My apologies to Emma Lazarus for swiping a phrase from her famous poem “The New Colossus” as the title for this blog post. Inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, the “huddled masses” to which Lazarus is referring are emigrants “yearning to breathe free”, coming to America in search of a better life. I have co-opted the phrase to describe a particular aspect of the freezing cold winter weather that has descended upon much of the country. 16 degrees in NYC today. It’s cold, man. It’s freaking cold!
A great deal of winter themed paintings depict the stark, elegant beauty of the season. Sometimes desolate and bleak, other times graceful and serene, winter conditions really do provide a diversity of moods and images for the artist. The most popular ones are usually snow-covered landscapes, mountain villages, frozen lakes, alpine passes, and leafless trees standing bare against grim grey skies. Winter in the context of nature is extraordinarily beautiful, and even an avowed summer person like myself can admit to it. If you’ve ever trekked through the woods on a winter day you’ve surely been entranced by the quiet, spiritual, almost mystical energy it holds – animal tracks in the snow, an icy stream, a little forest creature scurrying into a hidden hole for shelter.
Winter in the context of cities, or any setting in which everyday people are depicted, introduces a different element of the cold weather existence: less of the spiritual natural beauty thing, more of the hardships and discomforts that the cold weather inflicts. Freezing temperatures or not, people still have things to do and places to go. Life goes on, in spite of ice-covered railroad tracks, water main breaks, layers of sweaters, and high heating bills. Heck, mankind has been coping with the cold since the beginning of time. Though much has changed in terms of our conveniences, our human instincts to survive, seek warmth, and press on with our lives remains the same. Here are a few works that help to illustrate my version of the “huddled masses”.
John Sloan’s Six O’Clock, Winter is a striking example of New York City and its commuting hoards, crowded beneath the Third Avenue el, an intense winter sky overhead:
Good old New York City again, this time by Childe Hassam. From 1919, Fifth Avenue in Winter:
One more from Hassam, a wonderful scene and composition done very effectively, Cab Stand at Night, Madison Square, New York, 1891:
In this work, Carl Larsson shows us that a winter-themed scene can also be an interior. You get the feeling that these folks are relieved, temporarily, to be indoors in the warmth. Does anyone else find that their eye goes to the kid in the lower right with black fur hat? Peasant Interior in Winter, 1890:
To many of us, winter’s cold is a reminder to consider those less fortunate. Soup kitchens, food pantries and the like ask for more donations during the winter months to provide basic needs for the poor or homeless. Every year I give a coat to the New York Cares Coat Drive. By Ferdinand Georg Waldmuller, this is Children of poor parents get winter clothes from the community on Spittelberg on Saint Michael Day, 1857:
Jose Clemente Orozco was a Mexican social realist painter. All he needed to do here was exaggerate the bulky thickness of the mens’ coats and suggest rigid shoulders to communicate a cold winter day. This is Winter from 1932:
In The Snowstorm, the great Goya depicts a wandering group braving a bitter snowstorm. You can feel the windchill in the gestures of the figures and the heads turned down. Because of Goya’s brilliance and sensitivity, the travelers are given an air of heroism as they tread along determinedly in the face of brutal cold.
We conclude with Edvard Munch’s Workers in the Snow. Our New York forecast has snow for later today. If it comes I may hire these guys to shovel my driveway