Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Breughel: Hunters in the Snow

This painting has been endlessly praised and dissected, but that’s no reason why it can’t be investigated anew by those of us who never tire of it. In fact the sheer pleasure of standing in front of it is reason enough to make a trip to Vienna. Surely this is one of the great compositions. Our eye is naturally caught by the line of the returning hunting party, dark and bulky, in the foreground, which follows the strong diagonal of the march of trees. The sight line of this diagonal skims the edges of the pond where tiny skaters lead, one imagines, another sort of existence from that of the exhausted men and hounds, and curves up dizzyingly to the very highest peak. The trees themselves form a kind screen (seeming to anticipate the effect of Japanese printmakers on the impressionists). Flat and schematic, they provide the strong verticals which anchor the composition and balance the effect of the profusion of muted detail in the distance. A further diagonal cuts into the slope, anchored by the fire over which a pig is being cooked, and a third curves placidly around the hillside houses and crosses the picture plane between the two ponds. The genius necessary to the organization of this vast amount of information, information that informs our sense of this world and makes possible our ability to enter it emotionally, takes my breath away.

Supporting this very complex composition is a color scheme which couldn’t be simpler: I would think a palette of Prussian blue, black, white, and several earths. With this palette Breughel blankets his world in the piercing cold of deep winter. The only relief from the snow and the snow-laden sky, and the only hint of warmth anywhere in this world, is the wind fanned fire from the pig roasting, a wonderful hot raw sienna. All else is icebound.

The result of all this mastery is our experience of the duality of winter, the exhaustion, the elation, the impenetrable cold, and the fierce and uncompromising beauty. I love it. Is it why I paint? It’s certainly why I look, over and over.

Joan Terrell Smith

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