Barend Cornelis Koekkoek was born on the 11th of October 1803 in Middelburg as eldest son to the marine painter Johannes Hermanus Koekkoek (1778-1851). At the early age of thirteen Koekkoek studied at the local academy and frequented evening classes by Abraham Kraystein (1793-1855). Having been awarded a scholarship by the Dutch Government, Koekkoek attended the academy in Amsterdam where he was taught by Jean Augustin Daiwaille (1786-1850) whom he befriended and was to work with for the rest of his career. On the 14th of August 1833 he married Daiwailles daughter Elise Therese (1814-1881). By 1855, the year in which the present lot was painted, Koekkoek was widely regarded to be the leading Romantic landscape painter of the period, having been awarded numerous gold medals at the leading European salons.
In the present large canvas, Koekkoek has deployed an array of compositional tools. The centre of the painting consists of a snow covered track flanked on both sides by majestic oak trees creating an almost tunnel like effect. To the left, behind a roadside shrine, a small hamlet and a church with a square tower stand at the edge of a forest, limiting the depth of space on this side of the painting. This is counterbalanced by a hilltop castle on the far right of the composition which is set in the far distance. The clean white expanses of snow in both these areas serve to delineate and highlight these regions. Villagers with an ice-sledge are coming towards the spectator on the frozen stream with thick blocks of glistening ice in the immediate foreground. The delicate powdery snow further emphasizes specific details, creating a chiaroscuro effect in, for example, the trees and the rooftops.
The present lot exemplifies the Sehnsucht Barend Cornelis Koekkoek strived for from 1850 onwards: a melancholic nostalgia or wistful longing that formed the core of Romanticism. In literature and the visual arts this reminiscence was expressed in motives such as far-away countries, historical subjects and typical nationalist happenings. White winter landscapes evoke feelings of cosy afternoons on the ice with the entire family, enjoying hot soup afterwards. The idealised representation takes the viewer to a perfect day in the most painterly season of the year. The figures on the wooded path however, represent the woodgatherers and farmers who must assume their daily work. This narrative element adds another dimension to the already beautiful landscape. Using staffage also enabled the artist to create further depth, because as repoussoir, the figures enhance the vanishing point. Koekkoek has overcome the flat surface through a staged composition, with the first plan of the staffage and the architecture and the second plan of a village in the background. This second plan is very important for the illusion of a three-dimensional space, because Koekkoek has made use of atmospheric perspective: the vague colours around the horizon suggest a solid physical space.
Once again, Koekkoek demonstrates his highly skilled use of lighting. The sun colours the clouds pinkish and the figures shed long shadows on the path. The variegated treatment of light and multilayered pictorial planes and the sheer number of figures and architectural elements in the present painting are remarkable even for Koekkoek's standards. His virtuosity is demonstrated by the way the light of late afternoon is captured before the night drowns the world in darkness.
The authenticity of the present lot has kindly been confirmed after firsthand examination by Drs Guido de Werd, director of Haus Koekkoek, Cleves.