In the lead up to Christmas I’m going to share a piece of artwork each day.
The Annunciation John William Waterhouse
Whatever our religious views are, the events leading up to, and surrounding Christmas make to being a good story. There are angels, kings, desperate displaced people, suspense and drama. All culminating in the birth of a small child, who, whatever you believe, has changed the shape of this planet we live on.
For Mary it all starts here. The angel Gabriel comes and visits her one day (quite out of the blue) and tells her she is going to have a baby! Carrying a lily in hand (a symbol of Mary’s purity) Gabriel tells Mary of how her future life is to be. The gentle look of shock on Mary’s face is also shown in how her arms are positioned. However, as the story goes, she accepted the role that had been allotted to her with grace and humility.
The gentle nature of the paining, the softness of colour and brush stroke all reflect the serenity of Mary. There is no doubt that this is a romanticised image of the way Mary would have lived 2000 years ago, but the artist is using it to emphasise the serenity of the future mother of Jesus.
All too often we hear news that is going to turn our life upside down. Perhaps this image of Mary might help us accept those ‘unchangeable’ things with the same grace and humility.
The Christmas Hamper by Robert Braithwaite Martineau (1826-69)
How exciting! This family’s Christmas hamper has arrived full of wonderful things to make the festive period a pleasure. Fresh meat, toys, all sorts of little bits and pieces. All that a family of the time could want to make the season go well. I would guess that the contents are a surprise by the looks on the faces of those gathered round, so not just a shop order arriving.
Is the hamper a gift, perhaps from a relative or friend? One of the daughters seems to be reading something, possibly a letter from the benefactor. There is no doubt that Christmas is the time when a surprise gift is usually a joy.
As we edge closer to Christmas it’s the time of year I am reminded more about the fact there are many people all over the world, some even in the town I live in, that a box (or hamper) of even the most basic necessities would bring as much joy as this hamper Martineau has painted here. There are many schemes - pick the one that you feel works for you! I think it’s time for me to choose.
Joel Meyerowitz Christmas, Kennedy Airport (1967) Black and White Photograph
Wow! What a photo! Back in the days when black and white photography was king, the American photographer Meyerowitz took this stunning photo. Although the stark and potentially dull subject of a carpark at Kennedy airport doesn’t sound very Christmassy, he has managed to capture something special.
This picture has aged well, and indeed the classic style of the car (in black and white) adds to the appeal of the scene. It has a strange B-movie si-fi look to it. And the stillness of everything gives it a kind of serenity and beauty that you would not expect from a car park.
But it’s the star that makes it special. Almost magical in its appearance, looking as if it is hovering over the car, adds the Christmas touch. Could the star be telling of finding some greatness in this simple scene?
Take a look around you today. Perhaps we can find beauty and greatness in the ordinary scene, just like Meyerowitz did.
Hendrick Avercamp A Winter Scene with Skaters near a Castle (1608-9)
This Dutch artist has captured an imaginary moment in time. Winters were cold and hard in the 17th Century and a frozen lake, river or canal was not an unusual thing. The artist has created a whole variety of individuals for us, all enjoying the opportunities that the ice has to offer.
I do hope that you find some time to have a closer look. If you visit the National Gallery website and search for this picture you will find there is a facility online to zoom in right up close and see all the tiny details Avercamp has given each character in the painting.
It could be those skating hand in hand, the snowball fight, the unfortunate who has fallen through thin ice, or the mysterious masked lady. The whole of life seems to be squeezed into this relatively small painting. It’s like a sort of 17th Century snapshot of society.
Have fun looking at this, and perhaps take time to work out a few of the individual’s stories!
The Train in the Snow Claude Monet 1875
With a little frost in the air this morning my thoughts turn to the possibility of snow at Christmas. And as my thoughts turn to snow I in turn think of Monet, who I always consider the master of painting snow.
Here we have a train arriving at Argenteuil station, near where Monet lived. There is a great deal of ambiguity about the time of day. The heavy snow filled sky, and lights on the front of the train suggest late afternoon or morning. But it could almost be any time of day, when heavy snow hangs in the sky the light seems to have a strange quality. Light and how it effects the world around him is, of course, what fascinated Monet. This painting is no exception.
It always amazes me how Monet can turn a few, seemingly hastily drawn, paint markings into a piece laden with depth and atmosphere. He justifiably owns the title of a great master.
Winter Day in Roskilde (1929) Laurits Anderson Ring
I doubt we will have snow quite as deep as this village in Denmark, but snow and Christmas seem to go hand in hand. This Danish artist has captured a moment of life of the time. Even the Danes (and indeed all of Scandinavia!) in the 1920s were fantastically efficient at clearing deep snow so that everyday life could carry on with no problem. The elements were not going to get the better of them.
Ring has that lovely balance of considerable realism and a softness that only painting can achieve. The large mass of grey sky some how is not as forboding and depressing as it could be and even the snow that has that ‘packed and slightly dirty’ look is not as depressing as it could be.
For me, the tinge of green in the moss on the thatched roofs, and the blue of the verdigris on the church roof is as much colour as I want in this predominantly monochrome painting.
I really feel I could just walk off down that path!
The Shortening Winter’s Day (1913) Joseph Farquharson
You can just feel the fresh country air in this painting. This Scottish artist has captured the fresh and chilly feeling that only comes from a bright winter’s day as the sun starts to set.
What I love about this piece is the range of colours Farquharson has managed to introduce into this moment captured. The amazing use of light evokes an atmosphere that adds to the whole picture.
The bond between the farmer and the sheep is so apparent, it may be simply that the sheep are looking forward to what the farmer has with him, or perhaps they know and trust him. Either way it the artist has evoked a sentiment that is both charming and in a way warming that is a stark contrast to the weather.
This image finds its way to Christmas cards frequently, and you can see why.
Gion Shimu Temple in the Snow Hiroshign
Although not a Christmas picture the snow in this Japanese print still captures the beauty that snow can bring to any scene.
This beauty is reflected in the geishas at the front of the picture, daintily working their way through the snow, lifting their kimonos up to stop them getting wet and leaving delicate footprints in the snow.
The soft blue of the fencing helps emphasize the coldness of the scene. You can almost feel the snowflakes as they fall gently landing on your skin.
Hiroshign has created a soft yet detailed scene that skilfully is balance and bold. A true master of this technique.
Mary and Joseph on the way to Bethlehem (1475) Hugo van der Goes
Joseph the caring (if somewhat confused) father to be caringly guides Mary down a rocky slope on the way to Bethlehem. If he timings of the Christmas story are to be followed it would be about now that this scene could be happening. Heavily pregnant Mary would be sure the baby was due soon.
One can only imagine what it must have been like to go on a massive trek from their home town to Bethlehem in such a condition. But, they still did, because those that governed the land of the time said they had to.
The donkey that has been carrying Mary until now has to totter along in its own way, even the oxen makes a ‘guest appearance in this piece.
To me this is a painting all to do with caring. Joseph is to some people a secondary role in the life of Jesus, but I think it is often forgotten what key role he plays.
In this lead up to Christmas perhaps I need to pay more attention to the ‘minor support roles’ in my life and give then the credit they deserve.
A page from ‘Father Christmas’ by Raymond Briggs
The graphic book artist Raymond Briggs is perhaps best known for The Snowman, However, his book ‘Father Christmas’ is fantastic. His illustrations are both beautiful and charming, without being over sentimental.
He has a wonderful view of Father Christmas as a very ordinary, yet extraordinary man. It’s a lovely insight into how Father Christmas lives his life. Briggs has observed carefully how a portly gentleman such as Father Christmas moves and looks, and then fitted this into a beautifully illustrated book.
It’s a Christmas Classic. If you have not seen it yet do make sure that this is the Christmas you do!
Season’s Greetings Banksy
What a wonderful Christmassy scene. A child full of the excitement of a snow fall stands in his outside coat, sleigh by his side, catching snowflakes from the sky with his tongue. Could you ask for a more cheery Christmas snow scene. Everything looks perfect…
… until you turn the corner on this graffitied garage and realise that the child is actually eating ash from a bin fire!
The mysterious, unidentified Banksy is not one to avoid controversy. He seems to take great pleasure in making statements that cause a degree of upset. His work, however, draws attention to things that need to be said and talked about: the fact that a huge percentage of the world’s population are breathing in polluted air, Port Talbot (where the mural appeared) being some of the worst in UK.
As environmental issues are becoming more and more important, it is good to see artists reacting to this, and generating even more discussion about this subject.
Christmas is not a time to forget important things and hide them amongst all that tinsel and gift giving!
Karl Larsson ‘Now it’s Christmas time again’ (1907)
You could not have a collection of Christmas paintings with at least one from the Swedish artist Karl Larsson. He has a beautiful, delicate style, crisp and very easy to look at. Here we have a typical Swedish Christmas scene of the time. A table groaning under the weight of festive food and decoration, a glowing Christmas tree, a large gathering of people (many of them actual portraits of his own family and friends – Larsson has even painted himself at the back looking out of the window!).
I think what appeals to me most in this painting, or rather should I say three paintings (it is what is known as a triptych – three separate pieces that make up one piece), is the hostess in the middle. Cheerful and welcoming, you feel as if you belong in the picture; she is inviting you into the family gathering- you are welcome.
If you look in the middle of the picture, right at the back, seated at the table, possible as guest of honour, we can see Mary and the baby Jesus. Probably the guests that should be at every Christmas feast!
This Christmas we will have the opportunity to welcome people into our lives. Not necessary to eat and celebrate in our home, although many of us will. But Christmas is a time where we can be more open and welcoming in all aspects of our lives. I wonder if I can be as welcoming as the hostess of this celebration!
Journey of the Magi (1894) James Tissot
The ‘three wise men’ visiting the baby Jesus is a wonderful and majestic part of the Christmas story. Although it really doesn’t happen on the same night of the birth and the shepherds, many a school/church nativity play wouldn’t be the same without them!
Tissot has created an imaginary scene with the three of them traveling along together, with their entourage trailing out behind them. Although somewhat romanticised, this is a striking scene.
To me it is not the wise men, or Magi, that are the stars of this painting. It is the landscape of towering hills, and dry rocks and boulders. The Magi are placed firmly at the front to show they have got this far and have overcome the difficulties of the landscape. Nothing will get in the way of them finding their way to the baby Jesus.
This Christmas we may be confronted with all sorts of obstacles and irritants. Like the Magi, I hope you can overcome these and find the true meaning of Christmas, whatever that may mean for you.
Illustration for The Christmas Carol (1915) Arthur Rackham
This wonderfully evocative watercolour/pen and ink piece is used as an illustration in a copy of ‘The Christmas Carol’. This is the part of the story where Scrooge is visited by his old partner Marley and warned of the Ghosts that are to visit him!
The use of very strong contrasts in the picture are what makes it so dramatic. Rackham has a fantastic way of adding detail to his characters. The wizen hands, pattern on the dressing gown, the hundreds of chains on Marley, right the way down to the wrinkles on Scrooge’s bed socks.
You can feel yourself right there, and sharing some of Scrooge’s shock at seeing the ghost!
Angel playing a Flageolet Edward Burne Jones
At the celebration of Jesus’s birth, a host of Angels were there celebrating, so the story goes. Here we have an angel playing a horn like instrument (a flageolet) with a flurry of feathered wings and a swoosh of rich clothing.
It is the serine face that Burne Jones has given his angel that is the focal point of this painting. The angel seems to be playing the instrument with little to no effort, however, you just know the sound is sweet and melodious.
Many artists have portrayed angels in their work, but I often feel that no one does it better than Burne Jones; he captures the powerful quietness of the angel perfectly.
Joseph Clarke (1834-1926) Christmas Morning
This touching scene shows a Christmas morning not full of over indulgence, XBOXes, TV films and family arguments!
Here we have two small children enjoying a simple moment together. Snuggled together and having a simple morning breakfast in bed (with added sweet treats, by the look of it). There seems to be no hurry in their faces. Just happy, content joy.
Clarke has captured the look of children perfectly. The wide-eyed excitement, the affectionate leaning in of the girl and the way the children delicately hold their food all are spot on, and to emphasise the moment the children seem to have a ‘soft focus’ look to them.
It is very easy at this time of the year to forget the simple things. We all seem to be so busy and rushing around everywhere. There seems to be the constant need to find the perfect gift, create stunning decorations, and to eat and drink as much as possible.
I think I would like a Christmas a little more like the one in this picture!
Victorian Christmas (1991) Thomas Kinkade
Thomas Kinkade is woven into the fabric of North American Christmas as much as turkey and Father Christmas! His work is hugely popular and appeals to those who love that sentimentality that often surrounds Christmas.
Personally, I find them sugary sweet and a bit too much for me! But I can see their appeal.
This day and age we seem to be for ever Chasing a Christmas that is almost unobtainable. The never-ending list of things we need to purchase to make Christmas ‘Perfect’. There is a huge amount of build-up and then ‘pop’ it has all gone in one day.
Kinkade seems to have found a world where everything is simpler, and quite frankly more jolly! Children playing in the (near perfect) snow. Neighbours greeting each other with a cheery hello, waving and smiling. The house is immaculately decorated, the tree in the front garden couldn’t be more well shaped. Even the snowman in the front is exactly how you imagine a snowman to be. He has created a scene that is almost like a memory of an event that never happened.
If Christmas in the real world could be more like a ‘Kinkade Christmas’ it might not be a bad thing! Perhaps I can take the sentiments and emotions of this picture and bring them into my reality… that might be a good starting point!
Caroling in Ukraine (1864) Konstantin Trutovsky
This Russian artist has created a scene that is a slice of local interest as well as a striking picture of snow in moon light. The buildings in the background, the cloths they wear all place the picture in Russia. The moonlight shadows everywhere suggest a bright moon!
Here we have a group of individuals who are out carolling. Some are more interested in the singing than others! The group on the left seem to be more involved in fooling around and playing snowballs… vodka fuelled fun perhaps?
But the more you look at this picture the more there is to see. Each individual seems to have their own story.
The young couple in the middle of the picture are the ones that most interest me. His arm around her shoulder with a warming coat (and the way he looks at her) shows his affection. However, the young woman, although obviously enjoying and reciprocating the affection shown, glances directly at you!
She is inviting you into this picture and inviting you to join the scene. Which group you join then is up to you!
Victorian Christmas Card circa 1890s
It is often said that the Victorians invented the Christmas that we know so well now. Christmas trees, Carolling, cards, the turkey feast. Look at Dickens and The Christmas Carol!
One thing that the Victorians did very differently is Christmas Cards. Very differently! This image we see here of a horde of greedy children tucking into a huge Christmas pudding is one of the less strange cards that were doing the rounds at the time.
Ever popular were dead (murdered)/alive frogs, robin funerals, animals dressed as humans and grotesque portrayals of both animals and humans! (To see more just google ‘Victorian Christmas Cards’. But be warned, there are some very strange images!)
It makes you wonder why! I think the sense of humour was different, much darker and less cute and jolly. It’s interesting to think that the same time in our history that brought what we consider to be a ‘picture perfect’ Christmas also brought these images.
Perhaps it is time to review our view of the past!
Poster for the 1954 film “White Christmas”
Although not what you would traditionally call an art masterpiece, This poster has its place in art history as one of the most iconic posters of all time. The song White Christmas is, for many, the perfect Christmas song selling well over 100 million copies! The film was very popular (it is in fact a remake of the earlier film, Holiday inn) and features the song as its key moment.
The poster has everything film posters of the time needed:
Big names; Bing, Danny, Rosemary (yes …George’s mother!) and Vera. With a glorious photograph of them singing away, in Father/Mother Christmas outfits! The background is a picture-perfect snowy scene, complete with horse draw sleigh. The snow is gently falling down and smothering the landscape in a beautiful cloak of white. In big and bold it states VistaVision and Technicolor, both of which wowed the audiences of the time. There are even sparkles around the title of White Christmas (that was written in a font that was modern for the time with a strange sense of nostalgia – perfect!)
It’s all there!
With one purpose- to make you want to see it! And it worked $30million at the box office (about $300million equivalent today)
And today this trick is still working… just watch tv adverts, open and magazine, look at any advertising poster… They want you to buy ‘stuff’!
The more generous side of me says at least ‘White Christmas’ is something I actually DO want!
‘Happy Christmas, Grandma… We came in our new Plymouth!’ Norman Rockwell
It wouldn’t be a collection of Christmas pictures without at least one from Norman Rockwell. His work seems to epitomise the all-American family Christmas of the 1940s/50s. This picture is no exception.
Originally intended as an advert for the Plymouth Car, this picture is now much more. This family has arrived a Grandma’s house laden with gifts, the suggestion of snow outside (look at their boots), the wreath on the door, the feel that the house is full of decorations all add to the festive feel.
The family stand with great expectation for the arrival of Grandma on the staircase (their eyes are all raised upward, and we can just see the edge of the banister). It’s as if they are all waiting for the matriarchal lead of the family to arrive before the festivities begin – or indeed before they can even enter the house fully.
But it is the small boy at the front who steals the show! He ‘breaks the rules’ and comes in the house and shouts at the top of his voice! He’s not going to wait!
This picture is full of festive cheer. I hope I can find just a little of this over the next few days!
Old Trinity, New York, from Wall Street Guy Wiggins (1883-1962)
The people of New York go about their everyday business on Wall Street with a heavy snowfall swirling about them. The towering apartment blocks and skyscrapers offer no protection, in fact they seem to amplify the confusion of snow and wind as it blows around them.
The church at the end of the road looms out of this white/grey confusion almost ominously (I feel reassuringly) in its solid and unmoving way.
Should we forget where we are, and the importance of the location to this nation, numerous American flags flap wildly in the onslaught of the snowstorm.
This painting is amazing. Wiggins has managed to capture the real swirling movement of the wind and the snow, not caring what humans have done and are doing. He has cleverly used a very thin wash of white that he has swirled over the whole picture to emphasise this.
Sadly, the small version of the picture you see here gives this technique no justice. If you click on the picture above it will activate a link that will (at the time I publish this) give you a like to Sotheby’s website where you can zoom in on the painting by clicking it, and see how masterfully Wiggins has done this.
It’s well worth a look:
Nativity. Birth of Jesus (c.1304/6) Giotto
This Italian Renaissance painter has painted a beautiful and delicate scene of the nativity. There is much evidence of damage and wear and tear (considering its 700 years old it’s in pretty good shape really), but you can see the most important aspects clearly.
I am most pleased that the faces are intact, as it is these that I think tell the story best. The angels at the top of the picture are serene and happy, full of praise for what has just happened. I love the way they seem to appear out of thin air.
Down at the front we have a figure I assume to be Joseph. Many accounts of the story say that Joseph was not a young man, but one with age. There is a look of exhaustion and acceptance on this figure’s face.
But it is the faces of Mary and Jesus that most attract my attention in this painting. At no point could you say they are lifelike; this woman is far too calm to have just given birth, and the child look far too old. But it is the gentle affection of a mother to a child that is endearing.
And I love the way that both mother and child are gazing into each other’s eyes.
Merry old Santa Claus 1881 Thomas Nash
Warning… Adults only to read this!
Thomas Nash is widely believed to be the inventor of how we see Father Christmas now. Red suit, jolly face and rotund waist. He had worked previous images of the Jolly Man, however, it is in this one here that we see the Father Christmas that we now know.
Laden with toys for the Children, fabulous flowing beard and wild hair, even a sprig of holly in his hat; he is everything we want! (apart from perhaps the now outdated pipe in his hand!). It is said that it was even Nash that invented the idea that Father Christmas lived in Lapland and that you could send him a ‘wish list’ letter!
I find it amusing that Nash was a political cartoonist, harsh, unforgiving and well known for his ready satirical wit. (He even is attributed with creating the American Republican party Elephant logo).
I won’t spoil the magic of season by telling you that this image of Father Christmas is actually laden with political propaganda.
Let’s just enjoy Father Christmas for what he is now! A Jolly old man in a bright red suit, full of Christmas spirit and bringing joy to one and all!
Adoration of the Shepherds (1632) Matthias Stomer
Whatever your religious views are, today is a special day.
Christians all over the world celebrate the birth of Jesus.
For others it is about family and friends, for presents and celebrating with food and drink.
For some it is not a happy day – spare a moment to think of them.