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This 1906 piece by the Canadian landscape painter shows workers frozen in time on the high banks of the St. Lawrence

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Maurice Cullen. Ice Cutting, Quebec City, 1906. Oil on canvas. 76.5 X 101.6 cm. The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

The ice harvest would have been a familiar sight for the Montreal landscape painter Maurice Cullen. Before mechanical refrigeration, blocks of ice were hacked from frozen rivers and ponds, and preserved in straw, providing all-season deliveries to the zinc-lined kitchen icebox where perishables were kept fresh – or the tavern storeroom where beer was cooled. The practice provided a rich subject Mr. Cullen returned to several times in the early 20th century. In this version, Ice Cutting, Quebec City, he shows workers framed by the high banks of the St. Lawrence at Quebec City; in another, in the collection of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the city of Montreal shimmers in the distance.

Mr. Cullen, who once said that the most common subject would look beautiful at some hour of the day, was impressed by the plein-air painting of the French Impressionists during a six-year stint in Paris. You can see their influence here in the artist’s attention to the sky, magnificently detailed with billowing banks of light grey clouds counterbalancing the bluish forms of the ice below. At the centre, a worker’s long spear draws the eye down into the black depths of the St. Lawrence.

On the eve of the holidays, this landscape feels appropriately wintry, but it also offers the promise of the changing seasons: In spring, the whole river will open and the iceman’s delivery will soon become a necessity.

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