Seventeenth-Century Dutch Winter Landscapes: Visual Encounters with Non-Sites, Space, and Place

by Rachel Kase

Figure 1. Hendrick Avercamp, Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters, ca. 1608, oil on panel, 30.4 x 51.9 in. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Hendrick Avercamp’s Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters, dated about 1608, is typical of the bustling winter scenes for which Dutch artists are known (fig. 1). Current scholarship generally regards such works as illustrations of the extent to which the Dutch enjoyed winter or how the ice leveled class distinctions.[1] The Dutch Golden Age coincided with the coldest stretch of the Little Ice Age, a period of global cooling during which time Holland endured an increased frequency in storms and the most frigid winters in its recent history.[2]This paper addresses the varied ways that seventeenth-century Dutch artists represented the conditions of winter and the possible cultural associations that winter landscape representations held for contemporary viewers, specifically recent reports of Dutch voyages to the Far North.[3] Recently, Christopher Heuer has drawn attention to the ways that the Arctic’s cold terrain, which appeared indifferent to cultural production or national identity, irked Dutch travelers.[4] This paper expands his discussion, asking if pictorial and geographic vagueness or placelessness was any more acceptable at home. I argue that the Dutch winter landscape challenged local artists to grapple with the blank slate that they observed in their natural surroundings.[5]

The first northern artist to specialize in the “ice scene,” Avercamp’s paintings and drawings referenced relatively new local weather patterns.[6] During the Little Ice Age, average temperatures in the Netherlands were nearly two degrees Celsius colder than today. While the Dutch lacked modern meteorological tools, they quantified the weather changes that they observed using natural landmarks.[7] The Dutch, unlike their European counterparts, responded creatively and effectively to climate change.[8] The hub of a maritime trade empire, the Dutch Republic relied primarily on wind rather than solar energy to power its economy, allowing its sailors and merchants to keep moving even as the world around them froze solid.[9] The frigid weather, however, was not without consequences. Many of the narrative details in Avercamp’s Ice Scene, dated circa 1610, reference serious challenges that the Little Ice Age posed to Northern Europe’s inhabitants. On the left-hand side, a woman washing her clothes in a small hole in the ice demonstrates one of the hardships that the season’s lack of water presented. Not far to her right, a man bears a load of sticks on his back, a reminder of the difficulty of obtaining firewood in snow-covered terrain. 

Avercamp and his contemporaries’ images of winter were enormously popular in the seventeenth-century Netherlands. Produced primarily for the open market, they were purchased by a socio-economic cross-section of the population. It is difficult to know precisely why these works held so much popular appeal. There are few, if any, existing seventeenth-century documents that explicitly discuss their cultural significance, and few of the original owners of Avercamp’s paintings or drawings are known.[10] Perhaps such pictures appealed to contemporary viewers for their representations of the communal hardship and cultural resilience that they subtly referenced. They may have also been valued as a novel image type or for the ways that they depicted an environment that viewers prided as distinctively Dutch.[11]

In addition to referencing hardships of the local environment, early seventeenth-century images of winter also call attention to the ways that the weather complicated contemporary conceptualizations of space and place. Louisa Mackenzie considers the importance of such spatial classifications in early modern minds. Place, she explains, is a “meaningful location,” a space invested with emotional attachment, whereas space is “raw material” that cultural or social processes have not yet transformed.[12] Therefore, the town squaremight be considered a place, nestled within the city in the far distance of Avercamp’s A Scene on the Ice, dated circa 1610. How, then, do we classify the vast icescape in the foreground of this work? It would be impossible for travelers to distinguish the space from the middle of the ocean. If sailors were to make a topographic profile of the ice village, as they often did to assist in the recognition and navigation of foreign coastlines, there would be nothing to distinguish the flat expanse except from the presence of two bare masts. Winter, I argue, forced Dutch citizens to navigate terrains that were neither firmly places nor spaces, but rather embody a distinct placelessness.[13] Marked by generic skylines and lacking landmarks, many seventeenth-century Dutch icescapes give the impression that they could be located anywhere.

In the early seventeenth century, images of placeless, frozen landscapes may have also evoked for Dutch viewers descriptions of the recently discovered Arctic.[14] During this period, the Dutch were engaged in a competitive rivalry with the French, English, and Danish to be the first to find a northern sea route to Asia.[15] In 1596, Dutch navigator Willem Barents set out in search of such a northeast passage. After mistiming the ice, his ship was frozen in Novaya Zemlya, where the crew survived for nine months in a temporary settlement made from driftwood and ship parts.[16] Two years later, Gerrit de Veer, one of the crewmen, published his illustrated diary of the journey. De Veer’s vivid accounts of the crew’s trials, ranging from perpetual darkness to scurvy, fascinated and terrified European readers. As John Richard observes, the book’s popularity ensured that “awareness of the Arctic burst upon the European consciousness.”[17]

Cartographically ambiguous and culturally and ecologically empty, the Far North was disturbingly lacking in many of the features characterizing other recent discoveries such as the New World. “I find in all the countrie nothing… there is nothing to consider,” lamented an Arctic voyager.[18] English sailor Thomas Ellis’s 1578 description and drawings of an iceberg he encountered near Baffin Island further materialize how Arctic topography eluded traditional rhetorical and pictorial strategies.[19] Apologizing that the iceberg he encountered could not be “shewn” as a totality, he represented its varied contours as it appeared from several angles in four separate drawings. The images demonstrate the extent to which the polar landscape’s icy topography and overwhelming whiteness confounded European imaginations, challenging established notions surrounding geography, navigation, culture, and vision.[20]

Figure 2. Attributed to Hendrick Avercamp, Man and Woman Standing on the Bank of a Frozen River, 1595-1634, watercolor and chalk on paper, 7.44 x 10.7 in. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Like the voyagers, Dutch artists also registered the distant polar environment, creatively responding to its congruence with the local one that they sought to represent.[21] A watercolor drawing by Avercamp locates the desert-like bareness described by Arctic voyagers on Dutch soil. A man and woman stand at the edge of an overcast and indeterminate landscape (fig. 2). Their layers of clothing and the bare ground serve as a barometer of the weather. Winter has transformed the sky, ground, and river into the same frosty medium.[22]Does the couple know where they are or where they are headed? The woman pauses as if to get her bearings. Such an image of placelessness recalls a common point of comparison for those who visited the Arctic: the desert. In Avercamp’s drawing, the two travelers similarly seem to confront an unknown expanse that might inspire fear or awe now associated with the sublime. Serving as a graphic double for the artist, the couple charts a terrain that challenges visual discernment and pictorial description.

Figure 3. Rembrandt van Rijn, Winter View with a Waterway, Houses, and Two Boats, ca. 1650, brown pen, ink and wash on paper, 4.09 x 7.08 in. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

In two unusual drawings made around 1650, Rembrandt modifies Avercamp’s pictorialism while relying on the whiteness of the artworks’ surface to evoke winter’s visual  and auditory emptiness. Rembrandt represents the stillness of the winter landscape with the sparseness of line (fig. 3). A break in his line and an expanse of unworked paper evokes a drift of snow that will soon bury the fence in the foreground. The specific subject matter of a second Rembrandt drawing, now in the Harvard Art Museums, has been the longtime subject of debate among scholars. Did Rembrandt intend to capture a farmstead in winter, with the roof and field covered in snow? Or, is it a springtime landscape bathed in bright light? Nevertheless, that the drawing was reflexively named “winter” underscores how the image’s remarkable blankness evokes the topographical and temporal obscurity associated with the season.

While it is difficult to judge the extent to which Rembrandt had the Arctic in mind when he created these drawings, the disorienting spatial conditions he represents recall the unsettling conditions described by Dutch voyagers.[23] Travelers to the Arctic were particularly troubled by how its whiteout conditions occluded clear vision. “We could not see out of our eyes […] could not distinguish day from night by reason of darkness,” reported de Veer of he and his fellow crewmen.[24] Yet, in the seventeenth-century, at the height of the Little Ice Age, the disorienting monotony and non-sites of the snow-capped Arctic, Rembrandt demonstrates, could be found at home.[25]

Figure 4. Jan van Goyen, Winter Landscape with Figures Skating and Sleds, 1651, black chalk and gray wash on paper, 4.13 x 8.06 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

In some cases, Dutch artists seem to confront and resolve geographic vagueness in the local landscape by depicting figures who appear to have intentionally stopped in no-man’s land outside city walls. While the duck hunter in Avercamp’s undated watercolor drawing appears in a vast winter desert, the small mound of marsh upon which he stands establishes a meaningful spatial center point. He and his canine are within a landscape, Avercamp seems to say, not beyond its boundaries. Similarly, Jan van Goyen’s River Landscape in Winter with Figures Skating and Sleds depicts figures in an icy zone of geographical uncertainty (fig. 4).[26] Despite the absence of civic infrastructure, however, the figures on the right busily prepare and sell food. The icescape, therefore, becomes a culturally significant location where quotidian activity unfolds as naturally as if it took place within the visually identifiable boundaries of a neighborhood. Such an image exemplifies the ways in which Dutch artists resolved the competing placelessness of the local winter landscape with a communal yearning for a topography that was dotted with culturally significant sites.[27]

Increased snowfall, a hallmark of the Little Ice Age, must have contributed to the distinctive placelessness of the local environment this paper has considered. However, as the images discussed above demonstrate, Dutch winterscapes almost never represented this common winter weather condition. This widespread pictorial decision could not have been accidental. Snowfall and its blinding effects could transform places, or known locations, into space: unsettling terrains of cartographic uncertainty, not so different from the Arctic.[28]Perhaps Dutch artists were reluctant to picture the white, wintry deserts where travelers lost their way. Perhaps, with their snowfall-less images, they sought to demonstrate that they had seen and captured the winter landscape with unobscured visual clarity. Nevertheless, the artists examined in this paper–Avercamp, Rembrandt, and van Goyen–pictorialize winter’s whiteout conditions through the absence of weather. Thus, their artworks in both what they do and do not represent, subtly express the cultural legacy of arctic voyagers and contemporary visual concerns surrounding the representation of winter.

Avercamp’s watercolor drawing of the two travelers vividly pictures how the placelessness of winter, both in the Far North and at home, challenged and thematized image-making in the seventeenth-century Netherlands. Leaving much of his panel untouched, Avercamp calls attention to the way in which winter mirrors the opacity of an artist’s blank surface. Here, where there is little to be seen, both the physical and represented landscape, site specificity and spatial vagueness, collapse onto one another. Despite the fear and anxiety that was associated with these northward-bound voyages, seventeenth-century Dutch artists demonstrate that ice, often associated with unnavigability and placelessness, with impoverished land and fear, also produces important imaginative terrain.



[1] For various interpretations, see Ronni Baer, ed., Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer (Boston, MA: Museum of Fine Arts, 2015), 250; Joseph Koerner, Bosch and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 323; Peter C. Sutton, Masters of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Landscape Painting (Boston, MA: Museum of Fine Arts, 1987), 252; Mariët Westermann, A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic 15181718 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 106.

[2] The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) defines climate change as “a shift in the mean or variability of weather that lasts at least thirty years.” Dagomar Degroot, “War of the Whales: Climate Change, Weather and Arctic Conflict in the Early Seventeenth Century,” Environment and History (2019): 5. While the Little Ice Age lasted about six centuries, from 1250 to 1850, its coldest periods are known as the Grindelwald Fluctuation (1560–1628) and the Maunder Minimum (1645-1720). During these periods, average global temperatures were approximately one degree Celsius below average temperatures in the twentieth century. For more on this, see Dagomar Degroot, The Frigid Golden Age: Climate Change, the Little Ice Age, and the Dutch Republic, 15601720  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 2, 256.

[3] While the catalogues for the 2001 exhibition at the Mauritshuis, “Holland Frozen in Time,” and the 2009 exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, “Hendrick Avercamp: Master of the Ice Scene,” briefly address the relationship between contemporary weather trends and innovations in image-making, their observations are mainly to draw attention to the existence of unusually cold weather patterns in the seventeenth century. The relationship between these two phenomena, therefore, has only been scratched on the surface.

[4] Christopher Heuer, Into the White: The Renaissance Arctic and the End of the Image (New York: Zone Books, 2019), 16. As an archipelago of islands and ocean, the Far North, Heuer observes, was a “non-site:” or a terrain that was present but “physically and ontologically unmoored.” I apply Heuer’s observations about primarily sixteenth-century polar geography to the seventeenth-century Netherlands. As an environment that was constantly changing, the Dutch landscape, I argue, also contained non-sites: swampy marsh and polderland submerged under water and then re-emerged; waterways that froze, unfroze, and refroze, and coastlines that ebbed and flowed. How did this further challenge artists who sought to represent it?

[5]As Joseph Koerner has observed, in the sixteenth century, the occluding effects of snowfall, seen, for example, in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Adoration of the Kings in the Snow (1563, Am Römerholz), could parallel Reformation whitewash. Koerner, Bosch and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life, 285-286. In the seventeenth century, I argue that it was the weather, not religion or Reformation polemics, that challenged and thematized image-making. Furthermore, unlike Bruegel’s painting, seventeenth-century Dutch pictorializations of winter seldom represent falling snow–an indication that Dutch artists wished to represent winter differently from sixteenth-century precedents.

[6] Avercamp’s early seventeenth-century artworks–secular images with lowered horizon lines–were foundational to Holland’s vibrant winter landscape tradition, which was then quickly developed by artists including Esaias van de Velde, Jan van Goyen, and later, Jacob van Ruisdael and Aert van der Neer. The only precedent was Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s winter scenes, made in the southern Netherlands in the sixteenth century, which combined Flemish villages and imaginary mountainous terrain, typically in the distinctive world landscape tradition.

Pieter Roelofs, ed., Hendrick Avercamp: Master of the Ice Scene (Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum, 2009), 25.

[7] In some communities, governments systematically installed landmarks that helped them contextualize changes in water levels. This demonstrates that  the Dutch were aware, to at least some extent, that they were living through a climatic anomaly.

[8] Dissimilar to the Dutch Republic, whose global trade network shielded it from climatic vulnerability, the vast majority of early modern Europe depended on agriculture. The climatic extremes of the Little Ice Age, therefore, caused widespread crop failure, inflation, famine, and social unrest in much of Europe.  For more on this subject see Wolfgang Behringer, “Climatic Change and Witch-hunting: The Impact of the Little Ice Age on Mentalities,” Climatic Change 43, no. 1 (1999): 335-51; see also Degroot, The Frigid Golden Age, 109-111.

[9] Degroot, The Frigid Golden Age, 57; Dutch sailors took advantage of high wind speeds and made boats that could withstand sea ice. They also innovated countless ways, including ice yachts and ice wagons, to transport people and goods over frozen waterways inshorter distances.

[10] While the owners of specific works are almost entirely unknown, the inventories of many prominent citizens in Amsterdam and Kampen, Avercamp’s hometown, list works by “the Mute” or “the Mute of Kampen,” the nickname by which he was commonly known due to his inability to speak. His work was also in the collections of several artists including Jan van de Capelle and Gerard ter Borch;  Roelofs, ed., Hendrick Avercamp Master of the Ice Scene, 11-12, 119.

[11] Connoisseurs may have also recognized the relationship of Avercamp’s work to those of sixteenth-century Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder, whom he deliberately referenced in a number of his paintings. 

[12] Louisa Mackenzie, The Poetry of Place: Lyric, Landscape, and Ideology in Renaissance France (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), 24; given the degree to which mental and physical terrain were blurred in the Renaissance, such distinctions may have held even greater cultural capital.

[13] Dana Leibsohn, “Assessments,” in Landscape Theory, eds. Rachael DeLue and James Elkins (New York: Routledge, 2008), 252. As Leibsohn has observed, placelessness is what lies beyond identifiable boundaries and is at once nowhere and nearby.

[14] Relatively little is known about Avercamp’s life. There exist no documents, to my knowledge, that speak directly to his awareness of Arctic imagery. This is something I plan to further research.

[15] These powers specifically sought a sea route free of Spanish or Portuguese control. Dutch merchants were also lured to the Far North with the promise of profits to be made from Arctic whaling. John Richards, The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 589.

[16] Heuer, Into the White: The Renaissance Arctic and the End of the Image, 143.

[17] De Geer’s journal was published in 1598 and translated into French, German, Italian and Latin by 1600 and English by 1609. It sold out of its initial run of more than fifteen-hundred copies;  see Richards, The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World , 590 and Heuer, Into the White: The Renaissance Arctic and the End of the Image, 137.

[18] Heuer, Into the White: The Renaissance Arctic and the End of the Image, 77.

[19] Heuer, Into the White: The Renaissance Arctic and the End of the Image, 10. Printed in 1578, Ellis’s account of his attempted journey to discover a northeast passage contained the world’s first description of an iceberg. The four-part image that was also printed was made after Ellis’s original drawings; see Thomas Ellis, A True Report of the Third and Last Voyage into Meta Incognita: Achieued by the Worthie Capteine, M. Martine Frobisher Esquire (London: Thomas Dawson, 1578), sheet before fol. A1r, Huntington Library, San Marino, California. For other late sixteenth century European images of the Arctic, see the printed illustrations from Gerrit de Veer’s diary, printed by Cornelis Claesz in 1598, now housed at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (e.g. NG-1977-278).

[20] Heuer, Into the White: The Renaissance Arctic and the End of the Image, 55 and 77.

[21] What the Arctic supplied to European cultural production Stephen Greenblatt has termed “imaginative energies.” That is to say, its geography sparked new ways of looking and thinking about the world. See Stephen Greenblatt, “Shakespeare Bewitched,” in Shakespeare and Cultural Traditions: The Selected Proceedings of the International Shakespeare Association World Congress, Tokyo (Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 1991), 29.

[22] For more on early modern perceptions of snow, ice, and glaciers, see Eric Wilson, The Spiritual History of Ice (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). While such environments and weather conditions were generally feared, Wilson notes that unmapped spaces such as the poles were more apt to inspire fantasy and notions related to the sublime. While the aesthetic parameters for the sublime were not mapped out until the eighteenth century, its origins and expression in seventeenth-century Dutch visual and rhetorical experiences of remote landscapes is considered by Jan Blanc in his 2016 essay, “Sensible Natures: Allart Van Everdingen and the Tradition of Sublime Landscape in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting,” Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art 8, no. 2 (Summer 2016), and briefly addressed by scholars including Christopher Heuer and Peter Fjågesund.

[23] Rembrandt’s extensive collection of natural exotica and closeness with Nicolaes Ruts, a Russian fur trader, makes it likely that he was familiar with, and interested in, discoveries in the Far North.

[24] Heuer, Into the White: The Renaissance Arctic and the End of the Image, 146; such conditions, Heuer explains, often caused de Veer himself to doubt the validity of his own eye-witnessing.

[25] Heuer, Into the White: The Renaissance Arctic and the End of the Image, 10 and 55; while sailors often relied upon topographical profiles to assist in recognizing foreign coastlines, Dutch navigators commented upon the uselessness of established navigation methods in the North.

[26] Note that these locales depart significantly from the recognizably Flemish villages seen, for example, in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s sixteenth-century winter landscapes.

[27] For more on how local artists were concerned with the representation of landscapes that appeared to be familiar and characteristically Dutch, see Walter Gibson, Pleasant Places: The Rustic Landscape from Bruegel to Ruisdael (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000).

[28] Heuer, Into the White: The Renaissance Arctic and the End of the Image, 159; snow and ice, Heuer observes, defamiliarized city and country. Furthermore, snowfall, a form of natural Reformation whitewash, also could transform pictorializations of the landscape into anti-images: panels of white.


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