Paul Gauguin painted La neige à Copenhague towards the beginning of his stay in his wife's native Denmark, which lasted from the end of 1884 to halfway through the following year. This picture has a dedication to Gauguin's brother-in-law, Theodor Gad, the brother of the artist's wife Mette, which pinpoints the year, implying that the picture was painted between the family's arrival in November and the end of December. The picture would remain in the collection of the family for almost sixty years, being passed from Theodor to his widow and then their daughter.
It was in December 1884, when La neige à Copenhague may have been painted, that Gauguin had written to his mentor, Camille Pissarro, saying, 'Where I am staying, one can paint very characteristic and pretty things. At the moment it freezes at 10 degrees and sledges pass through the streets' (Gauguin, quoted in D. Wildenstein, Gauguin, Prémier itinéraire d'un sauvage, Catalogue de l'oeuvre peint, vol. I, 1873-1888, Paris, 2001, p. 190). This shows an enthusiasm on Gauguin's part that was soon to wear. However, it is palpable in this winter scene, painted when he was still under the enchantment of the picturesque city: children sledging, a snow-caked townscape, delicate winter light made all the more evocative through the feathered brushstrokes which occasionally see flitters of colour running through the pale, dominant tones. In the catalogue raisonné of Gauguin's works, it has been surmised that this picture would have been painted from the window of either the home that he had set up with Mette at 105 Gammel Kongevej or perhaps at her mother's home. Certainly, being sheltered from the cold would help create the cosy atmosphere that infuses this picture of a winter's day.
The stay in Copenhagen was to prove a period of trials for Gauguin, who was still suffering from the loss of fortune caused by the combination of a financial crash and his decision to dedicate himself to art. Earlier in 1884, he had moved with his family to Rouen, hoping to diminish expenditure there, before opting to head to Copenhagen, hopefully benefitting from the support and connections of his wife's family. He managed to secure employment as a representative of a tarpaulin company, Dillies, hoping to export their wares from France to Denmark, largely to serve as awnings. Despite what has been revealed to be strenuous efforts on his part, this position came to little fruition. Frustrated by his isolation in terms of art, finance, language and his bohemian ways, which caused constant tension within the more conservative Danish circles within which his wife's family moved, Gauguin became increasingly volatile. Eventually he would return to France without his wife, marking the beginning of a lengthy separation. However, La neige à Copenhague was painted in the early days of Gauguin's stay, when he was doubtless still filled with hope at the prospect of conquering the Danish tarpaulin market, and also crucially of bringing modern art to Denmark, where he hoped to act as an advocate of the new modes of thought. Considering the tone with which he treated the public collections in Denmark at the time, Gauguin himself may have appreciated the fact that Copenhagen now has an impressive array of art from the period, including many of his own works, on public display. Indeed, his own Patineurs dans le parc de Frederiksberg, another of his winter views from the early part of his stay there, is now in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek.