snow in the san gabriels

 

SanGabriels

Snow in the San Gabriel Mountains. Robin L. Chandler, 2019. Pastel sketch.

A week ago the dangers of fire season loomed in California; but this week an atmospheric river flows across the Pacific bringing rain and snow across the land from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The change has been radical and sudden, and we are grateful for the rainy weather. During the Thanksgiving weekend, snow blanketed the San Gabriel Mountains. At sunset, we walked in the Huntington Library Gardens and gazed at the twilight storm clouds glowing orange with purple shadows, seeming to feast upon the mountains. Gorgeous. Sublime. We gave thanks for this moment of beauty.

Moments before in the gallery, our eyes had feasted upon the exhibit John Ruskin and His “Frenemies:” Prints and Drawings from the Huntington’s Collection,” featuring works on paper by John Ruskin and his friends and colleagues including J.M.W. Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites and his enemies such as John Constable and James McNeil Whistler. “As much as he praised artists whose style, technique, or subject matter aligned with his own approach, he could be strongly critical of others.” Inspired by these works, I began sketching in an attempt to capture the evolving sublime scene of the mountains and sky above me. Ruskin believed that the principal role of the artist is “truth to nature” and he wrote about the challenges of working plein air:

“The clouds will not wait while we copy their heaps or clefts; the shadows will escape us as we try to shape them…in all that we do now, therefore, direct imitation becomes more or less impossible…whatever skill you may reach, there will always be need of judgment to choose, and of speed to seize certain things that are principal…”[1]

In this time of climate change we find graceful transitions vanish and blunt onsets prevail. Last week it was dry, and the threat of fire loomed. This week it is wet, and we are battered by wind, flood, ice, and snow. Our civilization believes it can conquer and control nature and in our acts of hubris, we have pushed nature to extremes. Writing about two great painters, Giorgione and J.M.W. Turner, Ruskin compared the civilizations in which they lived. The architecture of the Venetian Republic impacted Giorgione greatly; he “saw only strength and immortality, could not but paint both; conceived the form of man as deathless, calm with power, and fiery with life.”[2] And Turner, living in Victorian England saw the exact reverse of this “in the present work of men, meanness, aimlessess, unsightliness: thin-walled, lath-divided, narrow-garreted houses of clay; booths of a darksome Vanity Fair, busily base…as to the strength of men to Giorgione, to Turner their weakness and vileness were alone visible…[Turner] must be a painter of the strength of nature; there was no beauty elsewhere…he must also paint the labour and sorrow and passing away of men; this was the great human truth visible to him.”[3]

[1] Ruskin, John. The Elements of Drawing. Aquitaine Media, 2010. p.92

[2] Ruskin, John. Unto This Last and Other Writings. London: Penguin, 1997. p.151

[3] Ruskin, John. Unto This Last and Other Writings. London: Penguin, 1997. p.151

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