Winter landscape with skaters, Haarlem in the distance signed and dated 'A Schelfhout 58' (lower right) oil on panel 31.5 x 44 cm. (12 1/2 x 17 1/4 in.)
Born in The Hague in 1787 to a framer and gilder, Schelfhout trained as a house painter before being apprenticed to the studio of the theatre designer J.A.A.H Breckenheimer. There he learnt to paint city scenes and landscapes, and responded to Breckenheimers emphasis on the necessity of employing convincing perspective in pictorial compositions. By 1816 Schelfhout had started to exhibit his landscapes regularly in both The Hague and Belgium. That the works he showed were greeted with critical acclaim is revealed in the awards and honours he received, and the literary critiques his works provoked. He was elected a member of the newly formed Amsterdam Royal Academy for Visual Arts in 1818 and in 1819 he received a Gold Medal in Antwerp. Perhaps the most illuminating critique in relation to Winter landscape with skaters, Haarlem in the distance was applied to Schelfhouts Winter tableau from the Four Seasons series he exhibited in 1819. In an imagined conversation with an art critic, the narrator proclaimed I shall not forget his Winter. This comment reveals how remarkable and novel Schelfhouts skating scenes were to contemporary eyes.
The example illustrated here demonstrates why the critic would admire Schelfhouts winter scenes. The formal compositional values that underpin the work combine with Schelfhouts tender rendering of light and atmosphere. Indeed, the low horizon afforded Schelfhout an opportunity to depict a wide expanse of sky imbued with warm yellow hues of the evening light, while below the skyline, laws of perspective work to compel the viewers eye towards figures huddling and traversing the ice at the golden section of the painting. In this work the Haarlem landmarks, including windmills, church spires and roofs, are delineated in grey tones and act as points of unification indeed negotiation between the two areas of the painting. The effect of unification is heightened by Schelfhouts rendering of the play of evening light upon the snow, and ice. Schelfhout was thus able to capture the fleeting changes of the natural landscape on the canvas. The subject of the painting is then, overwhelming nature, in which figures are subordinate to the overall feeling of the landscape. A manner and technique, which a contemporary critic described thus, He has caught Nature red-handed, and knows how to bring together all the elements and polish them into an exquisite whole. Clearly then Winter landscape with skaters, Haarlem in the distance is in part a Romantic painting.
However within the European Romantic tradition, Winter landscape with skaters, Haarlem in the distance is somewhat idiosyncratic. Arguably for a true rendering of Dutch Romanticism we must look to Schelfhouts pupil Nuyen, and the space for fantasy and subtlety of feeling contained in his works. Instead Winter landscape with skaters, Haarlem in the distance is a personal interpretation of the philosophical ideal. Schelfhout absorbed and then selected the attributes and ideas of the Romantic credo, that appealed to him, and dismissed those that did not. In short, he translated Romantic themes into his own pictorial language.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Schelfhout should produce a complementary, rather than unquestioning form of the French and German Romantic genre. 1815 marked the end of French domination in the Netherlands, and with it came an opportunity for artists from the sovereign states to develop a national identity through the creation of a national art. More specifically, although Schelfhout visited France and England in 1833 to heighten his awareness of new trends in Romantic painting, he viewed himself in the Vasarian tradition of artist as genius. Schelfhout proclaimed genius is developed through and from within itself, a comment which reveals the artists confidence in pursuing his artistic ideals to their natural ends.
Schelfhout was also moved specifically by the Dutch landscape, as this quotation from an interview in 1844 reveals. He stated Nature. She and she alone was Schelfhouts teacher. In the work illustrated here we see how Schelfhout channelled his admiration of the Dutch landscape to capture its very essence and beauty. Finally, Schelfhout was influenced by the Dutch 17th Century landscape tradition. In his youth he had made copies of works from the Golden Age, and later in his career imbued these compositions with scenes from 19th Century contemporary life. The work is thus a personal interpretation of Romanticism, and also a Dutch one.
Schelfhouts winter scenes specifically, and oeuvre in general represented a renewal of Dutch painting which had arguably been in a state of decline since 1700. Indeed in the funeral eulogy to Schelfhout, Bles proclaimed that Todays generation of youthful artists, the Netherlands hope and future, need not look upon this tragic loss as a cause for despair and sorrow but rouse spirits and increase urge to follow, toward unreachable frontiers of immortal beauty. The above quotation is a testament to the accomplishment of the artist, and his role in providing the Netherlands with a national identity, by forging a Dutch version of Romantic landscape painting.