Snow-Show

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Yesterday’s rain was yet another reminder of all the snow we’re missing this warm and wet winter. But instead of my usual grousing, I started using my hatless head, took matters into my own gloveless hands, stood up on my own two bootless feet and puddle-hopped to Yale’s major galleries, where, in drifts and flurries, it turns out there’s snow to be found.

At the Yale Center for British Art, snow is almost as rare on the walls as it is on the ground outside. But it’s there. I couldn’t find a flake until, on the fourth floor, I spotted Frost Scene along the bottom of one of the Long Gallery’s walls. The 1827 painting by William Collins, set during a golden hour, shows people, pups and a horse gathered on and around a frozen lake or river, casting shadows across the ice and its snowy rim.

Squinting, I also found flakes in “The Vicar of Wakefield,” Vol. II, Chap. III: The Return of Olivia, positioned directly above Frost Scene. Painted in 1786 by Charles Reuben Ryley, the snow lies past the action-packed foreground through a door on the left margin, where it’s draped on fencing and rooftops and a barren treetop turned to a wispy puff.

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It would’ve taken more walking to get to that tree than it did for me to cross the street to the Yale University Art Gallery, where I found a lot more to snow on. In the second-floor Shen Family Gallery, newly installed works cover the walls like fresh powder. One section is inspired by the Japanese concept of setsugekka, or “snow, moon, and flowers,” “evok[ing] the nostalgia inherent in the passage of time and the changing of the seasons,” as curator Denise Patry Leidy puts it. Here among several smaller snowy depictions is Snow Landscape, a breathtaking work by Mochizuki Gyokusen. Rendered with ink on silk in 1879, the scene follows men climbing steps to a salon and trees climbing clouds to a set of not-so-distant peaks.

Eastward on the same floor, YUAG’s European galleries host a pair of pieces that pose a far darker view of the white stuff. Gustave Courbet’s Hunter on Horseback (circa 1864) shows a horse and a man contorted as if in deep winter discomfort, though it’s surely nothing compared to the agony of the animal whose bloody snow prints they’re following. One wall over, Ary Scheffer’s monumental and grim 1826 painting The Retreat of Napoleon’s Army from Russia in 1812 depicts suffering “under harrowing conditions, pursued by the Russian army under a paralyzing cold.”

The American artists on display tend to treat snow more playfully and romantically. In the pre-1900 galleries, Edmund C. Coates’s Indians Playing Lacrosse on the Ice (1859) shows a bright and idyllic scene replete with charm and color. New Havener George Henry Durrie’s Winter Landscape (1859) portrays a bucolic New England farmstead with a piled stone wall and a gnarled, twisting “wolf tree”—“a rare surviving old-growth or atypical tree,” according to the label.

The only decisively bleak view of snow from an American—among the works I spotted, anyway—comes in John Trumbull’s 1786 painting The Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec, December 31, 1775. Along with a contingent commanded by New Havener Benedict Arnold, Montgomery and his forces had mounted a surprise attack on British-held Quebec. But the advantage of surprise couldn’t overcome a well-fortified target and miserably cold conditions. Arnold, who doesn’t appear in the painting, was shot and wounded, and Montgomery was slain. As the label notes, “The snow-covered earth, trees stripped bare of their foliage, and gloom of night underscore the American soldiers’ grief and shock.”

Other American works treat the season more stoically. Winslow Homer’s Below Zero (1894) shows two figures traversing a knee-deep snowscape, their spines and shoulders upright and square, as unmoved as they are unperturbed. Sylvia Plimack Mangold’s January 1977, located in one of the third-floor galleries devoted to modern and contemporary American art, paints a wintery window view into the middle of a mostly blank canvas. The work is clearly meant to appear unfinished, with painter’s tape, rulers and unpainted edges.

This winter, too, is unfinished. We may get balls or even mountains of snowfall before it’s through. But even if real snow remains a no-show, we’ll still have the galleries.

Written by Dan Mims. Image, featuring a cropped view of Frost Scene (1827, oil on canvas) by William Collins, photographed by the Yale Center for British Art.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories.

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