Impressionsts in Winter: Effets de Neige presents the first thorough investigation of the subject of Impressionist winter landscape. The subject of winter - clearly the most inhospitable season for plein-air painting - provides some of the most exceptional and most spellbindingly beautiful paintings in Impressionism.
No exhibition and no publications in the literature on Impressionism have been devoted to this theme before. While such a thematic approach might seem at first blush a superficial one, the subject of this exhibition goes to the heart of one of the central issues of Impressionism, a dedication to painting specific effects of weather and light that is unprecedented in the history of art.
Inspired by Alfred Sisley's Snow at Louveciennes in The Phillips Collection, this exhibition of sixty-three works presents an opportunity to consider the subject of snow in Impressionist painting in an unprecedented way. While anyone might have come across one or two of these exceptional works in various works in this country or abroad, it comes as a surprise to most to learn that the Impressionists painted hundreds of paintings of snow or effets de neige, as they came to be called.
Of all the Impressionists, three artists especially were drawn to paint effets de neige: Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, and Camille Pissarro. Their shared fascination with these 'effets' led all three to repeatedly seek out opportunities to paint landscapes in snow. Yet each brought to the subject a highly individual response that we find reflected in the paintings assembled here. In addition to these three artists, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Gustave Caillebotte and Paul Gauguin also painted snowscapes, though far fewer. Renoir's characteristic interest in a social gathering of skaters in the Bois de Boulogne, Caillebotte's dramatic elevated views over Paris, and Gauguin's rare Brittany snowscapes add dimension and contrast to the dedicated pursuit of winter landscape just outside Paris of Monet, Sisley, and Pisarro. The result is a wider range of winter scenes from the bucolic French countryside to ice floes on the Seine, from the paths and roads of small villages to the boulevards and rooftops of Paris. Their common ground is an obsession with winter light.
Most of us do not think of Paris-or the surrounding countryside-covered in snow. We do not anticipate a blizzard impeding winter travel to this part of of the world nor have we ever seen the Seine frozen solid. A very different weather pattern prevailed during the late 19th century. Snowfalls, blizzards, and frost were a fairly commen winter occurrence. Two of the most severe periods of extended cold since 1840 occurred during the winters of 1879-80 and 1890-91. In order to provide a backdrop of recorded weather conditions of the period, we brought together documentation from numerous sources to describe precisely the winter weather during the years covered by this exhibition . The weather was at times described as 'wolf-like' or 'Siberian,' and once was compared to the North Pole. These vivid accounts not only have helped us to assign dates to certain undated works, but also have provided a context for appreciating the impact of weather conditions on life in France in the late nineteenth century.
It may seem eccentric to gather together paintings according to the season they depict, but this large, handsome volume will make readers wonder why no one thought of it before. Winter is different from the other three seasons, with its extraordinary range of color and light--from subtle grays and pinks to deep blues and yellows--and the distinct absence of that difficult color, green. This book, the catalog of an exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., is a collection of more than 60 large color plates of impressionist paintings. They form a surprising group that presents each painting--even if it is already familiar--in a new way. The paintings are beautiful--Monet's Magpie soaking up the sun as he sits on a fence gate; Caillebotte's lacy iron balcony railing overlooking the Mansard roofs of Paris; Renoir's black-cloaked ice skaters in the Bois de Boulogne--but in this frigid season, the impressionists' penchant for working outdoors is arguably what is most impressive. In the introductory essay, Charles S. Moffett, the former director of the Phillips, deftly traces the artistic history of snow imagery from the Limbourg brothers' Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry through Dutch 17th-century snowscapes, Caspar David Friedrich, and Claude Monet "and a few others," as he wryly quotes another historian's "nod" to the impressionists. There are three other essays--on Monet, Pissarro, and Sisley--by three other scholars, as well as lengthy, readable captions filled with quotes from the artists and discussions of their influences. --Peggy Moorman