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.