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Mar. 5, 2021 | Friday
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Eye for Art: Keeping spirits high in difficult times
Pieter Bruegel the Elder The Hunters in the Snow, 1565 Oil on wood panel Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Penny-Lynn Cookson
Special to Niagara Now/The Lake Report

There’s a pond on either side of a dip in the road near Ryerson Park.  When the weather is warm it can be smelly but always intriguing with the sounds of frogs croaking, red-winged blackbirds chek cheking and mallards splashing as they dive to feed.

Now, even on the coldest days, there is another familiar sound from the pond. It’s the welcome scrape of skate blades on ice as brave families enjoy one of the few outdoor things we can do during these pandemic days: walk or skate at distance with another.  

As I recently watched the skaters with pleasure, the scene reminded me of a remarkable winter landscape, "The Hunters in the Snow," painted by the famous Flemish Renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1565.

That year was the coldest winter of the 16th century, during a period that became known as "The Little Ice Age." Bruegel  has captured the fatigue of three hunters as they plod home through the heavy snow with their dogs.

To the left, adults are busy tending an outdoor fire, suggesting preparation of a welcome communal meal at the inn.  

The day is grey, the air crisp. Crows and a magpie are on the alert for food and below the hill a frozen river and two ponds are active with skaters of all ages, some even playing a game with sticks and a rock!

On the bridge, a hunched solitary figure carries a heavy bundle of wood. Work must continue. Beneath the imagined grandeur of jagged mountain peaks which, in reality, do not exist in the Netherlands, Bruegel conveys that even in harsh difficult times, life, faith and the human spirit rise and endure.


Penny-Lynn Cookson is an art historian who taught at the University of Toronto for 10 years. She was also head of extension services at the Art Gallery of Ontario. See her upcoming lecture series "Art and Revolution, From Cave Art to the Future Thursdays" on Zoom, March 11 to April 29 at RiverBrink Art Museum, Queenston.