Ivan Choultse: Painter of Light and Snow

Ivan Choultse: Painter of Light and Snow
"Silver Frost," circa 1923, by Ivan Choultse. (Public Domain)
Yvonne Marcotte

Landscape artists paint the physical beauty around them. Some who live in northern regions have adapted to harsher environments, and this is the setting that suits them to do their art.

Russian artists reveal the wonders of nature in every season, especially winter. Although early Russian landscape painters imitated Italian painters, they soon explored and refined their own style. Landscape artists such as Alexei Venetsianov (1780–1847), Nikifor Krylov (1802–31), and Grigory Soroka (1823–64) paved the way for a talented landscape artist who excelled in painting snowscapes: Ivan Fedorovich Choultse (1874–1939).

Choultse, whose family lived in St. Petersburg for several generations, was educated as an engineer. He worked on projects in Finland for several years and found himself fascinated by how electricity generated light.

Yet he was drawn to painting. Around the age of 30, Choultse took classes with landscape great Konstantin Yakovlevich Kryzhitsky, a member of the prestigious Imperial Academy of Arts that was founded by Peter the Great. In 1910, Kryzhitsky took his student to paint in the Arctic island of Spitsbergen. He trained and mentored Choultse in traditional academic principles of painting.

The Dutch popularized landscape (“landschap”) painting, which was officially recognized as a minor genre at the end of the 15th century. In the 17th century, Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin perfected a compositional structure for landscape painting, called “coulisse.” Natural objects, such as trees, frame the painting like a stage curtain. The coulisse serves as a foil to the lighter, distant background. Choultse used this compositional technique in his paintings.

Political Upheaval

His landscapes were in demand and appreciated by the Fabergé family and Romanov royals. But soon, political turmoil would change his career forever—the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. His art was not in the social realism style expected by the new political leaders, and he was faced with a hard decision.

Artists were recruited to sell the Bolsheviks' propaganda to the Russian people. While this was carried out mostly by poster artists, all artists were expected to conform to the new government's thinking. Choultse did not accept this and left in 1919 to work in France. He returned in 1921 as he held out hope that he could do his art under the new regime as part of the Society of Individualist Artists.

He soon emigrated for good. For many years, Choultse painted in the mountains of France and Switzerland, which reminded him of his homeland. He completed many works in the Engadine region of Switzerland. His paintings were exhibited in 1923 at the Paris Spring Salon and quickly sold out.

Light, Shadow, and Snow

The most common environmental factor in painting landscapes in the north is snow, which allows artists an opportunity to study the unique light, colors, and shadows that only snow cover provides. Painting snow presents many challenges, especially the intense light reflected by the snow, which makes the sunlit areas too bright and the shadows not able to be seen.

Artists painting in the winter have discovered that shadows on snow have different colors depending on the time of day. They could be gray at one time and blue at another. Depending on the sun’s position, the palette could be cooler or warmer. Amazingly, while most landscapes present the ground as darker than the sky, a snowy landscape could actually be lighter than the sky above.

Choultse painted many scenes where the ocean or lakeshores and waterways played off well with the snow-filled terrain. His winter sunsets are drenched in warm oranges, yellows, and deep reds, while his morning settings show cool pinks.

 "Winter Sunset," circa 1920, by Ivan Choultse. (Public Domain)
"Winter Sunset," circa 1920, by Ivan Choultse. (Public Domain)

He didn't paint only snowscapes. Choultse's painting "Wheatfields" shows the influence of John Constable, landscape painter of the English countryside, in the careful depiction of billowing clouds and composition of coulisse.

 "Wheatfields," circa 1921, by Ivan Choultse. (Public Domain)
"Wheatfields," circa 1921, by Ivan Choultse. (Public Domain)

His landscape painting of Engadine, Switzerland, presents an early morning scene with bright blue shadows with dashes of pink and spikes of frost that glisten on the trees. Water flows in the center of a small stream, which could indicate a heavy snow at the beginning of winter or a late ice storm that covers trees with sparkling ice crystals. The shimmering trees seem to bring a message of hope that things will warm up soon.

 "Winter Morning - Engadine," circa 1921, by Ivan Choultse. (Public Domain)
"Winter Morning - Engadine," circa 1921, by Ivan Choultse. (Public Domain)

His painting of bare trees near a pond appears to be set in the early morning, with its blue shadows and warm tones on the trees. Compositionally, the trees present a vertical balance to the horizontal shore of the pond that is reflecting the trees. Bumps and mounds of snow along the shore, with bare bushes peeking out from under snow, show higher snow areas with pink shadows. The solid blue sky in the background is merely the canvas for the lighter scene below. A layer of trees on the horizon line forms a line that separates earth from sky.

 "A November Evening," circa 1923, by Ivan Choultse. (Public Domain)
"A November Evening," circa 1923, by Ivan Choultse. (Public Domain)

Meditation on Nature

Landscape artists from northern climes remind us of the beauty of winter. Their art allows us to enjoy our own memories: snow angels, snow sculptures, or cross-country skiing in the cold, quiet air. They give us nature in the coldest season.

G. Blair Laing wrote about Choultse in “Memoirs of an Art Dealer”: “He painted spectacular snow scenes in which the light seems to come from behind the canvas and glow.”

Choultse’s work is shown in many museums, including Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts, the St. Petersburg Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic, and the Museum of Art in Indianapolis.