Beware of the winter solstice!
freezing everything in its wake.
Stripped of autumn’s kiss,
the région Parisienne now lies
barren, coated in snow,
left to sleep at mother nature’s pace.
If someone were to ask me ‘which painting best represents the spirit of winter for you?’ I, without a doubt, would gesture towards French Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro’s snowy landscape of ‘La route de Versailles à Saint Germain, Louveciennes, effet de neige’ (see below). Think of a quaint, humid, forest-dominated village, where there are more naked trees than houses per square mile, whose dullness is suddenly brightened by a thick, icy blanket of pure white; nestled in the western suburbs of Paris. This landscape is familiar to me, and it is one which Pissarro thankfully froze in time on his canvas. Because yes, surprisingly, there is more to Paris’s outskirts than the golden Versailles palace, and the grounds where the Paris Saint-Germain football team train on a weekly basis.
The lengthy title of the painting has much to say about Pissarro’s artistic production, but also about the importance of its geographical location. The Versailles road extends, as the title indicates, from two of the most important cities in the Yvelines county, Versailles and Saint Germain-en-Laye. Pissarro, like many other Impressionists who came via railway to the villages neighbouring the river Seine, obsessed over the effects of light and the change of seasons on this road in the same way as we, nowadays, might obsess over TikTok.
From 1869 to 1872, two years prior to the first Impressionist exhibition, Pissarro created an extensive series of paintings studying this road: 22 in total. A significant proportion of these canvases were impressions of the winter season. Pissarro’s passion thus helped to freeze in time the beauty that the winter season brings out of these surroundings. When the lightest storm of snow hits my hometown, just five minutes from Louveciennes, I always come back to this particular painting.
Why? I am guessing that 150 years ago, when global warming was not quite as serious as it is now, Pissarro must have numbed his hands trying to capture the Route de Versailles and his house with the blue shutters, discernible in the middle ground of the painting, at different angles during the different times of the day. Therefore, I try to convince myself that he would have been grateful that some fervent art history students would one day thank him for his artistic endeavours.
A casual observer could argue this is merely an ordinary snowy landscape of a random French village. As you will have guessed, I could not agree with such a statement, as underneath this hurried impression lies an intricate essay on the contrasting nature of winter in rural environments. Indeed, the beautiful, hushed atmosphere that the thick coats of snow create do not dismiss the harshness of such a season, and the difficulties villagers had to encounter during the months following the winter solstice.
Without a doubt, Pissarro’s personal experiences of poverty during the years which led to and followed the Franco-Prussian War, when he lived in Louveciennes, seep into this painting. Sadly, the number of studies he created of the winter effect on this road did not indicate his career as an artist was flourishing – being an avant-garde Impressionist artist could hardly have paid all the bills at the time. His wife, Julie Vellay, often warned him that his profession, and life’s work, would lead their family into ruin.
Yet Pissarro’s artistic genius stands out on this canvas, creating a hushed, peaceful ode to the freezing winter months in Louveciennes. The use of cold colours, notably light blues and whites are used to give the painting its pure, natural lighting. Counterbalanced with the earthy tones used to depict the naked tree trunks and village houses in the middle ground, he creates a complete portrait of the winter season in the Yvelines. Even 150 years on, this landscape still offers a scaringly accurate depiction of what winter is truly like in the western suburbs of Paris.
Of course, I am yet to see a horse-drawn carriage trotting up this road. These have instead been replaced by thousands of roaring cars passing by the blue shuttered house at number 22 Route de Versailles, completely oblivious to the fact that the man who kickstarted Impressionism, and inspired the next generation of European modernist painters, once lived there.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Illustration: Victoria Cheng