Windmills have always played a great part in the life of Holland and its inhabitants. While at first they served to grind corn, to remove excess water from the low-lying districts, and to saw timber, thus making the country fit for human habitation and adding to habitable area, they developed - especially in the seventeenth century - into a most important factor in the social structure of those days. It is with increasing interest that one learns about this.
Although it can be said that windmills which can be compared with the Dutch windmills are to be found in other European countries as well (England, Belgium, France, Denmark, Germany, Finland), it has to be observed that their number is relatively small there. It is only in Holland that so many windmills are present in so small an area. These windmills moreover are in very reasonable, many of them even in excellent, condition and a considerable number of them are working regularly. There are windmills of the most varied types: drainage mills, corn mills, and industrial mills for all sorts of purposes.
Windmills form an important element in the Dutch landscape with its wide horizons, its glittering waters and big clouds floating overhead; without them we can hardly imagine this landscape, which is unique in the world.
The following pages will show these windmills from the aesthetic, the historical, and the technical point of view. We hope they may help to deepen the fascination which windmills exert on the spectator, and to add to the pleasure of seeing them in their own natural surroundings.
'The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and wither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.'
(St. John 3 : 8)
In the Dutch landscape the windmill is symbolic of the gravity of the Dutch character. Planted solidly on the earth, it is an incarnation of force; it seems as if it had grown up quite naturally from the soil, forming an integral part of the surroundings. It is in perfect harmony with the natural scenery around, built of native brick or thatched with reed as it is. Reed was ready to hand all around in this country intersected by waterways and it was used as a natural roof-covering by seventeenth-century Dutch architects just as it is today by architects of country houses. All the primitive structural parts of the windmill reveal simplicity, realism, and practical usefulness; its appearance testifies to its association with the primeval forces of nature: wind and water.
These two words, wind and water, have a very special fascination for the true-born Dutchman.
We realize how - many centuries ago - the inhabitants of these low-lying parts had to give all their attention to wind and water every hour of the day; how farmers and fisherman naturally chatted about the weather whenever they met, because their everyday existence was bound up with it and dependent upon it. We can understand that a man living near the dykes would be bent down in old age through years of steady tramping, working, and toiling against the wind; that the Dutch from remote times were bound to become sober and stubborn men: sober because they always had to reckon with the treacherous elements, and stubborn because persistence alone could make them win. And any sailing-man who is alive to the grandeur of nature will be thrilled when - alone or with a few comrades - he feels at one with and a part of nature: wind and water and floating clouds; he takes a particular delight in the effort to keep his head above water in the most literal sense and make headway with primitive natural aids (for a sailing vessel after all is essentially a primitive means of transport). This also makes it understandable that a fisherman is bound to follow his primitive urge and would not exchange his precarious subsistence for any other trade, but wants to remain skipper, next to God, on his boat, as it says in the ship's papers. Fishermen and farmers themselves have become part and parcel of nature, men of few words, good company, for all their different intellectual level. And anyone with a sense of poetry will have his head filled with a world of thoughts when he listens to the whistling of the wind, either through the rigging or - when sitting by the hearth in a lonely farmhouse - down the chimney, or in the groaning and moaning windmill which, indifferent to the elements outside, works and toils, its interior only sparely lit by a dim and flickering lamp.
In former ages the wind was utilized by the Dutch to satisfy their daily wants: keeping the soil dry, in order that they might cultivate it, and grinding the corn harvested as a result of their labour and daily care. Nor did they stop at the satisfaction of the most primitive daily needs; indeed, wind and water became the factors that helped Holland to attain to glory and prosperity: water as a medium for cheap long distance transport, the wind as a driving power for the sailing vessels and for the numerous industrial mills with which Holland abounded in the seventeenth century.
Viewed in this way, they carry our thoughts back to the remote past, these windmills which saw so many generations come and go, which in their unspoilt beauty absorbed and preserved, as it were, something of the spirit of the past generations, with their toil, their joy, and their grief. The windmills to us are symbolic of daily human labour, their sails turn round in sunshine and rain, in the biting cold of a winter's day, in the bright spring skies as well as in the heat of summer.
The windmills belong to the Dutch landscape, to such an extent that we cannot imagine this landscape without them, at least not without feeling that something valuable is missing.
This is how Henri Polak describes the Dutch polder land in his wonderful book Het kleine land en zijn grote schoonheid (The Small Country and its Great Beauty), how in a few sentences he evokes a Breughel or Koekkoek picture:
'Then winter comes and the fields are buried under the snow; the wide plain is an endless white expanse, which on the vaguely discerned horizon merges into the leaden sky, or lies glittering fiercely in the brightness of the afternoon sun.'
And he continues:
'And if the winter drags, if no frost, storm, snow, and lashing rain are forthcoming, the farms and cottages lie quiet and dejected in the barren land and the only things alive are the windmills, which free the polder of excess water and keep it habitable and fit for agriculture, the windmills, whose strong sails catch the force of the same wind that beats down the rains and utilize it to deliver the polder of the mischief those rains might produce.'
From ancient times the windmills were a creation of the human mind, which differs from that of the brute beasts; they can indeed follow their instincts, but cannot produce efficient tools by the effort of their brain. The creative powers of man are characteristic of his mental apparatus and his affinity with a Supreme Being. Among the products of the technical ingenuity of man, windmills in their primitive shape and appearance will appeal even more purely and directly to our feelings than the later discoveries of technical skill, such as radar-controlled or automatic-pilot aeroplanes.
One should therefore be conscious of owing the windmills a debt of gratitude of more than a couple of centuries.
In old prints of towns and villages we often find numerous windmills. This is quite natural, for such prints give a more or less faithful picture of reality and the windmills were actually there. Anyone looking at such a print of Amsterdam or Leiden will be surprised to see the large number of windmills on the ramparts, which, when viewed from the environs, must have entirely dominated the silhouette of the town.
This large number need not surprise us when we bear in mind that in former days for every 2,000 inhabitants there had to be one windmill to ensure uninterrupted supply of meal to the population.
A painting reveals to us in particular how the artist was impressed by the windmill as part of a landscape or a townscape. If we have not yet recognized this quite so clearly in reality, the painting will confront us directly with the essential fascination exerted by a windmill on its surroundings. Just as in a well-painted portrait, it shows us the true character of that which the painter put on the canvas - its deeper meaning.
Frozen Canal near Dordrecht, by CH.H.J.Leickert
Just let us have a look, for instance, at the Frozen Canal near Dordrecht, by Leickert, one of the painters of the Romantic School of the middle of the last century. In the foreground we see a post mill, then two smock mills, and in the background a tower mill with a stage. Like the artist himself, we are affected by the harmony and the peacefulness inspired by the imposing windmills in the scene, in which the lively pattern of the skaters on the frozen canal fully harmonizes with the peacefulness of the whole picture. Look at the splendid pictures of Schelfhout, Nuyen, Koekkoek, and others, where windmills form the outstanding features in the wintry scene.
Take a Schelfhout, for instance: by the side of the frozen water a windmill is standing, immobilized in the wintry cold; drifting snow blows about the old woman with her wrap, who is straining against the cold wind on the country road, the snow covering the mill's cap like white powder.
In winter windmills look quite different from their appearance in summer; for contrast, have a look at the pictures of Roelofs, Gabriël, and Weissenbruch, which show them to you in the glorious light of summer, in the midst of fields, plants, and foliage at the water's edge.
Windmill at the Gein, by W.Roelofs
In the numerous museums of Holland you will find such pictures in which windmills figure: in the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam, in the museums of Rotterdam and The Hague, and in a great many other towns. If you are interested, visit them and revel in the beauties of the old Dutch windmills as they have fascinated artists for several centuries past.
It was by no means in the 'Romantic' School alone that a great many works of art centred about the windmill or made it the main motif of the composition. With the great seventeenth-century masters, too, the windmill frequently appears on the canvas; we refer to the pictures of Averkamp, Ruysdael, Hobbema, and many others, as well as to the well-known etchings of Rembrandt.
It is hardly saying too much to assert that windmills must not disappear from the Dutch landscape, that their loss would impair the beauty of Holland irreparably, and that it would even amount to an 'international calamity', as a well-known American expressed it many years ago.
Many factors of a historical and an aesthetic nature play a part in this matter. It would have been a thousand pities if the appreciation of the great value of this national heritage should be lacking and if a foolish demolition mania should destroy the windmills. Fortunately these monuments are now protected by the government, by societies, by foundations, and by private person.
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