Winter Delights Before the Catastrophe

Little Ice Age

Detail from Hendrick Avercamp: Winter Landscape with Skaters, ca. 1608 (e)

Around 1600

Little Ice Age – Winter Delights Before the Catastrophe

At the end of November 1618, a comet travels for weeks in the sky above the Holy Roman Empire, so large and bright that people can even see it with their naked eyes during the day. Like every major natural phenomenon, they interpret it as a heavenly sign – and it terrifies them. The Gospel of Luke provides confirmation: it is a punishment from God. And indeed, there have already been omens of great disaster. For decades, icy winters, plague and epidemics have been spreading, and a war that will rage for 30 years has just begun.

Starting in the second half of the 16th century, a cold spell—which is to influence the lives of many generations—holds the world in its grip. Temperatures drop by an average of two degrees Celsius, ocean currents change and the weather is capricious with long cold winters, storms and rainy summers. In the Alps, glaciers destroy mountain villages, in Northern Europe the waterways freeze over and cold and rain lead to poor harvests. Europe is stuck in a winter famine, and the situation is soon to be exacerbated by plague and the Thirty Years’ War.

At first, however, the Little Ice Age presents itself from its picturesque side with snow landscapes and winter pleasures, which fascinate artists in the Netherlands in particular. Ice-skaters, ice-fishermen or strollers populate the frozen bodies of water in their paintings and people trudge through the snow. Hendrick Avercamp (1585-1634) is considered the most famous winter painter. “The Mute of Kampen”, as the deaf-mute Dutchman is also known, brings the Little Ice Age to life in his paintings. He fails, however, to document a remarkable event: the comet which appears in the sky during Advent 1618 and which people interpret according to the Gospel of Luke as an omen of one of the cruelest punishments: hunger, misery and the Thirty Years’ War.

With fur collars and several petticoats, the onlookers venture onto the ice. Wolfgang Beltracchi begins creating the figures that gather on the ice to observe the comet. Avercamp worked on the basis of sketches in his studio.

Five Facts

Little Ice Age
Diese besondere Art der Landschaftsmalerei zeugt von der Faszination der Maler für die eisige Natur und die Anpassung der Menschen an ihr Umfeld. Hendrick Avercamp gilt als berühmtester Wintermaler.
This special kind of landscape painting testifies to the painters’ fascination for the icy environment surrounding them and peoples’ ability to adapt to their environment. Hendrick Avercamp is considered to be the most famous winter painter.

Even though temperatures are falling in Europe and around the world, the first winter landscapes were created in the Netherlands, where landscape painting has a strong tradition. In 1565 Pieter Bruegel paints “The Hunters in the Snow”—the first snow-covered landscape painting in oil.

The pictures from the Little Ice Age portray the everyday life of the population. Rich and poor, young and old— they all share the space in the painting, the landscape, worries and joys of winter.

The painters masterfully capture the finest nuances and colors of snow, ice and sky in their paintings. Yellow, light blue, pink, grey and white—there is no limit to the glazes’ hues.

The suffering and joy experienced during winter are often portrayed side by side in the paintings. In Bruegel’s “The Hunters in the Snow”, hunters and dogs return to the village having only caught a single, skinny fox, a family burns their furniture—but in the background people are skating. In Avercamp’s works, tragic scenes can also be seen at second glance, such as the couple that have broken through the ice in “Ice Scene”.

Starting in 1660, production of the winter pictures slowed down, although the temperatures hasn’t risen significantly. The precarious economic situation at the time paralyzed demand.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Hunters in the Snow, 1665 (1)

Detail from Hendrick Avercamp, Ice Scene, ca. 1610 (2)

Detail from Hendrick Avercamp, Ice Scene, ca. 1610 (2)


1: Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Hunters in the Snow, 1665 © Heritage Image Partnership Ltd  / Alamy Stock Photo
2: Detail from Hendrick Avercamp, Ice Scene, ca. 1610 © PvE / Alamy Stock Photo
a: Lucas Cranach the Elder „Ungleiches Paar (Der alte Buhler)“. © bpk / Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen
b: Franz Marc „Ställe“ 1913. © bpk / The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation / Art Resource, NY
c: Gustav Klimt „Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” 1907.  © John Baran / Alamy Stock Foto.
d: Detail from „The oldest known icon of Christ, 6-7th C“ © Stock Foto
e: Detail from Hendrick Avercamp: Winter Landscape with Skaters, ca. 1608 © Peter Horree / Alamy Stock Photo
f: Detail from William Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 1834 © World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
g: Detail from Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer im Nebelmeer, 1818. © Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
h: Detail from Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Jan Vermeer, 1557 © Archivart / Alamy Stock Photo