Countdown to Christmas 2022
In the lead up to Christmas I’m going to share a piece of artwork each day.
Le Coin- my studio with Christmas Tree Francis Cook
Francis Cook (both a Sir and Baronet!) was a British artist who has captured a wonderful scene of his Christmas Tree splendidly displayed in his studio. Popping up all over the place I can see Christmas trees through people’s windows, and I suspect after this weekend there will be a lot more, including mine.
However, for a lot of us things are a bit tough at the moment. The ‘cost of living crisis’ has cast quite a cloud over the everything. But I think the magic of Christmas is going to shine through!
Cook has painted his tree in all its cluttered and messy glory. It looks like he has had fun both decorating it and capturing its image in this painting. I love the way he has made the tinsel sparkle and glint in the light. You can feel the fluffy, folded fabric around the bottom of the tree has been heaped up to cover over an unsightly bucket that is holding the tree.
Cook’s tree is full of Christmas magic. I hope that if you have a tree up in your home it is full of the same magic, and that this magic manages to shine through any clouds there are around at the moment.
View of Roof tops (effect of snow) Gustave Caillebotte 1878/79
We haven’t had any snow this winter and may well not do with the way the weather is all over the place this year. But there is a definite chill in the air, and with a bit of imagination you could almost believe it’s around the corner!
Here we see the rooftops of Paris well over a hundred years ago. The artist was enthralled by the way that a layer of snow transformed the rooftop view from his balcony, giving Paris a totally new perspective. Caillebotte was interested in the growing art of photography, and this may have inspired the way that his painting looks; lots of grey tones, interesting angles and urban subject matter.
What I love about the painting is that although initially it looks as if it is just a collection of grey tones, and a fairly dull subject matter, there is a lot more going on. The greys are actually a wide collection of different (albeit soft and subtle) colours, demonstrating the artists amazing observational skills and control of the media. And, for me, I want to know more about the people that we can’t see in this painting – the people behind the shutters and down the roads and alleyways just out of sight, what they are up to and how they are readying themselves for Christmas.
I may not really have it now, but paintings like this one make me feel as if I am looking out my window at a recent fall of snow. And that always makes me feel like Christmas is coming!
Franz Krüger Der Christbaum (The Christmas Tree)
In this wonderful painting by the German artist Krüger we see a young lad out with his father (or grandfather) choosing his Christmas tree and chopping it down to take home and decorate – getting the Christmas festivities underway.
Although I’m not sure we need to take an axe to the local supermarket, many of us will be doing the same this weekend!
Krüger was well-known as a lifelike painter of wealthy members of society and specialized in painting horses and their riders (his nick name was Pferde-Krüger (Horse-Krüger), so this by doing this scene he has strayed away from his normal subject matter. But I’m really please he did!
There is a beautiful charm, and simplicity of it all. The snow gently settled of the branches look as if they can be tapped off giving their dog a frosty shower. The young boy is all geared up to drag the tree home on his sledge. And to me it looks as if the sun is just setting – suggesting a jolly evening of decorating and festivities.
My tree goes up today and, after a visit to the attic with a torch in hand, rather than a woodland glade with an axe, I’m looking forward to decorating the tree and my Christmas festivities beginning!
Rosa Bonnheur Deer and Doe in a Snowy Landscape 1833
Here we have a lovely painting by one of the greatest wildlife painters of the 19th Century. Bonnheur’s work was greatly loved by many of her time (Queen Victoria was an admirer) and she painted a wide variety of animals. She has been largely forgotten by art history, which I think is a shame. Bonnheur was somewhat rebellious for her time and would smoke, dress in men’s clothing, and cut her hair short; she was dismissive of men, and once said the only males she had time for were the bulls she painted!
There is a wonderful calmness over this painting. You can almost ‘hear’ the silence! The deer and row seem to have noticed something in the distance, but not something that worries them enough to cause them to bolt. It is the steady calm in the painting that draws me to it! I want to be there, to be part of the calm.
In the lead up to Christmas it’s all too easy to be swept up in all the excitement and business. Sometimes we need to find a quiet moment, a quiet place and just ‘be there’. I think Bonnheur has captured that place and moment perfectly.
The Taiko (Drum) Bridge and the Yuhi Mound at Meguro Utagawa Hiroshige 1857
When I was younger, I never associated Japan with snow. I always had images of it being hot and humid, with unforgiving heat. But Japan is quite used to heavy snow in certain areas.
Here we have an expertly executed woodblock print by what is often regarded as one the greatest Japanese artist of his time. Hiroshige has captured an image of ordinary Japanese folk going about their everyday business – in a snowy environment. The trees are laden with snow and there is a layer of snow all over. Look at the way he has created the snow heavy bamboo at the front of the picture. If you look at the figures you can feel the effort they are putting in just to move about. Up in the sky there is a lovely ambiguity – are we seeing stars in the sky or the next flurry of snow falling? The rich blue river winding through the picture adds to the strength of the whole image.
I find this a fascinating picture; one I can keep returning to and seeing new things or thinking about in a different way. For me, that is just what I want in a piece of art.
Jan Beerstraten - Warmond Castle in a Winter Landscape (between)1661-1665
Wow! Look at that sky… then look at the castle! It’s a fight between who is the star of this painting, the sky or the castle! This Dutch painter has captured an amazing scene here. The sky is dark and slightly ominous, heavy with the next dump of snow. Almost looking like a storm is about to hit. But if you look at the castle it seems to be strangely lit up … it’s that really weird moment where you have a sunshine burst and foul weather at the same time, creating all sorts of amazing lighting effects.
The way that Beerstraten has used flashes of pure white all over the castle (and most strikingly on the branches of the tree on the dark sky background) give this picture the icy, frozen sparkle.
And then, as it so often is of Dutch landscape painting of this time, it is the individual people in the picture that slowly draw us into the scene. They are going about their business; skating, having afternoon walk, chatting and working. As we look at them, we are pulled into this cold and frosty day.
It makes me want to wrap my scarf around me, pull my woolly hat tighter on my head and zip up my coat to the top… and then enjoy the walk by the frozen river. What about you?
Jacek Malczewski Annunciation 1923
This is the part of the Bible story where the young Mary is told by the Angel Gabriel that she is going to have a baby. And not just any baby – The Son of God.
Initially this Polish artist looks as if he has just painted a couple of friends having a chat, one having said something slightly shocking, the other reacting. The décor of the room (window and curtains) place the event in more modern times.
However, the way that Gabriel (on the left), and Mary hold their hands, adds a spiritual dimension to the dynamics of the pair. I love the open cheerfulness of Gabriel’s face, and the way that Mary’s face shows the seriousness of the message.
Malczewski’s use of light is masterful. If you look at Mary’s face you can almost feel the radiant glow coming from the Archangel. And yet still there is also a light source from behind her lighting her vibrant head of orange hair, as well as Gabriel’s face.
The thing I love is how Malczewski has painted what looks like a ruffled bed sheet or a seat in the background… or is it actually the set of wings of the Archangel.
This is the start of the story that has, whatever your religious beliefs, influenced the western world hugely, and has brought us all the joys of Christmas. I think this interpretation of the scene is wonderful.
Frosty Morning. Pink Rays Igor Grabar 1906
Where I am, we have our first really hard frost. The temperatures have plummeted, and there is a white frosting over everything I can see outdoors. It has a magical effect making even the most ordinary look beautiful.
So, I thought I had to have a ‘frosty’ painting today!
Grabar has an interesting place in Russian art history, as well as being a skilled artist he was publisher, historian and restorer of art, and in the latter part of his life he was involved in the controversial discussion about how Russia could be compensated for the way Nazi Germany looted many art treasures.
This Russian artist has beautifully captured that moment when the rising sun causes all the frost to glint, not in a sharp white, but with the russet pinks that come with the sunrise. The cluster of trees on the right cast a collection of pale blue shadows across the frozen landscape; the shapes suggesting the rays of the sun. Don’t ever let anyone ever tell you snow is white! The deep darkness of the trees strongly contrasts the shimmering beauty of the snow, almost like an animal walking the fileds.
This morning I hope you caught a glimpse of the beauty frost can bring to an ordinary world.
Madame Molé-Reymond by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun 1786
All wrapped up and ready to go out into the cold! What an amazing portrait! This is a painting of an actress of the time (Madame Molé-Reymond). Quite a star in those days – with her fair share of scandal (it even happened in those days!).
And who better to paint your portrait if you were a starlet than the preferred portait painter of Marie Antoinette? (Vigée Le Brun painted over 30 pictures of this ill fated Queen!)
The actress looks ready for the cold all wrapped up, stunning hat, and look at that hand warmer! It looks so soft and warm! Vigée Le Brun has masterfully painted all the different textures of all the fabrics. The glint of the light on the fabric of her dress is amazing; you can almost here is rustle as you look at the painting.
But it is the face that is the focal point of the picture. Vigée Le Brunhas managed to make this beautiful actress look as if she is out in the cold and has just been caught walking through the park or skating on the frozen lake.
I’m not sure I will be looking quite so good as I wrap up to go out in the cold today! But if I had Viée Le Brun painting me, I’d probably look stunning.
Christmas - Grandma Moses 1958
Grandma Moses (Anna Moses) was a much beloved folk artist in America. She did not start painting in earnest until her late 70s and gained notoriety with her ability to capture the charm and naivety of a simpler view of American life, and was greatly admired by many, achieving multiple awards and recognition.
Initial this may be surprising, if you look at this painting you might say it looks like it has been painted by a child. However, the more you look at the details and the composition it becomes apparent there is a lot more to the painting than you might see at first. Look at the layout of the buildings roads, people and the countryside. The way the individual people are poised, the interaction between them, and their interaction with the world they are in.
I think the best way to describe the style is child-like but not childish.
It’s not difficult to understand why Grandma Moses’s work was so loved, especially scenes like this. It captures all the ‘best bits’ of a wonderful winter’s day as Christmas day approaches. It is full of happiness.
Do spend some time looking at all the individual characters that inhabit this scene. It is full of charm and warm affection! Just the sort of sentiments we need as we get ready for the big day!
Fox Hunt - Winslow Homer 1893
This striking painting is not subject matter for the faint hearted. The fox, this fabulous splash of orange colour on the starkness of the white snow, is being pursued. He struggles through the deep snow, looking about this cold, unforgiving (albeit beautiful), landscape trying to find shelter, with no luck. In contrast to the whiteness of the snow we see a dark shadow swooping across the top right of the painting. The fox is not being hunted by red tunic wearing horsemen with a pack of hounds, but a flock of half-starved crows. Not a good day for the fox, but potentially a good day for the crows. As I said, not for the faint hearted.
Although the subject matter is far from beautiful the painting is stunning and Homer has created a scene of huge drama, the composition is masterful. Seeing the hunt from this angle emphasizes the apprehension. The contrast of colours, a glimpse of his beloved sea in the distance, and even the loan berries on the left-hand side all adding to the tension.
I wanted to include this picture as a reminder to myself that despite all that I am getting up to in the leadup to Christmas; trees, tinsel, parties, shopping and the like, there is an unseen world happening not far from me. Nature continues, sometimes unpleasantly, totally unaware of this man-made festival.
The Christmas Table Margaret Thomas
Thomas has created a wonderful painting. She was a well know still life artist of the time, and this collection of objects allows her to demonstrate her skills beautifully. Painted in the early 1950s it reflects the times with jolly but austere decorations and a small collection of gifts and cards.
For me it captures the joy of a simple Christmas. It’s all too easy to feel you need the biggest tree, most expensive presents and all the trimmings and trappings modern advertising constantly tells us we must have if we are to ‘keep up with the Joneses”.
We don’t need all this. I’m going to try and keep it simple this year!
St Joseph seeks lodgings in Bethlehem – James Tissot (between 1886 -1894)
Tissot was a leading light in the artworld whilst he was alive. His paintings were widely respected, and in the later years of his life he produced many paintings of the life of Jesus, from the Bible stories. Tissot travelled the area around Israel and produced a multitude of preparation drawings and paintings to add authenticity to his finished paintings.
Here we see the next part of the Christmas Story. Having travelled the long distance to Bethlehem for a census, the then heavily pregnant Mary and Joseph look for somewhere to stay. The town is full with others traveling for the census, and all accommodation is full.
Joseph is pleading in desperation with a landlady of a hostel, hoping to find somewhere for them to rest. In contrast we find a quiet and accepting Mary resigned to the fact there is nowhere to be found.
Perhaps this is the place where someone offered them the lowly stable?
This painting is made with opaque watercolour over a graphite pencil drawing, a technique Tissot has mastered. The scene has an authentic ‘snapshot’ feel due to his thorough research. Although a hundred years old I think it still looks fresh and lively. A bit like the actual story… very old, but still being told over and over.
Bordalo Il Our Gift to Mother Nature 2016
That’s not art, it’s a pile of rubbish!
Bordalo Il creates amazing sculptural pieces of art, usually of animals, entirely out of rubbish that has been discarded. If you haven’t seen them do have a search online. His work is constantly bringing an environmental agenda to the forefront.
Here we have, yes, literally a pile of rubbish. Spray painted in a vandalizing graffiti style to look (as much as it can) a silvery Christmas present wrapped up in a red bow. It is a gift … but one that no one wants! Look at the title he has given it: “Our Gift to Mother Nature”
Every year this Season of Good Cheer we purchase huge volumes of ‘stuff’ that just ends up being thrown into the rubbish... Some is recycled, but vast volumes of it end up in landfill – what a gift to Mother Nature!
Every year I say to myself I am going to buy less ‘rubbish’, every year I do a little better… but I still am tempted by shiny things!
Perhaps next year I will be better!
Christmas Day in the London Bridge YMCA Canteen Clare Atwood 1920
In this scene, the country was still reeling after the shock of the First World War. However, the Christmas spirit is strong (look at the size of that piece of meat and Christmas pudding at the front of the painting) and the service men are enjoying their feast with great gusto!
Flags of allied countries are festooned all over the hall to decorate the event. There are even guests of honour! (The full title of the piece is: Christmas Day in the London Bridge YMCA Canteen: HRH Princess Helena Victoria, Chairman of the Ladies' Auxiliary Committee of the YMCA is standing by Mrs Norrie, CBE, Superintendant of the canteen. Miss Ellen Terry is sitting by the table) Atwood is best known as a portrait artist, so these guests are in fact the reason for the painting.
Many, if not all, the servicemen at this celebration would have fought in the trenches and have lost many friends and relations, in appalling circumstances.
Events like this would have given them a moment to gather, be jolly, have fun, but also reflect of what has happened to them in the recent past.
Christmas is a good time to do this.
In the Snow Carl Larsson 1910
It wouldn’t be a Countdown to Christmas picture collection without at least one picture from the Swedish artist Larsson. He has the ability to portray idyllic family scenes, full of love and warmth. (Despite his own child hood being far from happy!)
This watercolour painting is unusual as so much of it is just white! And even the scenery in the far distance is very pale and almost fading away. But is undeniably a Swedish background! Oxblood red buildings, meandering river, a cluster of trees and even the midsummer pole all devoid of decoration, suggesting this scene is at the exact opposite to midsummer, midway through the calendar!
And there in the middle wearing bright traditional clothing are two smiling girls, possibly sisters, holding hands trudging through the snow. What Larsson is very good at is engaging you, as you look at the painting. If you look carefully the girl on the right is looking straight at you and smiling. Pulling you into the painting and inviting you to share the experience.
I may have had all the snow I am going to have this Christmas time, but I can still share this landscape with these two girls.
Rosedale Peter Doig 1991
Scottish born artist Doig grew up in Canada in the Toronto area. There is a part of Toronto called Rosedale where the houses are grand, and some are largely screened from prying eyes by natural coverage of trees and bush.
It is one of these houses that Doig is examining. In a flurry of snow, Doig peers through the trees at the property. He worked from his own photographs, hence the cinematic feel. The painting is large (almost 2meter by 2.4meter) and gives the onlooker a feeling that they are actually there, peering through the trees with Doig.
His choice of strong colours only highlights the snow, especially the drifts of white dots across the canvas, and white patches of snow sticking to the tree in places. The similar colours of the trees and the building help build the visual chaos. What adds to this is that he painstakingly painted the house in between the trees, adding to the voyeuristic feeling of finding the ‘hidden’ house.
I love this chaotic feeling; my eye is continually flitting over the painting finding new things to look at. I am constantly amazed at the detail and precision of the brush strokes. A painting of snow that is worth returning to over and over, like many of Doig’s pieces.
Tired Salesgirl on Christmas Eve Norman Rockwell 1947
Norman Rockwell is often attributed with developing the idea of the ‘all American’ homely Christmas. His wonderfully evocative paintings of Christmas are full of humour, charm, and attention to detail.
Exhausted, and dazed we see a sales assistant from the toy department in a large store. Christmas Eve has been busy. If you look carefully, you can see the notice on the wall saying the store closes at 5.00pm… and then look at her watch...5.05pm! It looks like she is sitting in the aftermath of a huge storm!
It is the details that I love in Rockwell’s paintings. The pencil stuck in her hair, her shoes kicked off to relieve her feet after standing all day, the price tags with a jolly Father Christmas, and the pink cuddly toy in the right display cabinet… almost staring at the salesgirl in surprise.
So, as you storm around the shops in the next few days scooping up all those last moment bits for Christmas, spare a thought for the people serving you, it’s a busy time for them too!
The Rabbit’s Christmas Party: Christmas Dinner Beatrix Potter ca.1892
The much-loved author who wrote wonderful tales about the likes of Peter Rabbit, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and Squirrel Nutkin created four lovely pictures of the Rabbits having a Christmas Party. These drawings were a present to her Aunt, Lucy Roscoe – what a gift!
Here we see the Rabbits enjoying their Christmas Dinner. I love the delicate detail that Potter has put into every aspect of the piece; the way that every rabbit has its own personality, the food that is good enough to eat, the holly garlands that festoon the walls, even the stone flooring is stunning – it is all beautiful and charming!
What a happy picture.
Kolyada Olga Pilyuhina
This wonderful handmade tapestry by the Ukrainian artist Pilyuhina is full of joy and life.
Kolyada, I am led to believe, is a period of time for celebration, singing and having fun, visiting other people’s houses and generally having a good time in the Christmas period.
Taking many months to complete her tapestries are full of vibrant colours and subtle shadings. I love the way that the snow has soft tones of blues, sharply contrasting the traditional clothing. The bursts of colour in the night sky show the star and moon brilliantly.
As we know things in the Ukraine have not been good recently, here’s hoping that the joyous nature of this tapestry can return to these troubled lands.
Deflated Jesse Rieser
The urban photographer Rieser was fascinated how Americans celebrate the festival of Christmas. A huge country with a wide variation of secular and religious celebrations. Rieser captured all aspects of Christmas, but he focused on aspects that are quirky and unusual.
This photograph, Deflated, shows the ‘morning after’ of a huge collection of inflatable Christmas decorations. During the nighttime this display would be spectacular (if you like that sort of thing) but during the day The figures of Santa, the Grinch, nutcracker soldiers, gingerbread houses, and numerous others, are flat and draped over the house. They look dead, injured, wounded…. Deflated!
Over this Christmas period I think there will be a touch of ‘the morning after’ for all of us. I think it is part of the way Christmas goes!
Christmas Eve, 1932 (First night of the Pantomime at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield) Roberta Louise Jennings
I’m off to the pantomime today (“Oh no you’re not…. Oh yes, I am!”) I’m looking forward to this great Christmas tradition, that is almost uniquely British. It is going to make this Christmas special.
So, what better painting to choose for today than this wonderfully charming painting by Jennings. She has captured the charm and buzz of an excited crowd of people eager to see the pantomime ‘Dick Whittington’. The warm glow of the theater’s lights and glisten of the reflection on the road are inviting and warm and make you want to join the crowd. I love the little details; the old couple in the center of the painting, the two children all dressed smartly, the violinist hurrying to the theatre and those arriving by cab (and on foot!)
One of my strongest childhood memories are my visits to the local Pantomime. The fun and excitement of live theatre has stayed with me all my life. For me Pantomime is part of Christmas, and I can’t wait to be shouting out “he’s behind you” once again.
The Spirit of Christmas in Regent Street William Heath Robinson 1928
Heath Robinson was best known for his drawings of wildly elaborate and humorously absurd contraptions that achieved the simplest of tasks in the most complex of ways. (If you don’t know them do look them up!)
But here we have a different type of scene – but still packed with his wild humour. In a previous drawing in the series a strong gust of wind grabbed a collection of mistletoe and holly and started scattering it all over London.
If you look carefully, you can see all sorts of amorous antics developing! Add into the mix a biplane dropping Christmas Crackers and the general bustle of London a few days before Christmas and you have this wonderfully mad scene.
It’s Heath Robinson’s attention to detail that appeals to me. The simplified accuracy of Reagent Street, the way every individual in the picture has their own character, the colours and shapes all working together.
There is so much simple cheer in the picture! What more could you want at Christmas time?
Christmas Cottage Thomas Kinkade 1991
Thomas Kinkade, often known as ‘painter of light’, is a north American institution. He at one point he claimed that 1 in 20 of American households had a print of his work hanging in their home, not to mention around the world. He perfected the art of marketing his Art!
I used to be very dismissive of his paintings… but over the years I have grown to see them for what they are; wonderfully atmospheric, beautifully executed, fabulously sentimental, and horrendously over the top…but they are often the Christmas pictures that we need to cheer us up!
This painting captures the mood of a perfect Christmas; the snow, the Christmas lights, a perfectly shaped tree, a path leading to the door … and above all the warmth of lights inside the house.
I think all of us, secretly or openly, want to have Christmas in a Kinkade painting!
The Adoration of the Shepherds by Guido Reni (c 1640)
The first set of visitors that Jesus had were the shepherds. What a wonderful painting for a wonderful day!
I hope that you have a happy Christmas, and for those who find this Christmas difficult I hope you have a peaceful Christmas.