The Winter Paintings that Changed Art | Winter Landscape Art Projects | Lesson Plan PDF

Considering how unexceptional snow is around the northern hemisphere, we are left wondering why are winter paintings actually so rare and sparse in Western art.

True enough, winter landscapes were virtually absent from the arts until the Late Middle Age. What may seem like a simple matter of taste is actually a fascinating and complex account that encompasses climate change, feudalism, international trade, exoticism, all the way to the Industrial Revolution and the republican uprises

To tell the story of winter paintings in Western Art is to travel through the social and cultural changes of Europe from the Middle Age until Modern time.   

Given the extensive material, I have curated the artworks into three collections. 

  • Firstly, we are telling the history of winter painting through the six most emblematic works
  • In the second part, we’ll see how artists of different cultures and time, used the challenges of the winter season to celebrate folklore and domestic life
  • And finally, we’ll be looking at some of the allegorical and symbolic depictions of winter, from both classic and modern art. 

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Part 1: The History of Winter Landscape in the Arts

1.1 The Medieval tradition of the Labour of Months

Virtually absent from prior art, winter landscape made its way into Western art through the tradition of illuminated manuscripts such as the Labour of Months, a popular cycle of twelve illustrations representing the social life, agricultural tasks, seasonal landscape and traditions during each month of the year. 

Limbourg brothers, “Facsimile of February: Farmyard Scene with Peasants”, 1412-1416

Painted around 1412-1416 by the Limbourg brothers, Herman, Paul, and Johan, is considered one of the earliest depictions of snow in western art. The Labour of Hours it comes from, “The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry“,  is also one of the most important and best-surviving examples of French Gothic illuminated manuscript

Limbourg brothers, "Facsimile of February: Farmyard Scene with Peasants"
Limbourg brothers, “Facsimile of February: Farmyard Scene with Peasants”

What is an illuminated manuscript?

An illuminated manuscript is a text supplemented with graphic decorations such as initials, decorated margins, and illustrations, often containing silver and gold foil, hence the “illuminated” designation. 

The earliest illuminated manuscripts surviving today come from monasteries in the Eastern Roman Empire and the Ostrogoths Kingdom around 400 and 600 dC. Besides Christian text, monks used to illuminate text from the Greek and Roman era; had it not been for their work, most of the knowledge about ancient literature would have been lost, as the ruling class at the time was no longer literate. 

Art as social commentary

February Page” will never fail to make students (and adults) giggle: at a closer look, you’ll be quick to notice a couple warming their sexes by the stove. 

Obviously, we are left with questions.

Why? How was that appropriate for a liturgic book? Was the Duke inserting some suggestive innuendo into his prayer book?

Surprisingly, it has little to do with erotism and a whole lot to do with classism. 

Firstly, we need to remember that the Book of Hours was not public art, but rather a commissioned manuscript for the Duke’s personal use. As such, there was no need for political correctness and was thus filled with derogatory representations of the rural population as unintelligent, primitive, and crass. Surely, no ladies or lords would be ever caught in such abysmal conduct; what we are looking at is the biased opinion that aristocrats held of peasants.  

Once we get past the giggles, discussing these dynamics can actually help students read beyond the depicted image, and understand how commissioners and cultural perspectives influence the final representation. It is also an excellent opportunity to open up a conversation about prejudice and misrepresentation of oppressed groups. 


Multidisciplinary Inquiry:

  • VISUAL ART: How Illuminated Manuscripts Were Created During the Middle Ages at My Modern Met
  • NATURAL SCIENCE: The harvest calendar 
  • ASTRONOMY: Constellations and the changing sky

1.2 “Genre Paintings”: Scenes of Rural Life

Depiction of snow eventually became a recurring theme in Western art as temperatures dropped during what is today known as the Little Ice Age, which lasted from 1300 to 1850. 

The first official winter painting in Western art is “The Hunters in the Snow,” painted by Peter Bruegel the Eldest in 1565 as a part of “The Months of the Year Cycle”. Representing rural life through the seasons, “The Hunters in the Snow” falls under the Medieval tradition of the Labour of the Months. 

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “Hunters in the Snow”, 1565

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, "Hunters in the Snow", 1565
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “Hunters in the Snow”, 1565

The winter of 1565 was so harsh it permanently changed the art of northern Europe. Since then, snowy landscapes became a recurring theme in Bruegel’s paintings, even when depicting biblical stories, such as in “The adoration of the Magis in winter landscape” (1967) or “The Census at Bethlehem” (1566).  

Belonging to a cycle of at least six paintings, it also shares the balcony motif typical of Flemish painting: a hill on the foreground that offers a vantage point to the subsequent landscape.

The subtle irony of Peasant-Bruegel 

 While we see peasants playing and skating in the background in apparent joyfulness, the hardship and uncertainty of survival permeate the painting. 

The struggle is evident in the story of the hunters and their dogs that equipped with large spears only managed to capture a fox, and are now chasing a running hare. Women are full of hope preparing a large pit for the roast, while the St.Hubert’s signage, protector of the hunters, is about to fall in the fire.  

There is a stark difference in the way rural life is depicted by Brugel, compared to the Lambourg brothers: the peasants are given agency, they all share the same burden, and the portrait is compassionate and sympathetic. The way Brugel captured everyday life with honesty, empathy, and humor, generated a new style in art called “genre painting,” which eventually evolved into the Realism movement

Class Activities:


Multidisciplinary Inquiry:

1.3 Winter Leisure during the Little Ice Age

The increasingly cold climate drastically changed the natural and cultural landscape of Europe. Alpine villages were swallowed by advancing glaciers, frozen rivers and frozen seas isolated entire countries in Northern Europe, while recurring famines killed roughly one-tenth on the European population.
The landscape was also permanently changed: snow covered the ground for many months each year, while large rivers and lakes would freeze over.

The famous River Theme Frost Fair was a sort of “Carnival of winter,” a festive distraction during winters so cold that even the Theme would freeze. The first fair took place in 1408, while the last was held in 1814. Shops would be built on the ice, while recreational activities and sport would take place.

Hendrick Avercamp, “Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters”

Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters Hendrick Avercamp Date: 1608
Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters, Hendrick Avercamp, 1608

Dutch painter Hendrick Avercamp lived during some of the coldest years of the Little Ice Age. His childhood memory of skating on frozen lakes eventually became one of his most recurring themes.
In the depth of winter, lively scenes became a way to shun away the cold and hunger that was decimating the population.

1.4 French Realism and the Age of Revolution

With the declining of religious and historical paintings in the 19th Century, artists increasingly found their subject matter in everyday life. Also called petit genre, “genre paintings” depict aspects of daily life, by showing figures with no specific identity engaged in mundane activities. The shift in the figurative art followed the political changes that were taking place in Europe at the time, informally known as the Age of Revolution, which saw the abolition or reform of several European monarchies. 

Realist painters particularly, blurred the line between high art and “minor” subject matters, putting nameless farmers and workers at the center of their art, a place traditionally held by religious or political figures. For the first time, ordinary people were represented in the mainstream arts with realistic urgency, without glorification nor allegory. 

The shift in subject matter was so great that Realism is broadly considered the beginning of Modern art as it abandoned symbolic representation for truthful exploration of all aspects of reality and of human experience. 

Gustave Courbet, Poor Woman of the Village

Poor Woman of the Village Gustave Courbet
Poor Woman of the Village, Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet’s repertoire of winter paintings is almost unprecedented in quantity. He painted animals, farmers, hunters, and even made some of the earliest studies on the “snow effect,” the multitude of lights and colors on fresh snow that would fascinate Impressionist artists later on. 

“To know in order to do, that was my idea. To be in a position to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my time, according to my own estimation; to be not only a painter, but a man as well; in short, to create living art – this is my goal. “

(Gustave Courbet, 1855)

1.5 Japonisme: Winter Landscape in Asian Art

The portray of seasonal elements is a traditional theme in Japanese art, intrinsic to the native Japanese belief know as Shinto. 

According to Shintoism, divinity (Kami) is manifested in Nature itself. The anthropomorphic representation of Gods only began after the arrival of Buddhism from neighboring China.

The observation of nature and the changing seasons is intimately connected with the reflection on the human experience. The relative simplicity of natural landscapes leaves room for meditation on the transience of human existence, and the ephemeral beauty of nature and life (Wabi-Sabi). Cherry blossoms, changing foliage, falling snow, chrysanthemums flowers, all contribute to the sense of melancholy and impermanence of Shinto art. 

Evening snow at Kambara, “Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō,” Hiroshige, 1833-34

Evening Snow at Kanbara, from the series “Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō”, Hiroshige

Utagawa Hiroshige had the opportunity to travel along the Tokaido route from the capital to Kyoto in 1832. He used the sketches of travelers and attraction produced during the travel to create one of his most famous series of prints, “The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō.” 

Following the Edo’s tradition of Ukiyo-e prints, Hiroshige is considered the last grandmaster of the art, having worked right before the westernization of Japan that followed the Meiji Restoration of 1868. His work is particularly relevant in the development of Western Art as his works, along with those of Hokusai, were the most traded during the 19th Century Japonisme craze.  

The novel subject matter, the use of color, the distinctive elevated vantage point, greatly influenced the work of Impressionist painters: Manet and Monet were both collectors of his prints, while Van Gogh painted popular oil copies of his famous series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo

What is Ukiyo-e?

The art of Ukiyo-e developed in the old capital Edo (modern Tokio) during the Edo period from the 17th to the 19th Century. 

The Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled during this time was the last feudal military government ever to rule Japan: during this time, Japan experienced 250 years of stability and economic growth, prompted by a strict isolationist policy and a rigid social order.

The merchant class, although wealthy and economically powerful, was considered exploitative by Confucian standards and was now at the bottom of the new social hierarchy below farmers and artisans.  

Cut out from political power, merchants looked for ways to show their wealth and culture in the same way upper classes did: for the first time in history, Japanese society had the time and resources to support and enjoy entertainment and mass culture. 

This search for enjoyment became known as Ukiyo 浮世, an ironic allusion to the Buddhist concept of Ukiyo, which describes the transitory illusion of life, also known as the “sorrowful world.” However, during the Edo era, Ukiyo took the more indulgent meaning of “floating world,” referring to the hedonistic, pleasure-seeking attitude of urban lifestyle.

Ukiyo-e 浮世絵, literally Pictures of the Floating World, depicted the entertainment-districts of Edo, telling stories of Geishas, Kabuki actors, Sumo wrestlers, Samurais, Chonins, prostitutes, and pleasure houses.  

The woodblock printing technique used to produce Ukiyo-e was invented in China as early as the 220 AD, eventually reaching Japan in the 7th century along with Buddhist practices. While early examples of painted Ukiyo-e do exist, the increasing popularity demanded an inexpensive mass-production system such as woodblock printing. It was later in the 1760s that Suzuki Honorubu, one of the most important Ukiyo-e artists, perfected the technique of multi-colored prints.

Arguably, the most famous and recognizable example of Ukiyo-e today is “The Wave” (The Great Wave off Kanagawa) by artist Hokusai. However, the ubiquitous landscape scenes that dominate the Western perception wouldn’t appear in the traditional art til after the Tenpo Reform in the 1840s, when the outward display of luxury, including depictions of courtesans and actors, were being suppressed. 

The Reform happened just before the forced American opening of the country to foreign trade in 1854, which explains the popularity of landscape scenes in the West compared to the indulgent, traditional subject matter. 

Living only for the moment, savouring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking sake, and diverting oneself just in floating, unconcerned by the prospect of imminent poverty, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo

Asai Ryoi, Ukiyo Monogatari (“Tales of the Floating World,” c. 1661)

Those are the world writer Asai Ryōi uses to describe the Edo idea of ukiyo. It’s interesting to note the shift in philosophy from traditional Shintoism: while the transient property of life remained unmuted, human’s attitude had evolved from meditation to enjoyment.

Besides the stylistic novelty, it’s quite evident that the hedonistic subject matter of Ukiyo-e also had a strong appeal to Bohemian artists in Europe. Coming right after the Realist experience, Ukiyo-e provided another example of raw mundane life represented as it is, without symbolic meaning nor political or social commentary. 

Japonisme and Exoticism

For over 200 years, trade with Japan had been a Dutch monopoly, entirely controlled by the Dutch East India Company from the Dejima trading post in the Nagasaki’s bay. 

First built by the Portuguese in 1634, Dejima was a fan shaped island separated from Japanese society by an artificial canal. When the Dutch took over the post in 1641, the island became the sole place of direct trade between Japan and the outside world until the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854.  

Thanks to their monopoly, Dutches were the first to receive the few and rare Japanese artifacts.  As shipments were expensive and rare (only two boats per year were allowed docking during the 18th Century), most of the trade focused on high-value items such as silk, cotton, porcelain, and lacquerware.

At the time, Ukiyo-e were cheap, mass-produced items in Japan, used primarily as entertainment: they had so little value that they initially made their way to Europe as packaging material for fragile goods. 

Not a style nor a movement, Japonisme is loosely defined as the influence of Japanese art on Western artists, a trend that boomed at the end of the 19th century encompassing all artistic media, from fine arts, to craft, to textile design, to poetry, to literature. Following the first Japanese exhibition at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867shops trading Japanese artifacts popped everywhere in Paris, responding to the new curiosity and appetite for exotic goods.

Among all, Ukiyo-e prints were the most affordable for European artists to purchase:  Van Gogh and his brother Theo traded them, eventually collecting hundreds of prints. They appeared in many of his paintings as backgrounds and as direct reference. Painter Degas owned Torii Kiyonaga’s Bathhouse Women Ukiyo-e, which inspired his famous Bathroom series. When Monet died, he left behind a collection of over 230 prints. In fact, Hokusai and Hiroshike’s bridges composition directly inspired the architecture of his lilies garden in Giverny.  

Most active at the end of the 19th Century, Monet’s body of work is the best example of the changing culture in Europe at the turn of the century: through his work, he was able to perpetuate Courbet’s Realist legacy while developing a radically modern aesthetic inspired and reinforced by Asian art


See Also:

Multi-disciplinary Inquiry:

1.6 Impressionists in Winter: the “Snow effect

It’s challenging to choose one single artwork from Monet’s repertoire as he painted over 140 snowy landscapes throughout his career. 

One of the earliest ones, “The Magpie,” is arguably among the best known and also one of the most representative of the Realist and Japanese influences that defined Monet’s early art. 

“The Magpie”, Monet, 1869

The Magpie, Monet, 1869

While the style is still reminiscent of Courbet’s rural scenes, with great effort spent on detailing and narration of the scene, we can observe the beginning of Monet’s chromatic journey by comparing it to his earliest winter landscape, “A Cart on the Snowy Road at Honfleur.” Painted only three years later, the evolution of Monet’s sensitivity toward light and color is already evident. “The Magpie” is much brighter and vivid with the sunny snow being almost blinding: the illusion of contrast is now achieved by juxtaposing warm and cold hues, rather than with the traditional light/dark monochromatic shading.   In fact, the artwork is considered one of the earliest examples of Monet’s colored shadows, the unorthodox technique that will define Impressionism and forever change Modern painting. 

The Impressionists used the whiteness and reflectivity of snowy landscapes to investigate “the problem of shadows,” the way the perception of color changes according to the light condition and the juxtaposed colors. This new approach was inspired by Goethe’s “Theory of Colours” published in 1810, which put forward the possibility of the subjectivity of perception in color theory. During their first-hand outdoor observations, Impressionist artists noted that shadows are not desaturated colors as many painters used to believe: instead, they are a multitude of hues affected by the light and the environment. 

Comparison of shadows in the two paintings: note the color saturation of the Magpie’s snow

Impressionists advanced their inquiry on colors during long painting sessions en plain air. While it may sound trivial today, outdoor painting was actually challenging if not impossible until tube color were made readily available by the industrialization process: ready-made paint freed artists from their studios and allowed for quick, impromptu painting.  

Monet, Sisley, Pissarro, all spent extensive time outdoor painting winter scene and perfecting what was called Effet de Neige, or snow effect.

It would take three more years after The Magpie was painted for Impressionism to be recognized as a movement and hold its first official exhibition in 1873. As time passed, composition became less and less important, almost entirely relying on colors, which became more and more vivid, useing almost pure out of the tube.  

In Monet’s last Weathstacks in the snow series from 1891, there is almost no white color. The palette changes according to the time of the day, and the main focus is the contrast between the sun’s warmth reflected on the snow and the cold feeling of the blue shadows. 

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Winter Art Projects for Kids inspired by famous Winter paintings. Free Printable Download Available! Learn how a few winter paintings changed art history with this multi-disciplinary art curriculum; includes discussion questions, learning activities, curriculum connections and lesson plans. #arted #arthistory #artappreciation #monet #bruegel #winterart #winterartprojects #highschoolart #middleschoolart #winterpainting #littleiceage