|Claude Monet, The Road to Giverny in Winter, sold last year, but hadn't been seen in public since 1930|
When looking at reproductions online, we get a great variety of versions of the colors in the various photos of the same painting. No reproduction can substitute for seeing the actual painting. Monet did about 140 paintings of snow, but they represent just a fraction of his work. It's snowing this morning March 18 and, looking out the window, I see only white, gray and brown with touches of forest green in the grass and pines. But I try to imagine how Monet would have seen it and the answer is that would depend on where he was in his long career.
The Road to Giverny in Winter is from Monet's mid-career, before the extreme abstraction of his late style, but with the abundance of color characteristic of the fully developed Impressionism. There are several contrasting textures and the blurriness in the foreground indicates an icy wind. Some very dark blues and purples represent tree trunks and limbs, serving to anchor the painting's composition. If Monet had a unifying color in The Road to Giverney in Winter, I'd guess that it had been blue. There are gray blues, powder blues and green blues. His blue is mostly a soft blue, but it is so well modulated with the pink, the green, the purple, rusty red and yellow.
|The detail from the center of The Road to Giverny in winter shows Monet's array of colors|
Color and composition are wonderful, but the brushstrokes are another reason this painting is so successful. Through his textural strokes, he suggests the flow of light at the end of day, the directions of winds and the barrenness of winter trees. Yet the sky is very smooth and we can sense that our shoes or boots will sink if we walk on the ground.
|Claude Monet, The Magpie, 1868-1869|
The Magpie is a masterpiece of Monet's early style, more Realist than Impressionist. There's a sharp differentiation between light and shadow, though the shadows are mainly blue and not gray. Dark footprints in the foreground add a bit of mystery, but more than anything make us think of the rawness of nature's beauty with only a hint of human intervention. He is still using black which may have added just the right amount of contrast. If we could not see the energy of his brushstrokes, a viewer may think the painting's quality so good that it could be a photograph. The whites are bright enough, though, that you'd almost want to wear sunglasses to look at the painting. The Magpie appears to work its special magic by depicting what may be the day after a night of snow.
|Monet, The Street at Argenteuil, Snow Effect, 1874|
Hokusai. The whites are still very bright, but the most of the painting is gray or taupe, with touches of deep green and deep purple to make up the dark colors. There is a feel of something magical to be walking in this snow, even if it is cold. There's touches of blue in the sky and a forest green where grass or pine needles appear.
|Monet, Snow at Argenteuil, 1875. Argenteuil was particularly important to the development of Monet's Impressionist style. The years 1875-79 included some cold, harsh winters.|
By 1880, Monet's paintings were gradually becoming more and more abstract. He was less concerned with structure, depth and perspective. The paintings become more and more about color, pattern, vibration. In the Floating Ice near Vertheuil, we see tons of blue: deep blues green-blues, purple-blues and powder blue for the sky. Nearly half the painting is a reflection of the water, something he take to full abstraction with his water lily paintings later. It's not only about the weather and how light effects the color, but Monet was also very concerned with pattern. The brushstrokes look like dabs of paint, just quick impressions.
|Monet, Floating Ice Near Vetheuil, 1880|
|The Road to Giverny in Winter is chronologically between the ice series on the Seine and the Grainstacks series|
Monet's Grainstacks series of about 25 paintings includes at several snow scenes which offer a good comparison if we see them as Monet intended, next to the other paintings in the series. The Art Institute of Chicago's painting, Grainstacks, Snow Effects, Sunset, 1891 is an example. This painting, an explosion of color on form is viewed in the gallery with at least six other paintings from the series. Shadows are not painted black or gray, but only as cold colors. (Blue, green and purple are cold colors, yellow, orange and red are warm.) Complementary color contrast creates a sensation, with the warmest colors in the upper righthand corner.
|Monet, Grainstacks, Snow Effect, Sunset, 1891|
Monet traveled to Norway in 1895 and painted landscapes in the palest of colors. From Sandviken, Village in the Snow, it's apparent that Monet's interest in spatial depth, so apparent in earlier paintings, is gone, and overlapping shapes are the only forms to give definition to space. He used the lightest of pastel tints to differentiate color in paintings flowing with the brightness of snow, or in the whiteness of paint. The reds of barns are very red, yet they are submerged in white. It does seem that snow is everywhere and this is truly a winter wonderland. The edges of the canvas look as if they could dissolve in continuity.
|Monet, Sandviken, Norway, Village in the Snow, 1895|
About 10 years ago I took a painting class. Using a photo of a snow scene from the Morton Arboretum, my teacher kept encouraging me to see the purple in the landscape. She said that every landscape has an underlying color that unifies it and in this one it's purple. The snow is purple, the water is purple, the tree trunks are purple, she said, and suggested that I stop interpreting what I knew was there: grays, whites, browns and blacks. She was trying to help me see as the artist sees and to use my eye to see an Impressionist's vision of the world. There also was a gorgeous sunset in the painting I was doing, but I certainly didn't paint a glorious rainbow of color effects as Monet did. Check out more of his snow scenes on this website.