Object in Focus: ‘A Town on a Frozen River’ by Aert van der Neer 1645-1650.

A TOWN ON A FROZEN RIVER by Aert van der Neer (1603/4-1677) from the Corridor at Polesden Lacey.

A TOWN ON A FROZEN RIVER by Aert van der Neer (1603/4-1677) from the Corridor at Polesden Lacey.

I thought I’d focus on this little painting as not many people take much notice of it and it is off the main visitor route and easily missed.  I’ll also come clean now and admit I am not an art historian, but did a BA in Geography so I’m doing this from a more geographical point of view.  I love this painting because it creates such a sense of vibrancy and space on what could be quite a cold subject.  Everyone in the painting is doing something and whereas it’s an imagined landscape, it is at the same moment so typically ‘Dutch’ in style and feel.  Van der Neer was not much recognised in his own lifetime  and in the information I’ve found on him, didn’t do that well out of painting either.  He started out as a steward for the lords of Arkel in Gorinchem and seems to only have taken up painting when introduced to it by his brothers in law who were both painters.

As I got further into researching this blog post, I have found out more and more that makes me fascinated with the link between art and the world it portrays (the geographical bit coming back again).  Various art forms have been studied in relation to bringing the sense of place to life and indeed even the Royal Geographical Society has noted that it is a growth area of study for them. Social and cultural ideas are ideally represented in art and from what I’ve found out about art production in the seventeenth century, this was the key time in starting to express the ideas of painters and ‘art for art’s sake’ rather than being for a public purpose.  Dutch art such as this painting was on a much smaller scale and designed for domestic display rather than the large ecclesiastical paintings that had gone before it.  I found a lovely passage in a book published in 1930, a time when Mrs Greville was collecting her art works, ‘A Miniature History of European Art’ by R.H. Wilenski, which puts the purpose quite succinctly even if the language is a little old fashioned:
“The Dutch middle-class man of moderate means called for pictures that would flatter his vanity, for pictures describing a world in which he could feel at home, and above all for pictures that he could afford to buy.”
It is this form that van der Neer really captures and gives you a snapshot of Dutch life in the seventeenth century which makes this piece so appealing to me.

Van der Neer had an interesting life from what I could find out, and from comments from the J. Paul Getty Museum, though he wasn’t appreciated in his time, modern scholars praise the sense of atmosphere and space in his paintings.  As he started quite late (his first known painting dates from 1632), I think his specialism in wintery and moonlit scenes show that he was an ideal partner when he collaborated with Aelbert Cuyp on trips to Dordrecht – there are even some paintings reputed to have elements painted both of them in the Louvre and National Gallery.  In 1659 he bought an inn in Amsterdam, but was declared bankrupt not long after in 1662 and lived for the last 15 years of his life in abject poverty.  After his bankruptcy he sold all his paintings for very little money, but continued to paint until his death.  Like many painters of the time, he painted inside rather than in the field, which accounts for the imaginary qualities of the landscapes he produced and that you can’t put them to one specific view.  He used images and identifiable buildings from many towns, especially near Amsterdam, Leiden and Dordrecht, yet just as in this painting other wintery scenes similar to this on display in places such as the National Gallery and the Rijks Museum, can’t be traditionally placed.  This also has connotations on the sense of place his paintings have in their representation of a fictionalised or idealised landscape.

So next time you come to visit, come and look at this lovely little piece and some of the other less well known paintings found in the West Corridor.  If you know it or have spotted it in the past, take a closer look and see if you can spot something new!

You can find out more about our collections at: http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/

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