European Art · Fun Facts

A Skating and Art Fun Fact

The Skating Minister by Sir Henry Raeburn
Sir Henry Raeburn, The Skating Minister, 1795. Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. Photo via

I recently learned an interesting skating fact while working on an art history project. That doesn’t usually happen. Apparently, back in the 18th and 19th centuries, ice skating was a popular winter pastime in Europe. (Arguably it still is.) It was considered fashionable to skate around with a casual posture and your arms folded in front of your chest. The reasoning behind this was if you looked super casual like this, it would make your skating look impressively effortless. Lots of old paintings of skaters show this, and I’ve always wondered why, because this is really not a good way to skate.

Why shouldn’t you skate like this? The main reason is that you need to have your arms available to break a potential fall, and it’s more difficult to do that if they are otherwise occupied. For the same reason, you shouldn’t walk on a slippery surface like an icy driveway with your hands in your pockets. Secondly, your arms help you balance, especially if you’re not a really strong skater, and they can’t do that if you keep them down or folded. Finally, holing your arms in a folded position will put your weight further forward than you probably want, and it also looks a bit sloppy. I see all these lovely, 19th-century paintings of beautiful women skating around with their hands in luxurious muffs, and they drive me nuts, because it’s really unsafe.

In case you’re wondering, beginning skaters are currently taught to hold their arms out to aid with balance. The ladies in the gorgeous painting below are doing a pretty good job of it.

Women Skating by Jean-Georges Beraud
Jean-Georges Beraud, Women Skating. Present location unknown. Photo via

My source for the historical part of this fun fact is: Zygmont, Bryan, “Gilbert Stuart, The Skater in Smarthistory, November 20, 2015.

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