Colour it cold

14th March 2003 at 00:00
How did Teniers put the glow into a winter scene? Gillian Wolfe looks at an artist who recorded the life and landscape of 17th-century Europe

Acontemporary historian wrote about Teniers: "For the richness of his golden and silvery light, for the delicacy of his vivid coloursI there is only one word, and that word is 'magical'." "A Winter Scene with a Man Killing a Pig" belongs to a tradition first found in medieval illustrated Books of Hours, with seasonal landscapes showing people busy at work or play appropriate to the time of year. Paintings are to be found throughout the 16th and 17th centuries representing the four seasons. A beautiful example is Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "Hunters in the Snow" (1565), one of a cycle of the seasons in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Flemish and Dutch artists were well known as painters of landscapes and scenes of life.

Genre pictures did not try to idealise, and as such they offer a vivid image of the daily life of the time.

Here, the landscape is deep in snow and the sky threatens more. Delicate branches in the foreground are silhouetted against ominous clouds and a pale sun filters through to illuminate the frosty scene. It is perhaps paradoxical to say that a painting composed of ice-cold colours can "glow".

But that is its effect - it "shines out", almost as if lit from behind.

In winter, farm activity came to a standstill and there was time to skate, sledge, travel by horse and sleigh and have some leisure. In this frosty scene, small figures stop to talk or play on the ice. A couple, perhaps wearing pilgrim's cloaks, may be asking for alms from a woman at the furthest of the houses. In front of the nearest house, a pig is about to be slaughtered. The butcher kneels on the animal while a woman holds out a pan to collect the blood. Every part of the carcass will be used.

At the time, people were far from finding the ritual unpleasant. It was a time of celebration. Indeed, such is the excitement shown here that young children are brought out of the house to watch perhaps the most important domestic event of the year. Boys with straws and sticks prepare to singe the hair on the pig's skin, which is to be tanned in the same way as leather. After the animal has been gutted and cut up, the boys may be given its bladder to blow up and use as a ball. The carcass would have provided meat (fresh, salted and smoked), black pudding (from fat and blood), pies, brawn, trotters and sausages, for a pork-dominated diet until Lent, after which, convention dictated, fish would be eaten instead of meat until Easter. To the 17th-century viewer, the scene would have represented the festivity as well as the harsh discomfort of the run-up to spring.

The British painter Sir Joshua Reynolds so admired this Dutch artist that he gave three pictures by his own hand and two by others in exchange for one by Teniers.

Gillian Wolfe is head of education at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Her children's book, Look! Zoom in on Art, is co-published by Francis Lincoln and OUP For education programmes at Dulwich Picture Gallery, including the Explore Buildings Programme, tel: 020 8299 8731.

Lesson ideas

* Colour relationships:point out the subtlety of a restricted palate, how a few colours can make a stunning impact. It may be a snow scene, but how much pure-white paint can be seen? White is powerful only against other shades, hence the myriad tones of grey here which enable the white to "shine out".

* Perspective: the dominant tree in the foreground is a device to lead your eye into the picture, past the men with poles or rods on to smaller figures with a dog in the middle distance; thence to very small trees in the far distance. A landscape with figures of three sizes is a good challenge for all ages. The near end of the house is huge while the far end is smaller.

Older children can draw a rectangle in perspective like this and then shade it to become a solid, noting the direction of the light source.

* Architecture:focus on the stepped roof of the farmhouse. Is this style unfamiliar? Look at the shape of the roof against the sky and then look at the local skyline. Ask children to draw roof shapes used in their street.

Are they symmetrical? Can they guess the age of the building from the architecture? Compare building styles from around the world. A brilliant reference for this is The House Book (Phaidon). For information about relating class work to the built environment, register with the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) Education Network, tel: Nicola Lithgow, education officer 020 7960 2400. CABE will launch its website in summer 2003.

* Food and culture: think about the role of food rituals in different cultures. Can children offer their own experiences of these?Are they associated with religious celebrations? What was food availability like in the past? Discuss how food would have been seasonal and how people would have preserved it without fridges. People were dependent on good harvests and local produce; specialities from distant hot countries, such as spices, would have been exotic luxuries.

* Genre paintings: consider examples of other Teniers or genre paintings that illustrate life in the 1600s - landscapes and people at work or at leisure. If children had to show aliens on another planet what the world is like today, what would they choose as a typical daily scene?

Key stage 1: Take a sheet of black paper and ask children to make a winter's scene using chalk, pastels or paint. For the sky, tear up sheets of white tissue paper and glue them as a thin collage over the black background. Allow the pieces of tissue to finely crease rather than lie flat, and overlap pieces for greater intensity. This produces a lovely textural effect far removed from the usual coarse "collage" technique. The shine of the glue adds to the icy feel.

Key stage 2: Make a thin wash of colour as background over a piece of A4 watercolour paper, using warmer tones in the foreground and cooler in the distance. Using prepared sketches of winter tree shapes, work over the top in black ink and draw silhouetted trees for an evocative scene. Can the atmosphere be created in writing? Describe the chill of the day and the thrill of the event from the point of view of a child of the house at the time.

Key stages 34: Show examples of the varied Baroque style. Compare and contrast the energetic and theatrical work of Caravaggio, Rubens, Van Dyck and Velasquez with calm, classical landscapes by Claude Lorraine, the drama of Rembrandt and genre scenes by Vermeer and Teniers. Cross-reference with examples of sculpture, architecture and music for an overview of an artistically prolific age.

David Teniers the Younger 1610-1690

David Teniers the Younger began work with his artist father, also called David Teniers. He worked in Antwerp for Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, Governor of the Spanish Netherlands, before moving to Brussels. He painted about 2,000 pictures of every kind and size including peasant genre scenes, religious subjects, landscapes and portraits. His work was popular and much imitated.

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