Aert van der Neer (Dutch 1603/4-1677)
Untitled, A Frozen Waterway with Villagers Playing Kolf and Skating and a Horsedrawn Sleigh, mid 17th Century
oil on oak panel
23.8 x 37.7 cm
Levy Bequest Purchase, 1993
To view an interactive image comparison of this artwork:
Nicolaas Nieuhoff, Amsterdam, 14-17 April, 1777, Lot 147
William Theobald, London, England
Christie’s, London, England, 10 May 1851, Lot 78
George Field, London, England by 1856
Duits, London (advertised in Burlington Magazine CIV, No. 717, Dec. 1962, Plate XIII)
Museum purchase from Christie’s, London via agent Thomas and Brenda Brod, London, England, 1993
Marlborough House, London, England, 1856
British Institution, London, England, 1866, No. 41
Twenty-Five Years, McMaster Art Gallery, 25 May – 20 August 1993
Levy Series, Northern Art in the Age of Cock, Durer, Rubens & Rembrandt, McMaster Museum of Art, Levy Gallery, 10 May – 25 August 2007
Worldly Possessions: Visualizing Ownership in the Age of the Baroque, McMaster Museum of Art, Levy Gallery, 27 August 2013 – 25 January 2014
As the sun peers out from behind a layer of clouds, groups of people enjoy various winter activities on a frozen expanse of water. Images that depict kolf games, like this painting, may be particularly poignant for a Canadian audience familiar with winters spent playing hockey on frozen ponds. Kolf is a game that has been played in the Netherlands for centuries and it was not initially restricted to the winter season. In Aert van der Neer’s time, which falls within the period commonly called the Little Ice Age, canals in the Netherlands would freeze completely, unlike winters today. The wide open spaces offered by frozen canals in the winter months afforded an appropriately large environment for a game that involved a good deal of running and using clubs to knock balls across a court. This type of winter landscape was highly popular in Van der Neer’s time.[i]
Many figure groups found in this painting are characteristic of Van der Neer, who also painted snowstorms, sunrises, sunsets, and moonlit rivers. Recurring Van der Neer stock motifs can be found in several of the kolf-playing figures.[ii] The inclusion of the artist’s monogram also supports the attribution to Van der Neer. The monogram is hidden in the brown grass in the left foreground of the painting, and is composed of the four letters of the artist’s name: “AV” and “DN.”[iii] The painting can probably be dated to the 1640s.
One of the interesting features of this painting is its appearance under ultraviolet illumination, revealing relatively recent retouchings applied by a restorer (Fig. X). Curiously, many of these small inpaintings are horizontally oriented, following the direction of the wood grain of the supporting panel. One likely explanation for the cause of the small damages that triggered the restoration treatment is the action of lead soaps. Research has shown that in paintings with an imprimatura layer (a second ground layer) that contains lead white, metal soaps can form along the wood grain as particles of the lead white degenerate with exposure to moisture. This chemical change results in an increased transparency as the aggregates of lead particles form. When a darker layer is present below paint that contains lead soap, a greater transparency allows the darker paint to show through. The formation of lead soaps has also been associated with areas where the chalk ground is thickest.[iv] The pattern of streaks resulting from the now-exposed darker paint would produce a distracting effect for the viewer, thus encouraging retouching efforts to disguise such an effect. More invasive analysis would be required to confirm lead soap formation.
[i] This is demonstrated by paintings like Hendrick Avercamp’s Amusement on the Ice at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, and Christoffel van den Berghe’s A Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters and an Imaginary Castle at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
[ii] For example, the man who is stooped over, with his kolf club held still, as he watches another man who bends over his outstretched kolf club, are also present in Van der Neer’s depiction of a frozen canal, housed in a private collection. See Wolfgang Schulz, Aert van der Neer (Doornspijk, the Netherlands: Davaco Publishers, 2002), cat. no. 84, ill. 45, 148.
[iii] This method of signing his work is consistent with Van der Neer’s practice from 1641. In his monograph on Van der Neer, Wolfgang Schulz states that until 1641 the artist used either his full name or the initials of his full name to mark his works. After this time, the two-part monogram comes into use. Schulz’s monograph does include the McMaster painting (cat. no. 213, ill. 53) and lists it as an authentic work, present whereabouts unknown. He dates the painting to the early 1660s, among other works that demonstrate Van der Neer’s use of reduced staffage and preoccupation with depicting the cold of the season. Schulz, Aert van der Neer, 87; 122.
[iv] Petria Noble, Annelies van Loon, and Jaap J. Boon, “Selective Darkening of Ground and Paint Layers Associated with the Wood Structure in Seventeenth-century Panel Paintings,” in Preparation for Paintings: The Artist’s Choice and Its Consequences, ed. Joyce H. Townsend, Tiarna Doherty, Gunna Heydenreich, Jacqueline Ridge (London: Archetype Books, 2008), 68–9.