Aert van der Neer, A Frozen River near a Village with Colf Players and Skaters

A Frozen River near a Village with Colf Players and Skaters, painted about 1648 by Aert van der Neer (1604 - 1677)

The game of colf was played in the Middle Ages, but became particularly popular in seventeenth-century Holland. It was called colf, and was played on the ice. European winters in the mid-seventeenth century were severe. Rivers and canals froze so solid that the life normally lived in a village moved out onto the frozen waterways and carried on – business as usual.

But van der Neer shows his villagers at play. One man, about to strike the ball with his long club, is brightly lit in spite of the grey clouds. A patch of blue overhead reflects on the ice, making it appear even colder. Perhaps a little chilly in his fashionable clothes, the man stands out in his white shirt sleeves and his kolfer’s stance – leaning forward, bottom out. His concentration is fierce as he aims for the target, under the scrutiny of his opponent and a couple of onlookers.

Other couples play along the far bank, leaving the broad stretch of the river to the crazily tipping skaters, the sledge with the old woman bundled up in her shawl, the fisherman checking his lines, the woman sitting on the beleaguered boat, rubbing her leg. Not everyone was an expert skater, it would seem.

Van der Neer painted the little village with affectionate detail. Outlines are crisp with a dusting of snow: a tall grey roof, another brown with moss and sagging just a little, and in front of it a barn with thatch slung over a long pole. Each brittle branch of the leafless trees is silhouetted against mounting white clouds in the background, their slender trunks reflected in the ice. Icicles cling to the side of the bridge and a streak of white light shines out from the back of the barn. A couple cosily wrapped in their smart, warm coats, hand tucked into muffs, stroll along with their dog, who stops and stares at the strange antics of the people on the ice.

Starting as a landscape painter, van der Neer came to winter scenes quite late in his career, but captured the chill coming from the ice and the nuances in colour brought about by the scattering of snow and the warmer tones of the clouds. His small figures – people who would have been familiar – are detailed and full of character, drawn first and then transferred into paint in the studio. He treated the old buildings with equal care and fondness, again taken from sketches made outside – the rickety house in front of the church and the cottage jammed in between them, its chimney smoking. But the landscape itself is imaginary, an amalgamation of all these sketches and drawings brought to life in paint.

Sadly, van der Neer’s painting failed to keep him solvent. He kept an inn and painted in his spare time, but even that wasn't enough to make him a livelihood and he died bankrupt.

Oil on canvas. 39.5 x 53 cm. Signed

National Galleries of Scotland (NG1288). Bequeathed by John Staniforth Beckett, 1889

Source: Do Smit