Seventeenth Century Schaats: The Artistry Of Cornelis Dusart

"La Hollandoise sur les patins", Dusart painting engraved by Jacobus Gole. Photo courtesy The British Museum.

Born in Haarlem in 1660, Cornelis Dusart was a prolific and imaginative Dutch painter and printmaker who studied under the great Dutch Golden Age painter Adriaen van Ostade. During his lifetime, skating was a way of life in Holland, a national pastime if you will. In his book "Ice-Skating: A History", Swiss figure skating historian Nigel Brown remarked that during this period, "In winter the frozen canals not only served as the best means of communication between one village and another, but were scenes of popular race-meetings, and the settings of colourful merry-making. The canals, like streets, were often transformed into town squares reminiscent of the gay and lighthearted piazzas of Southern Italy. Good thick ice in winter time in Holland heralded festival time. Tents were elected along the shores, and ships, small canal barges with long skate-runners attached to their hulls, and sails flying, were used to transport the gentry to their rendezvous." Brown was able to discern much of this information through one of the most valuable primary sources out there when it comes to early skating history: art.

Cornelis Dusart specialized in capturing the spirit and character of seventeenth century Dutch peasant life in his work. He fashioned several highly detailed winter scenes which contributed greatly to what we know about skating in Holland during this period. An excellent example of the festivities that Brown described is Dusart's "Ijsvermaak nabij een dorp met kerk", which depicts a group of skaters merry-making on the ice, with a church in the background.

"December" by Cornelis Dusart

In a series of twelve prints for each month of the year, Dusart devoted "December" to a man and a woman skating on the ice, propelling themselves along with a pitched staff, which the skater would use almost like a walking stick to achieve balance, strike off with to achieve speed and to help make sudden stops. In seventeenth century Holland, few skaters would 'tour' any distance without one of these bad boys in their hands. The ice was simply too crowded and the wide, flat skates were too primitive to allow them the control they needed to manoeuvr obstacles like holes in the ice, rocks and dense thickets of reeds.

Work by Cornelis Dusart, engraved by Jacobus Gole

Dusart frequently collaborated with engraver Jacobus Gole and in the year's following his death in 1704, Gole reimagined several works in Dusart's style. Had it not been for their creative work, much history of Dutch skating in the seventeenth century would have been lost and we owe them both, along with the many other great Dutch artists who used skating as a medium in this period, a great deal of gratitude.

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