Landscape that is lived in

The popularity of an image is an interesting thing: why is it that "Hunters in the Snow," rather than any of the other surviving paintings of snow-filled landscapes by Pieter Bruegel (not to mention the snow paintings of many other painters), has particularly stamped itself on the collective imagination? For every amateur photograph of winter, every Christmas card snow scene, every calendar picture aimed to catch the "spirit" of December or January, this remarkable painting seems the archetype. That it has survived the cliches (and also the reproductions ad infinitumm ranging from the fine to the appalling); that it is still a painting with its own vitality and freshness and its own feeling of inevitable completeness, says a great deal for the vision and skill of the 16th-century Flemish artist.

For one thing, it is persuasively and simply true in its representation -- its presentation in terms of painting -- of the experience of snow, of the way people behave in it. Not that "singeing the pig," or returning with a pack of dogs from the hunt, or even some of the minutely realized distant events he has pinpointed with such obvious delight, are commonplace today, but typicalitym is at the root of this painting. Snow makes us trudge, hunch up, slide, and play all sorts of games; it produces exactly the same combination of nuisance and fun today as when Bruegel was alive. He went so far as to include in this typicality the reaction of birds to snow and cold, and of dogs, even of the trees themselves, bare and stiff, biding their time.

Snow also produces the same visual effect today, and this clear and crips picture captures this with a unique intensity. Bruegel's love of contour, of the gold shapes of figures and buildings and natural phenomena, is given special force in this particular work by the dazzling contrast between the snow covering and the silhouetted forms seen against it. Almost everything that isn't pure white is very dark. There are some intermediate tones, especially in the distance, but the intervals of light and dark predominate.Bruegel has found how to imitate the way snow brilliance thrills the eye and unexpectedly transforms our perceptions of a landscape.

"Hunters in the Snow" is considered to be the first of a series of paintings of the twelve months, commissioned by Niclaes Jonghelink as a frieze to decorate his house in Antwerp. But it is not some elegant decoration for "January" that Bruegel produced, though it is undeniable that his unique decorative sense entered the pores of his art. A strong streak of conscious fantasy parallels his highly observant realism. This realism shows here in the mountains (he was reportedly thrilled by the Alps) and in the slender elegance of the lines of tree trunks, a miracle of spacing and perspective and surrounding air. The high viewpoint also gives him the opportunity of exploiting, into the farthest distance, every precise shift in the fascinating recession from proximity to the horizon's vanishing line.

This picture could be the record of an actual place, and an actual day, refined into art by the artist's simplifications, but, as in his other pictures of the months still extant, it seems more likely to be an elaborately contrived composition, an arrangement of light and dark, of human movement and of that strange stillness after fallen snow, born of one man's amazing visual memory.

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