Tag Archives: Winter

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In the Mist

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…In that strange season
When winter lurks
Around the corners
Of every warmer day… Continue reading

Stormy Times

WinterStorm_Francisco_de_Goya_y_Lucientes_016

Francisco Goya (Francisco de Goya y Lucientes), Winter

February has been a very stormy month, here and elsewhere. The storms have rolled through, coming up from south of us or in off the sea. I’m glad I can watch them pass from the safety of our apartment, while our boat sits – safe too, but rocked by the waves and wind – at a dock not too far away.

And I think about the fact that the same storm can feel completely different to different people. So much depends on where you are and what resources you have. I’ve experienced bad storms tucked safely away inside a sturdy building. I’ve also experienced them out at sea in our sailboat, surrounded by the noise and turmoil of waves and wind.

Goya, too, knew how different the same storm could feel to different people. And he wanted other people to know. That’s why his picture of Winter is not of some beautiful, snow-filled landscape but of people struggling through a winter storm.

You can tell how cold it is. Three of the men huddle together as they walk, blankets or shawls wrapped tightly around their heads and their thin coats. Their heads are down, their arms wrapped around themselves, their faces grim. You can see snow on their clothes, on their leggings; you can almost see them shiver. The poor dog beside them, tail between his legs, looks as if it would rather be somewhere else, somewhere warm and out of the wind.

These three men are empty-handed, returning home with nothing to show for all their work.  No wonder they look so grim and tired.

The other two walk independently. They are dressed more warmly: one has his head covered with a hood of the same material as his coat; the other has tied his hat on so that it shelters his face from the wind-driven snow. They have been hunting, and their hunt has been successful – one has a gun, the other leads a pack animal, a horse or a mule, with the carcass of a pig tied across it’s back. Wherever they are going these men will be well fed, and probably warm.

The painting is a sketch painted by Goya, the design for a tapestry to hang in the dining-room of the Pardo palace near Madrid in Spain. It’s one of a series of four depicting the seasons. So there is a third layer here – those who gazed at the stormy cold of the tapestry would be warm and comfortable themselves.

And people would gaze at it; Goya has made it beautiful. No doubt he hoped at least some would see beyond its beauty, beyond the richness of the colors and the skillful use of technique, to the differences between these two groups caught out in the storm. Maybe they would compare what they saw with their own lives.

Because Goya himself saw these things.  In many ways he was unusual, a tempestuous man who lived in stormy times, though his life started conventionally enough. Born in Spain in 1746, he spent his early years in Fuendetodos before his family moved to Zaragoza, where he began to study art at fourteen. From there he moved to Madrid to study more, then spent time in Rome before returning to Spain and to Zaragoza.

Despite his talent and growing skill, he found it hard to find work as an artist when he came back. Then he became part of the Bayeu family when he married Josefa, sister to the artists Francisco and Ramon. Her brothers were working at the Spanish court, and through them Goya was offered work painting designs for tapestries for two newly-built royal palaces. He went on to be a court painter and to paint for the nobility – though he broke from the courtly tradition by painting portraits of people as they were, not as they wished to be seen.

His later work was touched by an illness that left him deaf, less communicative and more introspective, and his fortunes fluctuated with changes at the court and the effects of wars and revolution, particularly the war between France and Spain. In his later work there’s anger, a sense of pain and despair, and a recognition of the ironies in life.

Because through it all he continued to work, to share his thoughts about difficult things and tragic events in stark and beautiful paintings and dark prints. Beauty has its limitations, though. Some of his paintings and drawings I find very difficult to look at. The horror overpowers the beauty.

But not the compassion. He understood that the storms of life can blow most cruelly when we are least equipped to deal with them.

A compassion we all should share.

Winter Tales with Monet

It’s the middle of January, and the middle of one of those blasts of winter that make you remember why you love summer so much.  There doesn’t seem much to say about this – after all snow and blasts of cold air will come in their season.

I suppose that I could spend my time longing for summer, dreaming about warmth and long sunny days.

Or I could find my comfort somewhere else.  Perhaps in Monet’s paintings, which are so beautiful they could make a person love winter. At least for a while.

Thank you, Feishtica.

Seeing Christmas Differently

Hans Baluschek, At the Christmas Tree Sale, 1930

Hans Baluschek, At the Christmas Tree Sale, 1930

We know it’s Christmas.  But this doesn’t look like a typical Christmas scene.

The woman in the lumpy red coat is clutching what looks like the top of a Christmas tree.  Perhaps it is all she can afford. Her black hat is pulled down over her forehead, her thin legs and short boots stick out below her coat. Her nose is red from the cold, her lips curve downward; compared to the man selling trees she looks dour and small.  Her spindly bit of  Christmas tree contrasts with the tall, full trees leaning against the building wall.   They contrast with the leafless, living trees behind the fence, beside the store.

The Christmas tree seller stands in front of his trees.  He looks – kind?  He’s warmly dressed too, britches, heavy socks, boots, a coat reaching past his hips.  His coat is  long enough for him to stick his hands comfortably into the pockets.  His axe, perhaps just used, sticks out from one side.  His hat sits crumpled on his head.

The snow around them is well trodden.  On the pavement, further from us, a well-dressed man and girl, father and daughter perhaps, walk past a store that sells exotic fruit.  Bags and packages dangle from the father’s hand; he wears his hat at a jaunty angle, hiding his eyes.  His head is turned toward us, his body leans toward his daughter as if to shield her.   A chimney belches smoke above them; the sky is full of smoky clouds.

It’s Christmas time in Germany in 1930 and Hans Baluschek was painting what he saw.  What he saw was a Christmas divided – divided between well-off and poor, between people of different beliefs, between traditions rooted in the country and life in the city, between the green of trees and the smoke of industry.   We see the trappings of Christmas – the trees, the packages, the winter snow.  What we do not see is the anticipation of happiness.

Why present a Christmas scene this way?  The son of a railway engineer, Beluschek had studied art in Berlin as a young man and lived there still.  He saw the changing, industrializing city and found it dehumanizing.  He lived through World War I and felt and saw disquieting political changes happening in Germany as World War II approached.

Here we see how his experience and ideas combined with his understanding of working class life and his desire to show their world. This is Christmas from a different perspective, not what we think of as a typical Christmas scene.

But we can still hope that having that little tree brought joy to the woman clutching it.

Winter’s Light

Karl Bodmer, Confluence of the Fox River and the Wabash, Watercolor, 1832

Karl Bodmer, Confluence of the Fox River and the Wabash, Watercolor, 1832

It’s about this time of year, when winter knocks at the door to be let in and winter light already casts its influence over the landscape.

Outside the town of New Harmony, where the Wabash River and the Fox River meet, dying trees trailing vines rise from swampy land and cattle come to the rivers to drink.  The light is soft, the sun’s rays long.  They make even the dying trees seem to glow with life.  The water looks soft and misty. Tree branches bare of leaves make lacy patterns among the cypresses.  The trees in the distance are softly silhouetted against a glowing sky.

Karl Bodmer painted this ‘Confluence of the Fox River and the Wabash’ in early December, in 1832.  He was a visitor to the continent and the region, a Swiss artist contracted to accompany the famous naturalist Prince Maximilian of Weid-Neuwied from Germany to America and record what he saw there.

He traveled with and without Prince Maximilian.  With him he traveled from Boston through Pittsburgh and down the Ohio River to Mount Vernon, Indiana before arriving at New Harmony.  There he left the prince, and traveled on his own to New Orleans.

Along the way he painted the scenery he saw, the artefacts he found, the Native Americans he met.  After he returned to Europe he had many of the scenes he had recorded reproduced as aquatints, and many of these were incorporated into the book Prince Maximilian wrote about his travels.  Bodmer had done his work well – even now it is recognized for its great accuracy.

And in this case, it’s beauty.

I wonder, is it so beautiful there still?

A Note for the End of November

Alfred Sisley, Early Snow at Louvecinnes

Alfred Sisley, Early Snow at Louvecinnes

November is coming to an end.  We are sliding into December, into winter, into the busy-ness of holidays.

It’s a good time to pause, take a deep breath, and look at the world around us.

Because this time of the year has it’s own beauties, here towards the north where winter visits.  Trees’ bare lacy branches make delicate patterns against the green of their evergreen cousins, against the changing colors of rocks, against moving clouds and changing sky.

Denys van Alsloot, Winter Landscape

Denys van Alsloot, Winter Landscape

Morning light is soft and kind, making bare branches glow and creating pools of light and shadow across the landscape.  Long morning and evening rays cast long, elegant shadows across the ground.  Snow, when it comes, reflects its own wintery light.

The sun is more precious, now.  We look for it, enjoy its rising and regret its going more, because the time it spends with us is shorter.

On these mornings when we wake to the glitter of frost (and the sound of scrapers on car windshields) we know that it is just winter visiting briefly, flirting with us.

Soon it will come to stay a while.

Sophus Jacobsen, Sunset in the Forest

Sophus Jacobsen, Sunset in the Forest