Editors' pick

Hendrick Avercamp: The Little Ice Age

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Hendrick Avercamp: The Little Ice Age photo
Hendrick Avercamp, "Colf Players on the Ice," courtesy Mrs. Edward Speelman

Editorial Review

National Gallery of Art's 'Hendrick Avercamp: The Little Ice Age': A frozen gem

By Michael O'Sullivan
March 2010

Haven't we suffered enough?Hot on the heels of the worst Washington winter in memory comes a show of paintings about -- wait for it -- snow and ice. You may not be ready to hear this, but the National Gallery of Art's "Hendrick Avercamp: The Little Ice Age" is actually a sweet little treat, a visual sorbet between the museum's just-closed "In the Darkroom: Photographic Processes" and this summer's equally heavy-sounding "Edvard Munch: Master Prints."

It's two small rooms' worth of pictures of people skating and playing colf -- a precursor of ice hockey and golf, played on frozen Dutch canals -- by the first artist (1585-1634) to build a career around winter wonderlands. And what's not to like? There's a "Where's Waldo" quality to the show, with half the fun being picking out the figures in the crowd who have slipped on -- or in some cases fallen through -- the ice. The largest painting in the show, "A Scene on the Ice Near a Brewery," features more than 200 figures, though some are mere ghosts in the distant, white mist. A couple feature tiny men relieving themselves against the sides of buildings. (Okay, okay: "Winter Landscape With a Peat Boat" and "Ice Skating Near a Village." Find them yourselves.)

The timing of the show, however, could not be worse. Who wants to think about ice when it's 70 degrees out and Apolo Anton Ohno took off his skates four weeks ago? It's like a Christmas card turning up in the mailbox three months late. There is, however, an unexpectedly timely subtext to the show.

That's hinted at by the second half of the title, a reference to the period between the 14th century and the mid-19th century known as the Little Ice Age, when winters in the Northern Hemisphere where often especially cold. Avercamp's earliest dated painting, from 1608, followed a winter when temperatures averaged well below freezing. By contrast, Dutch winters nowadays are so mild that canals rarely freeze.

But vague allusions to global warming aside, this is not a political show. Not that it's entirely apolitical either.

Though considered a landscape artist, Avercamp didn't paint much actual land, not that you can see anyway. Given the whiteout weather conditions the artist loved to paint, his backdrops often might as well be blank canvases, with his true subject -- social interaction -- brought front and center.

Look more closely at those crowds gathered on the ice. Sure, there are plenty of well-off revelers who have taken to the ice for sport. But there are just as many laborers: a woman washing laundry through a hole in the ice; an ice fisherman and his young apprentice; workers delivering baskets of cut peat for heating fuel. There are even beggars. In one painting, the corpses of three criminals hang on a distant gallows, next to which a man can be seen squatting with his pants down. Avercamp holds all these characters with the same sympathetic regard. It's the regard of a sociologist, not a sentimentalist.

So, Christmas cards they're not. Instead, "The Little Ice Age" is a surprising -- and surprisingly warmhearted -- look at 17th-century life where it was lived, and where it's still lived today, even in the dead of winter: among other people.