Little Ice Age Reflected in Dutch Landscape Paintings

  • Title: Ice and snow in paintings of Little Ice Age winters
  • Date of publication: February 2005
  • Authors: Peter J. Robinson
  • Published by: Weather

Artists will probably find beauty in a piece of Dutch landscape paintings in the 17th Century, but climate scientist may see it as a data set; art work can be important evidence of the Little Ice Age that lasted from 1300 to 1850 [1]. An interesting study titled “Ice and snow in paintings of Little Ice Age winters” examines how artists in Europe depicted the colder weather and how we can get information about climate from those paintings.

The European paintings that the authors studied not only show the lower temperatures, but imply other important climate-related information such as whether snow or ice dominated. Also, as artists became to seek more realistic painting techniques, the shape of the clouds in the paintings reveal many climatic details as time passes. As for the Little Ice Age, the author concludes:

  • “The winter landscapes painted during the period between 1400 and 1900 in the Low Countries show a swing from primarily snowy conditions early in the period to times of ice domination during the most severe phase of the Little Ice Age, and then a return to snow scenes as the period ended.”

There are 4 distinct periods that the paper suggests:

  • 1400–1590: Snow dominates
  • 1590–1675: Icy winters
  • 1675–1815: Few landscapes (due to non-climatic reasons such as economic decline)
  • 1815–1900: Snow returns

Here are a couple of paintings that depict European winters during the Little Ice Age.

“Winter” by Lucas van Valckenborch, 1586 [2]

This piece is from the period when ‘snow dominated,’ as well depicted by the painter.

“Skating in Holland” by imitator of Johan Barthold Jonkind, 1890–1900 [3]

This one was created at the end of the Little Ice Age, when ‘snow returned.’ The paintings in the later period of the Little Ice Age are more bleak and dark, probably partly due to the change in painting techniques. But as “the development of ice thick enough to allow skating requires an extended cold period,” according to the author of the paper, they also indicate how long and severe winters have been at that time.

I’ve always loved Dutch landscapes but never thought they can be important data for climate research. I’m sure I’ll have a new set of eyes next time I visit an art museum.

[1] Miller et al. 2012. “Abrupt onset of the Little Ice Age triggered by volcanism and sustained by sea-ice/ocean feedbacks.” Geophysical Research Letters 39, 31 January.

[2] © Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY

[3] © National Gallery, London

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