Stymied By Snow

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Matthew Dennison argues that painting snowy scenes poses a particularly vexing challenge even for great artists, suggesting that a “sense of something lacking characterises much ‘snowy’ art”:

It’s as if the technical challenges of recording the fluffy white stuff convincingly are so debilitating, there’s no room left for inspiration.

For Dutch artist Hendrick Avercamp, who painted landscapes teeming with ice-skaters early in the 17th century, unusual climatic conditions liberate a holiday spirit among his stolid burghers. Avercamp’s snow is theatrical backdrop, much as in the ballet Les Patineurs, and every bit as tinselly. Invigorated by the freeze, his skaters do not reflect on the irony that what temporarily quickens their pulses is itself a deadening force: trees stand black-branched, birds wheel in search of non-existent food. Later in the century, Dutch landscapists explored the stillness snow imposes, sometimes by moonlight. Such scenes invite reflection, as if the association of snow and Christmas were firmly established 400 years ago, the snow a metaphor for the physical hardships of the Nativity. Alternatively these images may simply be exercises in tonality, like the later wintry cityscapes of Childe Hassam.

Monet painted more than 100 snow paintings, including ‘The Magpie’ of 1868–9, Argenteuil views and, inevitably, soggy haystacks. Several surprise on account of the breadth of the artist’s palette. Snow proved an ideal foil for ‘impressions’ of light, sunshine that is pink, blue-grey, palest buff or white. Yet, while many successfully capture aspects of the reality of the snowy experience, it is the artist’s prowess, rather than a deeper profundity, that impresses the viewer.

(Image: Hendrick Avercamp’s “Winter Scene on a Canal,” early 17th century, via Wikimedia Commons)