Turner to Monet
Nothing happens here, it seems. A field of snow is marked by some trees on the top, a road at the right, clouds, and the intimation of lightening on the horizon. A few vertical scratches indicate grass poking through a crust of snow. But what intensity of observation! The paint wiped around the hill makes the viewer think about the colour white, how it can be made yellow, grey or blue. The trees are nothing but black blobs marking edges, while snow-filled clouds animate the scene, pushed across the sky by winter wind.
In his short career, Bastien-Lepage was famous for naturalistic depictions of peasants, especially girls working in the fields; robust and alive, their figures dominate the scene.1 His land was always under cultivation, sowing or harvest. Here the landscape is beyond human use, made fallow by the season, by the ruthless power of winter. For Bastien-Lepage, the fecundity of agriculture represented France recovering its pride and productivity after the disastrous military defeat by Prussia in 1870. In this work the small village of Damvillers is enshrouded in snow and ice, under a watery sky, but there is a hint of light and hope that prefigures a change of weather and, eventually, of season.
Because he was neither academician nor Impressionist, Bastien-Lepage has been neglected in the analysis of the culture wars that raged in the nineteenth century between conservatives and radicals. Even an apparently subjectless painting like Snow effect, Damvillers may seem progressive because it lacks detail, finish, incident and preferably a moral, all demanded by the Academy. But the artist’s observations are not only of the moment, like Monet’s Haystacks, midday. The hill is eternal, not simply created by the light in which it is observed: the effects may be fleeting, but the land remains, permanent and solid, underneath the snow.
1 See, for example, Season of October: the potato gatherers 1878 in the collection of the National Gallery of Vicitoria, Melbourne.