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Painting Snow

Earlier this year, on a visit to Oslo, I came across an exhibition in the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, “Claude Monet and Bærum, 125 Years Anniversary”. Intrigued by the paintings, I wanted to know why Monet chose to leave his home in Giverny, midwinter, for Oslo at the coldest, darkest time of year…

Claude Monet’s motivation to visit Norway in 1895 was ostensibly twofold.

Firstly, he went to visit his stepson Jacques who had married a Norwegian. As patriarch of the family, Monet wanted to spend time with him to find out if he would ever return to Giverny, a question which was causing Jacques’ mother Alice some concern. Secondly, Scandinavian literature and music had been in vogue in Paris since the 1880s, with authors such as the Norwegians Henrik Ibsen and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, and the Swedish August Strindberg, being well known. Their writings could be found in Monet’s library in Giverny. By the 1890s, Edvard Grieg’s music was also popular in Paris. Thus, Monet would have been well aware of Scandinavian culture and was probably curious to visit this mysterious country.

But why did Monet choose to go in winter? While a Nordic Summer is highly recommended, travelling so far north at any other time of the year was surely unthinkable. (An 1892 edition of the widely disseminated guide, Baedecker’s Handbook, gives a detailed account of how to travel in Norway, how to deal with Norwegians, and how to dress for a Nordic summer: warm winter coat, light wool suit, wide brimmed hat, and blanket.)

The answer: Monet was interested in painting snow.

He was encouraged to make the trip by the Norwegian art historian Andreas Aubert, who had previously invited him to an exhibition in Oslo in 1890. Aubert believed that Monet’s visit would be a great boost to Norway’s artistic scene. Monet made up his mind in December 1894 and informed his gallery owner, Paul Durand-Ruel, to postpone his forthcoming Paris exhibition.

As far back as the 1860s, snow, sea, and water were natural elements of great interest to Monet. In 1880, his Débâcle des Glaces (The Break-Up of the Ice)was his first series to bring light, air, and temperature conditions into clear focus. His Haystacks (1890–91) and Rouen Cathedral (1894) are well-known for demonstrating his skilful studies of light. Less is spoken of his representation of changing air and temperature conditions. The Break-Up of the Iceseries presents a detailed study of melting ice along the Seine, but Monet’s trip to Norway would provide the ultimate experience of changing light and temperature. 

Monet departed for Kristiania, present day Oslo, on 28 January 1895. The journey was long, with multiple trains and ferries, and was delayed by harsh winter weather. This was the first of many challenges to come. At first, he was somewhat dumbfounded by the expansive sheets of white and wrote home to his wife Alice: “The country must be infinitely more beautiful without the snow”. 

On a sleigh trip to the area around Kristiana, he saw mountains and frozen waterfalls. This offered potential, but these sites remained largely inaccessible by train or sleigh. Given that Monet could not ski, his options were limited. There was no masking his frustration: “I may suddenly take the path back to France, having no taste for a country that I cannot paint”. 

But after a couple of weeks, Monet’s stepson Jacques took him to Sandvika—just an hour’s journey away—and here he finally found the motifs he wanted to paint. He stayed at Bjørnegaard guesthouse, owned by Jenny Bjørnson, who had been married to Bjørn Bjørnson, son of the poet Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson.Monet loved the place and was treated as a celebrity. He stayed for five weeks, painting 13 pictures of Mount Kolsaas, five pictures on the ice outside Sandvika, and four pictures of Løkke bridge in the center of Sandvika. He wrote: “I believe I have truly found it”. 

Yet he was still faced with troublesome weather conditions. The dramatic light changes were difficult to capture on several canvases at the same time, as he had done with more ease for his Haystacks and Rouen Cathedralseries, not to mention the infuriating effect of sudden mild weather and snowmelt. “The wondrous sight of snow on a fir tree,” he wrote, could disappear with “one hour of sun or a little wind”. He remained determined, however, sledding out to his painting locations, Jacques in tow with tools and canvases. As he wrote to Alice: “It will have to be very cold before I start to freeze”. 

Claude Monet’s Mount Kolsaas and Sandvika, Norway (both 1895)
Øystein Thorvaldsen/Henie Onstad Kunstsenter

As Monet became more comfortable in his surroundings, he also began to enjoy watching people ski and was excited by sleighing. He was a spectator at the Holmenkoll ski race in February. However, none of his Norway pictures show a single figure. Although excited by the jostling crowds at the race, his artistic focus remained on representing the changing light, air, and temperature of his surroundings. 

Japanese Influence

On 1 March, Monet wrote home: “I am at work on a view of Sandvika, which looks like a Japanese village, I am also doing a mountain that one can see from anywhere here and that makes me think of Fuji-Yama”. Japanese prints were well known to Monet, who owned several of Hokusai’s prints at home in Giverny, from his seriesThirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (c1830–32).

Although Monet had never been to Fuji-Yama, let alone Japan, comparison underlines his belief that the Japanese lived close to nature, like the Norwegians. His scenes from Norway show clear parallels to the so-called Ukiyo-estyle of Japanese prints, which showed natural and coastal scenes in different tidal and light conditions. Looking at his paintings of Sandvika, nestled between the curve of snow, Mount Kolsaas rising in the background and rectangular, snowy roofs of thick-stroked white paint, there are certainly similarities with Japanese compositions such as Hiroshige’s Kanbora, Evening Snow (1833–34)

Monet, Sandvika, Norway
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Hiroshige, Kanbora, Evening Snow 
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Monet wanted to depict a snowy scene, and he got to the essence of its nature: light, air, and temperature. His loose, rapid strokes, departing from Hiroshige’s more restrained compositions, help viewers feel as if they really are standing in front of the scene. They are left with more of an impression of the supposed nature around them.

Hokusai, South Wind, Clear Sky, no. 33 in 
Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (1830-33)
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Monet, Mount Kolsaas, Sun Effect

Comparing Hokusai’s Mount Fuji with Monet’s own Mount Kolsaas, Monet brought to the canvas what he called the “stupefying effects” of the landscape’s “vast whiteness”, and his palette primarily consists of lead white. This was the first mountain he had ever painted, and he found it exhilarating. He built texture over the mountain with thick, wavy strokes and added touches of intense greens and blues to give off the shimmering effect of light on snow. His paintings of Mount Kolsaas show his ability to paint the changing air around him. We see it changing across the canvases from clear to foggy, to misty or even stormy, to partly obscure the mountain. He told an interviewer in Oslo: “I am pursuing the impossible. Other painters paint a bridge, a house, a boat… I want to paint the air in which the bridge, the house, and the boat are to be found—the beauty of the air around them, and that is nothing less than the impossible.”

Monet, Mount Kolsaas in Misty Weather 
Monet, Mount Kolsaas, Rose Reflection
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Return to Giverny

Returning to Giverny on 3 or 4 April, Monet arranged an exhibition date with Durand-Ruel for 10 May. Fourteen pictures of Mount Kolsaas and several views of Sandvika were selected for display. None were sold. While the Rouen Cathedralseries took centre stage, Monet’s paintings of Norwegian snow reaffirmed his range and ability as well as his status as an artist with international interests. He spoke little of his Norway paintings; even today little has been written about them, although many late photographs of his studio show them hanging in the foreground for all to see. And, in 1889, Monet personally donated Sandvika, Norwayto a sale benefitting the children of the impressionist painter Alfred Sisley after his death. Sisley was a master of snow scenes, and Monet donated it as “one of our best”. He was clearly proud of his Norwegian snow scenes, especially the Sandvika paintings. Perhaps his adventure was what spurred him to paint snow in Switzerland after his wife’s death in 1913, a trip that inspired him to paint again, enabling him to complete his last task, painting the waterlilies in the Giverny. 

See the paintings in the Henie Onstad collection here

More useful links: Monet Impressionism

Written by Flora Igoe, part of the third cohort of student ambassadors for The Art Story.

Flora is a recent graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, with a B.A. in Italian and History of Art and Architecture.