Natural Relaxation: Defining Dutch Pleasures and Pictorial Conventions in the Seventeenth-Century Winter Scene

Harrington, Erik, History of Art and Architecture - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Goedde, Lawrence, McIntire Department of Art, University of Virginia

While representations of people enjoying wintertime pleasures and games on the ice were produced throughout the Middle Ages in series of the months and the seasons, Pieter Bruegel the Elder created the first autonomous winter scenes in the sixteenth century. While this genre, distinct from modern notions of “landscape,” enjoyed considerable popularity in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic, its production was in large part limited to the Netherlands. This dissertation determines why the subject appealed to Dutch artists and why the purchasing public desired that winter be liberated from series of the seasons. To do so, it puts the winter scene in its cultural context, addressing questions of seventeenth-century visual culture, art theory, cosmology, literature, books, and cultural practices, including courtship, celebrations, and readership. This cultural investigation is considered along with the highly selective reoccurring motifs of the winter scene. Like other seventeenth-century Dutch images, the winter scene adheres to a set of conventions reflecting cultural ideas and what an audience wished to see and not to see in their art. Most winter scenes remove the many known hardships of the season, instead illustrating the same range of pleasure seekers and individuals relaxing. Elsewhere in Dutch art, most of the activities represented in the winter scene are either not depicted occurring publically or are presented in a moralizing or mocking manner. Yet they occur before the entire village on the ice in a neutral or festive tone, much like a cleaned-up kermis scene.
The main argument of this dissertation is that the winter scene appealed to seventeenth-century Dutch audiences by reflecting notions of winter as a naturally enforced relaxation. While relaxation refers to the frigid season eliminating productive labor, a theme in both Dutch literature inspired by Virgil’s Georgics and early modern print series illustrating the seasons, it also suggests a festive relaxation of social standards. This social relaxation comes from two sources. First are the many holidays and observances in winter that were characterized by social inversion, especially Shrovetide and Twelfth Night. Winter had more holidays than other seasons, and Dutch representations and descriptions of the cycle of the year align winter more than any other season with annual festivals. The winter scene is a carnivalesque body of images as these inversions become public on the ice. The second source are Dutch responses to Horace’s Odes and Epodes that describe winter in a celebratory manner. While Horace urged his audience to respond to difficult weather with a festive attitude and a joyful toast of the wineglass, Dutch poets updated these ancient poems to include details specific to the Netherlands. Horace’s celebratory winter was familiar to Dutch audiences outside of the circle of erudite literati as his messages were also found in more lowbrow literature such as amorous songbooks. By considering the winter scene as a Horatian body of images, it becomes part of the seventeenth-century trend of Dutch authors and artists turning towards local subjects in a search for what it means to be from the newly formed Dutch Republic. Many times, this exploration of national identity put specifically Dutch details in dialogue with ideas from classical antiquity to flatter the residents of Europe’s youngest nation by suggesting how they are equals, if not superiors, to their celebrated forerunners.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Winter, Horace, Dutch
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