Saturday Art: Pieter Breughel the Elder’s “Hunters in the Snow”
(Picture courtesy of jean louis maziere at flickr.com.)
Famous for its portrayal of severe winter and commemorations of times gone past, Pieter Breughel’s Hunters in the Snow,(1565), has stood for many ages as invocation of old ways to those celebrating the bitter winter season.
The painting shows a wintry scene in which three hunters are returning from an expedition accompanied by their dogs. By appearances the outing was not successful; the hunters appear to trudge wearily, and the dogs appear downtrodden and miserable. One man carries the “meagre corpse of a fox” illustrating the paucity of the hunt. The overall visual impression is one of a calm, cold, overcast day; the colors are muted whites and grays, the trees are bare of leaves, and woodsmoke hangs in the air. Several adults and a child prepare food at an inn with an outside fire.
The landscape itself is a flat-bottomed valley (a river meanders through it) with jagged peaks visible on the far side. A watermill is seen with its wheel frozen stiff. In the distance, figures ice skate, play hockey with modern style sticks and curl on a frozen lake; they are rendered as silhouettes.
This is the most famous of several winter landscape paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, which are all thought to have been painted in 1565, after an unusually severe winter, that has often been cited as the onset of a severe phase in the climatic period known as the Little Ice Age.
William James Burroughs analyzes the depiction of winter in paintings, and asserts, “quite wrongly”, that this occurred almost entirely from 1565 to 1665 and was associated with the climatic decline from 1550 onwards. Burrough claims that before this, there were almost no depictions of winter in art, and “hypothesizes that the unusually harsh winter of 1565 inspired great artists to depict highly original images and that the decline in such paintings was a combination of the “theme” having been fully explored and mild winters interrupting the flow of painting”. In fact wintery scenes, which have technical difficulties in painting, had been regularly and very well handled since the early 15th century by artists in illuminated manuscript cycles showing the Labours of the Months, typically placed on the calendar pages of books of hours. January and February are typically shown as snowy, as in February in the famous cycle in the Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, painted 1412-1416. Snowy scenes also appear in the early 14th century frescoes by Master Wenceslas for the Bishop’s Palace at Trento, and in a detail of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Effects of Good Government in the City and Countryside (1337–39). At this period independent landscape subjects had not developed as a genre in art, so the scarcity of other winter scenes is not remarkable…. snowy subjects return to Dutch Golden Age painting with works by Hendrick Avercamp from 1609 onwards. There is then a hiatus between 1627 and 1640, before the main period of such subjects from the 1640s to the 1660s, which relates well with climate records for this later period. However the subjects are less popular after about 1660, but this does not match any recorded reduction in severity of winters, and may just reflect changes in taste or fashion. In the later period between the 1780s and 1810s, snowy subjects again become popular.
In the scene, there are signs of poor hunting and exhaustion, as hunters return to their small town below. The scene has been used in so many ways that all of us have probably seen it at one time or another, and it was much used on greeting cards when those were common. It was originally pointed in oil on wood, and has a rustic quality we are attracted by as well as an antiquity that is as prized as the winter homecoming theme.
(Picture courtesy of Ilya Bouyandin at flickr.com.)