February 16. High of 27 degrees, low of 20 degrees. Somehow my weather channel application forgets to mention it’s going to snow all day. Only 10 minutes after waking up, do I realize that New Haven is actually having a snow “storm.” No wonder my room is so bright, there’s so much white outside — it’s like a giant light beam. Still not sure whether to be excited for the new weather or to be upset knowing I’ll have to wear the horrendous snow boots I got for Christmas, I start getting ready to take on the snow.
All geared up, I get outside to Old Campus. A cold, windy slap in the face shakes the last sleep from my eyes. After I adjust to the cold, I look around and can’t help but notice how absolutely picturesque the blanketed quad is. We are talking brochure picture material. The trees are so perfectly dusted with snow: in every direction, pristine white. Even the students walking through the scene meld perfectly into the snow.
Despite being quite accustomed to the white stuff, I was “that” kid. Yes, I took a picture. Well, it was closer to 10 pictures, but that’s beside the point. As I was trying to decide which image to choose for my phone screen background, I found myself not satisfied with any of them. No matter what angle I took, the image simply did not capture what I saw in real life. Realizing I was already late to class, I gave up. But it got me thinking about how artists successfully translate nature into paintings or photographs.
From the impressionists in the late nineteenth century, to Japanese painters in the twentieth, major artists have tackled the task of representing snow. It’s basically an unofficial rite of passage to being deemed an official artist. In fact, some people consider snow painting a genre in itself. I don’t know if I would go that far, but there is no doubt that capturing snow in the two-dimensional form is a timeless artistic challenge. Van Gogh, Stieglitz, Monet, Gauguin and Hiroshige are only a few who have embraced the task. And what’s one thing they all have in common? These artists are concerned with depicting the very things that snow does not appear to have in reality. Namely, color and texture.
For example, Van Gogh paints the snow as if he had just seen a rainbow on the ground and Hiroshige presents the snow as perfectly ordered dots descending onto the earth. For others, a layer of snow is like a blank canvas: Gauguin treats it as if it is simply a foundation through which other colors manifest themselves but Monet’s paintings of snow often use up to an inch of pure white paint on the ground. Even in Stieglitz’s photograph, the snow contributes to a greater sense of atmosphere; it is not simply depicting a natural element.
Why is it then, that in art, snow is the very thing that it is not in reality?
Snow is white, yet art says it has color. Snow appears in masses, yet art says that each flake has a strong individual presence. Snow is plain, yet art says it is mysterious.
Since snow is simply the product of nature, maybe there exists no other interpretation other than that which embraces the unseen. Indeed, artists have gone beyond the surface beauty of nature, and attempted to access its sublime characteristics.
Even though my phone background is still LMFAO (yes, I saw them live at Toad’s), it is only because I unfairly tried to capture a beauty that goes beyond the visual. What I saw, and what artists throughout time have tried to capture, enters a place that is only accessed through a willingness to explore the honest power of nature, and, oddly enough, its unseeable beauty.