Autumn officially began this week on Wednesday, September 22 and will end on December 21. It is the season of harvest, and is associated with abundance, maturity, change. It is the season of pumpkins, apples, grapes and cornucopias. Depictions associated with the months and seasons of the year were included in illuminated manuscripts beginning in the Middle Ages. Individual paintings representing the seasons were few until the 18th Century.
Italian artist Guiseppe Archimboldo (1526/27 to 1593) served as court portrait painter to the Austrian Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor’s Ferdinand I in Vienna, and Maximilian II and his son Rudolf II in Prague. Archimboldo dutifully painted portraits in the traditional manner. However, he collaborated with humanist poet Giovanni Baptista Fonteo to create art works to glorify the expanding Hapsburg empire. The Hapsburg’s welcomed all distinguished scholars of the day and encouraged learning. The vision was to create a utopia on earth. To achieve this goal, Archimboldo created a new and unique themes in many of his paintings.
“Autumn” (1573) (30” x 25’’) is one of The Four Seasons series Archimboldo offered in 1569 to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian II. The set was accompanied by a poem by Fonteo. “Autumn” is portrayed as a mature male with a face of apples and pears, a pomegranate chin, and a mushroom ear with a fig earring. His lips are chestnuts; his beard, eyebrows, and mustache are wheat. His neck consists of pears and root vegetables, and it rises from a broken wooden slat barrel tied with willow branches. His curly hair is bunches of grapes and his hat is a pumpkin. Archimboldo created a potpourri of a fruits and vegetables of the season to stimulate the taste, smell, touch and sight of the viewer. The Four Seasons were intended to recognize the abundance, peace, and glory of the Hapsburg empire. This set was so well received that Maximillian had a copy made for a gift to Augustus of Saxony.
Archimboldo painted fruits and vegetables of the Autumn season. However, the variety of golds, oranges and reds of Fall foliage also come to mind. Landscapes began as the principal subject for Protestant Dutch painters of the 17th Century. However, it is the French Impressionist who stimulate a viewer’s sense of sight. Camille Pissarro offers spectacular Autumn views. He and his family moved from Paris to the suburbs of Louveciennes where they lived from 1869 to 1872.
“Landscape at Louvecinnes, Autumn” (1870) (35’’ x 43’’) is a subject Pissarro painted often. He was an early proponent of painting in plein air (outdoors), and thus was able to capture the color and light in nature. In the painting, a woman with a bucket has stopped to talk with a school boy carrying his satchel. It is early Fall; some tree leaves are just beginning to turn, and rows of green plants are ready for harvest. The French village of Louveciennes is peaceful under a blue sky tinged with the gray tones of Autumn.
In “Trees on a Hill, Autumn, Landscape in Louvencinnes” (1872) the trees wear brilliant golds, oranges, and reds leaves. The trunks are brown and dark blue-black. Leaves have fallen to the ground and the blue sky has changed to a chilly light grey. His understanding and rendering of the color and light found in nature is obvious. He enjoyed painting the scenes outside his door and the common folk in his village neighborhood throughout the seasons of the year.
Pissarro was older than most of the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists painters, and he served as a mentor and father figure to them. His influence on the development and spread of Impressionism was acknowledged by many of them and his advice was eagerly sought. He recommended: “Work at the same time on sky, water, branches, ground, keeping everything going on an equal basis… Don’t be afraid of putting on color… Paint generously and unhesitatingly, for it is best not to lose the first impression.”
In “Grove of Chestnut Trees at Louvecinnes” (1872), Pissarro depicts Autumn drawing to a close and the leaves have fallen from the trees. The harvest is finished, with the exception of chestnuts the last of Autumn’s abundance. Several tall and sturdy chestnut trees stand in the cold winter sunlight. Pissarro uses a sharp chartreuse paint to create a harsh chill on the earth. In the shadows rusts and golds are used. Autumn is also the season of change and maturity. One large chestnut trunk is split and will fall to the earth. The trees life and usefulness will continue as it is recycled into lumber for building.
Chestnut trees have a symbolic history representing fertility, abundance and longevity. They were cultivated in ancient Greece over 3000 years ago, and have been recognized as a reliable and abundant food source even since. Chestnut trees live from 200 to 800 years and they grow from 60 feet to 200 feet tall. The nuts have medicinal as well as nutritional value; the nuts are abundant and can be stored for a long time. The wood of the tree is hard and is used for construction.
Chestnuts can be eaten raw or roasted, which brings to mind the change of seasons from Autumn to Winter, when roasted chestnuts are enjoyed by so many.
Louveciennes was the Pissarro family home until 1872. The Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) interrupted their stay. They fled to England. Pissarro was forced to leave behind 1500 paintings made over the period of 20 years. When he returned in 1872, he found the studio had been used to quarter Prussian soldiers. They had destroyed all but 40 paintings. Fortunately, he was not discouraged and continued to paint until his death in 1903. He participated in all eight of the Impressionist exhibitions from 1874 until 1886. Pissarro’s words are hardly adequate to sum up his enormous contributions to art, but he was at heart a simple man: “Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing.” “God takes care of imbeciles, little children, and artists.”
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.