l'effet de neige
Christmas falls in the Winter, which, for the Northern Hemisphere, is a fairly chilly period. With the cold, comes snow (..eventually). And with snow, comes cosy evenings spent inside, reading books and blogs, about music, and history, and art. Thanks to Philip Wilson's wonderful folio on Impressionists in Winter, this article encompasses all of these ideas, so mull some wine, plonk down in a green velvet armchair, and absorb the sublime effet de neige.
The history of snowscapes in European painting reaches back at least as far as the Limbourg Brothers' Les Tres Riches Heures du duc de Berry of about 1415. Of course, winter landscapes with snow often play a part in paintings that depict the cycle of the four seasons, especially in Northern European painting of the seventeenth century. Indeed, as Wolfgang Stechow has observed:
"In many ways the winter landscape is the Dutch seventeenth-century landscape par excellence. Here there is no competition from Italy or France, and little from Flanders, although Flemish sixteenth century antecedents were of decisive importance in its genesis. There is not even much competition in later centuries, with the exception of some works by Caspar David Friedrich, Claude Monet and a few others."
Stechow's subtle nod to the Impressionists is probably the first acknowledgment by a major scholar that the winter landscapes of the Impressionists constitute a significant accomplishment. As this exhibition indicates, Monet and several of his colleagues produced a body of work that is at least the equal of seventeenth-century Dutch winter landscapes. Other than the often-reproduced image of the page illustrating the month of ‘February’ in Les Tres Riches Heures du duc de Berry, the best known early snowscape is Pieter Brueghel's Hunters in the Snow, from 1565. With extraordinary accuracy, the painter captured the light, atmosphere, and feeling of a winter landscape not long after a snowfall. The colour of the overcast sky, the quiet, the atmosphere, and the sensation of tranquillity that pervades the landscape seem remarkably accurate. Moreover, the landscape is imbued with an unmistakable beauty that is the result of the snow. As much as the hunting party, the village, and the panoramic view of the valley, the subject of the painting is the transforming effect of the snow.
Most visitors to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, who walk into the gallery where the Brueghel landscapes hang are drawn to Hunters in the Snow. People linger before it and come back to it. It is an image that visitors do not forget. The same is true of another work that was painted three centuries later, Claude Monet's The Magpie, 1869, in the Musée d'Orsay. Visitor surveys and sales of postcards and reproductions indicate that it is the most popular single image in the museum.
As one visits museums and collections with Impressionist paintings or peruses books, exhibition catalogues, and catalogues raisonnés, one discovers snowscapes with the words et de neige the title. The Phillips Collection's Sisley, for example, was originally titled in Jardin Louveciennes de neige (cat. 49). Throughout the Impressionist group shows (1874-86), numerous works were shown with the title or subtitle effet de neige. Despite the popularity and appeal of these works, they have never been examined as a discrete category of Impressionist painting. Most collectors, curators, and dealers have always preferred paintings with blue skies, sun, gardens, and fields of flowers, but the snowscapes of the Impressionists especially those by Monet, Sisley, and Pissarro are among their greatest accomplishments. These paintings often convey a sense of peace, stillness, and quiet beauty that is unique in the history of modern art.
It is possible that the Impressionists were at least indirectly inspired to paint winter landscapes by the group of snow scenes that Courbet had painted in the late 1850s and early 1860s, but the mood and compositions of Courbet's snowscapes are decidedly different. Most involve the theme of hunting, such as the large painting that was shown in the Salon of 1857 - Downed Doe - or Hunters in the Snow, 1866. The importance of the term effet de neige to the meaning of these paintings seems marginal, but it is possible that Courbet's interest in winter landscapes may in fact have contributed to that of the emerging Impressionists.
the snowscapes of the Impressionists…convey a sense of peace, stillness, and quiet beauty that is unique in the history of modern art" - Charles S. Moffett
Many Impressionist winter landscapes were made even more striking by the inclusion of certain details. A striking example of this is that of the bird in Monet's painting The Magpie of 1869. Normally, the magpie might be incidental and barely noticeable. However, in this case the combination of the black, white, and especially the blue plumage draws the eye because it differs so dramatically from its surroundings. Most of the painting is devoted to the very special character of the light as the sun streams across the recently fallen snow. The rich orchestration of subtle pinks and mauves offers a profound visual experience. Such effects do exist in snowscapes, but usually at the beginning or, more typically, at the end of the day. For a few minutes, the landscape takes on tones of red, pink, purple and blue, but such effects are very short-lived. Like so many Impressionist paintings, The Magpie could not have been painted entirely sur le motif and en plein air. The complexity of the composition and the care with which Monet painted it underscore that the painting is, for the most part, a memory of a very fleeting experience. Moreover, the shadows tell us that The Magpie depicts a particular moment in time. Within minutes, the angle, length and colour of the shadows on the snow will have changed. In addition, the mood projected by the snowscape will have shifted and the bird will have disappeared. While on one level the image seems to be a precise record of a particular experience on another we must recognise it as a fiction. Surely the bird did not sit patiently for the artist as he painted, nor did Monet have a camera with fast colour film to provide a fairly accurate aide-mémoire.
Regardless of how and where Monet executed The Magpie, it is undeniably one of the most appealing images ever produced by an Impressionist painter. It is at once a record of a particular moment and a vision of a landscape that is unspoiled, pristine and beautiful. Moreover, as is true of most effect de neige paintings, this work is unencumbered by messages about the ferocity of nature or the cycle of life. There are no shattered tree trunks or suggestions that winter marks the end of life. On the contrary, The Magpie celebrates a moment of transcendent beauty. Although unintended, it offers a polar opposite to Caspar David Friedrich’s famous image of snow, ice, and the brute forces of nature — Sea of Ice (The Wreck of the ‘Hope’), 1824 — the allegorical content of which is Wagnerian in scope. In contrast, Monet’s snowscape exists ‘in the difficulty of what it is to be’. Like most Impressionist paintings, it asks nothing of the viewer, which is very likely a reason that it is so appealing to modern audiences. Moreover, The Magpie offers an image of unequivocal peace and tranquility of the kind that has proven particularly elusive in the modern urban and industrial world. It is perhaps not a coincidence that much later in his career, Monet sought to create works that the critic Gustave Geffroy, one of the artist’s closest friends, described as paintings intended to appeal to viewers ‘in search of distraction from social life, alleviation of fatigue, and love of eternal nature.’
First year Art Historian at Cambridge University and intern at Private Art Education.