Ice Skating Paintings

It’s the time of year when everyone seems to be booking tickets for those outdoor ice skatings venues, and at the same time I happened upon this wonderful painting by Sir Henry Raeburn from the 1790’s, which must certainly be one of the stars of the Scottish National Gallery collection. Known as The Skating Reverend or ‘Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch’, it is thought to depict the Reverend Walker who was a minister of the Canongate Kirk and a member of the Edinburgh Skating Socierty which met on the frozen lochs of Duddingston or Lochend on the outskirts of Edinburgh. It’s such a wonderful picture – the dark of the minister’s clothes against the silvery gloom where ice blends into hillside which blends into overcast sky. I love the detail of the many marks made of the ice from this and previous skaters. It looks on the one hand faintly incongruous to us I suppose – someone skating in his rather severe minister’s outfit – but he’s so extremely elegant at the same time, in perfect control and clearly an accomplished skater keen to demonstrate his skill. He’s serious, and yet at the same time looks like he’s enjoying himself. It’s a lovely, most unusual painting and if I ever make it up to Scotland I will go and see it in person.

Henry Raeburn, The Reverend Robert Walker

Here’s a similar image: The Skater by the American artist Gilbert Stuart, painted in 1782 when he was living in London and now held by the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. It depicts one William Grant, who was a wealthy young man from East Lothian not far from Edinburgh who wished to commission a full length portrait of himself. On account of the coldness of the weather, artist and sitter left instead for the Serpentine in Hyde Park and took to the ice. The idea was floated that Stuart should paint Grant in that setting. It’s not quite as striking as the Skating Reverent, but it’s a nice portrait and I like the little detail of a group of skaters off in the distance and the gnarly wintery tree. It doesn’t quite convince though as a portrait of a serious ice skater.

The Skater by the American artist Gilbert Stuart

This later image is called Ice Skaters by Henri- Lucien Doucet, purchased 1894. I would assume that it’s somewhere in France and certainly the skaters look very fashionable. I like the ultra-romantic evening light and those large sort of chair-shelters the spectators are sitting in, which look very cosy.

Ice Skaters by Henri- Lucien Doucet

Also rather chic are this earlier glamorous pair, below, from Skaters by Louis De Caullery (ca.1580–1621)

Skaters by Louis De Caullery

The late middle ages was the golden era of skating pictures. It’s not surprising considering the freezing few centuries of the ‘mini ice age’ and the difficulties people must have faced against cold weather. And it was the Flemish painters who did it best. The greatest Flemish master of the romantic wintry scene was Hendrick Avercamp, who’s architypal Winter Landscape With Skaters from 1608 in the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands is just teeming with detail. Here are a couple of enlargments because the figures are tiny. I love the wonderful horse drawn sledge (and a man fallen flat on his back behind, for good measure… skating scene is complete without!)

Avercamp, Winter Landscape With Skaters

I think you’d have to see this painting in person to take in all the many tiny details, like the frozen golf (?) or the little dance that seems to be going on here – or perhaps the circle of figures are just holidng hands to avoid falling over. It’s a bit like a medieval ‘Where’s Wally?’

Avercamp, Winter Landscape With Skaters

It’s probably the potential for cheeky comedy like that that made the ice-scene such a popular choice for painters. The one below is pretty bawdy: Adriaen Pietersz Van De Venne’s The Port of Middelburg, 1615 (detail) where a gentleman is actually looking up a fallen woman’s skirt. This is a joke seen in quite a number of winter paintings, including those by Breugel.

Adriaen Pietersz Van De Venne’s The Port of Middelburg

And lastly this one by Able Grimmer, yet another master of the snowy and icy skating scene: Skaters In Front Of Zuylen Castle In Maarssen. It’s picture-perfect with the pretty castle, the green icy lake and the gaiety of the skating figures. One of my favourites, would make a great Christmas card. Speaking of Christmas, there’s also post on my favourite wintry images for the Christmas season.

Skaters In Front Of Zuylen Castle In Maarssen

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