Art reveals winter's varying shades

Thursday, December 18, 2008 | 12:02 p.m. CST; updated 8:28 p.m. CST, Thursday, December 18, 2008
Thomas Heeremans (ca. 1640-1697) painted "Winter Scene by a City Wall," ca. 1660-1697. The piece is oil on canvas.

COLUMBIA — A single idea joins two paintings in the Museum of Art and Archaeology at MU: winter. But the artists, separated by centuries and the Atlantic Ocean, offer distinct perspectives.

"Winter Scene by a City Wall," painted by Thomas Heeremans in the 17th century, portrays in taut, small strokes a day in the life of a bustling mercantile town in a bitterly cold Dutch winter. The scene is frozen over, navigable by skate and sled. But people move quickly, carrying out their duties with what Adrienne Walker Hoard, MU professor of art and color theory, sees as "a sense of uplift and merriment." Despite their work commitment, the residents' primary concern is the need for warmth.

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“They’re keeping themselves warm — it’s not an open-body posture," Hoard said. "Nobody’s head is up. They’re either bowed down completely or have a hat on. Yes, it’s not that open.”

The palette Heeremans used is one often used to depict winter: muted, cool blues, whites and grays. But what Hoard noticed was the overall reflective light of the work. “I think the color of the light would make me think winter," she said, "even if I didn’t know the name of it.”

The light is known as Newton’s white light — the overcast light produced in the winter months that lacks the golden hue of the sun. “The same tree, same grass, same car, will look different in Newton’s light,” Hoard said.

While “Winter Scene by a City Wall” is a literal interpretation of a winter’s day in Holland, “In the Heart of the Ozarks,” an early 20th-century work by Missouri native Thomas P. Barnett is “winter as the painter would like to feel winter,” Hoard said.

The idyllic work shows a pristine river bend in the Ozark valley with purple hills in the background and fall foliage in reds, yellows and oranges — a piece, Hoard said, “the Missouri Department of Conservation would like to put on a postcard to get people to move to Missouri.”

In its warmth and vibrancy, the painting is an uncommon representation of winter. The choice of colors and the composition of the painting make it emotional, Hoard said. It becomes more open, making the viewer more receptive.

Hoard said Barnett’s work is not like any winter she has ever been through in Missouri. “I think the artist is remembering the colors of fall and imagining the colors of the coming spring,” she said.

Barnett’s trunks are bare as evidence of the season, but in the center of the work is a stand of trees that have retained their fall colors — shades of yellow and orange — in defiance. These trees are reflected in the clear water of the river. Hoard thinks the scene is idealized, the clear water a contrast to the dark wintertime waters of Missouri streams and rivers.

Hoard and Mary Pixley, associate curator of European and American art at the museum, think the Barnett work is evocative, but they get different impressions from it: One feels warmth while the other feels cold. Despite the warm palette, Pixley said, “there’s those brilliant blues combined with white that gives you that sensation of cool.”

The painting is “sunny and golden,” Hoard said. “It doesn’t seem that cold to me.”

Barnett relied on numerous thick brush strokes to give his winter a more expressive, surreal feeling. “It’s warm and snug and lush," Hoard said, "and the brush strokes add a sense of lushness to it.”

Pixley said that for the Barnett in particular, the brush strokes combined with the choice of colors "make you shiver” and that pieces such as this evoke a cold feeling inside the viewer.

Both the Heeremans and the Barnett pieces represent winter landscapes, but they were produced with different styles and elicit distinct reactions. Pixley and Hoard see beauty in the serenity of Barnett’s idyll and in Heeremans’ frigid townscape. Winter seems to be a season at odds with itself, at once beautiful and inhospitable. Winter, Hoard said, “is an unsung time. People coop themselves up. They never really seem to look around outside.”

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Ayn Rand December 18, 2008 | 1:22 p.m.

"Winter Scene by a City Wall" is beautiful!

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