Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Snow Time -- S'No Time To Be Outside

The Limbourg Brothers, February
from Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
Dutch, 1412-1416
Chantilly, Musee Conde

Last night, with the entire East Coast hunkered down for a strong nor’easter and heavy snow, I couldn’t  resist stepping a bit outside my normal iconographic concerns to prepare some observations on the art of the snow scene.

From my windows today I can see the roofs of Manhattan covered in the white stuff, the pine trees planted on some penthouses as picturesque as in any Alpine scene. I am grateful that, for us at least, it wasn’t heavier and sorry for those to our northeast who took the full brunt of the storm.

With nowhere to go, since transportation is still limited, and with the power off in some locations, we find our twenty-first century selves thrown back – almost – to an earlier world, sharing with our ancestors the beauty and the disruption.

The first snow scene we are aware of is the amazingly detailed and very charming one produced by the Limbourg Brothers (Jean,Herman and Paul) for the February calendar page of the Tres Riches Heures of the Duke of Berry, produced around 1415. 

February from a Breviary
French (Paris), ca. 1345-`355
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M75, fol. 1v
Traditionally, the February calendar page in Books of Hours showed the activity of the month to consist either of keeping warm in front of a fire, eating beside it (same as January) or of chopping twigs in a snowless landscape, often combined with the fishes that are the astrological sign of Pisces.  

The Limbourgs do present the warming scene and the astrological reference, but then devote the largest portion of the page to what is happening beyond the house.

Limbourg Brothers, February (detail)
from Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
Dutch, 1412-1416
Chantilly, Musee Conde
They show the sheep penned up in their fold to keep them warm and safe, the snow covered bee hives, the pigeons and other birds feeding on some scattered grain.  On the far right a woman worker, her skirts hiked up above her knees, showing the very practical boots she is wearing, hurries to get indoors as she breathes on her cold hands which are covered by the shawl she is wearing over her head and upper body.  She is the very picture of shivering cold. 

Beyond the woven wall that surrounds the farmyard a man with an ax is chopping at a tree, presumably for more firewood. Another man drives a donkey, with panniers laden with what looks like logs, past snow covered hay stacks toward a distantly seen town.  For a first image it is a very strikingly successful rendering of the visual and emotional effects of winter snows and cold. 

Snow scenes remained a special field for northern painters, from the Low Countries, Germany and France, through the centuries, spreading later to America.  Mostly the scenes are simple landscapes, showing the effect of snow on the natural world, or scenes of daily human activities in the snow. 

Jean Bourdichon, January
from Grandes Heures d'Anne de Bretagne
French, 1503-1508
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9474, fol. 4

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow
Flemish, 1565
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Denis van Alsloot, Winter Landscape
Flemish, 1610
Paris, Musee du Louvre
Joos de Momper, Winter Landscape with Wagon
Flemish, ca. 1620
Private Collection

Jacob van Ruysdael, Winter
Dutch, 1670
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
Caspar David Friedrich, Winter
German, 1811
London, National Gallery

Barend Cornelis Koekkoek, Winter
Dutch, 1838
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
Johannes Cornelis Hoppenbrouwers, Winter Landscape
Dutch, 1854
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

George Henry Boughton, Winter Twilight Near Albany
American, 1859-1869
New York, New York Historical Society
Thomas Hiram Hotchkiss, Catskill Winter
American, 1858
New York, New York Historical Society

Henry Farrer, Moonlight in Winter
American, 1869
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Claude Monet, Cart on the Snowy Road at Honfleur
French, 1865
Paris, Musee d'Orsay

Claude Monet, Snow at Argenteuil
French, 1874
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts

Claude Monet, Haystacks (Effect of Snow and Sun)
French, 1891
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Alfred Sisley, Rue Moussoir at Moret: Winter
English, 1891
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Paul Gauguin, Garden in Winter, Rue Carcel
French, 1883
Private Collection
Childe Hassam, Winter, Union Square
American, 1889-1890
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

George Bellows, Blue Snow, the Battery
American, 1910
Columbus, Museum of Art
Many feature the effect of snow and ice on the human sense of fun, showing people enjoying the frozen rivers and ponds in the same way we do today:  by strapping on a pair of ice skates, sledding, playing games or flirting.  

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap
Belgian, 1565
Brussels, Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts

Hendrick Avercamp, A Scene on the Ice
Dutch, 1625
Washington, National Gallery of Art
Aert van der Neer, Sports on a Frozen River
Dutch, ca. 1660
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Vincent van der Vinne, Winter Landscape with Skaters on a Frozen Canal
Dutch, Undated (lived 1736-1811)
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Francois Boucher, Winter
French, 1735
New York, Frick Collection
Currier and Ives, Central Park in Winter
American, 1877-1894
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

George Bellows, Love of Winter
American, 1914
Chicago, Art Institute

A handful of paintings make the snow a backdrop for religious storytelling,    
Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Census at Bethlehem
Belgian, 1566
Brussels, Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts
Almost unnoticed amid the busy scene is the donkey carrying Mary led by Joseph.

Joos de Momper, Winter Landscape with Flight into Egypt
Flemish, Undated (lived 1564-1634)
Private Collection
As with the Brueghel painting, the flight of the Holy Family goes virtually unnoticed at the bottom left.

history painting

George Henry Boughton, Pilgrims Going to Church
American, 1867
New York, New York Historical Society

Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware
American, 1851
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

or for allegory.

Antoine Caron, The Triumph of Winter
French, ca. 1568
Private Collection
In this interesting painting the French Mannerist Antoine Caron presents an allegorical fantasy, a pageant of the Triumph of Winter taking place along the banks of the Seine in Paris, opposite the Tuileries.  Winter sits on the triumphal car drawn by cranes at the right.  Preceding him is a procession of the pagan gods led by Janus and including Apollo, Mercury, Diana, Mars and Vulcan.  They are heading for a small, round temple which appears to be floating in the Seine and are watched by citizens on both sides of the river as well as from boats on it.  The finely observed footprints in the snow suggest careful study of the reality of snow's physical effects.  One hopes, however,  that this is a work of  Caron's imagination or, if not, that the participants didn't die of frostbite!
Jacques de la Joue the Younger, Allegory of Winter
French, ca. 1740
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Much as we do with our own snow photographs the pictures tend to focus on the after effects of the storm, not on its fury.  Snow times s’no time to be out in it, but after the snow has passed it is the time to observe, admire and have some fun.

©M. Duffy, 2015

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