The Seasons in Art and Writing
from 17th Century Flanders to Impressionism to Modernismby Judith Brown
Claude Monet, Haystacks End of Summer Morning (1890-1891)
Western Art, Seasons, and the Soul
The passage of seasons resonates deeply within the human soul. Artists have sought throughout the centuries to give expression to seasons. From the mid-19th century onwards in part under the catalytic influence of newly discovered Japanese art, it was amongst the impressionists that the theme suddenly flourished. Following on from there, artistic treatment of seasons took on new dimensions with the post Impressionists and modernists.
Antecedents to the mid-19th century re-awakening of focus on seasonality in Western art included the art schools of early seventeenth century Flanders. A prime example there is the work of Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638). His emphasis was on portraying the seasons as a cycle of human activity. In his work, nature is an all-powerful force, and art has a pastoral theme.
It is quite different when we progress to the Impressionists. In particular they composed sets of paintings unified by the theme of how the passing of seasons one into the next influences our perceptions. They puzzle over how reality changes in the eye of the perceiver according to the overall shades and combinations of light in its different colors.
Seasons also though came to have spiritual significance partly aroused by (though not the same as) what the impressionists found in Japanese art, in which the treatment of the seasons is blended with Shinto and Buddhist influences.
Some impressionists took the spiritual content of seasonality in art beyond what they found in Japanese art. For example, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), in his painting (as described below), The Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881), makes a connection between the seasons of nature and the seasons of life.
Impressionist Re-Awakening to Seasons Resonates in Turgenev and Chekhov
This matching of season of life with season of the year which we find in some impressionism became a feature of Russian literature both contemporary and a little later. Seasons of life in literature means not just the staged passage from youth to old age but also the birth of hope within the spirit of a given individual or set of individuals progressing to apparent near fulfilment, then on to disappointment and futility. We do not find this dimension of seasonality in the human soul in impressionism but it is apparent in the works of Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883) and Anton Chekhov (1860-1904).
For example, Turgenev in Fathers and Sons (1862), put the comforting words of Bazarov’s father in late summer with a sense of autumn approaching, where he consoles himself and his wife on the pain of their young adult son, a medical student and nihilist, suddenly deciding to end his visit to them; Never mind, my Vasia. True, our son has broken away from us; he is like a falcon – he has flown hither, he has flown thither, as he willed: but you and I, like lichen in a hollow tree, are still side by side, we are not parted.1
In the play The Cherry Orchard (1904), Chekhov portrays the hopes of Madame Ranevskaya and her family when she returns from Paris having broken with her dissolute lover there who has run through her money. She arrives one night in late Spring to her family estate (in Southern Russia) amidst an atypical snowstorm. As the cherry orchard blossoms it seems that renaissance is really at hand made possible by hard-headed business advice. But hope is dashed and it is in autumn as the leaves begin to fall that the main characters start on paths of known futility or absurd illusionism; a winter of despair lies ahead.
We see one parallel between the evolving treatment of seasons amongst the post-impressionists and modernists with the work of Chekhov. He is widely regarded jointly with his producer Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938) as the father of theatrical modernism.
Chekhov’s modernism in the theatre was sparked in part by a grand philosophical idea, Bergson’s theory of laugher and its implications for comedy (Chekhov maintained that the utter inflexibility of the main characters makes “Cherry Orchard” a comedy). We see a parallel role of philosophy in art modernism when we turn from the impressionists and post impressionists to Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944).
New Theory of Color Breaks with Impressionist Treatment of Seasons
The theory of color developed by Kandinsky was central to the emergence of modernism in art which he pioneered, and we shall see how this applied to how modernists in art portrayed seasons. We find there an interplay between color and emotion and more profoundly spirituality, with color no longer aimed at portraying reality as in impressionism. Though clearly breaking with impressionism, Kandinsky’s ideas had their roots there. He had been inspired by seeing Monet’s series of haystacks2 which were painted between 1890-1891, at an exhibition in Moscow, to the extent that he was led to change career from law to painting.
Kandinsky as an artist was driven by his own theory about the meaning of color, an extraordinary combination. Yes, there are historical examples of writers, artists and musical composers motivated by a leading contemporary philosophical idea – but here the idea is of the artist’s own conception. Having published a book on color, Kandinsky was a theorist as well as an artist, but he was also preoccupied with music and believed that the essence of music resonates with that of art.
In the steps of Kandinsky’s launch of modernism attached to his theory of colou, we should consider Marc Chagall (1887-1985), also Russian. Chagall’s highly individual ideas of color and expression should make us reticent to over – label his work. Chagall doubtless also strived to convey spirituality by use of color. He was inspired by theatre.
A review of a set of paintings illustrates the general themes outlined so far. The selection starts with the original Flemish depiction of seasons in the work of Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Here the theme is very much how seasons dictate economic activity throughout the year, such a key aspect of human existence in pre modern society.
The Seasons in 17th Century Flemish Art
Pieter Brueghel the Younger was known for producing copies of the portfolio of his father, Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525-1569), as well as his own work. Brueghel the Elder was active in 16th century Flanders and was known for representing daily life of laborers. More generally, Flemish art was infused with technical skill, itself a reflection of the realism of the artists. Brueghel the Younger’s work reveals a realistic perception of the world. The works contain satirical observations, and compared with the impressionists, are less concerned with the aesthetic.
Looking at The Four Seasons (1624), we see that the year is divided into four parts anti -clockwise, spring (top right-hand corner), through to winter (bottom right-hand corner). The work as a whole is a parody, a commentary on nature’s relationship with humans and the toil exerted. It is detailed with symbols and emblems, such as the man relieving his thirst in summer, and the snowy rooftops in winter. It is noteworthy that in this painting, all four panels are equally dark and there is no attention paid to lighting effects. There is no obvious emotional use of color.
There is, though, a focus on the passage of time. One can view the painting as representing the economic activity associated with each season, or as the year as whole. The overriding message is how economic and social life through the year is dictated by the passage of seasons alongside nature. For example, Spring consists of gardening by the workers and there is a cheerful atmosphere, with nature blooming. Summer is the time of gathering produce. We notice the green trees in the hilly background. Autumn’s main focus is the slaughter in the foreground, a seasonal activity in the seventeenth century, and the trees are in the process of losing or have lost their leaves. Finally, winter is snowy and involves a feast. The people are seemingly merry despite the cold, and some look like they are dancing. The work adheres to the traditional allegorical interpretations of the seasons: a cold winter, very hot summer. However, the human figures are static, two-dimensional peasants – no connection is made with the viewer.
Impressionism: Claude Monet’s Haystacks Series, 1890 – 1891
Fast forward to the impressionists, we see revolutionary change with respect to lighting and color.
Between 1890 and 1891 Claude Monet (1840-1926) produced a series of haystack paintings, well into the impressionist period, we see an exploration of lighting. Monet had been one of the founders of impressionism. In contradiction to the earlier Flemish depiction of seasons, there is no economic narrative in Monet’s depiction.
Haystacks”is the title of a series of 25 paintings. They show differences in perception of light across various times of day and season. There is huge range in the use of colors. We may statically think of haystacks as being essentially yellow. This is just not the case as the times of day, seasons and weather determine how light translates the haystacks into our actual perceptions of them. They were painted in fields near Monet’s home in Giverny, France. The haystack series makes the mundane magical.
Monet painted en plein air outdoors, whereby he could observe the natural lighting of the time of day and season. In line with the other Impressionists, he sought not to tell a story, but to give over an “impression”, however fleeting. Impressionists believed that although an object stays the same, lighting can radically change our perception of it. Similarly, reflections can make shapes less discernible, or blurred, all this has the effect of making the impressionist movement radical and abstract for its time, with less emphasis on precision, centring on landscape and often outdoors. We see in the haystacks no artistic hesitation and indeed rather predilection to represent empty spaces in their fullness – there are none of the crowded scenes of earlier artistic works including the Flemish. This embracing of emptiness can be traced directly to the influence of Japanese art on Monet and the Impressionists.
Plato tells us that the beauty of the tree is in the eye of the beholder and so it is with these haystacks; there is nonetheless a clear objectivity in the study into how light, shades and shadows all change through the year.
Blue is the predominant color in The Snow Morning (1890-1891); the haystack on a winter morning. The use of blue here is driven by a zest to represent reality as it is, rather than in accordance (as we shall see later with modernists) with an idea of color being used directly to stir different emotions. Interestingly, as we shall see below in discussing modernism, blue is the heavenly color according to Kandinsky’s theory.3 It carries undertones of the infinite, especially at the point where the sky meets the sea. Kandinsky sees blue as calming, especially in its lighter shades.4 In The Snow Morning the blue is the reflection of the sky in snow. It may evoke the coldness of the season, especially as it is contrasted against the brown of the haystack. We should entertain the likelihood that Monet harbored the idea of conveying emotion through color, as well as making a study of light.
Snow Morning brings a totally different presentation of the season compared to its traditional allegorical meaning of despair. In impressionism, seasonality is in part a state of mind, where light effects dominate and come together in a way which influence our emotional state.
This emotional aspect of the treatment of seasons is especially pertinent to that period of time when one season is changing into the next. This is the subject of Monet’s painting of haystacks on a morning during late summer. Many viewers of this work would surely be touched by a tinge of sadness about approaching autumn.
This focus on the change – how one season morphs into the next – is a key characteristic of Japanese portrayal of seasons. Japanese art alludes to the fleetingness of time by combining two seasons together in the same work. Features of one season might overlap with the one adjacent to it in the particular painting. This is illustrated through the wall partitions artistically designed for Buddhist monks, whereby folding screens showcased painting depicting season transition.5
It is interesting to compare Van Gogh’s post – impressionist presentation of haystacks in summer with that of Monet’s. His Haystacks, Summer (1890) is an imaginative depiction of summer. Van Gogh is less concerned with representing lighting “in reality”, but is still fascinated with the portrayal of lighting, hence the fact that the two people are situated near the haystacks in shadow, as opposed to the further off haystack in the sun. But we can hardly say that the deep blue of the sky or the vivid yellowness of the haystacks is “real.” Van Gogh’s work is a channel for the modernists, as he is not trying to convey reality through use of color like the impressionists are. There is also a storyline to show the effect of temperature on the two characters and their fatigue.
Van Gogh was not an impressionist and painting en plein air was of less significance.6 He did not employ short brushstrokes like the impressionists, and he used shades of the same color for dramatic effect. Perhaps he was employing an emotional sense of color through the dark blue sky – it certainly is noticed by the viewer. We could even say that there is an inkling in this extreme representation of summer that change is already on its way.
We can realize how much the use of color by Van Gogh, with its boldness and its somewhat loose anchoring to physical reality, has departed from impressionism by looking back at Monet. In his Springtime in Giverny, Monet utilises a violet hue characteristic of his work, creating an extraordinary perception of spring. In this season we see a beautiful range of color, and the season represents renewal.
It is not unusual to find a range of colors in the work of the impressionists, such as purple and pink to convey sunrise or sunset, which can alter the “feel” of a season.
Spring time, for Monet, became synonymous with pastel tones. We can see blossom on the trees, denoting the bloom of the natural world. The foreground is green and white. The trees make up the center of the painting; behind which stands a house in white. The blueness of the sky creates an impression of cold, yet it is a bright spring day.
Snow in Impressionism – Pissarro’s Haunting Work
The snow is full of reflective potential, as we have already seen in Monet’s Snow Morning. This same potential emerges brilliantly in Snow at Louveciennes by Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). This shows a French village in winter, where the artist lived. Light and the seasons were an important focus for Pissarro. The artist was influenced by Monet, indeed, Monet travelled to Pissarro’s home in Louveciennes, where they painted snow.7
Pissarro had studied Japanese prints which featured snow.8 Sunlight is shimmering through the trees on this snowy day, perhaps a premonition of the Spring yet to arrive. The air is crisp. The branches of the trees are strangely human like. The brown color is emphasised against the prevailing white. It has a fairy tale quality, in part due to the giant shadows such as are cast by winter’s low-lying sun. (There is a parallel here to the long blue shadow in Monet’s depiction of the haystack on a snow morning). The emotional impact is stark, haunting and even terrifying. The barren dark branches of the trees, the dark shadows, the whiteness of the snow, surely convey thoughts and fears about non-existence.
Renoir Partly Adopts Seasonal Parallels of Human Life Cycle
When we turn to Renoir we come across another aspect of seasonality as portrayed in impressionism – the joining of actual physical seasons with the seasons of life. We see this for example in the already mentioned The Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881). The people here are richly three dimensional. They are in the summer of their lives as evident from their appearance and activity. These people are from the social milieu in which Renoir worked and lived.
For example, the lady at the front left-hand side is Renoir’s girlfriend Aline Charigot and later to be, wife. The man at the foreground at the right wearing the white vest and straw hat is the impressionist artist Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894). The fact that they were friends with Renoir, sitting and posing for him, helps to explain how the painting is so startingly suggestive. However unlike in literature it is not possible for the artist to go beyond suggestion when treating seasons (here summer) and portray the story of an individual life (unless this is already familiar to most viewers as could be the case of a well-known historic or literary character). Renoir captures his characters in a natural way, enjoying a summer’s day on the balcony of a restaurant overlooking the Seine River in suburban Paris.
The painting celebrates the activity of boating, familiar to artists at the time.9Although he is known for depicting people in a light – hearted way, perhaps partaking in frivolous activities,10 this presents a set of characters with unknown narratives yet full of potential depth not unlike those from a piece of literature.
This work dates from the later period of impressionism and can be said to incorporate the mediums of figure painting, still life and landscape.11 Here we see the notable individuals sparkling with laughter and conversation, with lots of glancing around. It is a boating party stopped for lunch, comprising a group of city dwellers who are taking time to relax on a summer’s day.
Renoir manages to create an impression of lighting up the people’s inner worlds. In his painting of summer, we can perceive amongst the characters a blossoming where everything is fruitful. While in literature we see the progression of the character over time, through several seasons, in art, as here for Renoir, we see only the individuals painted at a specific time. Even so, this artist is skilful here in pushing art to the limit of what is possible in evoking season of life amidst a complexity of suggestive individual narratives.
Illustrations of How Modernists Depict Seasons: Kandinsky and Chagall
The use of physical seasonality as a symbol in human affairs has proven to be more enduring in literature than in art – as we can trace in the works for example of Kafka (think especially of The Metamorphosis) and Scott Fitzgerald (think of The Great Gatsby) in the early 20th century. In art the transition from post Impressionism to modernism seemed to leave any seemingly direct connection between the passage of seasons and the human condition behind. Perhaps this is partly because color becomes less tied to reality. Indeed, the use of color – its spiritual meaning and its full scope to emotionally capture the viewer became paramount. To demonstrate this let’s first turn to Kandinsky’s painting of winter.
Kandinsky turns allegorical meanings of seasons upside down. Winter Landscape (1909)
as a whole does not necessarily look like winter. Kandinsky followed his own spiritual direction as opposed to being guided by a set of rules, much like Chagall. In Winter Landscape, bright colors are used, and we see reflections of the sun on the snow. We note the influence of the impressionists in this regard, as despite the abstraction, there is a sense of light and shadow, like in Pissarro’s Snow landscape in Louveciennes.
The predominant colors in Kandinsky’s painting of winter are blue, yellow and violet: these represent, for Kandinsky, peace and the supernatural (blue), warmth and excitement (yellow) and morbidity (violet).12 Yellow tones are striking considering the painting depicts winter and surely highlights an aspect of the human soul which transcends or would deny seasonality. The blue color makes it serene and the yellow which, for Kandinsky, equates with happiness, gives it a cheerful essence. We see the warm glow of the sun over the landscape. Despite the brightness of color, it is calm, and this is because of the spiritual effect of the blue. The snow is painted so it looks like water, which makes everything permeable and fluid. If we look closely into the background, we can see two shades of green which for Kandinsky also represent peace and stillness.13 To this effect, Kandinsky resembles Van Gogh who used more than one shade of the same color in his brushstrokes.14 There is a strong sense of the imagination at work. It is one step ahead of the impressionists; more than a study of light. The narrow black lines for the trees do not conform to how we would picture “normal” trees. They could also be human hands or something else we perceive them to be.
Turning to Chagall and his treatment of seasons, we should note that like Kandinsky (both Russian modernists) he was inspired by the experience of pastoral Russian life.15 Chagall’s use of color is symbolic like Kandinsky’s. It is lively and contributes to the atmosphere of his paintings.
In Winter in Vitebsk (1911) we can see how Chagall, in his use of color, is not bound by rules. It is interesting to note that both Kandinsky and Chagall’s winters are not cold, but emotionally warm. Where Kandinsky does not depict people, Chagall does, but they seem impervious to winter. However, in both paintings the essence of the season shines through. Painted while he was living in Paris in 1911, “Winter in Vitebsk” offers a glimpse into his memories of Russia.16 It manages to be sentimental and convey a theme of fantasy (Chagall was influenced by the circus), despite the darkness of the sky and the thick white snow. We note the colorful clothing worn by the people (incongruous to the winter season) and the colorful house doors.
In Autumn in the Village, we see further examples of Chagall’s symbolism including the goat and the violin. It is a dreamlike setting. The symbol of the goat could be said to represent his memories of childhood, or a sense of universality with animals and humans.17
We could say that, for the modernists, the passage of seasons is not as central in their work as for the impressionists. Sometimes the modernists seem to even toy with the idea that the human soul can transcend seasonality – and their use of color in different seasonal settings emphasizes this belief, albeit sometimes with considerable subtlety. The use of color represents the depths of his being. And yet man is mortal, as in the words of Job “like a flower he comes forth, then wither away; like a fleeting shadow he does not endure.” Chagall as an artist famous for his portrayal of biblical themes, reveals this duality in his treatment of seasons.
- Turgenev, Ivan, Fathers and Sons, Enhanced Media Publishing, 2016, page 157
- Kandinsky, Wassily, Concerning the Spiritual in Art
- Seasonal Imagery in Japanese Art | Essay | The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (metmuseum.org)
- Was Van Gogh an impressionist? | Van Gogh Studio
- Pissarro Paintings and Works on Paper at the Art Institute of Chicago | Cat. 3 Snow at Louveciennes, c. 1870 (artic.edu)
- Camille Pissarro's Magical Snowy Landscapes | Art UK
- 9 Impressionist Summer Paintings to Celebrate the Season | mymodernmet.com
- Pierre-Auguste Renoir | National Gallery, London
- Luncheon of the Boating Party | The Phillips Collection
- Was Van Gogh an impressionist? | Van Gogh Studio
- Chagall and the Russian Avant-Garde: Masterpieces from the Collection of the Centre Pompidou, Paris | Art Gallery of Ontario (ago.ca)
- Snow, Winter in Vitebsk | The Metropolitan Museum of Art (metmuseum.org)
- Chagall as an Animal (20th century) | everypainterpaintshimself.com
About the Author
Judith Brown is a freelance writer who, after obtaining a masters in English from Kings College London, continued to pursue an interest in art. In her articles she draws links between art and literature, showing how both mediums have meaning in today's world.
Contact Information: firstname.lastname@example.org