“Baby, it’s cold outside…”
Now that we are in the middle of the winter, I’ve started thinking about how this “winter” concept has been represented in art. It’s the harshest season of the year, certainly when there was no electricity or gas, but some touching images have been produced over the centuries.
It was not just landscape painters who gave us winter scenes with frozen rivers and skaters. Painters also personified winter as an old man with a fur coat and warming his hands at a brazier. And from the the 18th century, artists depicted winter as a young woman, adding a sensual and warm touch to the cold.
I choose some ten works of art, all depicting winter as a “personification”; as a human figure depicted with symbolic attributes, representing the abstract idea of “winter”. Starting with the French Impressionist Berthe Morisot, as I like her paintings so much. And then going back in time to the 17th century Flemish painter David Teniers, to Madame de Pompadour – lover of King Louis XV of France, to the bedroom of King George III of England, to La Frileuse, the chilly girl, by the French sculptor Houdon. It’s an eclectic batch of art, but all lovely. They give inspiration and warmth in this cold season. Like Vivaldi’s Winter from The Four Seasons.
Along with its Summer pendant, Winter depicts a fashionable Parisian woman who personifies a season. Berthe Morisot debuted the paintings together at the Paris Impressionist exhibition in 1880. Morisot’s images of the Parisienne, a popular figure type representing an elegant, upper-class Parisian woman, were considered utterly contemporary. A critic said about Morisot’s Winter: “with its figure, so courageously modern, of the Parisian woman braving the cold in her furs.”
Berthe Morisot (Édouard Manet’s model and sister-in-law) was one of the most respected members of the Impressionist movement. At the beginning of the 20th century, her aura began to dim and her painting, labelled “feminine”, was relegated to second rank. Only recently, thanks also to the grand 2019 Morisot exhibition in the Musée d’Orsay, Berthe Morisot was incontestably regarded again as a great artist.
This old man by the Dutch Golden Age painter Abraham Bloemaert is representing Winter. Wearing a fur hat and very carefully warming himself at a small stove full of red-hot coals or charcoal. His nose and cheeks reflect the heat of the coal. It’s not only a representation of winter, but also hinting to love and passion. Love – and it’s pleasure – happens to be gallant to the ones who court the fire of love with caution.
David Teniers the Younger brings the cycle of the seasons to an end with an old man representing Winter. Wrapped in velvet and fur, he hunches over to warm his hands at a brazier, a small stove that’s heated with charcoal. His face is wrinkled, his beard long and frosted with white. In the background a small, monochrome skating scene. It’s a personification of winter and Teniers chose a character of an appropriate age and dressed him accordingly. Winter as the last season of life.
The tiny picture is on a copper base, which allowed the paint to flow more freely than it would on canvas. Teniers could show minute detail: the facial characteristics and expressions, Winter’s splendid hat and the objects on his table. Allegorical paintings of the seasons were popular at the time, and Teniers painted several versions of the subject. David Teniers was cashing in on the popularity of the series and turning them out quickly to fulfil demand.
This young woman by Caesar Boëtius van Everdingen warms her hands above a dish of glowing coals, holding her hands under a piece of cloth. She personifies Winter. This season was usually represented as an old man: old because the year is coming to an end, like towards the end of life. Van Everdingen’s choice of a young, richly attired woman is rather unusual. Cesar Boëtius van Everdingen was a Dutch Golden Age painter, from Alkmaar.
For this allegory of Winter and Summer, the painter Giovanni Battista Pittoni turned to traditional iconographic examples. Summer is personified as a young woman, and Winter as an old man warming his hands over a brazier. Summer gestures to a small angel-like figure in the top right corner (difficult to see on the picture). That’s the Spirit of Dawn whose urn of water provides the dew droplets of summer and frost in the winter.
The Winter pastel by Rosalba Giovannia Carriera was acquired by George III, King of England. It entered the Royal Collection in 1762 as “a Beautiful Female covering herself with a Pelisse”. In traditional images Winter was typically shown as an old man, but Rosalba Carriera transformed the subject into a beautiful young woman. “Winter” was put on display in George III’s bedchamber at Buckingham Palace, alongside “Summer”.
Rosalba Carriera was born in Venice. She began her career as a painter of snuffboxes, but rose quickly to fame for her pastel portraits, which became highly desired across Europe. Carriera made several sets of allegories of the Four Seasons. The largest group of pastels by Carriera belonged to Frederick Augustus Elector of Saxony. Over 100 of her pastels were on display at his residence in Dresden in a ‘Rosalba Room’. The artist became blind in later life and died in 1757.
François Boucher painted this Winter from the series The Four Seasons in 1755 for Madame De Pompadour, King Louis XV’s long-term official mistress. Their original location is unknown, but their peculiar shape suggests that they were used as overdoors, no doubt in one of Pompadour’s many properties in France.
Instead of the hardship that traditionally illustrates the theme of winter, Boucher depicts a delightful encounter in joyous colours, a frosty background and a landscape buried under snow. A Tartar in pseudo-Russian dress pushes an elaborate sleigh with the heroine – most likely referring to Madame de Pompadour herself. Glancing out at us coyly, she sports a billowing fur-trimmed gown and a little fur necklace. Her hands may be warmed by a muff, but her upper body is completely exposed. This combination of luxury and seduction, treated in a fanciful and humorous manner, is typical of Boucher.
In April 1764, the 42-year-old Madame Marquise de Pompadour, the official chief mistress of King Louis XV of France unexpectedly died, and in the workshop of her beloved sculptor Etienne Maurice Falconet, the last of the statues she commissioned remained unfinished – the marble Winter, a young woman sitting on an ice cube and gracefully covering flowers with her robe.
A year later Falconet received an invitation from the Russian Empress Catherine the Great to work at her court. It was agreed that at the expense of the Russian treasury all unfinished work from the Falconet workshop would travel with him to Russia. And part of that deal was the unfinished “Winter” sculpture. Falconet completed “Winter” only 5 years after arriving in Russia. That’s how this statue, made by a French sculptor, ended up in the Winter Palace of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Contemporaries of Falconet received the work as a masterpiece and the artist himself wrote: “This might be the very best work which I can do; I even dare to think that it is good.”
L’Hiver or Winter is a bronze statue of a young woman cast by the neoclassical French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. The statue personifies the winter season and is nicknamed La Frileuse, The Chilly Girl. This is reflected in both the medium (a cold, dark bronze) and the features of the sculpture, a young woman clad only in a shawl. Upon its completion and presentation at the 1787 Salon, the French yearly art fair, Winter shocked the French artistic establishment but delighted art lovers. The critics at the Salon indulged in some irony: “La Frileuse by Monsieur Houdon does not seem to achieve its effect. When someone is really cold, he tries to pull all his limbs close to him and covers his body more than his head. Nevertheless, it is pleasant to the eye and the proportions are correct” and “One must concur that winter would be a very desirable season if pretty shivering girls did not cover themselves in any other way.” Don’t think this critic will still have a job after saying this nowadays. In terms of her clothing, the Metropolitan Museum of Art describes it as “elegant but hardly adequate”. La Frileuse made me think of the song Let it Go from Frozen, “The Cold Never Bothered Me Anyway.”
The statue was bought by Louis Philippe Joseph, Duc d’Orléans, confiscated during the French Revolution and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Shrouded in a heavy hooded cloak, this elderly man by Paul Heermann looks down with a deeply furrowed brow. As a personification of Winter, the bust gives visual expression to the chilling cold of that season. His old age refers to winter’s occurrence at the very end of the calendar year. This bust was probably part of a series of sculptures personifying the four seasons. At the Versailles Palace, it was fashion including statues of the seasons in the program for garden sculpture. The high level of finish and finely worked details of this bust, however, suggest that Winter was meant to be viewed up close, in an indoor palatial setting.
This Winter engraving has a very traditional iconography. The personification of Winter is an elderly man wearing a coat and warming his hands by holding a pot containing a fire; beyond is a wintery townscape with ice skaters and people collecting fire wood; the signs of the winter zodiac (Pisces, Aquarius and Capricorn) in the sky; and a cute little putto plays the cold Northern wind blowing into a cloud which results in rain and snow. And just so that we do not get it wrong, Hendrick Goltzius put the name “Hyems” just above the man, which is Latin for “Winter”.
Hendrick Goltzius designed four series with the seasons; Winter depicted here is from the set engraved by Jacob Matham.