The Laws of Nature
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Groundhogs, Winter, and Art
Well, folks, Punxsutawney Phil emerged this morning to see his shadow in Pennsylvania, which means that winter will last another six weeks (that is, if you can believe groundhogs). For those of you who aren't familiar with America's fascination with rodent weather prediction, it's actually based upon a German tradition which holds that if a hibernating animal sees its shadow on Feb. 2 — the Christian holiday of Candlemas — winter will last another six weeks. If no shadow is seen, legend says spring will come early.
For me, six more weeks of winter means six more weeks of confinement in my studio pursuing the elusive masterpiece. I don't mind this, but it would be nice to spend some time in the garden and hiking in the warm sun.
Contemplating winter reminds me of several famous paintings that depict an unusual climatological event. The first one was painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Hunters in the Snow, in 1565:
The second painting, by Emanuel Luetze in 1851, depicts Washington Crossing the Delaware, an event that occurred in December 1776.
For those of you who are familiar with the present-day winters in both Belgium and the Delaware River region, you know that they aren't as severe as the ones depicted in these two paintings. Were the two artists exaggerating for effect? Did Bruegel cover the ground with thick heavy snow to make the painting more interesting? Did Luetze put large icebergs in the Delaware to make Washington and his troops appear more courageous? No.
In fact, these two paintings span the two ends of a climate event known by science as The Little Ice Age, which began during the middle of the 16th century and ended in the middle of the 19th century. During that time, temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere dipped several degrees Celsius causing severe and prolonged winters and an expansion of sea ice and glaciers. The cause of this long cold spell was a solar event called the Maunder Minimum, when the sun's magnetic field was relatively stable resulting in fewer than normal sunspots. Therefore, the amount of solar radiation reaching Earth was diminished and temperatures plummeted.
The arts captured this event. Dickens described the cold, harsh winters in his books and Western artists captured them in their paintings. This current winter in my hemisphere, has some effect on my paintings. Being confined indoors means that I'm turning inward to examine my ideas a little more carefully. There are few distractions. However, I'm not tempted to begin painting winter scenes ... even if there are six more weeks of winter to endure.
What about you? How has winter affected your work?