Painting snow is something Canadian artists ought to know about, and they do, although that snow comes in a number of varieties. There are the marzipan smudges of James Wilson Morrice (wet snow beneath heavy grey skies); the ploughed and roiling hummocks of A.Y. Jackson, which catch sunlight from the blistering blue above; the japoniste blanks of David Milne (who used the pristine sheaf of paper as a signifier of snow, sculpting into the whiteness with his delicate painter’s touch); Cornelius Krieghoff’s sugary frostings (just add milk); and the stiff formal planes of Lawren Harris (snow or Styrofoam – you be the judge). All these artists were obsessed with the white stuff, devoting their artistic powers of persuasion to the assertion that winter – no matter how unspeakably frigid and uncomfortable – is still a thing of beauty.
Jack Chambers, too, made it his mission to capture the look of snow. In his Sunday Morning series of the 1970s, he evoked the eye-scalding brightness of a winter’s day as glimpsed through the window of his London, Ont., home. In these paintings, the frigid external world is set against an arid, centrally heated interior – that unique Canadian environmental condition that causes our skin to flake off, our lips to crack, and our hair to stand on end.
But Chambers was also a master of the more temperate side of winter, where the Arctic air relents and the snow begins to rot, becoming granular, and catching the light in glittering flecks, particularly at the end of day. In Gibbons Park, for example, Chambers records a moment of suburban winter beauty. A molten winter sunset is hanging in the barren treetops, its colours glazing a river’s surface and infusing the sky with hues of radiant tangerine, yellow, and saffron gold. Along the river’s edge, the snow glows blue, rotting into the riverbank made spongy with the melt. But is this spring or just one of the tantalizing false promises that winter makes and breaks on the long journey to warmer times? True, the bare tree branches suggest that the harshest days of winter are largely passed, that the river has finally lost its ice for good (it still seems barely liquid), that the planet is once again swinging toward the sun. But we have been fooled before.
Now, in mid-January, we too have turned the corner – our winter solstice is nearly a month behind us and the days are lengthening – but the full warmth of spring is still months away. Helpfully, Chambers directs us to the principle source of current loveliness: the sky, most particularly the sky at twilight, that brief passage into night when ravishing colours gather overhead, offering visual consolation for the cold. Like Chambers, we must look up and work with what we have.
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