A Gruesome Discovery at Boijmans . . .

New details discovered in restoration of 400-year-old winter landscape.

The restoration of Hendrick Avercamp’s Scene on the Ice has revealed fascinating new details, including the gruesome discovery of a gallows field.

Over the past year, the painting Scene on the Ice (1610-1620) by Hendrick Avercamp (1585-1634) from the collection of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen has been thoroughly restored, revealing the painting’s fresh colours and bringing to light surprising details. This week, the museum has posted a short video online about the restoration of the work. But even after making the film, the restorer Johanneke Verhave made another remarkable discovery when she realised that what had previously been mistaken for reeds was in fact a gallows field. Thanks to the extensive conservation work, the painting is now ready for the future. Scene on the Ice is on view in the exhibition Maritime Masterpieces in Rotterdam’s Maritime Museum until 4th September. The restoration of Avercamp’s Scene on the Ice was made possible by Stichting Droom en Daad as part of Boijmans Next Door.

Radical treatment

The six-month restoration process has made the imagery in Avercamp’s Scene on the Ice much clearer. The work shows an animated scene around two ships on frozen water, with features that we recognise from Christmas markets today: people skating, children in sledges and people serving refreshments.

Both the front and back of the panel were treated during the extensive restoration. The removal of the old, yellowed varnish layer and old areas of over-painting has revealed the original colours and some new figures.

Restorer Johanneke Verhave  said, ‘The painting required radical treatment. The removal of the old varnish layer has significantly increased its brightness but also revealed that there was much more old retouching than was visible through the thick layer of varnish. With the choices made during the new retouching, the painting is now much closer to how Avercamp intended it.’

Gallows field in a winter scene

It became clear that past restorers had worked very carefully but had nonetheless – consciously or unconsciously – changed certain details. For example, the curled ends of some of the skates had been painted out, as had the bobble on the hooded cape worn by the lady in the foreground. The restoration brought further revelations: some figures had clearly been added later and could now be removed, one man turned out to be a woman and other figures had been painted out. One figure is cut in half, suggesting the panel has been sawn at this point and that the painting was originally slightly larger.

The gallows field that Verhave discovered in the background is a recurring element in Avercamp’s winter scenes, but it is remarkable nonetheless. The ochre-yellow lines were initially seen as reeds but now reveal as many as ten hanging corpses. It also became clear that various figures are staring at the bodies and that the three horse-drawn sledges are taking people to view this grisly attraction. This discovery may help locate the spot that Avercamp has painted here and contribute to further art-historical research.

Avercamp and the Little Ice Age

The last quarter of the sixteenth century was one of the coldest periods in northern Europe’s history and is therefore known as the Little Ice Age. Ice skating was already a very popular pastime in this period, and Avercamp went on long skating trips in his youth. He was determined to be a painter. In the winter, he loved to sketch the landscape around his hometown of Kampen. Avercamp’s ice scenes were popular during his lifetime for the sense of fun and the zest for life exhibited by the varied figures that populate them. Thanks to Avercamp, the ice scene was ultimately elevated to an independent and specialist genre within painting.

Maritime Masterpieces

As soon as museums are allowed to re-open after the lockdown, ‘Scene on the Ice’ can be seen in the exhibition Maritime Masterpieces in the Maritime Museum, until 4th September. Featuring seascapes from the 16th to the 21st centuries, this is the last exhibition in the series Boijmans Next Door.

Photos by Aad Hoogendoorn