Now much of the northern hemisphere is slowly sliding into winter, temperatures are falling and two of the most spectacular seasonal weather effects become more common: frost and fog. This weekend I show a selection of paintings of these ephemeral delights for those who can spectate, rather than having to travel or work in them. So wrap up warm as we first look at frost. Those in the southern hemisphere or the tropics are excused for having a laugh at what the rest of us are going through.
Jacob van Ruisdael painted several seasonal landscapes, including two very similar versions of Winter Landscape (c 1660-70). This is the Mauritshuis version, which is perhaps slightly preferable to that in Birmingham, Alabama, although both show similar finely detailed frost on the trees and vegetation, heightened by the dark.
One painting which stands out from Camille Pissarro’s prodigious output when he lived in Louveciennes and Pontoise is Hoar Frost at Ennery from 1873. This was exhibited at the First Impressionist Exhibition the following year, bought that autumn by Faure, and now graces the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Some of the critics of the day praised it, comparing it to Millet’s best paintings, but the influential Castagnary was acid in his comments, and another described its frost on deeply-ploughed furrows as “palette scrapings placed uniformly on a dirty canvas.”
One interesting observation about this work is Pissarro’s overt use of colour in its shadows, a controversial issue at the time. The rhythmic cast shadows of trees are here dark brown where they fall on the ploughed land, and blue-green further back where they fall on frosted grass.
A few of Sisley’s paintings from the mid-1870s appear experimental. The First Hoarfrost (1876), for instance, with its bright colours and high chroma, might appear more typical of later works by Pissarro.
One artist seems to have specialised in frosty landscapes: the British Impressionist Sir George Clausen. A Frosty March Morning (1904), sometimes known as The Allotment Garden, Winter, appears to have been influenced by Pissarro but is expressed in this artist’s distinctive style.
Clausen’s depiction of the cold and mist of a Morning in November in 1922 again refers back to Pissarro.
The Road, Winter Morning (1923) shows Barnard’s Farm, opposite Hillside, at Duton Hill, near to where Clausen was living at the time. Its mist and morning sunlight bring more subtle colour.
Even the harshest of British frosts is nothing compared to the weather experienced in the Nordic countries and northern parts of North America. There, the challenge of painting en plein air is so great that few have risked their exposed fingers. Working in watercolours requires the addition of alcohol to prevent freezing, although oil paint remains workable in lower temperatures. Among the few who have braved such weather is the Canadian Tom Thomson, who died in a canoeing incident in 1917, just a month before his fortieth birthday.
Thomson painted After the Sleet Storm in his studio during the winter of 1915-16, from oil sketches made in front of the motif. This shows the beautiful effects not of frost as such but of sleet frozen onto the canopies of birch trees, in the cold half-light of the northern winter. The pale pinks and blues shown on the trees here are reminiscent of spring blossom.
Snow in October (1916-17) is another well-known studio painting which Thomson made the following winter. Its fine geometric reticulations of frozen white canopies are a surprise, and an opportunity for the artist to use subtle colour and patterns in its shadows.
I suspect that these days an iPhone would be flourished, photos taken, and everyone would retreat back into the warmth.