There’s much more to autumn or fall than the leaf-peeping that we did last weekend. This weekend I show a selection of paintings from more than four centuries of art which try to capture some of the atmosphere of the season, although it isn’t all mists and mellow fruitfulness, not by any means.
Among the earliest depictions of autumn in northern Europe were those in series of the four seasons painted in the Low Countries in the early seventeenth century.
Joos de Momper, based in Antwerp in the Netherlands, shows a thoroughly autumnal scene in a country village, from the crows in the exposed branches of the trees above, down to the preparations for the winter on the ground below. This painting is also unusual for showing the progress of the season from left to right: the trees at the left still bear many brown leaves, whereas they are encrusted in white frost at the right.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger is less ingenious in his painting which was based on a popular print by Hans Bol, although he has reduced the number of figures to simplify and clarify. These villagers are busy slaughtering and preparing a pig, as stooks of corn are being laid up in lofts.
Traditional autumn motifs continued well into the nineteenth century, when autumn scenes became considerably more inventive.
Generally acclaimed as Dyce’s finest painting, Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858 (c 1858) shows this bay on the Kent coast, during a family holiday visit: a coastal scene worked up into a large finished oil painting for exhibition at the Royal Academy, where it was shown in 1860.
Dominating the view are chalk cliffs, their strata and fine texture rendered in detail. The foreshore in front of them is relatively flat, and consists of rock ledges with intervening sand. The tide is well out, probably close to full ebb. The sun is setting and, although not visible in this image (it’s high in the centre), the sky also shows Donati’s comet, which isn’t due to return until 3811.
Various figures are scattered across the beach. At the foot of the cliffs is a small group of donkeys, a common feature of seaside resorts, and some sheep and their shepherd. Three heavily-dressed women and a small boy are in the foreground. One woman is bent double, inspecting the ground intently by a chalk rib. The small boy, presumably Dyce’s own son, holds a beach spade, but appears to be staring emptily into the distance.
There is no obvious narrative in this painting, which by its title and content might appear to be a straightforward coastal view. Yet it is generally held that there are deep readings: Cregan-Reid, for example, considers that it is about time – astronomical time of the comet, deep geological time of the cliffs and fossils, the more momentary existence of the people, and the regular cycles of tides and sun. It certainly captures the atmosphere of a fine autumn evening on one of the beaches in the south of England.
For Charles-François Daubigny, October was all about stubble being burned on a grey and windy day. Given the notoriously fickle weather on both sides of the English Channel, this could easily have been the same day over in northern France.
Heading deeper into the progression to winter, A November Rainbow – Dolwyddelan Valley, November 11, 1866, 1 p.m. (1866) is one of Alfred William Hunt’s most celebrated paintings, with its elaborate composition and rich colours. It shows the valley of the River Lledr near the hamlet of Bertheos, on the eastern side of the Snowdon range in North Wales. Distant on the right is Dolwyddelan Castle, standing proud on its rock platform. Hunt gave it a second title, quoting from Tennyson’s The Princess, Book 4:
A stroke of cruel sunshine on a cliff,
When all the glens are drown’d in azure gloom.
In the late nineteenth century, several artists seem to have specialised in atmospheric autumn views, among them John Atkinson Grimshaw, from the north of England, and Jakub Schikaneder, from Prague in the Czech Republic.
Grimshaw’s Autumn Gold (1880) is set outside what appears to be a country manor house somewhere in England. Leaf fall is well under way, and at the top of stone steps is a maid from the house. There are no other signs of life.
His Evening Glow from about 1884 has one of Grimshaw’s favourite themes of the lone pedestrian walking by a large house, here set in autumn with the road covered with golden-brown leaves, and stretching into the murk in the distance.
Schikaneder’s Sad Way from 1886 shows a single rather weary horse towing a cart on which a coffin rests. A woman, presumably a widow before her time, stares emptily at the rutted mud track, as a man walks beside them. Both are wearing wooden clogs. In the background is the floodplain of a river which is in full flood. It’s set in the late autumn, with the last of the brown leaves remaining on the trees, a world barren, bleak, and forlorn.
Schikaneder returned to this theme of loss in All Souls’ Day (1888). An elderly woman stands alone holding her walking stick, her back against a low wall. It is late autumn, and there are brown leaves scattered over the ground. She looks down in thought, presumably reflecting on her dead husband. To the left of the woman is a lantern on which hangs a commemorative wreath; behind that is a stone monument.
Louis Welden Hawkins’ Solitude, from about 1890, is a bridge between his Naturalist paintings of the rural poor and his later Symbolism. Read at face value, it shows a young woman reading her Missal or Bible in an overgrown churchyard, in quiet piety. But it’s late autumn already, the leaves have fallen from the tree behind her, and two black crows are above. Are they harbingers of death, or symbols of magic?
Tomorrow I will return to Schikaneder’s autumnal paintings.