For most of us in the northern hemisphere, autumn or fall is now well on its way. With this change of season, we suffer fog, rain, wind and the first of the frosts, harbingers of the winter to come. But with them comes one of nature’s greatest spectacles, the changing colour of leaves and leaf-fall.
Just as we go out in the Spring to view the blossom – an important activity in east Asian countries – so we go out in the autumn/fall for a spot of leaf peeping: the informal English term now widely used for viewing of autumn colours in foliage. In Japanese, it’s known more succinctly as momijigari 紅葉狩, which literally means hunting red leaves, or kōyō 紅葉 (autumn colours), or in Hokkaidō it may be termed kanpūkai 観楓会 (getting together to view the leaves).
To help us in our leaf-peeping, today we have paintings up to 1890. Tomorrow we’ll look at those since.
Oddly, prior to the nineteenth century autumnal colours are seldom seen in paintings. Arcimboldo’s unique vision of the season Autumn (1573) shows all the leaves still green. It was the rise of landscape art, particularly paintings made in front of the motif, which changed that.
Many of Samuel Palmer’s views over the rolling countryside of Kent, in the south-east of England, feature brown leaves and golden fields, to the point where these watercolours are instantly recognisable.
This was painted from Ford Madox Brown’s landlady’s bedroom window in Hampstead, looking over Hampstead Heath and the churches of Highgate, in the suburbs of London. Much of it was completed during October 1852, but he had to return to finish it during the following Spring, which must have been challenging.
Another well-known image of autumn is John Everett Millais’ Autumn Leaves (1856), in which these children have been gathering the leaf fall for a bonfire. His foliage browns are the earths seen at dusk, though, rather than the dazzling reds and oranges of full sunlight.
Hans Thoma painted this when still a student in Karlsruhe. It has the high chroma colours and gestural brushwork indicative of Impressionism, at a time when Claude Monet was still painting in a tighter, realist style.
Several of George Inness’s views of the Catskills were painted in the fall. This view Across the Hudson Valley in the Foothills of the Catskills (1868) is my favourite for his perfect timing, in catching a mixture of different colours, from just the right location to show the contrast between those trees which seem to have burst into flame, and those still left in summer’s green.
Camille Pissarro’s Avenue in the Parc de Marly looks towards the village of Marly-le-Roi from the Port du Phare, inside the grounds of the Château de Marly, not far from Paris.
Monet’s justly famous Autumn on the Seine, Argenteuil (1873) shows the contrasting colours so common in northern Europe.
Camille Pissarro painted Cows Watering in The Pond at Montfoucault near his friends the Piettes’ house in Normandy, northern France. This is a plein air oil sketch for a finished studio painting.
Winslow Homer also made full use of autumn colours. Although this painting of Autumn (1877) was made before he stayed at Cullercoats in north-east England, to my eye it is one of the best works of his early career.
Another view of the River Seine at Argenteuil near Paris, this time painted by Renoir.
Marie Bashkirtseff, protégé of Jules Bastien-Lepage, matches the duller browns of her leaves with the muddy tracks in one of the parks beside the River Seine in Paris.
Alfred Sisley’s l’Etang de Chevreuil shows a pond near the River Loing to the south-east of Paris.
This is one of the pair of paintings by Vincent van Gogh, showing this avenue of poplars with old Roman stone sarcophagi. These were the first works that van Gogh painted after Paul Gauguin joined him in Arles, on 28-31 October 1888, when they were still getting on well together. Van Gogh also painted another pair, Falling Autumn Leaves.
One of the two paintings which Paul Gauguin made at Les Alyscamps on 28-31 October 1888, which he subtitled The Three Graces at the Temple of Venus.
When the light is sufficiently strong, rain without fog can also have the effect of enhancing the chroma, as seen in Julian Alden Weir’s Autumn Rain (1890).