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The Seasons in Art

Updated Thursday, 6th February 2020

How have the seasons been represented in art over the centuries? These films explore this question by analysing paintings by famous artists from Bruegel to Van Gogh as well as some less well-known works.

This collection explores the changing ways that the seasons of the year have been represented in art over the centuries. It consists of four short films, each of which focuses on one season. The films analyse several famous paintings by some of the best-known names in the history of art as well as well as introducing some spectacular images by less familiar artists.

The works discussed range chronologically from the first century AD to the late nineteenth century and extend geographically from Britain and France to Russia and Japan. In analysing them, the films address some of the major developments in the history of art, from the revival of interest in classical antiquity in Renaissance Italy to the concern with capturing shifting effects of light and colour typical of French Impressionism.

At the same time, the films demonstrate how works of art are shaped by the culture and society of the time and place in which they originated. As you will see, the way that the seasons are depicted in the earlier examples reflect the beliefs and customs of ancient and medieval Europe. By contrast, later images need to be understood in relation to such modern innovations as summer holidays and central heating, which have transformed our experience of the natural world.

Spring

This film explores how artists have depicted spring, the season of new life, with reference to works by such painters as Sandro Botticelli, Rembrandt and Vincent Van Gogh.

Transcript

Hello, I’m Emma Barker, senior lecturer in art history at the Open University, and I’m ending my little series of films about the seasons in art by considering spring.

And the only possible place to start is with Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera, painted in Florence around 1480, surely the most famous picture of spring in western art. Although there’s been a huge amount of debate about exactly what exactly it depicts, It clearly shows nature springing back into life after the chill of winter. The figure who most directly symbolises the season is the goddess, Flora, who is shown on the right in a flower-covered dress, scattering roses on the ground.

As you may know, Flora is the Latin word for flower, which became the name for the Roman goddess of flowers and the spring – one of my favourite depictions of Flora is this wall painting from a villa at Stabiae, near Pompeii, which has survived as a result of the volcanic eruption which buried the city in AD79. In fact, it’s not certain that this young woman gathering flowers against a green backdrop really is Flora – she could be another classical goddess associated with the spring, like Persephone.  

With later European art, it’s often not clear whether a picture of young woman with flowers is supposed to be the goddess Flora or not. Often it’s a bit of both. This example by the 16th century Venetian painter Titian probably depicts a high-class prostitute - by showing her with spring flowers, in the role of Flora, he gives her a kind of classical respectability. Titian’s painting is thought to have inspired the 17th century Dutch painter Rembrandt’s painting of his wife Saskia in the role of Flora.

Increasingly, however, artists turned away from classical mythology in their depiction of spring. Some, like the 17th Spanish painter, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, turned Flora into a modern-day flower seller; this picture was originally one of a set of a four depicting the seasons, so we know for certain that it was intended as an allegory of spring. As with Titian’s Flora, there’s an erotic subtext – this poor girl offers up not only her flowers to the viewer but also herself.

In the 19th century, artists started to focus more on flowering trees in their depiction of spring - as in the English painter John Everett Millais’s Spring (Apple Blossoms). Millais still follow tradition in  associating the season with young girls – by contrast, the French painter Camille Pissarro omitted any human presence from his painting of trees in blossom in the town of Pontoise, while Vincent Van Gogh’s painting of almond blossom eliminates everything but branches against a blue sky.

I should also say that the view of spring that you find in Van Gogh’s painting is closely derived from Japanese prints, such as this one by Hokusai of branches of cherry blossom against a deep blue sky. In Japanese culture, as you may know, the viewing of cherry blossom in the spring is an important seasonal ritual – because the blossoms last only a few weeks, they symbolise not just the spring itself, the regeneration of nature at this time of year, but also the fleeting nature of life.   

Finally, I should also point out that spring does not occur in the same way everywhere in the world. In Russia, for example, the coming of spring brings the thaw, when the accumulated snow and ice of the winter melts, so that the season is associated with mud and flooding, as you can see from Isaac Levitan’s Spring Flood, which presents quite an austere view of spring, with the trees only just coming into leaf, but the blue sky means that it’s still quite an optimistic one.

Picture List

1 Sandro Botticelli, Primavera, c. 1480 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Botticelli-primavera.jpg

2. Flora, first century AD. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flora_MAN_Napoli_Inv8834.jpg

3. Titian, Flora¸c. 1515. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Flora_(Titian)#/media/File:Flora,_por_Tiziano.jpg

4 Rembrandt, Flora, c. 1654.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/78/Rembrandt%2C_Flora%2C_circa_1654%2C_Metropolitan_Museum_of_Art%2C_New_York.jpg

5 Bartolomé Esteban Murillo , The Flower Girl (Spring), c.1665-70. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Murillo,_Bartolom%C3%A9_Est%C3%A9ban_-_The_Flower_Girl_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

6. John Everett Millais, Spring (Apple Blossoms), 1859 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Everett_Millais_-_Spring_(Apple_Blossoms).JPG

7. Camille Pissarro,  Flowering Trees, Pontoise, Spring, 1877 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Camille_Pissarro_-_Orchard_with_Flowering_Trees,_Spring,_Pontoise.JPG

8 Vincent Van Gogh, Almond Blossom, 1890. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Blossoming_Almond_Tree_by_Vincent_van_Gogh#/media/File:Amandelbloesem_-_s0176V1962_-_Van_Gogh_Museum.jpg

9 Katsushika Hokusai, Bullfinch and Weeping Cherry Blossoms, c. 1834

https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=hokusai+cherry+blossom+wikimedia+commons&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjOgYvriPDgAhUaVBUIHdBXDVQQ_AUIDigB&biw=1366&bih=625#imgrc=XhI1lW9HBkYDhM nb this image is upside down.

10. Isaac Levitan, Spring Flood, 1897. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LevitanSpringFlood.jpg

http://www.dailyartmagazine.com/art-masterpieces-to-welcome-spring/

https://seasonsyear.com/art-spring

https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-10-artists-unpacked-symbolism-four-seasons

Summer

This film explores how artists have evoked by the heat of summer, with reference to works by such painters as Peter Bruegel, Claude Monet and Georges Seurat.

Transcript

Hello, I’m Emma Barker, a lecturer in art history at the OU, and this amazing summer we’re having has made me think about how artists have depicted summer over the centuries.

Before the modern era, people’s sense of the different times of year was really shaped by the cycle of nature, so for them summer meant the fruits and flowers that the earth produces at this season, as you can see from this bizarre figure personifying summer by the 16th century Italian artist Giovanni Arcimboldo. The main occupation that people associated with summer was not going on holiday, as now, but working in the fields to get in the harvest – as you can see in the 16th century Netherlandish artist Peter Breugel’s painting of harvesters, part of a series of paintings depicting the seasons.  Most of the figures are in fact not working but having their lunch – the harsh reality of manual labour in the heat of the sun would not have made for such an appealing picture for the rich man for whom the picture was painted.

In modern times, however, from around 1800, you get the emergence of the modern summer holiday, as people started to go to the seaside for an annual break.  One of the beach resorts favoured by the Victorian middle classes was Ramsgate, the subject of a popular painting by the artist William Powell Frith – it’s a large and complex picture showing many figures that took months to paint. Very different is this tiny painting by the late 19th century French artist Claude Monet of his wife and a friend on the beach at the fashionable resort of Trouville – this instead was very rapidly painted on the spot – there are grains of sand embedded into the paint surface, blown onto the canvas by the wind evident in the picture itself in the scudding clouds in the sky.

What seems strange by today’s standards is that both pictures show figures sitting on the beach fully dressed – even when they did go in the water, middle-class people of this period wore voluminous bathing costumes. By contrast, Bathers at Asnières by another French artist, Georges Seurat shows working-class youths taking a dip in the river Seine, with the factories of Paris blowing smoke in the distance - they may be too poor to take a holiday but they certainly look more relaxed than the rich.  So what all of these paintings together reveal is the way that our understanding of summer and our experience of it has varied over the centuries, depending on culture, class and other factors.

Autumn

This film explores how artists have depicted the fruits and foliage of Autumn, with reference to works by such painters as Caravaggio, Francisco Goya and John Everett Millais.

Transcript

Hello, I’m Emma Barker, senior lecturer in art history. Now that autumn is here, I’ve been thinking about how artists have depicted this season over the centuries.

In European art, autumn is traditionally represented as the season of the grape harvest, as in this image of the month of September from this richly decorated book of hours, that is, a volume of prayers, which was created for a French prince, the Duke of Berry, in the fifteenth century. Several artists worked on the manuscript, which took decades to complete. The image of September shows peasants working in the fields below the lofty towers of the royal château of Saumur, making clear the gulf between the great and the humble in this period.

During the Renaissance, with the revival of interest in classical antiquity, autumn began instead to be personified in the figure of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, feasting and fertility, whom you see here in a late sixteenth-century painting by the Italian painter, Caravaggio. The god here appears as a dreamy-looking youth with grapes and vine leaves in his hair, fingering the sash of his robe; on the table in front of him is a carafe of wine and a bowl of fruit; he holds out a glass as if inviting us to join him. The viewer is encouraged to enjoy nature’s bounty and to indulge in sensual pleasure.

Increasingly, European artists represented autumn as a pastoral subject, in which rustic figures are shown against the backdrop of nature, not actually working but rather at leisure. Such images had a primarily decorative function; a late eighteenth-century painting of the grape harvest by the Spanish artist, Francisco Goya, for example, originated as a design for a tapestry. In the picture, a young man, a kind of modern Bacchus, offers a lady a bunch of grapes; a little boy straining to reach the grapes makes clear that the pleasures of autumn are reserved strictly for grown-ups.

In the nineteenth century, with the rise of Romanticism, a more melancholy treatment of autumn develops, as can be seen from the British artist John Everett Millais’s painting, Autumn Leaves, in which the girls around the bonfire are silhouetted against a darkening sky, reminding us that their youth and beauty must, like the leaves, wither and die. Millais here echoes countless poets, who had mournfully characterised autumn as the season of decay; his contemporary, Tennyson, for example, wrote of looking tearfully ‘on the happy autumn fields/And thinking of the days that are no more’.

By contrast, the French painter, Claude Monet, focused on the purely visual spectacle created by autumn leaves in his painting, Autumn Effect at Argenteuil, which shows a scene on the river Seine not far from Paris. A characteristic work of Impressionism, it uses much brighter, lighter colours than European artists had previously employed. The contrast between the golden leaves and pale blue sky demonstrates Monet’s debt to Japanese prints by artists such as Hiroshige, which he collected enthusiastically.

So you can see that, in every period, up to the present day, autumn has been depicted in different ways, as artistic practice and the wider culture have changed. And that’s only talking about Europe; Japan, of course, has its own traditions to do with Autumn, which have had an impact on Western culture; many people in North America now take trips to see Autumn foliage, as the Japanese have done for centuries.

 

Images

Limbourg brothers and Jean Colombe, September from the Les très riches heures du duc de Berry, c. 1416-18 and c. 1485. Musée Condé, Chantilly, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Les_Tr%C3%A8s_Riches_Heures_du_duc_de_Berry_septembre.jpg

Caravaggio, Bacchus, c. 1595. Uffizi Gallery, Florence. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Bacchus_by_Caravaggio#/media/File:Bacchus-Caravaggio_(1595).jpg

Francisco Goya, The Grape Harvest or Autumn, 1786. Prado Museum, Madrid.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Goya_-_Die_Weinlese_-_1786.jpeg

John Everett Millais, Autumn Leaves, 1856. Manchester City Art Galleries, Manchester.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Millais_leaves.jpg

Claude Monet, Autumn Effect Argenteuil, 1873, Courtauld Institute of Art, London
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Claude_Monet_027.jpg#/media/File:Monet,_Autumn_Effect_at_Argenteuil,_Courtauld_Gallery.jpg (This picture shows the frame but the only other Wikimedia commons image of it has horrible colours – this isn’t great, but it is better. It would be good if another, much better image could be used).

Utagawa Hiroshige, The ‘Monkey Bridge’ in Kai Province, c. 1853.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hiroshige_Kai_Saruhashi.jpg.

Winter

This film explores how artists have evoked the chill of winter, with reference to works by such painters as Pieter Bruegel, Caspar David Friedrich and Claude Monet.

Transcript

Hello, I’m Emma Barker, senior lecturer in art history at the OU. Now that winter is approaching, I’ve started thinking about how it has been represented in art. The paradox is that the harshest season of the year produced some particularly spectacular images –

none more so than the sixteenth-century Netherlandish painter Pieter Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow, which shows three men trudging home after a hunting trip – their hunched poses and the drooping heads of their dogs show how cold and tired they all are. They are not the focus of the scene, however, but rather serve to lead our eye into the picture, over the frozen landscape to the snowy peaks in the distance, which add a note of fantasy, given how flat the Netherlands are really.

This beautiful but chilly spectacle is designed to be enjoyed by someone safely indoors by the fire – someone like the wealthy merchant who commissioned this picture from Bruegel as part of a series of the seasons of the year. You can see how important it was to have a fire in winter from an image of the month of February from a fifteenth-century book of hours, which uses a cutaway technique to show us both the figures warming themselves indoors and those working in the cold outside.

Increasingly, however, winter landscapes were depicted as places not of work but of enjoyment – the skaters who appear in the background of Bruegel’s painting move centre stage in the work of the seventeenth century Dutch painter Hendrick Avercamp, who made a speciality of winter landscapes, particularly skating scenes - you have to remember that the period from about 1550 to 1800 was what is known as the little ice age, when it was so cold that rivers often froze over.

It was not just landscape painters who evoked winter in their art, however. Figure painters usually personified it as an old man but, when the eighteenth-century French artist, François Boucher, was commissioned to paint a series of decorative pictures of the four seasons, he chose to depict winter as a pretty young woman riding in a sleigh pushed by a young man wearing a big fur hat, Cossack style, suggesting that the whole scene is a kind of Russian fantasy.

It’s hardly surprising of course that winter should be associated with the far north. Many of the most striking images of this season are by artists from northern Europe, like the early nineteenth-century Germany artist Caspar David Friedrich. His winter landscapes features evergreen trees and a gothic church spire, so that the whole scene becomes symbolic of the north. Later the Russian artist Ivan Shishkin made the symbolism of the winter landscape explicit in his painting, In the Deep North.

By contrast, the later nineteenth century French painter Claude Monet depicts winter as a purely visual spectacle. For him, the snowy landscape is an opportunity to explore shifting effects of light and colour, as in you can see from his painting, The Magpie, where he depicts snow in shadow as blue. It’s a very different way of painting winter from Brueghel’s stark contrast of black against white – though the motif of the dark bird against white snow recalls the work of earlier artists.

Today, we can enjoy snowy weather all the more readily, thanks to the invention of central heating – but of course harsh winters are now few and far between. In an age of global warming, the snowy winter landscape is likely to become ever more remote and unfamiliar, something that we can best enjoy through looking at works of art from past.

Picture List

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow, 1565. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_Hunters_in_the_Snow_(Winter)_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

Limburg Brothers, February from the Très riches heures du duc de Berry, c. 14. Musée Condé, Chantilly. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Les_Tr%C3%A8s_Riches_Heures_du_duc_de_Berry_f%C3%A9vrier.jpg

Hendrick Avercamp, A Winter Scene with Skaters near a Castle, National Gallery, London. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Paintings_by_Hendrick_Avercamp#/media/File:Hendrick_Averkamp_A_Winter_Scene_with_Skaters_near_a_Castle.jpg

François Boucher, Winter, 17. Frick Collection, New York. https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fichier:The_Four_Seasons,_Winter_-_Boucher_1755.jpg

Caspar David Friedrich, Winter Landscape, 1811. National Gallery, London. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Winter_Landscape_with_Church_-_WGA08245.jpg

Ivan Shishkin, In the Wild North, 1891. Kiev Museum of Art, Kiev. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shishkin_na_severe_dikom1.jpg

Claude Monet, The Magpie, 1869. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Claude_Monet_-_The_Magpie_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

After watching these films...

These films have offered you a taste of the ways in which art historians analyse and interpret works of art. You have seen how an image that at first appears to present a straightforward, unproblematic depiction of a human figure or a landscape scene can be shown to have complex layers of meaning. It may prompt the viewer to think about such weighty matters as the nature of life and our place in the world. Equally, it might stimulate thoughts about the difference between our own culture and society to those of other times and places. Next time you go to an art gallery or museum, you might like to try to practice analysing and interpreting some of the works on display in this way. You might also like to take a look at some of the other art history content on OpenLearn.

 

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