The Season of Snow: Maurice Cullen and the Winter Landscape
The Canadian Impressionists were obsessed with winter. This is a fact that visitors will be able to confirm in the forthcoming exhibition Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons, opening at the National Gallery of Canada in February. While many of us can imagine nothing worse than standing around in the freezing cold, these artists happily donned their snowshoes and spent hours outside capturing the variegated colours of light on snow.
Maurice Cullen is one such artist who committed himself to adapting Impressionist themes and motifs to Canadian subjects. Cullen had travelled to Paris in 1888 to further his artistic training, enrolling first at the École des beaux-arts, before also attending classes at the Julian and Colarossi academies. It was in France that the artist first began to experiment with plein-air painting in the manner of the French Impressionists. When he returned to Montreal in 1895, Cullen was particularly drawn to the snowy landscapes of the Beaupré region in Quebec, and he soon distinguished himself as a consummate painter of the Canadian winter. His reputation was solidified in 1912, when art critic Newton MacTavish dubbed him “A Painter of the Snow” in The Canadian Magazine.
In The Ice Harvest, Cullen renders the subject using highly impressionistic brushwork. He departs from the style of Claude Monet and the French Impressionists, however, by maintaining the solid forms of his composition to create a sense of depth and space. The Canadian artist divides the picture plane into three horizontal bands: the foreground of darker ice, the bright, frozen St. Lawrence River in the middle ground, and the colourful sky above the horizon line.
The viewer’s eye is drawn into the work by following the centre path traversed by the oxen hauling ice. The textured paint surface, which lends this work its Impressionist quality, is created using layers of coloured pigment applied in short, dappled strokes. This technique allowed the artist to capture the ever-changing effects of light reflecting off the snow and ice, using the full range of the colour spectrum. As Cullen himself once said, “the snow takes on the colours of the sky or the sun. It is blue, purple, grey, sometimes even black, but never perfectly white.” Cullen exhibited this painting twice in 1913, probably shortly after it was completed. It appeared first at the Canadian Art Club in May, and at the Canadian National Exhibition in August–September, where the National Gallery of Canada purchased it.
Cullen and other Canadian artists were not the only ones to find inspiration in winter as a painterly subject around this time. In January 1913, the Exhibition of Contemporary Scandinavian Painting opened at the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, the second of five venues. Snow scenes abounded by artists such as Gustaf Fjaestad and Anna Boberg. Lawren S. Harris and J.E.H. MacDonald, who went on to found the Group of Seven, saw the exhibition and found inspiration for their own interpretation of the Canadian landscape. The following year, in March 1914, the Galerie A.M. Reitlinger in Paris opened Les peintres de neige, which featured works by nineteen artists from France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland and North America, and included Canadian artist Clarence Gagnon, who exhibited The Train, Winter.
Despite being an inhospitable season for plein-air painting, winter inspired some of the most accomplished works by the Canadian Impressionists. The mist rising from rivers or lakes, the morning haze, and even the smoke climbing from city buildings and factories translated well to Impressionist paintings and provided endless subjects for Cullen and his contemporaries.
Winter scenes by Maurice Cullen, Clarence Gagnon and other artists are on view in Room A105 at the National Gallery of Canada. Paintings of snow by Canadian artists form part of the Gallery’s exhibition Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons, presented from February 26 to May 24, 2021. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.