Winter Landscape with Ice-Skaters
Pieter Breughel the Younger was only five years old when his father Pieter Brueghel the Elder, the most famous painter of the northern Renaissance, died in 1569. Like most children of the early modern period he was trained to carry on his father’s craft, but in his case this meant creating numerous replicas of his father’s works in affordable, small-scale paintings that were popular with an urban middle class clientele in turn of the century Antwerp. Over one hundred copies of his father’s skating scene survive, but the Picker’s painting is something much rarer. Pieter Brueghel the Elder often worked for the publisher Hieronymous Cock. Brueghel produced two of a series of four seasons in the late 1560s for Cock, but his death apparently intervened before he completed the series. The artist Hans Bol of Mechelen (1534-93) drew Autumn and Winter in 1570. Pieter’s composition is copied from Bol’s print, one of about a dozen copies he made of it. Our painting must date after 1616, the year in which Pieter the Younger changed the spelling of his father’s name to Breughel.
Breughel copies Bol’s print very closely, but at the same time he simplifies the composition, omitting many details including its prominent Latin inscription which read: “The force of winter ice imprisons the running waters.” The period from ca. 1550-1650 saw a mini ice age, which helps to explain the great popularity of skating scenes as a genre in Flemish painting in that era. There may also be a moral message to Flemish skating scenes, commenting on the slipperiness of life and the instability of fortune, a theme that resonated strongly in Breughel’s era as the Spanish Hapsburgs had occupied the Low Countries throughout the second half of the sixteenth century and engaged in brutal repression. It was a tumultuous and dangerous time, and we know that Hans Bol fled north to Protestant Amsterdam.
Breughel’s winter skating scene shows well-dressed Flemish burghers in the left foreground who watch skaters on the frozen canal, and prepare to join them. A seated woman with a basket of hot chestnuts holds a pot in her lap, which a man on the nearby canal reaches toward. People on the ice have great trouble staying upright. An amorous couple on the right skates obliviously towards a man who has fallen through the ice. The spreading cracks of open water do not bode well for anyone. The large water castle at the village’s edge looms over the scene in the background, while across the canal from it is a thatch-roofed tavern with rowdy occupants. The buildings create a vivid socio-economic contrast, but both offer warmth as smoke emerges from their chimneys. The trees are bare but their branches are dusted with snow and the lowering grey sky above the expansive flat landscape threatens further precipitation. Breughel paints rather thinly. Bright spots of color are placed strategically across the painting contrasting with its otherwise subdued tonalities suitable to the season. His meticulous detail with lively human genre elements leads your eye back and forth along the canal. This is a painting designed for an intimate domestic interior and has to be enjoyed close up.