Art History · Books · Figure Skating

Book Review: Figure Skating and the Arts, Eight Centuries of Sport and Inspiration

When my new boss found out that I’m a figure skater, the first thing he said was “I have a book you really need to see.” That book is Figure Skating and the Arts, Eight Centuries of Sport and Inspiration. After locating it amidst the vast inventory of books we work with, he gave it to me and charged me to “share it with others”. What better way to do that then by writing about it here?

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Figure Skating and the Arts, Eight Centuries of Sport and Inspiration was written by Frances Dafoe, a pairs skater and ice dancer from Canada and 1956 Olympic silver medalist. The book talks about the history of the sport from its earliest origins as a winter pastime and mode of transportation on the frozen lakes and rivers of northern Asia and Europe to the many forms it takes in the present day. In addition to all the informative text, the book also includes an archive worth of photographs. Since the author is Canadian, many of the skaters depicted and discussed are Canadian champions whom I had heard of before but are not particularly familiar with. It was nice to learn a little more about them. The topics covered include:

  • The evolution of ice skate and rink technology
  • The development of skating as a method of transportation, social activity, competitive sport, and artistic endeavor
  • Disciplines of the sport (ladies’ and men’s singles, pairs, ice dancing, synchronized skating, and the various types of figures)
  • The complete history of ice shows, galas, carnivals, and television specials
  • Costuming
  • Memorabilia (including medals)
  • Famous skaters throughout time
  • The changing role of skating in society
  • Art about and inspired by (including paintings, prints, advertisements, sculpture, porcelain, music, and ballet)

It was this last topic that excited me most. Nowadays, skating-related artwork tends to be limited to winter-themed knickknacks and objects made solely for the (rather narrow) competitive figure skating market. However, just as the skating once had a very different role in mainstream society, so to did it in art. The book illustrates seventeenth through twentieth-century English, North American, and Northern European works depicting elegantly-dressed recreational skaters solo or in couples, militaries practicing drills on the ice, elaborate skating galas and costume parties, and skaters on frozen waterways in European landscapes. Also shown are some recent skating art, including several images of (and a few by) well-known skaters of the past fifty or so years.

Skating Carnival, Victoria Rink, Montreal, QC, 1870, William Notman (1826-1891) Painted Composite (silver salts, oil on canvas – albumen process)             © McCord Museum, Montreal, QC, Canada

Although skates, fashions, rinks, and elements have changed greatly across the centuries, some aspects of skating remain comfortingly consistent. Nowhere is this more evident than in skating paintings.  I challenge any skater to look into the background of an eighteenth-century Dutch scene of skaters on a pond, find the inevitable little figures falling down, and not feel like they can relate. I’m pretty sure I’ve experienced many of those falls personally. (For example, check out that lovely fail of a spread eagle by the gentleman front and center in the image below.) Even for the non-skater, I think that the art content still makes this book worth a look. The list of well-known artists with skating scenes about their oeuvres includes Gauguin, Renoir, Preiss, Rembrandt, Currier and Ives, Andy Warhol, and Winslow Homer.

Frans Huys after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, "Skating before the St. George's Gate, Antwerp", c. 1558, print, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Frans Huys after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “Skating before the St. George’s Gate, Antwerp”, c. 1558, print, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
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