This hitherto unknown panel has been in the same collection for over fifty years where it was assumed to be an unimportant work from the circle of Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Until recently it bore the initials 'PB' which had been added over the Avercamp monogram and no doubt caused the misattribution. Its earlier history is entirely unknown. It was not uncommon for works by Avercamp to be incorrectly ascribed once they left Holland as early as the seventeenth century. As has been well documented, Avercamp worked in near isolation in Kampen in northern Holland and although there may have been a local demand for his pictures, Avercamp's artistic personality was virtually unknown beyond Holland's borders. A seventeenth century Austrian royal inventory records the early Winter Landscape (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; Inv. 5659) as a work by Pieter Brueghel the Younger in spite of the fact that, like the present work, it is signed by Avercamp. Such evidence suggests that Brueghel's initials could have been added to the present work at an early date and this would further explain why it has remained in obscurity for so long.
Hendrick Avercamp was the first artist in the northern Netherlands to paint winter landscapes. He may have been influenced by the work of Flemish landscape specialists such as Hans Bol and David Vinckboons, whose work he might have encountered in Amsterdam around 1607, but he developed a highly original style by which he is credited as the founder of the genre. Little is known about Avercamp's life or working practice but much is made of the fact that he was a deaf mute (he was known as de stom) and thus by inference blessed with a heightened sensitivity to the visual world. His mother, in her will of 1633, referred to her eldest unmarried son as 'mute and miserable' though his paintings, by contrast, are invariably joyous without any brooding undertones.
Avercamp's compositions rely on a high vantage point, allowing for a panoramic view of a landscape filled with colourful figures and anecdotal detail. Although there are only very few dated works, Albert Blankert has proposed a chronology for Avercamp's oeuvre that has gained widespread acceptance (A. Blankert, in the catalogue of the exhibition, Frozen Silence, Amsterdam, Waterman Gallery, 1982, pp. 27-8). He charts Avercamp's development from the early crowded scenes painted in a Breughelian manner between circa 1605-8, through the more additive compositions between circa 1609-15, to the more compact pictures with larger figures from crica 1615-20. After that date, his pictures can be characterised by the use again of smaller figures who merge with the landscape in a way never previously achieved. The designs of the late pictures are also somewhat looser giving greater emphasis to atmospheric effects.
It is within this last mentioned group of late works that the present picture belongs. Indeed it correlates well with two pictures of similar dimensions (Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland, and London, private collection), that are both regarded as key examples of Avercamp's very late style, datable to circa 1630. Both feature windmills that - as in the present picture - act as repoussoirs in the left middle ground. The composition of the Edinburgh scene, though more populous that this one, is similarly bound by a diagonal recession of figures over the ice towards the left horizon with a walled town on the right and a rampart extending out of the picture space. In both cases the town is probably inspired by the topography of Kampen but is imaginary.
The left part of this composition also relates closely to a signed panel of nearly square dimensions, in which, from a lower and advanced viewpoint, the windmill recurs in almost identical fashion. It is quite plausible that Avercamp embarked on the present picture with the same format in mind. The panel is made up using two vertical sections which would seem unlikely for a picture of this scale, thus giving rise to the idea that the artist extended the picture on the right whilst it was still in painting. The right section of the panel seems to have been an offcut from a larger plank that had been used before. An infra-red photograph reveals a pair of larg figures, seen in half-length, underneath the ice in the right foreground (see fig. 1). In any case, the result is a harmonious composition, notable for the excellent state of preservation of the figures, and constitutes an important addition to the late oeuvre of the artist.