“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.