Le Bréau sous la neige depicts a winter scene at the Château du Bréau, the country home that Walter and Matilda Gay first rented in 1905 and then acquired in 1907. In the foreground of the painting, Gay has rendered the corner of a snow-covered terrace edged by the tops of evergreen shrubs that grew beside the low parapet walls of the elevated terrace. As a focal point of the composition, a large stone ornamental urn sits at the juncture of the terrace’s walls, within which, a bench is seen obscured by a mound of snow several inches high. Viewed in the distance are a pyramidal-roofed pavilion and a round stone fountain in a coulisse of trees, part of the three hundred-acre walled park of Le Bréau.
The terrace depicted in this painting was one that lay at the rear of the château, rising above the encompassing moat, a small section of which is seen in the left middle distance. Gay seems to have particularly liked painting the relationship of the moat to the house and gardens, as several compositions exist, a few of which show the corner of this terrace as seen from across the moat. (1) A former Director of Dumbarton Oaks, William Tyler, who as a child stayed with the Gays at Le Bréau during the first World War, remembered well this terrace and reminisced: "[At] Dumbarton Oaks is a painting by Walter Gay of the corner of the terrace at ‘Le Bréau,’ with a snow-covered bench, where I used to play with ‘Poilu,’ while my nurse sat sewing. Across the waters of the moat is seen the little summer pavilion with a thatched roof, under the trees, in which we often took shelter." (2)
This painting and the other exterior renderings of the Château du Bréau are exceptional in Walter Gay’s work of the early decades of the twentieth century, a period when the artist began to concentrate almost exclusively on depicting uninhabited interior spaces. Nevertheless, his interior and exterior compositions share similar qualities. Both evoke a calm and quiet, what Gay termed “the spirit” of an ordered and tasteful world that remains free of any intrusion of modern life. Both offer oblique, seemingly anecdotal vignettes—corners, details—of their subjects rather than more rigidly-organized, formal portrayals. Moreover, the transient elements that Gay often allows into his compositions—the books piled on table tops or the drifting snow in Le Bréau sous la neige—only serve to accentuate the underlying immutable harmony and perfection of the depicted building, garden, or room interior. In all of his paintings, Gay concentrates on lighting effects, especially as they reveal and inform color and texture. In Le Bréau sous la neige, the blanketing snow is achieved in the impressionist manner with swift, broad brushstrokes and is colored in muted, dull tones that suggest the reflection of the indirect light of a wintery sky. It is clear, however, that when the snow melts, as when a person enters an uninhabited room, life will return to the space.
Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss were close friends of the Gays, especially between 1912 and 1919 when the Blisses lived in Paris and Robert Bliss was Secretary and later Counselor of the U.S. Embassy. Before they left Paris in 1919 to go to Washington, the Blisses acquired two of Walter Gay’s paintings, this oil and a watercolor, The Open Window, Le Bréau (HC.P.1919.02.[WC]). The Blisses greatly admired the Château du Bréau and its formal parterre gardens, with their pools, fountains, ornaments, and follies. Indeed, these presage the garden rooms that Mildred Bliss and Beatrix Farrand would later design at Dumbarton Oaks, and although the Blisses would come to have a fondness for Walter Gay’s more typical renderings of Le Bréau’s interiors, it is perhaps telling that the Blisses’ first purchases of Gay’s paintings were of the château’s architecture and gardens.
(1) See William Rieder, A Charmed Couple, The Art and Life of Walter and Matilda Gay (New York, 2000), figs. 29 and 30, and Sacred Art, Secular Context, Objects of Art from the Byzantine Collection of Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C., Accompanied by American Paintings from the Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, Asen Kirin, editor (Athens, GA, 2005), fig. 80A.
(2) Sacred Art, Secular Context, 172.
Sacred Art, Secular Context, Objects of Art from the Byzantine Collection of Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C., Accompanied by American Paintings from the Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss. Asen Kirin, editor. Athens, GA: Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, 2005, 172-173, no. 80.
Carder, James. American Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010, 70-73, no. 9.
The Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, GA, Sacred Art, Secular Context, May 15-November 6, 2005, no. 80.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., American Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Selections from the House Collection, October 26, 2010-February 13, 2011, no. 9.
Purchased from the artist by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, 1916.
Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, Paris and Washington, D.C., until November 29, 1940.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, House Collection, Washington, D.C.