Claude Monet’s feeling for snow

1. Claude Monet feared that only a palette of diamonds and other precious stones could reproduce the sparkle from the sun that he saw along the Mediterranean coast in 1884. That he found some of those brilliants in depicting snow was no paradox. Its flakes intensify the available light, as I discovered taking photographs after a blizzard on Manhattan in 1983.

2. Until then I had enjoyed Monet as a creator of beautiful objects, pretty pictures if you want to be disparaging. That midnight hour on Third Avenue opened my mind’s eye to a treasure throve of thrilling ideas, proof that pioneered new ways of seeing throughout his long career. Ever since, I have tracked Monets across four continents seeking more clues to his genius for snowlights. Early in the quest, it became clear that he did not start as a master of this demanding subject. Over four decades, his treatment of snow changed radically.

3. Monet’s earliest snow scenes, painted around 1865, continued the 400-year-old practice of representing snow as hardly brighter than white dirt. By the 1890s, his canvases were jewel boxes. He had taught himself how to capture snow’s dispersal of colours and to cope with its intensification of brightness.

4. Monet is usually presented as the creator of paintings in series, whether of cathedrals or grainstacks, waterlillies or poplars, London bridges or Venetian palazzos. In portraying his subjects at different hours of the day and in all seasons, he recreated fleeting moments, which he called “instants”, and which we know as “impressions”.

5. This snapshot view of the world was in keeping with the times. In 1850, Hermann Helmholtz had measured the speed of sensations within the human body, a process which had been considered so fast as to be instantaneous. Helmholtz’s calculations legitimised the Impressionists’ chase for evanescence. By contrast, Academic artists still laboured after an idealised vision of nature, frozen in time and constructed in their studios.

6. Of the 1500 canvases that Monet painted between 1857 and 1895, 250 were of snow, frost or ice. Yet Monet’s snow paintings have not been considered as a series in their own right.

7. That Monet painted so many winter scenes is not as important as how he altered his depiction of snow. Years of painting it taught him how to carry its luminosity across his entire canvas. Even more significant is how that shift in perception affected the rest of his art, notably his handling of the sun, that primary powerhouse of light.

8. Five of Monet’s snow pictures will be hanging at the National Gallery, Canberra, when ‘Monet and Japan’ opens on 9 March. The exhibition consists of 38 oils and a selection of the Japanese woodblock prints that he began to study in 1867, eventually collecting 231 examples.

9. When Monet first painted snow, those images were his first sequence of paintings of any subject. At the time, however, he was not conscious of using the same scene to explore the changing effects of light.

10.  ‘A cart on the Snowy Road at Honfleur’ (1865/7), included in the exhibition, is perhaps the earliest example. The snow in this work is of a fresh fall and hence exceedingly white.

11. Almost a decade later, Monet painted ‘View at Argenteiul, Snow’. The canvas is smothered with snow but the red wall of the building was not reflected across the whiteness, still less was its brilliance refracted onto nearby objects. Those dispersals were the lessons he had yet to teach himself.

12. Some of the Japanese prints that Monet owned were snow scenes. Although the techniques required for wood-blocking kept their surfaces even, they could be textured by scoring them with snow flakes. In addition, the boldness of their patterns and colours stimulated the French painters.

13. Working in oil, Monet and the other Impressionists brought life to the texture of their grass, foliage and skies with broken brush strokes. That energised roughness, so at odds with the smoothly varnished surfaces of conventional painting, became a distinguishing feature of the Impressionists’ style. They also used water as a mirror to reflect buildings and trees, fracturing their colours into mosaics.

14. Snow offered similar results but was far more difficult to manage because its flakes operate like the facets on a revolving crystal globe, shooting out light to bewilder the viewer. Monet rarely depicted the snow actually falling because each flake so magnifies the light that the artist is blinded. His individual snowdrops looked rather like cotton-wool.

15. In time, Monet learnt to enliven his snow patches with pastel shades which seemed to be moving in small waves. The choppiness of that surface departed from his previous representations of snow as inert.

16. Snow scenes had been commonplace in European art for hundreds of years, but they were painted with a quite different purpose in mind from Monet’s. His predecessors had completed snow scapes from the comfort of their studios, without so much as glancing through their frosted windows. Their interest in winter was often for its allegorical associations. Just as spring’s renewal represented Christ’s Resurrection or the flowering of earthly love, so winter had provided a metaphor for death or damnation. Monet, by contrast, became fascinated with snow for its seasonal variations of light, not for its symbolism.

17. Monet’s fixation on the visual for its own sake was blatant in September 1879 when his first wife, Camille, died and he could not resist painting the flesh tones of her corpse with long brushstrokes like blue icicles.

18. In the main, the Impressionists had committed themselves to painting in the open air. Monet’s robust constitution allowed him to stick for hours out of doors in all weathers. Early in 1868, an acquaintance walking through “the countryside beneath its white shroud” reported  “glimpsing a little heater, then an easel, then a gentleman swathed in three overcoats, with gloved hands, his face half frozen. It was M. Monet studying an aspect of the snow. It was cold enough to split rocks”.

19. “I go out into the country”, Monet wrote to a friend,  “which is so beautiful here that I find the winter perhaps more agreeable than the summer’. Out of that enjoyment, he created ‘The magpie’(1867-9), in which the bird perches on a gate, light flooding from the back to cast bluish shadows into the glistening snow.

20. When a sudden snowfall ruined his prospects of continuing work on two canvases he complained: “What am I to do with this snow, which is settling sufficiently to be a nuisance but not enough to paint it? Still, if it persists after lunch I’ll have a go at something. But troubles never cease, the struggle is endless”.

21. Early in 1885, now installed at his final home at Giverny, Monet wrote: ‘I am in snow up to my neck; I have a whole series of paintings in progress; I have only one fear, that the weather may change’.

22. Despite the title of Edouard Manet’s notorious 1863 picture, painting in the open air was no picnic on the grass for the Impressionists. Even summer could be trying. Spring winds often blew over their easels, pitching wet canvases to the ground.

23. The passing seasons had no respect for the artistic calling. Monet once paid two labourers to carry long ladders into a ravine to pick the budding leaves off an oak which featured in three paintings that he had started in winter but was still at work on spring. Working in the open air proved no guarantee of art works true to nature for Monet often retouched canvases in his studio, converting field sketches into finished impressions.

24. Monet only twice depicted snow from inside a building. One of these exceptions will be in Canberra, ‘The Boulevard des Capucines’ (1873). Its snowy street and sky are both awash with whites and blues, making it difficult to tell them apart.

25. In the following year, 1874, Monet joined the first Impressionism exhibition with ‘Impression, Sunrise, Le Havre, under mist‘, the work that lent its name to the movement. Nonetheless, ‘Impression, Sunrise’ remained an academic picture, an homage to the artist who had dominated European landscape painting for 200 years, Claude Lorraine (1600-82). Indeed, Monet’s use of rusty horizontals to convey the sun’s breaking across the water at Le Havre merely inflated a device which had recurred throughout Claude’s work.

26. Monet’s initial reliance on Claude’s solution points to the difficulties that the sun had given landscape artists. The sun is too bright to stare at for long enough to paint it, yet it is the source of the light and the colours that make all paintings possible. Claude and generations of his followers had sidelined it behind trees, clouds or temples.

27. Monet sought to make the impact of the sun central, even if it could never be displayed in its full force. Instead of playing hide-and-seek with the sun as the single point of origin for light, he celebrated its omnipresence in every square centimeter of his canvas.

28. When Monet did let the sun appear, it was almost always low in the sky, or perceived through fog or mist. A hostile commentator complained that one of Monet’s setting suns looked like a slice of tomato. Throughout the history of art, the sun more often had been either as bleached as a poached egg, or had its scorching eye scrambled. Monet preferred his suns scrambled by spreading their light across his canvases, but went beyond yolk shades into violet tones.

29. That colour also penetrated into Monet’s presentation of the ice-flows that sometimes froze over entire rivers before a thaw cracked them into what the French call debacles.

30. Monet had made his first studies of ice-flows in the Seine in 1869. Still in thrall to tradition, he left the ice and water looking gray. By his return to the subject in 1880, his revolution was underway. He now covered the ice with skeins of blue, green and yellow. The green tone in the ice spreads to everything else, even through the pinks and blues of the poplars.

31. A striking example of how much Monet had progressed came in another of his debacles where the sun was no longer represented by a bars of red across the water, a la Claude, but casts a violet light deeply beneath its surface, making the ice look even greener.

32. Monet had made an extraordinary advance in eleven years. The break-up of the ice paralleled his break-up of light.

33. A few years later, another thaw sent him back to the Seine for a dozen canvases where the glistening blocks of ice look like the flowering waterlily pads that he would begin to paint in 1895. Significantly, his first image of ‘The water-lily pond’ was a winter scene. His snow pictures bequeathed to his waterlily series what he called “the same light spread everywhere around”.

34. In 1890-91, Monet added eighteen winter effects to his grainstacks series, two of which are coming to Canberra. Although painted within weeks of each other, the difference between them is as great as that between his efforts in the snow in the late 1860s and his final winter effects in 1895. “Grainstacks, snow effect” is no more than white snow over brown field and stacks. By contrast, a contemporary critic praised the other, “Grainstack at sunset“, for its “phosphorescent shadows’, which, when a ‘sudden frost enameled them blue, glittered on a sky first pink, then gold”.

35. Monet had gone past photographic naturalism. He was moving closer to the interplays between matter and energy, that were attracting contemporary physicists.

36. He had ceased to be an 1870s-style Impressionist concerned only to catch the momentary effects. He was now pursuing the underlying dynamics.

37. His ways of seeing swung into line with developments in other aspects of European culture, where the underpinings of every belief were being challenged. Indeed, the critics who complained about the disappearance of a single viewing point from Monet’s work echoed the puzzles being posed by the philosopher-poet Frederich Nietzsche. Nietzsche had followed his 1882 quip that “God is Dead” with a chain of questions about the loss of certainty in every aspect of life:

Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun … Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up and down?

38. As well as shifting his viewing points, Monet experimented with other devices to convey his flattening of perspective. He left corners unworked. Later he painted on oval and round canvases. Eventually, he encircled the viewer with panels of waterlillies at the Orangerie. Hostile auctioneers who hung Monet’s paintings upside down were more perceptive than they knew.

39. Snowlight continued to attract Monet . In February 1895, he joined his step-son in Norway for a working holiday. On arrival, Monet accepted that he had much to learn about snow in a land where the days were so much shorter and the angle of the sun’s rays lower than in northern France. The vastness of snow in every direction magnified the light and put him into “a continual state of amazement”. A month later he could appreciate “lovely effects I was blind to in the beginning”.

40. Like any master in a new environment, Monet searched for a subject to test his talents, settling on Mt Kolsaas, outside Oslo. The dozen canvases he worked on were mere sketches, not even impressions.

41. By then, aged 55, Monet was so afflicted with rheumatics from his winters out in the cold that those weeks in Norway were his last at working in the snow. In the remaining 30 years of his creative life, he never again took snow as his subject.

42. In his ceaseless play of lights and colours, whether in the delicate waterlillies, for which he is so loved, or in the flaming Japanese bridge that occupied him till his death in 1927, we can see the fruits of those bitter days and harsh months. Snow had helped to make him his own kind of Post-Impressionist, leaving open a door to the abstractions of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.