THIS drawing by the Flemish artist Hans Bol is titled ``Winter Landscape with Skaters'' and measures a little over 7 by slightly more than 10 inches. It is very like those once-popular series of the seasons which, in the north and for winter, very naturally included skaters. Netherlandish art was always realistic. The scene contains a canal, trees, a number of buildings, large and small, nearly 100 figures, a wide sky, and a distant panorama, all in harmonious relationship. Each of the individuals is in a lively pose, whether pushing forward into the frosty air, pulling a sled with children on it, or in the semicircular formation called crack-the-whip, seen in the middle distance under the high walls of a ch^ateau. A line of trees, decreasing in size as they recede into the distance, enhances the depth of the tableau, while their tall, leafless grace imparts an air of elegance to the whole.
The composition, though extremely intricate and detailed, is not crowded. It conveys a feeling of rustic gaiety and good cheer - it is a little masterpiece.
When this picture was executed, the Netherlands was experiencing appalling political and religious trials, but the indomitable populace did not allow these burdens to quench their spirits: A drawing like this may actually have helped its viewers to endure. This is not ``propaganda art,'' but a considerable proportion of the rich, prodigal flow of painting and drawing coming out in that period did include political motives and influence thought.
Born in Malines (now Mechelein) in 1534, Hans Bol was a landscapist, an engraver, and a miniaturist, even a decorator. For his miniatures he used gouache on parchment, working on a minute scale - some are hardly more than 2 by 3 inches - and yet they easily include elaborate views of canals, people, trees, buildings; and the same is true for the beautiful scenes he executed for the Duke of Brabant's ``Book of Hours.''
As a landscapist, Bol was engaged on a theme then quite new - it was not till the 16th century that Europe realized how beautiful and interesting landscapes are in themselves; that they need not be relegated simply to make the background of a picture, usually a religious picture. This perception seems to have dawned simultaneously on the artists of several localities, notably in the Low Countries, in Vienna, in Prague. It was strange that it should have taken so long for nature to have awakened them to herself - landscapes had, of course, been the glory of Chinese painting a thousand years before this. However, once the Western artists opened their eyes to this marvel, they quickly became adept in depicting it.
AS far as the Netherlanders were concerned, this came about partly through their first journeys to Italy, halting in Switzerland on the way and discovering the wonders of mountain scenery and of vast panoramas. These so-called ``world landscapes'' astonished them, accustomed as they were to their own flat delta country. This period between medieval religious painting and the Golden Age of Netherlandish painting (the 17th century) is now sometimes called the Age of Landscape; it has been somewhat overlooked because of that dazzling roster of geniuses that succeeded it - Rembrandt, Rubens, Franz Hals, Hobbema, the list goes on and on.
However, the man who was preeminent in the Age of Landscape was also a genius - it was Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525-69), of whom it was said that he could ``depict many things which cannot be depicted,'' and whose influence was incalculable. His drawings of Switzerland and Italy opened the portals of a new vision to contemporary artists as beautiful examples of what can be done with the pen and pencil. Hans Bol did not go so far afield, but he spent two years (1550-52) in Heidelberg, in the service of the elector, seeing with his own eyes the charms of a hilly terrain. Afterward he returned to his own town and joined the Painters' Guild, where he was made a master.
In 1572, the Spaniards occupied Malines, and he moved to Antwerp, then a great entrepreneurial city famous for its commerce and its art. Once again he was dislodged by the soldiers of Philip II, when in 1776 they sacked and destroyed Antwerp in what came to be known as the Spanish Fury - the stricken city never regained its former place. At that time, with many others, Bol left this scene of danger and desolation, going north, and finally settling in Amsterdam, where he became a citizen in 1591.
His trials and migrations were closely bound up with the rise of the Dutch Republic, undoubtedly one of the most important events of all European history. Goaded beyond bearing by the insolent tyranny of Spain, tormented by the Inquisition as the Protestant faith gained ground in the north, that part of the Netherlands which we now call Holland finally rebelled against the greatest power in Europe. Victory came to those seven little provinces; but only after 80 years of struggle, and even then it did not bring with it what William the Silent, the father of this new country, had so ardently desired, the union of all the 17 provinces of the Low Countries, as the southernmost 10 did not join the republic, but became, eventually, another state - Belgium.
William's vision and courage enabled his people to carry on the first stage of the long war, but he was struck down by an assassin. His son Maurice, who came after him, proved a military genius; another, much younger son, Frederick Henry, consolidated and completed the establishment of the country. Small wonder the house of Orange-Nassau is so beloved in Holland. William's motto, ``It is not necessary to hope in order to undertake, nor to succeed in order to persevere,'' gives a key to the determination that led to victory.
They had great assets, aside from valor and endurance: sea power, immense mercantile talents, and the inspiration of their artists, who were to be found in every city, town - even in the villages. The versatility of the people of this tiny, nascent country astonished the world. As a Venetian ambassador wrote: ``The gold mines of the Spanish Empire lie not in America but in the sodden clay of the Netherlands.''
Dutch art was distinguished by its clarity, its naturalism, and its perception of light. That low ground, ``without contours,'' exposed to the fury of the sea, had the great advantage of lying under the uninterrupted sweep of the skies. The high clouds and the long view everywhere apparent favored the brilliance and radiancy that poured down to the earth, there to be observed and captured by the insight and the genius of its artists.