In the first of this pair of articles looking at a selection of paintings of European watermills, I ended with a painting by John Constable of a mill in Dorset, England. Later in the nineteenth century, as they were being outmoded by steam engines, landscape painters depicted a wider range of mills.
JC Dahl was commissioned by an Oslo collector to paint the famous mediaeval stave church at Kaupanger, on the west coast of Norway, but had to employ a little deception in his Landscape in Kaupanger with a Stave Church from 1847. By this time, the church had been modified structurally and looked quite different. The artist therefore substituted the stave church at Vang, which was demolished shortly afterwards. Dahl stepped in and had it rebuilt in the Silesian Mountains for the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV.
Whatever substitutions he made for the church, Dahl shows in the foreground a pair of overshot waterwheels powering what was most probably a sawmill, amid rolling forested countryside.
When the German-American landscape artist Albert Bierstadt was painting in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1855 he made this idyllic view of A Rustic Mill which is clearly overshot, being fed along a wooden aqueduct. In contrast to many of the other paintings of mills from this period, this appears in an excellent state of repair and prosperous.
The watermill in Samuel Palmer’s Sunset (1861) is hard to see on the right, but is overshot and fed through another wooden aqueduct, presumably from higher land to the right.
When Palmer undertook an extended honeymoon in Italy, he made extensive sketches which he later turned into finished paintings. Among these is A Dream in the Apennine, painted in watercolour in 1864, which he exhibited later that year with a note reading: “Suddenly, at a turn in the mountain road, we looked for the first time on that Plain; the dispenser of law, the refuge of philosophy, the cradle of faith. Ground which Virgil trod and Claude invested with supernatural beauty was sketched – but with a trembling pencil.”
It shows Rome in the distance, viewed from the south east, with an overshot watermill at the lower right. This makes clear the more bucket-shaped ‘blades’ generally used in overshot wheels, which contrast with flat paddle blades which are more usual in those which are undershot.
Olga Wisinger-Florian’s marvellously painterly Mill at Goisern from 1880 came as quite a surprise, both in terms of its quality and its detail. This shows three wheels near the small town of Bad Goisern in Upper Austria, in what’s now the Salzkammergut resort area. Although they may simply be undershot, as might be expected in the valley here, the wooden channel in the left foreground is higher, suggesting that they may in fact be fed from part way up the wheel, making them breastshot, a compromise between the two older forms of undershot and overshot, which gains some power from gravity.
Neither had I realised that one of the most prolific painters of watermills in the late nineteenth century was Vincent van Gogh. When he lived at Nuenen in the Netherlands between 1883-1885, he visited Eindhoven, where he painted several views of Water Mill at Gennep in November 1884. The painting above is now in Madrid, and that below in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. These large flat-bladed wheels are undershot, and may have been powered by tidal movement of water rather than steady flow, making them tidal mills rather than regular watermills.
Evelyn De Morgan’s remarkable, perhaps unique, Cadence of Autumn from 1905 shows the procession of time and the changes seen in autumn across the breadth of the painting. The landscape behind the five women contains an overshot watermill and surrounding buildings at the right.
For the last two paintings, we return to rural Norway, and life on the shores of remote fjords as depicted by Nikolai Astrup during the first quarter of the twentieth century.
Going to the Mill (c 1900-05) is a complete essay on watermills, pictured in perfect rainy milling weather, with the streams in spate during the autumn/fall. A mill race, running down its wooden channel, feeds a small undershot paddle in the centre, used to turn a millstone for sharpening knives and tools. Water flow to that is regulated by the simple valve upstream, which is currently in the off position, shedding the water to either side.
The man and his son are taking a sack of grain up to another mill – possibly the small shed seen in the centre distance – to grind flour for the family’s baking.
Waterfall and Mill House (1923) shows half a dozen small huts for watermills dotted among the waterfalls high above Jølster Lake. Although the snows have gone from the hilltops, there is still plenty of water to drive those small mills.
By the middle of the twentieth century, watermills had all but vanished from Europe, leaving a few scattered examples as archaeological remains. Despite the widespread use of wind power in the twenty-first century, I see no revival of what once powered the whole of Europe.