Whoever thought it was a good idea to start the new year in the middle of the winter couldn’t have gone outside much. This year we, most particularly the long-suffering people of Ukraine, deserve a fresh start with the Spring. This article, and its sequel tomorrow, try to bring a little Spring to your weekend.
In the countryside around the city of Florence, as in much of Europe, Spring was the time when livestock could return to life outdoors, rather than being cooped up with families, when the often undernourished people could start eating again, and many would give thanks for surviving another winter. Even for rich patrons of the arts like Lorenzo de’ Medici, it was time for a big sigh of relief.
What better way to celebrate Spring than with a painting by the great master Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi – that’s Sandro Botticelli to you and me? While Botticelli’s Primavera remains one of the masterworks of the Western canon, it also threw southern European painting off track for the next three centuries.
Primavera is an intricate allegory based on Roman myth recorded by Ovid, not in his popular Metamorphoses, but his less well-known Fasti, a book of days. As you might expect, the story behind this beautiful pastoral painting decorated meticulously with Spring flowers is thoroughly pagan, and all about sex and violence.
Chloris was a nymph, who was wandering in the Spring when she was seen by Zephyrus, who followed her. In her modesty, the nymph fled, but couldn’t escape the god, who of course flew like the wind after her. Boreas his brother had told Zephyrus that he could rape Chloris as a reward for stealing from Erechtheus’ house, which Zephyrus did once he had caught her.
To make amends (!) for his violence to her, Zephyrus then made Chloris his bride, and she became Flora, who enjoys perpetual Spring. Her husband stocked her garden with flowers, and made her their mistress. When the dew has dried in the morning, the Hours gather in their colourful clothes, collecting flowers from Flora’s garden. Then the Graces join her and bind their hair with her flowers.
The problem was that Botticelli had signalled to succeeding generations that paintings of Spring should be allegories steeped in classical mythology. It took the artists of the Dutch Golden Age to show what Spring is really about, typically in richly detailed series of all four seasons.
This is Joos de Momper’s vision from about 1612-15. It’s still frosty, and the weather is far from dependable. Yet everyone is out and about, on the move in their carts, bleaching laundry in the fields, and repairing damage from winter storms.
In Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s version, gardeners are planting out a formal Italianate flower-garden, a sight which was probably inspired during the artist’s visit to Italy. It has been suggested that this composition is even more ingenious, in showing March in the foreground, April behind, and May at the furthest end of the garden.
Then Spring fell into the background, until landscape painting became more popular in the nineteenth century.
John Everett Millais’ Spring, also known as Apple Blossoms, from 1856-59 may contain subtle allusions to Primavera and classical myth, but it’s a thoroughly seasonal scene.
At the far right, beside this group of elegant young women, is the scythe of Father Time. Two of the group have baskets full of Spring flowers, and three have flowers in their hair. Tempting though it may be to try to see three Graces and Flora herself, I suspect that is as far as Millais intended.
In the year that the French landscape artist Charles-François Daubigny moved to Auvers-sur-Oise and founded the artists’ colony there, he painted this blossom-rich view of the Spring Landscape (1862). Vincent van Gogh was later to spend his final two months of painting near here.
In the final years of Jean-François Millet’s life, he painted a commissioned series including this startling study of light, Spring (1868-73). This features a double rainbow at the upper left, with fleeting sunshine flooding the centre. From the crops and seasonal flowers in the foreground to the inky black shower-clouds in the sky, this is a perfect summary of Spring in the countryside, here devoid of his usual toiling peasants.
Alfred Sisley’s panorama of The Terrace at Saint-Germain, Spring, which he painted soon after he had moved to Marly-le-Roi in 1875, is one of the most under-rated Impressionist landscapes, and one of the finest paintings of Spring that I know.
Arnold Böcklin painted simpler non-narrative figures of Flora (1875) scattering Spring flowers.
Before Vincent van Gogh went to Arles, he made a copy of Utagawa Hiroshige’s woodblock print The Plum Orchard in Kameido. Shortly after his arrival there, in 1888, the fruit trees came into flower, and he painted a triptych intended for his brother Theo’s apartment, including The Pink Orchard above.
Laurits Andersen Ring’s finely detailed double portrait of Spring. Ebba and Sigrid Kähler from 1895 appears to show a mother and her daughter talking in their garden, but the two are in fact sisters. At the right is Sigrid, the year before her wedding, at the left is her sister Ebba, who was fifteen at the time. Ring uses a very light touch with the blossom and spring flowers to avoid them dominating the figures.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the cities of Europe had drawn in many people from the countryside. Camille Pissarro was painting series of cityscapes in Paris, showing the streets changing with light and season.
His Boulevard Montmartre, Spring (1897) is a seasonal landscape composed primarily of buildings and streets, a plethora of figures, and countless carriages to move those crowds around.
Tomorrow I’ll show paintings of Spring from the twentieth century.