Documented snowmen go back at least as far as the Middle Ages, but we can assume that the art of building a human figure of snow goes back before recorded history. After all, snow is free and easily-manipulated, and human figures are our natural go-to art icon. The snowman in particular was often used as stress-relief, a structure we can abuse to our delight. They were often created as political statements, sinister beings, or ephemeral art illustrating taboo subjects. Or targets, as suggested in the painting above.
In the Middle Ages, building snowmen was a way for a community to find the silver lining in a horribly oppressive winter rife with starvation, poverty, and other life-threatening conditions. In 1511, the townspeople of Brussels banded together to construct over 100 snowmen in a public art installation known as the Miracle of 1511.
Their snowmen embodied a dissatisfaction with the political climate, not to mention the six weeks of below-freezing weather. The Belgians rendered their anxieties into tangible, life-like models: a defecating demon, a humiliated king, and womenfolk getting buggered six ways to Sunday. Besides your typical sexually graphic and politically riled caricatures, the Belgian snowmen were often parodies of folklore figures, such as mermaids, unicorns, and village idiots.
Even in modern times, we get a kick out of putting snowmen in situations we would not abide for real humans, such as the famous snowmen in the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes and several traditional snowman-destroying rituals to summon spring weather. Read about the horrible ways we’ve used snowmen throughout history at Atlas Obscura.