Abel Grimmer depicts, in Brueghel-esque style, the freezing cold holding Europe in its grip around 1590. This painting was created at the height of the mini ice-age of the 16th and 17th centuries and depicts both the playful joys, as well as the suffering and hardship of the time.
If you had been wealthy burgher, sitting down to dinner in Antwerp or Amsterdam at the end of the 16th century, you might have noticed a new kind of picture hanging on the walls of the most fashionable dining rooms – the winter landscape.
In “A Winter Landscape with Skaters” painted in the 1590’s by Abel Grimmer (1570-1620), we have a perfect example of such a picture. In it we see a serene, snow-bound composition, with numerous figures, carrying on and laughing in the cold. Described with a certain detachment from an elevated viewpoint, the masked and elegantly dressed skaters glide over the ice, while a sinister old crone points at them from a riverbank blanketed under crisp white snow.
Mini Ice Age
Back in the burgher’s stately dining room, warmed by a fire blazing in the grate, the host might be found complaining about the cost of fuel, discussing unnatural occurrences or the plight of the starving peasants filling the streets. Europe was in the grip of a mini ice age. Between the 1560s and the 1680s, temperatures fell by two degrees centigrade, shortening the ripening time for crops by three weeks and causing trees to grow more slowly. Although perhaps not immediately apparent in the revelry of the small figures throwing snowballs at each other in Grimmer’s painting, for a society dependent on grain and timber, the results of this climactic change were catastrophic. In addition, it coincided with the devastating wars of religion being waged all over Europe between Catholics and Protestants. Disruption, hunger and suspicion were ever-present.
Influences and motifs
Grimmer tells part of this story in his picture by borrowing motifs from the great Pieter Brueghel the Elder (c1525-30-1569). On the right hand side of the picture, the device of a hooded man, a hunter with only a dead fox to show for his efforts, first appears in Brueghel’s famous Hunters in the Snow, c.1565 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (inv. no. 1838). The figure of the old lady gesticulating is also Brueghel-esque. People suspected witchcraft or heresy of being the cause of the disasters, and depictions of this motif were very popular.
Court and market life struggled on, with the frozen rivers and harbours used for ‘ice-fairs’, such as we see depicted in Frans Huys’s “Skaters before the Gate of Saint George” c.1558, after a design by Brueghel. The influence of this engraving is apparent in Grimmer’s composition, as we see in particular in the group of figures conversing as they put on their skates, or those tumbling on the ice.
The associated proverb ‘‘slibberachticheyt van’s menschen leven” or “the slipperiness of human life”, reminds the viewer of the precariousness of man’s existence amidst a bitterly changed climate.