Spotlight on The Winter Art Collection, Visual Empathy

In Wanderer above a Sea of Mist, arguably the paragon painting of the Romanticism, Casper David Friedrich captures the sense of co-celebration and commiseration that is at the heart of our Winter Art Collection.

Wanderer above a Sea of Mist  by Casper David Friedrich, 1817

Wanderer above a Sea of Mist by Casper David Friedrich, 1817

Though the landscape’s icy blues and the figure’s heavy overcoat give the chill of winter, the precise season of Friedrich’s 1817 painting is approximately as misty as the background. However, its connection to our collection goes beyond subject matter; the figure could be gazing at a sun blanched beach in a linen pull-over and the metaphor would remain intact.

The connection bridges at a more basic, though, perhaps paradoxically, deeper level: the level of the viewpoint. In Friedrich’s painting, the coated figure stands in the position of the viewer just moments into the future. If the viewer could step into the painting, he or shs would be in the exact footprints of the figure.

This use of perspective is visual empathy. Viewer becomes the figure. This vantage point highlights art’s ability to share an experience with a viewer. In the often dreary and “winter blues”-ridden season, this notion increases its power by becoming a source of warmth and reassurance. Therefore, it is a theme buried in The Winter Art Collection.  

The works in the Winter Art Collection display this visual empathy by supplying a warming comfort that enacts the perspective and provides new experiences for any viewer.

The photographs by Polish photographer, Rafal Kijas featured in the collection display this visual empathy in distinctly “winter” settings. In The Road and Bielsko Biala-Night, his use of figures perhaps the most readymade comparison to Wanderer above a Sea of Mist. Both figures confront their blustery environments in a way that would resonate with anyone who has braved foul weather but provide a new and interesting setting that provides escape from the viewer's ordinary setting. 

Furthermore, the ambiguity inherent in a silhouetted figure allows the viewer to fill the scene with interpretations that model the subtleties of his or her own experience, giving an uncanny familiarity and subconsciously self-made reassurance.   

Similarly, in The Water Carrier painter Robert Hofherr uses an onward-facing figure with a countryside nostalgia. Inspired by Van Gogh’s extensive work depicting country life and his corresponding lose brushwork, Hofherr presents an individual braving the winter in a red scarf carrying two pails down a snow-covered path to a village.

Hofherr emphasizes art’s empathetic powers as both a general phenomenon and, more specifically, a compelling winter phenomenon, in his own description of the painting when he says, “Close your eyes and imagine the almost eerie quiet of a winter evening's approach.”

As his painting subtly suggests and his words overtly state, Hofherr presents the viewer with an opportunity to feel the sensations of a winter scene beyond his or her own as a welcomed reminder of the universality of struggle and uncertainty that seems to be exacerbated by a long winter.

While the slippery paths and snow-eclipsed scenes might seem like the collection emphasizes the challenges laid out by a colder season, at its core, the collection is irrefutably a celebration of winter and its beauty.

In paintings like the watercolor, Cathedral by Judy Mudd, or the oil painting, Mulcahey’s Barn by Nathan Hager, winter takes on a painterly role giving the subjects a special beauty inseparable from the season itself.

Cathedral (22" x 10") by Judy Mudd, watercolor

Cathedral (22" x 10") by Judy Mudd, watercolor

The Judy’s misty building tops and Nathan’s frost celebrate the beauty of winter while acknowledging its fleetingness. Winter is a condition applied to the subjects and is not its sole mode of existence. This forces an appreciation for the season and the beauty that winter alone can adorn a subject.