“After Corot, Claude Monet is the artist who has made the most inventive and original contribution to landscape painting… Among our landscape painters [he] was the first to have the boldness to go as far as the Japanese in the use of colour… Let us now watch Claude Monet as he takes up his brush. To do so we must accompany him into the fields and face being burnt by the blazing sun, or we must stand with him knee-deep in snow — for despite the season he leaves his studio and works outdoors, under the open sky.” Théodore Duret, 1880
Of all Monet's works it is perhaps his effets de neige that most immediately and specifically evoke his known admiration for Japanese prints. It may be simply that certain aspects of Japanese Ukiyo-e woodcuts — their striking compositions, simplified contours, vivid colour, and the immediacy with which they suggest nature in every aspect of every season of the year — find no counterpart in Western painting before Monet. It may also be that the world described by the Japanese artists is the world of everyday life, not symbolic, anecdotal, or burdened with social or political commentary but simply observed. In these observations, no season, no time of day, no aspect of human experience or the natural world went unnoticed.
Throughout his career as a landscape painter, Camille Pissarro produced just over one hundred canvases during winter in which snow, or a variant of snow such as hoarfrost, white frost, or ice, plays a major role in the composition. Some of these works depict quiet village roads with townspeople on their way to or from their homes while others concentrate on the heavy, peaceful quality of a large snowfall on an isolated farm. These views were painted in a variety of locations, including Louveciennes, London, Pontoise, Montfoucault, Osny, Eragny, and Paris, and include suburban, rural, and city images of life in the late nineteenth century. Pissarro began this long series of works during the winter of 1868-69, and he continued to address the many complex issues of representing snow on canvas with oil paint for over thirty years, until the end of his life in 1903. Despite the wide variety of content and composition, these winterscapes have in common Pissarro's enduring love of nature, his great fascination with light and shadow, and his interest in humanity; in virtually every painting he includes a reference to human-kind — a house, a fence, or a small figure.
The Impressionists are, of course, best known for their landscapes of late spring and summer, full of lush foliage and fragrant flowers. However, this group of modern painters also explored these landscape on less pleasant days of the year, when weather conditions were cold and uncomfortable. Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, and Pissarro were the three Impressionist artists who produced the most snowscapes. Despite the relatively large number of winter paintings in Pissarro's oeuvre (approximately eight percent of his entire output), he is not best known for his snowscapes, and little has been written about them. He was, however, extremely proud of his effet de neige compositions and exhibited at least nine views of winter at the eight Impressionist exhibitions held periodically from 1874 to 1886. With relatively few breaks over the course of his career, probably caused by warmer weather conditions (1880-81, 1883, 1896) or by changes in painting style (1886-88), Pissarro painted a least one canvas each year that celebrated the quiet and serene quality of a frosty winter day, and therefore he can be considered the most dedicated winter painter of the Impressionists. These views vary from true effets de neige, with substantial amounts snow on the ground, to lighter forms of winter precipitation, such as frost.
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.
‘Whilst the men of the Middle Ages look on the world as a vale of tears…here in this circle of chosen spirits, the doctrine is upheld that the visible world was created by God in love’. With this quote from the closing lines of his book on Renaissance Italy, Art Historian Jacob Burckhardt captures the attitudinal shift that epitomises the Christian Renaissance — the change from Christ as sufferer for humanity to Him as the essence of perfection. This period, as the ‘rinascitá’, or rebirth, of the Classical, was characterised by a rejuvenation of classical elements, including the architectural orders, due to a sharp focus on ‘studia humanitatis’, including Platonism, and the associations humanism had on the visual world. This humanistic approach gave rise to alternative representations of liturgical and domestic buildings and the concept of simplistic representation of mathematical complexity. It is the simple appearance of the building that initially gives rise to the notion of harmony — the quality of forming a pleasing and consistent whole — but as we delve further into the geometrical and compositional elements we discover the harmony that is presented in the individual components and the ways in which they produce concord. Donato Bramante in his 1502 work of San Pietro in Montorio’s Tempietto, commissioned by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, shows a magnificent example of this focus on antiquity, proportion and simplicity, an example that highlights the development of the Renaissance in Rome. Further North, Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, an intellectual endorser of Bramante, generated many of his own responses to the period, the contradictory elements of which can most vividly be seen in Il Redentore. This later church, built between 1577 and 1592, reflects notions of harmony in its characteristic elements, but shows the adaptations to the ‘Late Renaissance’ philosophy, with a renewed sense of originality.
Tempietto is a component of Bramante’s larger church in the Chiesa di San Pietro in Montorio, overlooking the eastern slope of Gianicolo Hill. Surrounded by the cloisters of the church, it sits perfectly in the centre of a little courtyard, atop the sacred site of Saint Peter’s martyrdom on the cross. The temple is peripteral, with a colonnade of sixteen Roman Doric columns, modelled on the Temple of Vesta on the acropolis in Tivoli, and the Temple of Hercules Victor near the River Tiber in Rome, which was likely direct inspiration on Bramante’s doorstep during his extensive studies of the remnants of ancient architecture. The Tempietto columns are unfluted and have a base, distinguishing them from Greek Doric columns as are found on the Parthenon in Athens. Corinthian was the order used for both of the classical temples, and Bramante’s choice of Doric plays a big role in the depiction of harmony.
Image vs written word: The blurred line between Medieval Art as a vessel for conveying sacred truths and as a distraction from God.
"...the loveliness of the many-colored gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial" - Abbot Suger
The Middle Ages was a time of invasion across Europe and division in the Roman Empire, when the Eastern Empire declared its capital Constantinople and the Western upheld Rome. Omnipresent legacies persisted: that of Ancient Rome quivering in intellectuals' minds and that of the Christian Church -- the paramount authority for the majority of citizens.
In 1348, a period characterised as the High Middle Ages, the Black Death struck, claiming half of Western Europe, famine was rife, and the Hundred Years’ War was raging. There seemed few reasons not to believe: Christianity’s values of unconditional love, redemption of sins and the hope of an afterlife, based on Jesus’ teachings, instilled in citizens hope of a more fortuitous life. The Christian influence extended further, shaping the calendar with religious observances, giving lives meaning through incremental rituals marking important life moments like the confirmation, and generating a balancing system of morals. In this way, Christian thought seeped into every aspect of life, including art, and increasingly, was shaken not only by different branches in disagreement, but, foreshadowing the Age of Enlightenment, the input of scholars. Medieval art was seen by some to be drawing attention away from God, the word distraction hailing from ‘distrahere’, Latin for drawing apart, and fostering appreciation for material possessions, a cardinal sin for many orders of Christianity. However, images were also seen to aid devotion: they enhanced the experience of religion for the illiterate and all other varieties of scholarship by deepening the interpretation their minds held, they presented the most important values of religion in a clarion way, and they showed its availability to all citizens.
Viewing art of the Middle Ages was a necessary learning experience for members of the laity that couldn’t read. As the ‘Father of Christian Worship’ and Pope during the early Middle Ages, Gregory the Great’s words that "illiterate men can contemplate in the lines of a picture what they cannot learn by means of the written word”
resounded not only within the citizens of Rome but with Christians and non Christians around the world. It encapsulates the overarching point that illiteracy was an incredible problem of the Middle Ages.
It is not until much later, in fact, in the Age of Discovery and Enlightenment when there is information available on the likes of travel and philosophy, or at least until the invention of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press in 1440s, that reading becomes widespread. As it remains, the Bible was the most important source of religious information, that any priest, deacon or subdeacon would base their sermon on, and knowledge of which any congregation member would wholly submerse themselves in. Many parishes only had access to Latin versions of the Bible, the most popular being Jerome’s late fourteenth century Vulgate, which despite the Council of Trent’s declaration in the sixteenth century that the Synod ‘ordains and declares, that the said old and vulgate edition…has been approved’ as the official edition, was marred by intellectual scholar Erasmus’ words of the Vulgate being ‘corrupt’, before he completed a fresh translation of the original Greek version in 1516. Erasmus’ version was too late for the people of the Middle Ages though, and in this way we can see how both the learned and the unlearned were helpless in discovering the truth of Christianity through translations of the Bible into text. Redeeming this, however, was the artwork of the time. There was a great didactic nature to much of it, particularly in Italian frescoes, that by their very nature could be spread over large surfaces areas and depict continuous, detailed stories.