George Bellows: "Love of Winter" - 1914,
One of my favorite works at the Art Institute of Chicago is the George Bellows painting, “Love of Winter.” Winter may be the least comfortable season to be outdoors, but it’s a visually appealing season to paint or photograph.
In winter, snow is the white canvas against which the visual world is displayed. The snow produces an aesthetic transformation. It acts like a wrapper on the objects of the physical world, which, removed of color and texture, are distilled. They are reduced to their essence, as their shape and scale—normally overwhelmed by color and texture—become their primary characteristics.
All that white emphasizes line. Immediately after a snowfall, trees, which may have looked merely barren and lifeless without their leaves, suddenly seem exquisitely sketched, as though they have been traced and brushed with snow by a master painter. Then, when the snow on the tree branches melts, the snow that remains on the ground provides the contrast against which the forms of the trees are set off, as seen in the trees in the Bellows’ painting. When color is introduced—by the brightly colored clothing people wear, as is depicted in the painting, or by something like a brilliant cardinal perched on a snowy fence—it is luminous.
Winter is clearly the best season to be inside looking out. The more austere the outdoor weather grows, the cozier one’s indoor crib becomes. I like to look out through the multi-paned French doors in my study, especially after the glass has been etched by sub-zero temperatures with half moon frost patterns on each pane. Whether the world outside is a mass of low contrasts—grays and whites—as it is during a snow storm, or a sparkling clear rasher of intense blues and whites—as it is on a bright sunny day, the framing of the scene by these frosted window cells makes it feel visually more abstracted. The panes of the window deconstruct the visual notes of the scenery as the Impressionists did with their brushstrokes and pointillism.
There are words missing from human language—missing, at least, in English. One of those is a word that would better describe looking deeply or intensely with a highly refined aesthetic expertise. The word I want would be like epicure is to eating, or sensualist is to feeling, or like connoisseur or aesthete is to the arts. This word would describe the way that artists see the visual world. I think this is one of the great benefits of looking at art. It helps us see the world differently.
Winter, I think, is a good time to cultivate a more highly developed visual discernment. One can do this by looking at paintings and photos, but also by looking, directly or through the windowpanes, at the underlying formality that comprises physical reality. Form and figure are easier to see at a time when the distractions of color and texture are diminished.