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Enjoyable times on the skates often preceded by chaos in traffic

Snow and ice through the Ages

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

News images of New York City traffic grinding to a halt during a blizzard and Dutch freeways turning into parking lots during wet snow flurries and freezing rain rarely call up warm sentiments the way other winter photography and the winterscapes by sixteenth and seventeenth Dutch masters do.

Crawling home on slippery roads is a harrowing experience. Taking to the ice the way Dutch skaters do is a rare experience for most people and highly enjoyable when the conditions allow it. Over the past number of weeks the Low Countries, especially the Netherlands, could take in both abundantly as the temperatures stayed at or even well below zero and the snow kept falling at often inopportune times.

Recent weeks taught people once again how a bit of snow can undo even the most up-to-date technological advancements in travel systems: thousands of airline flights were cancelled, numerous others delayed, an untold number of luggage pieces were separated from travelers, flight connections were lost and many passengers used airport terminals as huge dormitories.

The high-tech rail systems in the Netherlands did not fare much better. Parliamentarians received ample opportunity to showcase their indignation at how a bit of snow could derail train schedules and stop whole trains in their tracks. Some of them bristled that when commuters are forced to leave their cars at home, they at least should be able to hop on the train and ought not to discover then that the railway system has cut back on the number of rides. Ironically, the bus lines escaped much of the wrath aimed at railways and airlines.

Winter does not seem to be very inviting to technology and modern people moving systems. With so much attention paid to global warming and ways to fight it, unfortunately British airports seem to have neglected to invest in adequate snow removal and de-icing equipment.

Sightseeing on skates

Taking off from busy schedules for an afternoon on ice skates, quickly makes one lose the sense of frustration and anxiety. A frosty cold snap allows Dutch skaters to explore places they otherwise rarely travel, sightseeing cityscapes and landscapes from the canal side. With faces tingling from the cold while getting warm on the inside, skaters add up the kilometers to the sound of steel touching the ice, the feeling of freedom takes over and pushes thoughts of traffic snarls far into the background.

In earlier centuries, when the Netherlands experienced its so-called Mini Ice Age, Dutch masters discovered a ready market for their portrayals of winter scenery and the wonderful experience of being on ice and on the skates. Notably, Hendrick Avercamp painted canvasses with great detail, giving viewers long after his death a glimpse of what he saw and experienced. Much of his work radiates the joy of being on the ice and portraying freedom from the daily cares and worries for a few hours. The master also left some pen and chalk drawings that detail the down side of expecting too much fun on the ice. The title of one of these says it all: Horse and Sleigh through the Ice. Another work by Claes Jansz Visscher (1614) echoes such an embarrassing side as well: Even a master sometimes falls showing a man on his back with a leg with skate up in the air.


Not all Dutch masters portrayed fun and leisure on the ice. It should be remembered that the country's rivers and canals were the key to transportation and people movement. Frozen waterways forced a different approach. The 1650s painting Town Wall in the Winter by Willem Schellinks shows a couple of figures with mules transporting fire wood. Isaac van Ostade in his 1644 canvass Ice Scene near an Inn immortalizes a freight hauler with a horse-drawn sleigh. An earlier scene from 1614, called Winter Landscape, painted by Adriaen van de Venne features a range of activities on the ice: couples leisurely skating, two boats sailing on the ice, three figures busy ice fishing and throngs of people on the ice presumably there to watch an ice sailing contest.

The activities on ice in Avercamp's paintings also picture other sports activities, namely those with a small ball and golf clubs. It is has been noted before that golf was played in the Netherlands centuries ago in western Dutch towns. Avercamp lived out his days in the town of Kampen, situated in the eastern region of the country where he died in 1634 at the relatively young age of 49. Jan van Goyen, another painter, who died in The Hague in 1656, aged 60, has several canvases that show people playing golf on ice. Their Amsterdam colleague Aert van der Neer also painted several canvases on which people can be seen in a golf posture, club in hand, ready to give the ball a nudge towards a tiny goal seemingly made up of two objects through which to shoot the ball. If the evidence from the above three masters of early ice hockey is still unconvincing, the beautiful coffee table art book Holland Frozen in Time, The Dutch Winter Landscapes in the Golden Age, has still other artistic witnesses in Amsterdam's Arent Arentsz (?1585-1631) who shows well-dressed upper class golf players with ice fishermen in the background trying to catch fish. A close inspection of the winter scene has other artists depicting similar scenes, some prominently such as Adriaen van de Venne in a 1626 production and Hans Bol in one dated 1585.

The winter scenes touch another subject which has merited debate over the centuries: when did the Dutch start using their tricolor flag. For a partial answer look to the paintings because several, including Hendrik Avercamp, who excels in providing details, has the Dutch tricolor atop sail boats at play on the ice when they was no specific need to display them.

Of course, the Dutch winter experience long preceded these painters. But thanks to them one is able to see today that the Dutch centuries ago rolled with the punches of the weather and made the most of the change in season and scenery.