From the twelfth century until the twentieth, windmills were a common sight on many skylines in northern Europe. Preceding the better-known vertical windmills were various horizontal designs, and windmills continued to flourish until the middle of the nineteenth century. Used wherever there was a need for driving a rotating axle, they were widely employed to grind cereals into flour, power sawmills, make paper, grind materials, and thresh corn.
Today’s article shows a selection of paintings of windmills up to pre-Impressionism, and tomorrow’s concludes with more recent depictions.
Hieronymus Bosch’s uniquely imaginative paintings often featured realistic background landscapes. One recurring setting is a city based on Antwerp or his home town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, which has a windmill closest to the viewer. This appears in the centre panel of his triptych The Adoration of the Magi from about 1490-1500, for instance.
A similar windmill appears in a slightly different setting in the version of The Temptation of Saint Anthony now in Lisbon, from around 1500-10, in its right wing. This is shown in the detail below.
The Bruegels also worked amid many windmills, but none seems so prominently out of place than in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Procession to Calvary from 1564. Windmills were commonly built on hills, where they would benefit from the most consistent wind, but this example on a towering crag is not only geographically inappropriate, but completely impractical. It stands on a circular platform to allow the mill to rotate according to the direction of the wind, but hardly above Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion.
More at home are the half dozen windmills clustered around the port of Dordrecht in the Netherlands, shown in Jan van Goyen’s View of Dordrecht with the Grote Kirk Across the Maas from 1644.
Rembrandt painted few non-narrative landscapes, but among them is this dramatic view of The Mill (1645-48) seen in the rich rays of twilight.
The great masters of Dutch landscape art like Jacob van Ruisdael must have painted many hundreds of windmills, of which one of the best-known is this view of The Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede from about 1670. This small town – now a city – is on the bank of the River Rhine, an ideal location for delivering grain by barge, and shipping the resulting flour. This should have kept the mill as busy as the wind allowed, and its owner prosperous.
This view of a Landscape with Windmills near Haarlem was painted after an original made by Jacob van Ruisdael, by John Constable in 1830, almost two centuries later.
Windmills were also a common sight along the lower reaches of the River Thames. William Hogarth’s print from his Industry and Idleness series shows his anti-hero Idle being rowed out to join his ship at Cuckold’s Point on the River Thames, opposite what were then the West Indian docks, between Limehouse and Greenwich. Long after these windmills had gone, this section of the river was still involved with the grain trade.
There were other windmills upstream of the city of London too. In what must be Thomas Girtin’s most famous painting of The White House at Chelsea, from 1800, the artist looks upstream of the River Thames from a location close to the modern Chelsea Bridge. The landmarks shown include, from the left, Joseph Freeman’s windmill (or Red House Mill), a horizontal air mill, the white house close to where Battersea Park is now, Battersea Bridge, and Chelsea Old Church.
Girtin pained this when he was twenty-five, and showing greater promise than his rival JMW Turner. But two years later, Girtin died of asthma.
Probably a few years later, the topographic painter John Varley painted this close-up view of the same Red House Mill, Battersea, Surrey, which looks back in the opposite direction.
Some of the well-known windmills supplying the city of Paris with its flour were those above its outskirts on Montmartre Hill. Georges Michel’s view of The Mill of Montmartre was probably painted in about 1820, by which time there were only a few of them left.
Tomorrow I’ll look at more recent paintings of windmills, including several from Jongkind, Manet and Vincent van Gogh.