Impressions of winter

Harsh French weather made for beautiful, daring paintings

Impressionists and winter landscapes. It's one of those pairings that seems so right, so natural. And yet not until this year has a museum picked up on the theme. In Washington, the Phillips Collection's "Impressionists in Winter: Effets de Neige" presents 62 of these paintings from public and private collections around the world.

The 19th-century's Impressionist painters were fascinated by snow's effect on places they encountered in daily life - from the French countryside to ice floes on the Seine, paths and roads of small villages to boulevards and rooftops of Paris.

In 1865, Claude Monet became the first Impressionist to paint a snowscape. He was also the most prolific painter of winter scenes, producing more than 140 during his career.

His painting "The Red Cape" is one of this exhibition's most stunning works. A window's soft, wispy curtains frame the figure of a woman passing by. She is wearing a drab suit that mimics the colors and textures of winter around her. But a red cape shrouding her head and shoulders brings to the picture a burst of color and vibrancy, hinting at life amid winter's dormancy.

Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley were also drawn to winter's white palette. Severe snowstorms in France during the 1870s provided many occasions for Monet, Pissarro, and Sisley to study the visual effects of winter, from early-morning light across an untouched field of snow to the dense atmosphere of snow falling. And surprisingly, these artists weren't deterred by the often daunting logistics of going out to paint in such harsh weather.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Gustave Caillebotte, and Paul Gauguin also painted snowscapes, although not as often or as passionately as the others.

Nonetheless, the winter landscapes of these six Impressionists are considered by critics to beautiful, daring, and experimental, fine examples of the painting of the second half of the 19th century.

And it is a joy to encounter these works at the Phillips Collection, a Washington museum loved by visitors as one of the most intimate settings in the city in which to view fine art.

In 1921, Duncan Phillips founded the museum in his family's grand home. Its aim was to be a "joy-giving, life-enhancing influence, assisting people to see beautifully as true artists see."

* 'Impressionists in Winter: Effets de Neige' remains at the Phillips Collection through Jan. 3, 1999. For more information, visit the museum's Web site:

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