Countdown to Christmas 2023
In the lead up to Christmas I’m going to share a piece of artwork each day.
Christmas Tree viewed through Red Curtain - Charles Mahoney (c1952)
It’s that time of year again! Christmas trees are popping up all over the place. Some houses have had them up for weeks! I like to wait until at least December has started, usually a week or two in. What I love about Christmas trees is that everyone is different… and very personal!
Mahoney has painted this wonderful, loose picture of a tree in a family home. It is full of charm and simple beauty. The ‘red curtain’ gives it a certain amount of theatricality and makes it look like it is ‘performing’ for anyone that wants to watch - showing off the creative skills of the decorator.
As I travel around and see trees in the windows of houses, some boldly on display and others peeking through half closed curtains, I think of those that decorated the tree. Each tree is showing off the creative skills that went into producing the tree! I think it’s the main reason I love the trees - so much creativity all over the place!
The Magpie Claude Monet 1868/69
With the landscape smothered in a thick layer of snow the black dot of a magpie stands out clearly perched on the rickety fence. Monet has captured the dense solidness of a heavy snowfall with his usual thorough understanding of how the light plays on every aspect of this stunning landscape. Subtle blues and purples give the snow it’s shadows and, especially in the trees on the right of the picture, the paint gives the feeling that the snow it is smeared onto the branches.
There has been a little flurry of snow this year already – but not enough in my opinion. I am always hoping for a heavy snowfall similar to the one we see in this painting. I love it. The strange, peaceful silence that comes from a heavy snowfall it is incredibly calming and peaceful (assuming I don’t have to go anywhere or do anything!). Who knows if we will have that sort of snow this year. But I love this painting because I always experience that feeling of calm when I revisit it.
I hope you do too!
The First Christmas Card John Callcott Horsley 1843
Henry Cole, a prominent Victorian of the time, noticed that unanswered mail was piling up at Christmas time. The Uniform Penny Postal service was in its early days, and Christmas became a busy time. He hit on the idea of having a uniform ‘card’ to send to all those he wanted to wish season’s greetings to so there was not the need to write lengthy letters. He turned to his artist friend Horsley to help him with the design. The rest, as they say, is history.
The card shows three generations of the Cole family in good spirits in the middle surrounded by images of charity and good will. I am just about to start writing and sending my own Christmas Cards. Although it is a bit of a chore at times (and the postal costs are considerably more than a penny!) it’s something I love to do!
Each card is like a targeted bundle of joy and good will, aimed specifically at a recipient! As I write them it gives me an opportunity to spend time thinking of particular individuals who have made my life some thing special! If you haven’t written yours yet, and are dreading the task, try and have fun doing so – and enjoy spending a moment with each individual you send them to.
It's only once a year!
The Christmas Hamper - Robert Braithwaite Martineau, ca. 1850
I’ve just made my Christmas Cake! Lots of fun mixing the ingredients that feel a bit of a luxury! A whole block of butter, lots of dried fruit (soaked in appropriate liquids), more of those liquids, an assortment of spices that suddenly make the kitchen smell like Christmas, and a few other bits and pieces (I’m not giving away my recipe!)
So, I really felt I should try and find a painting with a Christmas Cake in it. There are lots with Christmas Puddings ... but none I could find with cake! So, I thought this one would be the next best thing.
Christmas Hampers full of exciting and wonderful Christmas food (possibly including Christmas Cake?) are nothing new and here we have Martineau capturing the moment of great excitement as a family opens up their hamper to find out what they have received. One of the children reads a note, presumably telling who it is from, other children look at the toys, sweets and other contents, as the father proudly displays the main part of the up coming feast!
Not all of us will be celebrating this season in elaborate style, some of may not even celebrate Christmas Day. But whatever you do over the next few weeks or so, I do think it is worth spoiling yourself with a bit of a treat - perhaps some cake!
You are worth it!
Annunciation John Collier
This is the opening part of the Christmas Story. The Annunciation. The Angel Gabriel came to Mary, and asked if she would be the mother of Jesus, the son of God.
Collier has decided to paint Mary in contemporary clothing, a standard tradition for annunciation paintings. This young teenage Mary stands, homework in hand, laces untied, slightly gob smacked at the arrival of an angel on her doorstep. The angel has brought a gift of a lily, a traditional flower to show the purity of Mary. We even have Mary in her traditional blue colour! The Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove perched on a nearby roof, waits patiently to see what her answer is.
According to the Christmas story she says yes… and the whole thing is underway! She must have been a very brave young lady!
Oldtoys Pyotr Kozlov
In Russia ‘Christmas’ trees are traditionally put up for New Year rather than 25th December. However, they look exactly the same. With lights, garlands, and decorations. Kozlov has painted a picture of the old-fashioned glass baubles that you might actually find anywhere in the world.
And what a masterful painting it is! You can feel the fragile nature of the glass just by looking at it. And the reflections they are stunning- they look so shiny! It reminds me of a collection of similar glass ornaments I had on our family tree as a child. Each year we would be saddened as, one by one, they cracked or were dropped and shattered. Looking at this painting I can actually imagine one of my childhood baubles in my hand; the super light, delicate and wonderfully shiny nature of them – and the feeling of responsibility that went with it.
I hope to decorate my tree soon. Sadly, none of the original glass decorations exist. However, I have new glass ones, that are as special - in different ways. It is funny how decorating the tree is so full of memories of Christmases past. I love it!
Father Christmas PichiAvo
PichiAvo are two artists who work closely together to create huge urban graffiti murals. These pieces of work usually have a focus on classical art, with a focus on how traditional classical sculpture could be used in their murals. They are a wonder to behold, often occupying the whole sides of large apartment blocks and buildings.
This mural is a bit different. Still using their hyper realistic style, and on a large scale. But the subject matter is slightly different not their usual classical reference to Greek gods and goddesses! Father Christmas is looking out at you, eyebrow ever so slightly raised. It’s almost as if he is questioning you. Perhaps waiting for the answer to the “naughty or nice?” question, or just questioning your choice of decorations this year!
Either way you know he is going to be there on Christmas night bringing hope and joy to all.
Perhaps PichiAvo have not actually strayed that far away from their usual theme? Could Father Christmas be a modern-day version of the gods and goddesses of ancient times?
Late Afternoon New York Winter 1900 Frederick Childe Hassam
This American artists has captured the dense heavy blanket of a snowy blizzard. With a mass of pale blue with daubes of soft colour and touches of pure white he has created a wonderful picture that recreates the sense of disorientation and confusion that comes with such a blizzard.
The horses and carriages struggle on, as those traveling on foot force their way through the snow. Tall buildings loom out of the gloom; even their bright lights offer no real comfort in the snowfall.
I doubt I will experience snow like this over the Christmas period (if indeed any!) but this painting makes me shiver just looking at it. Part of me also wishes I was there – there is something about a heavy snowfall, even a blizzard, that I find exciting and exhilarating – I think that is why I love this painting so much.
City scenes. Before Christmas, Winchester Anton Pieck 1960
Quite why the Dutch artist Pieck, famed for his fairy tale like illustrations, and being principal designer for the famous Dutch theme park Efteling, should end up creating this wonderful Winchester theme, I don’t really know.
But I’m glad he did!
Having walked past the Butter Cross in Winchester many times, I don’t think I have seen it, and the surrounding buildings, look so spectacular! Pieck has given it a beautiful fantasy like feeling, in soft, but sharp, colours. Contrasting to this is the amusing collection of characters mid Christmas shop, amazed and bemused by the fabulous (and a little ostentatious) motor car buzzing through the middle of the town.
I just love the look of total disregard that both the owners of the car have as they trundle through the crowd, their car fully laden with the ‘complete Christmas’; goose, tree, presents, bottles of drink… but lacking the most important part… cheerfulness!
In the bustle of getting ready for the big day its so easy to forget the one thing that is essential. This weekend as I get things ready, I must try and remember to be a bit more cheerful!
Mr Fezziwig’s Ball John Leech 1843
Leech was a top satirical cartoonist of the time and was selected by Charles Dickens to produce several illustrations for his story ‘A Christmas Carol’. In this scene we see the Christmas festivities at Scrooge’s former employer Mr Fezzywig. Bursting with wonderful characters and lively action (just like this part of the book itself) the scene is captured beautifully.
Just look at how much fun Mr and Mrs Fezzywig are having - such a jolly soul! There are lovers kissing under the mistletoe, elderly relatives watching on, and a particularly sour faced young man on the far left. I especially love the fiddle player perched high up above the proceedings.
What the illustrator has managed to do is visualize the imaginations of Dicken’s descriptive writing. It is a book full of rich, vivid story telling – a true Christmas classic. Instead of watching the film versions (although the Muppets/Alastair Sim did an excellent job of it), why not find a copy of it somewhere and try reading it over this Christmas time?
Fun in the snow Morzine France Andrew Macara
Wow what a wonderful view. This stunning painting really captures the sparkle of a bright crisp snowy afternoon! You can also tell how much fun those on the sledges are having. The slope being just big enough to have fun but not so big as to be scary!
What is so noticeable in the painting is the use of blue for the shadows on the snow. Macara really is a master of these dramatic shadows! And the way he uses daubes of pure white to bring out the highlights is really superb.
I know I’ve said it before, and I will no doubt say it again, I love the snow! This painting makes me want to pull on my boots, slip on my coat and hat and go and join in the fun!
Snowboarder Peter Doig 1996
Scottish born artist Doig is a firm favorite when it comes to snow pictures. His painting technique suggests the softness of snow beautifully, and this monochrome painting is no exception. Full of mood and atmosphere it is reminiscent of an old black and white snapshot. I love the vagueness and the suggestive quality.
Doig himself said: “I often paint scenes with snow because snow somehow has this effect of drawing you inwards and is frequently used to suggest retrospection and nostalgia and make-believe”
I think Christmas time is the perfect time for nostalgia and make-believe!
Detail from Portinari Alterpiece Hugo van der Goes 1475-6
This scene that we see today is only a small part of a larger piece of work. The large piece was a triptych (a picture made up of three individual paintings). This triptych was designed to be placed behind an altar in a church. It was commissioned by a wealthy man of the time - Tommaso Portnari, hence the name of the piece.
The triptych depicts the part of the Christmas story where the shepherds come to visit the baby Jesus, and in the background are other parts of the Christmas story. Showing the whole story in one picture.
The image today is tucked away in the far background of the triptych, (google will help you find the whole triptych), and if you don’t look carefully, you might miss this wonderful caring scene.
Heavily pregnant Mary is being helped by Joseph over a particularly difficult part of their journey to Bethlehem. The donkey that has been Mary’s ride has been abandoned, perhaps Mary and Joseph are worried it may lose its footing in the rocky environment. Joseph is supporting and caring for Mary and the unborn baby.
I love this part of the story which is often forgotten about. The long treacherous journey to Bethlehem must have been so difficult – but together Mary and Joseph managed it. The couple overcame adversity and worked together to overcome the problems they faced as new parents!
Some of us are fortunate enough to have others who can support them in difficult times, some face problems alone. I think this Christmas I will try and do what I can to support all around me as best that I can.
Christmas Tree Confetti Karl Larsson 1896
It would be impossible, in my opinion, to have a Christmas collection of art work without a painting by Larsson. And this one is wonderful.
He captures the beautiful simplicity of a child decorating a Christmas tree beautifully. The girl is attaching real candles with clips on to the tree (none of this untangling wires!).
Her flowing apron of oranges and reds contrasts nicely with the green of the tree and the floral elements of the rest of her outfit mirror the simple decorations on the tree.
I love that she is standing on a chair to gain height so there is no stretching … it all looks so effortless and gentle.
Having decorated a few trees this season already I know that effortless and gentle are not words I would use to describe the way I did it! In fact, most of my Christmas preparation could not be described as effortless or gentle!
Perhaps we approach Christmas in the wrong way, and we should be a little more like this girl in the picture. She seems to be enjoying it!
Illustration to the fairy tale "The Nut Cracker"- Nika Nika Georgievna Golts
Here is a wonderfully charming illustration by a Russian artist famed for his illustrations of fairy tales. And, here we have a scene from the Nutcracker. We see the little girl playing with her favorite toy – the simple nutcracker soldier!
In the background we see others far more impressed with the elaborate castle populated with clockwork people! Her brother plays on an impressive rocking horse. There is no sign of the Mouse King… yet!
We see nutcracker dolls all over the place at Christmas (not castles and rocking horses!) … simplicity seems to be the winner! Perhaps this is how Christmas should be.. Simple not elaborate!
Holly Mary Delany (c.1786)
Incredibly this wonderful holly sprig is a collage made of different coloured papers! Delany was an artist who created almost a thousand intricate, botanically correct, collages (or ‘paper mosaiks’ as she called them) of flowers and plants. Carefully observing the plant, then cutting freehand the necessary shades of thin tissue paper, and delicately pasting them onto a black paper background.
She was a fascinated by the way that plants looked and was always collecting specimens and using them for her work. She was widely respected by botanists, artists and indeed many influential people, to the extent that when she became old and unable to continue with her art due to failing eyesight King George III gave her a house and a sizable pension until she died!
Today might be the day I take a moment to admire the simple beauty of nature amongst all the bustle of Christmas. I hope you find time too. I think it will be worth it.
Little girl looking downstairs at Christmas party Norman Rockwell 1964
It’s high time we had a painting from Norman Rockwell on this Christmas Countdown!
Many say that he captured (or perhaps invented) the view of the perfect Christmas – If you don’t know his work it’s well worth having a Google to see more! His work is full of Christmas charm and spirit!
And this one is no different. The little girl has decided that sitting at the top of the stairs looking down on the party is better than going to bed! I don’t blame her. I remember my parents having wonderful parties, and I would sneak a peek at what was going on downstairs. It all seemed so exciting and adventurous.
The holly wreath sets the scene perfectly and pale colours of the crowd of guests (all of which are images inspired by friends and family of the artist) at the bottom of the stairs gives it an almost dreamlike quality. One day, when she is a grown up, she would be allowed to join them! A true Christmas wish!
Pinus Sylvestris Louise Bourgeois c.1943
Who better to have on a Christmas list of artists than an artist that was actually born on Christmas day (1911)! The French-American artist Bourgeois is best known for her monumental sculptures, however, like many artists she made her own Christmas cards! And this is one of them.
An analytical study of the Christmas tree! It’s hight, dissections of its seeds, and a cross section looking from above, all viewing the tree from a different way. It was very like Bourgeois, she was very analytical and focused on seeing the world in a different way than those around her.
It was her way of responding to a tree that is, as she said, “so very beautiful”. I tend to agree with her!
Akabane Bridge at Shiba in the Snow - 芝赤羽はしの雪中, Shiba Akabane Hashi no Secchu 1859
It wasn’t until fairly recently in my life that I realised that it actually snowed in Japan! I always thought of it as a sweltering hot country, with lots of sunshine. But no, it has spectacular snow cover!
This snow makes for wonderful woodblock print images, or Ukiyo-e. Very often these Ukiyo-e are of great scenes, and people, of beauty. But they also portray life as it really was.
I love the humour in this one! It’s like a snapshot of a Christmas comedy movie.
Amongst the beauty and splendor of the snow scene we see a comic mishap! The man at the front is finding that although wearing geta shoes (traditional Japanese wooden shoes with elevated ‘teeth’ to lift the wearer up out of the snow/mud/rubbish) may lift your feet out of the snow, they are not as stable as he would like.
….and, in a most undignified manner, over he goes!... and his geta goes flying into the face of another crossing the bridge! Pure classic slapstick comedy.
And all the time the snow is falling in such a beautiful way!
It’s very easy in this busy pre-Christmas time to miss the humour of the season. Perhaps it’s time to find a funny film to watch!
Pieter Brueghel the Younger The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow
Another nativity story picture today. This time the arrival of the Kings (Magi). If you look carefully in the bottom left-hand corner of the painting you can see a tiny baby Jesus and arriving, with their gifts, are the three Kings. This part of the picture is just a small part tucked away in the corner! The king’s rather elaborately decorated horses are dotted across the picture, but the majority of the picture is everyday folk of the Netherlands in the late 1500s going about their business, coping with the snowy weather.
We see people carrying things about, cooking, gathering wood, even playing on a sledge on the ice. There are lots of soldiers in this scene giving a general feeling of business and unrest.
As far as I am aware in the bible story Jesus was born in Bethlehem in a hot eastern land, not frozen, dull Netherlands. This is quite a common thing to do with great stories (whether they are biblical, or ancient heroes); the artist to set them in their own time zone, in local scenes, with local people. It helps us understand the universality of the story and, especially with biblical stories, the relevance to ordinary people… Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but he could well have been born anywhere and the story would have been the same.
The other interesting thing about this picture is that is a copy! The original was painted by Pieter Brueghel the Elder! (The artists Dad!!) Pieter Brueghel the Younger made quite a healthy living by just taking many of his father’s paintings and copying them -I am assuming with his permission! There are many versions of this one! Some with heavy snowfall some with less. But each one is still beautifully painted.
I suppose imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!
The Day After Christmas Mark Lancelot Symons c.1931
This amazing painting captures that period of time over the Christmas break where all the madness pauses for a moment! This painting is the family ‘on pause’. The excitement has drained out of the children, and the room has assorted toys and bits scattered all around, and there is a general feeling of exhaustion!
I love the way the artist has depicted the children; the ones on the left gently playing with building bricks (the usual collection of bricks scattered on the floor under the table), the child with the trumpet in their mouth looking as if they are not even blowing it, seems flat out exhausted, and the child in the middle making direct eye contact with us the viewers as if saying “how dare you interrupt my space”.
This scene is on Boxing day, and we have a few days until we get there. But even in the lead up to the big day there are moments like this. Where everything suddenly slows down to a stop! It gives us a chance to catch our breath and take stock of what is going on around us.
Take advantage of these moments! Over the Christmas period they are few and far between.
Rather than feeling glum and low when these times come my way, I’m going to try and use them to look around and be grateful for what I have.
Santa Haddon Sunblom
Here we have Santa having a well-earned break after working hard in his workshop! This Santa is the one that is known for enjoying a well-known cola drink brand! And we have Sunblom, and the cola brand advertising executive Archie Lee, to thank for a lot about how Santa looks like. Although they didn’t invent how he looks, or the red coat, they crystalized the look in the public’s eye, and created the universal ‘jolly’ feel we know and love.
Sunblom was greatly influenced by the poem “the Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore (1837) where Santa was described so: ““His eyes – how they twinkled! His dimples how merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry! His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow, And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow…He had a broad face and a little round belly, That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.” (this poem is well worth a Google if you don’t already know it!)
Whatever Santa looks like (and many a young person has tried to stay up late to catch a glimpse – and failed!) we can be certain that he is very busy now. Helped, of course, by an army of elves (and the odd grown up here and there).
Good luck to all of those getting ready for the big day! We are almost there!