his pictures seem virtually to be catalogs of winter pastimes. But it is clear that apart from the accuracy of dress, posture and activity, it is the way in which the whiteness of the ice silhouettes the forms of the figures, and enlivens colors that is his predominant excitement as a visual artist. The stimulated movements of people on frozen water is paralleled by a vivid stimulus to the eye. The Impressionists, with rather different results, were more than two centuries later to be fascinated with the same qualities. Monet painted snow scenes with unusual frequency, and also crowds of people receding perspectively into the distance. Avercamp, however, was concerned with minutely and lovingly rendered details, and gave close attention to the "still life" aspects of landscape -- here consisting of brooms and barrels, roof tiles, doors, brickwork , a chopping block and chopper and so on -- which the Impressionists would have largely lost in their over-all interest in light effects.

The Dutch painters' affection for detail has its precedent in even earlier Flemish painting than Brueghel's -- in Van der Goes, Van Eyck, Rogier Van der Weyden. It is intriguing also to know that many seventeenth century Dutch painters continued to paint on wood panels, long after canvas became usual elsewhere. This allowed for the crystalline precision and meticulousness that they and their public relished. Avercamp was one to continue this traditional practice while at the same time his "Scenes of Contemporary Life" can now be seen as foretelling certain pre-occupations of the nineteenth century.


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