We don’t know much about the artist Hendrick Avercamp, but he was probably good at figure eights.
Born in 1585, he grew up in Kampen, studied in Amsterdam and then returned home to the small town on the Zuiderlake where he lived with his mother. She was probably good on the ice too.
Avercamp lived during the Little Ice Age whose long, hard winters started in the 1300s and cooled the northern hemisphere for several centuries. In the Netherlands, rivers and canals froze for months to the great joy of the nascent guild of ice-skate makers.
The captivating “Hendrick Avercamp: Master of the Little Ice Age,” now at the National Gallery in Washington, is the first retrospective of this silent painter of charm and humor.
Avercamp, who could not speak, had a nice eye for the visual anecdote. His small pictures reward staring, especially given the number of accidents.
One girl delights others by tripping and showing her bare bottom. People tread water in another scene, hoping to keep afloat until a savior arrives with a long ladder. We see him racing along the shore.
Daily life unfolds the way it might in warmer times on the streets and squares. Dogs scamper, men lug peat for heat, gypsies tell fortunes, people flirt, play, fish, gossip, eat and drink, sometimes in the same scene as danglers who have had their last meal. I first missed the little scaffold set against a moody sky. And the guy with his back to us, facing a wall. A lack of outhouses is almost a sub-theme.
Social elites form their snobby clusters or gaze out from carriages drawn by horses. An elegant lady, masked and remote, glides by, piquing our curiosity. Keeping their distance, poorer folks dressed in woolens and caps stare at Dutch males, very smart in their high hats and puffy britches, playing “colf,” a form of hockey using sticks and balls.
Avercamp made winter scenes his specialty. They give pleasure, though only occasionally striking a poignant note. Look for the picture of a wide-eyed calf lying on its side on a sled, being pushed who knows where. Emotional drama would come to Holland a generation later with the rather more famous Rembrandt of whose soulful pictures the National Gallery has excellent examples. They inhabit another world, even though they’re right next door to this pleasing show.
“Hendrick Avercamp” is a joint exhibition with the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and runs through July 5 in the National Gallery’s West Building on the main floor. The excellent catalog costs $45.
The Avercamp show reminded me of an unusual book I received last year, “The Frozen Thames,” by the inventive Helen Humphreys. She spins a story around the 40 times the river froze solid during those icy centuries.
Some are whimsical: a composer trying to improve on Handel’s “Water Music” with “Ice Music.” Or a poetess who is going bonkers running a “Rhiming on the Hard Frost” booth.
Others are memorably sad, say of the poor woman who rides with her condemned husband on the way to the gallows, bringing a parting gift: a bright orange which he cups gratefully in his bound hands.
“The Frozen Thames,” published by Delacorte Press ($22), is small yet handsomely illustrated.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg News’s arts and culture section. Any opinions are her own.)