Adapted from Ronni Baer, “Where the Classes Meet,” in Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 2015), pp. 250-52.
The freezing of rivers and canals in winter disrupted traffic but provided an opportunity for all members of society to take to the ice for pleasure or profit. Hendrick Avercamp’s Winter Scene on a Frozen Canal, painted in Kampen, Overijssel, shows the diversity of the populace there in the early years of the seventeenth century.
At right, an aristocratic man kneels to fasten his companion’s skate. The noble couple beside them wear their fashionable shoes on the ice rather than skates, as do many others in the painting. The ways people devised to transport themselves and their goods across the ice—horse- drawn sleighs, sledges, improvised sleds, high- backed push- chairs, cradles on runners—illustrate their rank and, more strikingly, their ingenuity. Getting around on the ice was not without its hazards, however. In the middle ground, a skater lies prostrate and bleeding on the ice. His hat, one skate, and his kolf stick have gone flying. Another couple have also fallen and sit where they landed on the ice.
In the middle ground at left, poulterers approach working- class men sitting on the edge of a rowboat frozen in place. Beyond them is a hole in the ice for fishing. In the distance, another member of the working class, huddled in his cloak and wearing a conical hat with fur trim, watches a well- dressed kolf player take his shot. At right, behind the fashionable couples, a fisherman in a red cap, carrying a large net, rubs shoulders with a middle- class man in a gray cape. Solid burghers cram into a horse- drawn sledge. People of the same rank are often shown together but not necessarily segregated from members of other classes.
The frieze- like arrangement of figure types across the foreground of the painting allows Avercamp to showcase various costumes, markers not only of rank but also of marital status, occupation, and geographic affiliation. An elegant man in pink with a companion holding a muff to her face are front and center; behind them are a man and woman in local dress. He wears a waisted short jacket and wide breeches; his headgear identifies him as a fisherman, and he carries a long eel spear over his shoulder. The woman wears a laced bodice covered with separate oversleeves and a woolen stomacher, and the red strip of fabric in her hair indicates that she is unmarried. So, too, is the woman with skates over her arm having her palm read. The hunter with the long gun barrel over his shoulder has ducks hanging from his belt. As he looks out at the viewer, he gestures with his mittened hand toward the fortune- telling gypsy, who has only a paltry fish hanging from her basket. The palmreading gypsy and another to the right of her each carry a child papoose- style on their backs. They were considered vagrants, outside the embrace of both the Christian church and the community of productive labor, and were thought to live by their wits through theft, fraud, and trickery. But Avercamp gives us no indication of pickpocketing, purse cutting, or gullibility here. Rather, the painting represents the meeting of insiders and outsiders on common ground.