Skating to nirvana
Nov 15th 2008
Peace brought Romanticism to 19th-century Holland
THE stolid, clog-wearing, cheese-making Dutch are not your obvious Romantics. But when Holland gained independence in 1813, after decades spent fighting the French, a resolute high-mindedness that was thrifty, intimate, idealistic and in its way peculiarly Dutch, finally settled on the Low Countries.
These good people had no time for the high Romanticism of the Germans, who hankered after the lances and legends of the Middle Ages, or the leafy ideals of the English with their love of daffodils and the bucolic greenery of the Lake District.
For their Romantic inspiration the Dutch turned back to their own golden age, the 17th century, with its enduring characteristics of domesticity and diligence. Nineteenth-century Dutch pastorals show windmills and waterways, red-cheeked boys and little yellow hatchlings. Spring, summer and autumn are sometimes the backdrop. But one after the other, artists such as Jan Jacob Spohler, Nicolaas Johannes Roosenboom, Francs Breuhaus de Groot and Andreas Schelfhout, turn their attention to the icy landscape of winter.
Nothing epitomises the ideal of Dutch 19th-century life so much as ice-skating on winter’s frozen waterways. Market days and jolly parties bathed in a pinkish winter light all happen on ice, where dogs and children cavort among men in tall hats and women in fur muffs enjoying the small pleasures of daily life. That these canals might be transformed in summer into stagnant ditches rank with mosquitoes and malaria, or even altogether overwhelmed by the ever-present sea nearby, is a reality that never intrudes.
Dutch cityscapes show a similar moderation. Tall buildings gather, hugger-mugger, along the edges of canals. Ruined gateways and cracked roofs radiate timelessness. The human figures on the pavements are small and rarely give expression to extreme emotions. They call their dogs, tie their shoelaces, shush their teething babies and look for reassurance to the striking of the town clock. Within, Hubertus Van Hove’s Amsterdam orphan girl, in her characteristic red and black uniform, with white cap and white apron, prepares a simple meal. The Bible has the last word and the clock stipulates a life of domestic continuity.
Barend Cornelis Koekkoek, a modest citizen of Cleves, father of five daughters, was a master at portraying the contrast between humble humanity and the greatness of creation. Regarded as the father of Dutch Romantic landscape painting, he counted among his clients King Willem II of the Netherlands, King Friedrich-Wilhelm IV of Prussia and Tsar Alexander II, which goes some way to explaining why there is a fine example of his work in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.
In 1846 Koekkoek began working from a new atelier in Cleves, heralding the start of his most important period. “Le vieux manoir” (pictured above) was the first picture he painted there. Against a massive sky is a filigree of trees and branches. A woman pushes a laden toboggan and small children carry bundles of kindling, indicating that in a fulfilled life everyone must play their part. But it is to the far left of the painting that the viewer’s eye is drawn: a woman, well bundled against the cold, is trudging along the snowy road. Holding her hand is a child who, given her height, cannot be more than five or six. They have far to go, and you can almost see how their even breaths mark the passing of the miles.
In a buoyant market the finest Koekkeoks have almost always exceeded their estimate. An 1843 work, “Late Afternoon with Numerous Skaters by a Town”, sold in April 2006 for €1.25m ($1.56m) against a top estimate of €350,000, whereas another winter landscape sold the following October for €1.15m against an estimate of €500,000.
Collectors who were happy to sell during the boom are now being leaned on by the auction houses to reduce their expectations. If so, this is the moment to buy. Koekkoek’s “Le vieux manoir” may be smaller than the two pictures that sold in 2006, but even if it fetches only its top estimate, it will be a bargain.
“Romantic Affair: Paintings from a Dutch Private Collection” will be sold at Christie’s, Amsterdam, on November 18th. Lot 116, “An Amsterdam Orphan Girl Preparing Supper” by Hubertus van Hove is estimated at €10,000-15,000. Lot 421, “Le vieux manoir” by B.C. Koekkoek, is estimated at €200,000-300,000.