Winter is Coming: Paintings of Fog

Claude Monet (1840–1926), Impression, Sunrise (1872), oil on canvas, 48 x 63 cm, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Following yesterday’s selection of paintings showing frost, today I look at the more paradoxical theme of fog. As freezing fog is generally unusual, and fog can occur in quite warm conditions, it doesn’t present the same thermal challenge. Even for the Impressionist with their interest in transient effects, it seems strange for an artist to deliberately limit what they depict in order to show poor visibility, in which a substantial part of the motif is dull, pale grey. This deterred artists prior to the nineteenth century, then became relatively popular.

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Thomas Fearnley (1802–1842) The Duck Hunter (date not known), oil on paper mounted on panel, 32 × 42 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In The Duck Hunter, the Norwegian artist Thomas Fearnley has camouflaged the single figure to increase the challenge to the viewer to identify them from the fogbound view.

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Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844), oil on canvas, 91 x 121.8 cm, The National Gallery (Turner Bequest, 1856), London. Courtesy of and © 2018 The National Gallery, London.

Many of Turner’s later paintings show effects of reduced visibility, but they peaked in his famous painting of a Great Western Railway train crossing the River Thames at Maidenhead: Rain, Steam, and Speed, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1844. His whole image has become fogbound and vague – an important precursor to the Impressionism to come.

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Frances Anne Hopkins (1838–1919), Canoes in a Fog, Lake Superior (1869), oil on canvas, 121.9 x 68.6 cm, Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Wikimedia Commons.

Frances Anne Hopkins’ Canoes in a Fog, Lake Superior from 1869 is a substantial oil painting which was her first work exhibited at the Royal Academy that year. The artist-explorer shows herself and her husband sitting in the canoe.

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Claude Monet (1840–1926), Impression, Sunrise (1872), oil on canvas, 48 x 63 cm, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Fog is exactly the sort of transient effect of light and atmosphere which the Impressionists sought out. In 1872, Claude Monet painted the view which gave rise to the style’s name, Impression, Sunrise. This appears to be a brisk oil sketch of fog and the rising sun in Monet’s home port of Le Havre, on the Channel coast. It is one of a series which depicted the port at different times and in varying lights. Monet exhibited this in the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874, where its name became that of the whole movement and its distinctive style.

Alfred Sisley, Fog, Voisins (1874), oil on canvas, 50.5 x 65 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris. EHN & DIJ Oakley.
Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), Fog, Voisins (1874), oil on canvas, 50.5 x 65 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. EHN & DIJ Oakley.

Sisley’s Fog, Voisins from 1874 is perhaps his equivalent of Pissarro’s Hoar Frost at Ennery (1873), which I showed yesterday. This radical painting shows a fog-cloaked flowerbed in the foreground, the small patch of colour in this garden. The woman working away isn’t tending her nasturtiums, but toiling away at what will, in a few months time, be carefully prepared and cooked in her kitchen.

Camille Pissarro, Île Lacruix Rouen, Effect of Fog, 1888, oil on canvas, 44 x 55 cm, private collection. (WikiArt)
Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), The Seine at Rouen, the Île Lacroix, Effect of Fog (1888), oil on canvas, 46.7 x 55.9 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. (WikiArt)

The Seine at Rouen, the Île Lacroix, Effect of Fog from 1888 is one of Camille Pissarro’s best-known Divisionist paintings, and one of several to use fog to great effect. This was based on studies which Pissarro had made during his visit to the city back in 1883, five years before he started work on this finished painting.

Camille Pissarro, Setting Sun and Fog, Éragny (1891), oil on canvas, 54 x 65 cm, Private collection. WikiArt.
Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Meadow at Éragny with Cows, Fog, Sunset (Setting Sun and Fog, Éragny) (1891), oil on canvas, 54 x 65.5 cm, Private collection. WikiArt.

As Pissarro’s style slowly returned from Neo-Impressionism in 1891, he painted this bank of locally dense fog at the edge of a wood near Éragny, in Meadow at Éragny with Cows, Fog, Sunset.

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Jakub Schikaneder (1855–1924), Riverbank with Tram (date not known), oil on canvas, 95 x 129 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Jakub Schikaneder’s undated Riverbank with Tram is most probably set in Prague during a damp and foggy autumn evening.

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Claude Monet (1840–1926), Waterloo Bridge. Effect of Fog (1903), oil on canvas, 65.3 x 101 cm, Hermitage Museum Государственный Эрмитаж, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

When Claude Monet fled from the Franco-Prussian War to London in 1870, he concentrated on painting the Palace of Westminster. During his visits to the city in the early twentieth century, he returned to those views and painted a series of Charing Cross Bridge and Waterloo Bridge, here an example from 1903. These are among the most quintessentially Impressionist paintings, exploring a range of conditions of light and visibility, including the bane of the winter months in London, its fogs.

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Henri Le Sidaner (1862–1939), St. Paul’s from the River: Morning Sun in Winter (1906-07), oil on canvas, 90 x 116 cm, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Henri Le Sidaner also visited Britain on several occasions, and in 1906-07 painted this view of St. Paul’s from the River: Morning Sun in Winter, which may have been inspired by Monet’s series paintings of Rouen Cathedral, here expressed using his own distinctive marks.

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Henri Le Sidaner (1862–1939), Fog in the Midi (c 1910), oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm, Museo de Bellas Artes de Valparaíso, Valparaíso, Chile. Image by Rodrigo Fernández, via Wikimedia Commons.

In about 1910, Le Sidaner followed in the brushstrokes of the Divisionists in his Fog in the Midi.

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Félix Vallotton (1865–1925), Honfleur in Fog (1911), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nancy, France. Image by Ji-Elle, via Wikimedia Commons.

Félix Vallotton’s unconventional view of Honfleur in Fog from 1911 looks down from Mont-Joli to the west of the town centre. It captures exactly the sort of transient effects that had been the concern of Impressionism.

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Félix Vallotton (1865–1925), Night With Light Fog (1913), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Two years later, in 1913, Vallotton returned to transient atmospheric effects in Night With Light Fog. Influenced by his print-making, he distils this scene into simple geometry, with almost two-thirds of his canvas the vague purple forms of the town and sky, and three simple bands below it. The lone lamppost and figure at the extreme left restore context.

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Lesser Ury (1861–1931), London in Fog (1926), oil on canvas, 67 x 97 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

London’s fogs continued to worsen thanks to the heavy atmospheric pollution, much of it from coal fires, until well after the Second World War. Lesser Ury, another visiting painter, captures this impressively in his study of bridges seen in London in Fog from 1926.

The introduction of low-smoke processed coal fuel progressively reduced London’s problems. I still remember a ‘pea-souper’ in the nineteen-sixties, but by then the air was full of true fog, and not the smoke of hundreds of thousands of fires.