Warmed by portraits of snowfall

Wake up in the morning to a world filled with snow, and gaze out the window at the amazing picture. Then tell me there is no small, delighted, heart-leaping child somewhere inside you that is, at least for a split second, father to what you like to think of as your sensible, seen-it-all-before, unimpressed adult self.

Where you live does make a difference, I grant you. Snow may be such an inevitable and continual winter condition for you that the last thing you want is a fall of snow on snow on snow. Familiarity leads to indifference. My sympathies are with you. You are underwhelmed by overwhelm. You do not dream of a white Christmas.

But where I live today, in Scotland, snow cannot be taken for granted. Some winters there is none. When and if we have some, it generally does not hang about. Its inconvenience is well known to us, though, particularly since its comparative rarity means that the relevant authorities never seem to be equipped or prepared for it. They show every sign of being entirely baffled by such questions as, "What should we do about it?" One winter it was even rumored that the nearest plow to our suddenly snowbound Glasgow was somewhere down in England.

So snow arrives here as a surprise that is hard to take too solemnly. It is also hard not to fall for its compelling beauty, its rejuvenation of a tired world, and its manner of transforming even the most banal urban or suburban locale into white wonder. At such times, I have no problem at all agreeing with Shelley's: "I love snow, and all the forms/ Of the radiant frost." And I am irresistibly persuaded by the sheer pictorialization of everything. Snow makes one visually alive and alert - your eyes as excited as a puppy dancing through this electrically cold, sky-bright phenomenon for the first time.

The visual astonishment of snow was something that the artists known as the French Impressionists - Renoir, Monet, Sisley, Caillebotte, Pissarro - relished.

The appeal of snow to them was similar to the appeal of broken reflections in water: It shook the visible environment into unexpected configurations. All the more so if the snow was still falling, since unsettled movements and moments, blurring and fragmenting familiar sights, were the essence of the Impressionists' attempts to make art represent effects. And an effect is almost by definition spontaneous or momentary.

The astounding freshness (or shock) of what critic and novelist Edmond Duranty called "The New Painting" (just two years after the Sisley snow painting shown here) was not unlike a sudden, unexpected snowfall deposited overnight on the art world. These painters were thoroughgoing, determinedly original, and above all, they showed the banal in an unfamiliar light, just as snow does.

THE current exhibition called "Impressionists in Winter, Effets de Neige" is centered around Alfred Sisley's "Snow at Louveciennes." It belongs to the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., where the show is being displayed first.

Sisley chose a perfectly unexceptional back street among suburban roofs, wall, gardens, and trees. It is more than likely he painted it from a window in the house in which he lived at the time. Though some snow paintings by Impressionists reportedly were, true to their avowed ideals, at least partly painted outdoors, these radicals were not averse to shelter when possible.

Sisley's painting is no remote and open landscape. It intimately invites the imagination to walk into it by strong directionals and by association with the figure trudging through the snow toward us.

* 'Impressionists in Winter' is at the Phillips Collection through Jan. 3. It moves to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco from Jan. 30 to May 2.

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