A buzz of activity warms Salomon van Ruysdael’s frozen landscape - an icy river temporarily transformed into a bustling village square.
In the foreground, high-roofed tents provide improvised premises for traders, with customers travelling across the ice by foot or horse-drawn vehicles. For the young children at the tent’s opening, a goat provides adequate strength to pull an elegant sleigh - its passengers unperturbed by the dogs that tussle nearby.
To the right, in the near distance, Ruysdael shows figure skaters, continuing a regional pastime first begun in the Middle Ages. The work perfectly captures the distinctive posture and balance of those propelling themselves forward on the ice, as well as the awkward sitting and adjusting of laces that accompanies the endeavor.
Behind the skaters, the pale buildings of Vianen - a city in the province of Utrecht - cut the horizon. The skyline is distinguished by Batestein castle, a residence of the Brederode family on the river Lek. During the Eighty Years War, the castle served as a meeting place for leaders of the Dutch revolt, while later it became known for its ornamental gardens built by Johan Wolfert Brederode.
A popular site for painters, the city appears in works by artists including Hendrick Vroom and Jan van Goyen, whose 1624 painting of Batestein castle precedes this work by around 30 years. Rather than mimic the gray, muted light found of Van Goyen’s work, however, Ruysdael preferred to depict the bright blue sky and vibrant color of a crisp winter day.
Though Ruysdael was a prolific landscape painter, views of winter scenes such as Skaters on the Frozen River Lek represent only a small portion of his output: “In the late 1650s” explains Peter Sutton, “Ruysdael returned to winter scenes, which nevertheless remain somewhat unusual in his oeuvre, as only around twenty pictures of this subject by him are known (Masters of 17th-Century Dutch Landscape Painting, exhibition catalogue, Amsterdam, Boston and Philadelphia, 1988, pp. 474-475).