July in New York is giving new meaning to the words "hot and muggy." For those of you in search of an icy winter blast and the refreshing crunch of feet breaking through snowcrust, how about a visit to the blockbuster "Impressionists in Winter: Effets de Neige" at the Brooklyn Museum of Art? Organized last year by the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and then shown at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the exhibition (in a slightly altered form) is a great way to enjoy some first-rate paintings (OK, some second-raters, too) and cool off.
In assembling the show, Phillips Collection curator Eliza E. Rathbone had plenty of Claude Monets to choose from -- the quintessential Impressionist turned out over 140 winter scenes. One of the earliest is his Road by Saint-Siméon Farm in Winter (1867), in which you can almost feel the heavy, partially thawed snow being squelched under the shoes of three men trudging along a well-traveled cart path. Monet's slashing brushstrokes in the thinly painted Train in the Snow at Argenteuil (1875) looks forward to his great "Gare Saint-Lazare" series in Paris two years later. (Monet produced one other train-in-snow picture that year, while he was living just across from the train station in Argenteuil.)
Perhaps the most affecting Monet painting is The Red Cape (1869-70 or 1871), less a snow scene than a portrait of his wife, Camille. Glancing abstractedly into an interior room, she walks in the snow outside, her head and shoulders wrapped in vivid red. It's an image of a state of being that can only be sensed, not defined, a mixture of melancholy, resignation and, above all, the realization that she is communicating all this to the viewer, whom Monet has placed front and center to receive this enigmatic message.
Because Monet painted so many "winterscapes," it's no surprise that many of his series paintings contain snow, frost or ice. Several works from his 1890-91 "Grainstack" series on view here exemplify Impressionist facture in beautiful combinations of grays, whites and lush pastels.
Even more remarkable is his "Débâcles" series. In 1880, immense ice floes on the Seine broke apart after an extraordinarily cold winter, causing flooding and destruction in their wake. In Monet's paintings, the ice floes become a menacing presence in the foreground, dominating each canvas. The climax of this usually neutral-and-cool-colored series is the fiery Sunset on the Seine in Winter. I doubt anyone today will agree with one critic of the period who said that seeing it, "one simply thinks of a slice of tomato stuck onto the sky and is quite astonished by the violet light it casts on the water and riverbanks."
Camille Pissarro produced about a hundred or so snow scenes. He was much more interested in man's relationship to nature in his art than Monet or the other Impressionists, and most of his paintings contain figures identifiable as belonging to a particular class. Long winter shadows slant across his Road, Winter Sun and Snow (c.1869-70), in which a carriage rolls by and two figures, the male wealthy enough to have dismounted from a white horse, chat in the middle of the road with houses in the background.
Sisley, who produced about 50 paintings of winter landscapes, was particularly successful with the theme. If all art constantly aspires to the condition of music, as Walter Pater suggested, Sisley's Snow at Louveciennes (1874) is a sort of classical symphony. The rigorous and complex structure and the deft color balance make it difficult to tear your eyes away from this work. Caught forever is the aproned woman with her umbrella in the snow. Sisley's sunlight on snow in Snow Effect at Argenteuil from the same year is almost as good.
The other artists in the show were far less interested in portraying winter and are represented by far fewer works. Unlike Monet, who once painted outdoors in Norway when it was reputedly 22 degrees below zero, Auguste Renoir rarely stepped outside in winter and called snow "one of nature's illnesses." He is represented by a single, rare snowscape. His Skaters in the Bois de Boulogne (1868) with its mass of figures at play spread across the canvas seems more 17th-century Dutch than 19th-century French.
The exhibition includes a couple of early works by Paul Gauguin, his stark The Seine at the Point d'Iéna, Snowy Weather being the most memorable. Much more impressive are three works by Gustave Caillebotte. His Boulevard Haussmann, Snow (1880-1881) is stunning, one of the great works of Impressionism. Painted from the balcony of his apartment, the work lovingly details the thick layers of snow atop the decorative grillwork, focuses the viewer's attention on the street with zippy diagonals and lets the distance dissolve into squiggles of paint. It all hangs together and, for all its neutral tones, it's an exhilarating canvas. Caillebotte's compositions are so imaginative and elegant, his early death has to be considered a tragic loss.
At Brooklyn, to make up for the loss of about a dozen pieces from the original exhibition, the museum has added six Japanese woodcuts of snowscapes (Ukiyo-e prints being one pervasive influence on the Impressionists) and a Paul Cézanne oil, Melting Snow, Fontainebleau, from the permanent collection. The museum also borrowed the Frick Collection's Vétheuil in Winter by Monet.
The most missed painting is surely another Monet from the Musée d'Orsay, The Magpie. It was shown at the Met several years ago, but it's such a wondrous painting that it's a shame not to see it in this context. According to many surveys, this dazzlingly bright snow-drenched scene with a bird atop a fence is the favorite of visitors to the Musée d'Orsay. So much for summer!
You can admire the work in facsimile by buying a postcard of The Magpie at the huge museum shop through which you must pass upon leaving the exhibition. The extent of the shop is a physical commentary on how expensive it is to fund blockbusters like "The Impressionists in Winter."
"Impressionists in Winter: Effets de Neige" is on view at the Brooklyn Museum, May 28-Aug. 29, 1999. Timed and dated tickets, priced at $9.50 for adults, are available in advance at the Museum, at 1-800-WINTER-9, or at www.2btech.com/winter.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.
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