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Essay – Isack van Ostade – Ice scene near an inn

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Essay - Isack van Ostade - Ice scene near an inn

The Haarlem painter Isack van Ostade, who died in his late twenties, left behind a sizeable oeuvre of paintings and drawings, created in the space of just ten years. Like his older brother and teacher Adriaen van Ostade (cat. no. 47), he specialised in the peasant genre; initially he painted mainly interiors, but later used outdoor settings as well. His land­scapes consist primarily of scenes near country taverns or farms, and winter views. The first of these latter, quickly painted and almost monochrome, were undoubtedly influenced by the early work of Salomon van Ruysdael (1600/03-1670), with whom he may well have completed his training.1 Van Ostade gradually began to employ a richer, subtly harmonised palette, thereby creating a great sense of unity in his rendering of the natural environment and his depiction of figures. Characteristic is the use of warm lighting, which has been ascribed to the influence of the Dutch Italianate painters and their sun-drenched landscapes.2 In this winter scene of 1643 the contours are illuminated by the rays of the setting sun falling from the left.

In the course of his short career Isack van Ostade painted not only large, ambitious winter landscapes on canvas – of which this work of 1643 is a fine example – but also smaller, more intimate pictures on panel. His vivid compositions are often built up in a similar fashion along imaginary diagonal lines, as here, where the eye is led from a low viewpoint towards the inn at the upper right, as well as to the distant ice on the left. Along the frozen water, with at the left – as so often – a windmill in the distance as the most important marker,3 we find figures skating, sledging and playing colf. Various activities in the foreground draw our attention as well: a harnessed grey waits patiently as a sleigh-driver readies his full vehicle. This is a variation on the motif of a horse dragging its load over the riverbank, which Van Ostade often used in his winter landscapes.4 In the left foreground stand a peasant couple and a child with a colf club near a push-sledge laden with two barrels.

Van Ostade liked to include lots of children in his scenes. In the centre foreground here a child pulls his playmate on a sledge. Several are shown tying on their skates, like the little boy in the right foreground, accompanied by another child and a dog. More people are seen near the inn at the right – easily recognisable thanks to its signboard – and we also find a harnessed horse eating from a trough. Near the refreshment tent man and beast quench their thirst. Human activity is central to Van Ostade’s winter scenes, which, though derived from the repertoire of the Haarlem peasant genre, have none of the satirical tone that typifies his earliest depictions of peasant life.

Isack van Ostade’s characteristic winter landscapes inspired a number of artists, among them Claes Molenaer (c. 1630-1676) and Philips Wouwerman (cat. no. 65). The early work of Jan Steen (1626-1679), who, according to the artists’ biographer Jacob Campo Weyerman (1677-1719), was for a time a pupil of Adriaen van Ostade,5 also reveals the influence of the younger Van Ostade. While no winter landscapes by Adriaen van Ostade are known, Steen did in fact paint at least one, a youthful work of around 1650 (fig. 1). In its diagonal lines and warm, unifying light it is clearly related to the ice scene discussed here.6