By early November, particularly in more northerly latitudes, autumn is well under way and much of the heat has gone from the sun. Most of the leaves of deciduous trees are now on the ground, and their early fiery colours have dulled. More branches are now barren, as the trees slim down to sleep through the winter’s cold. On colder days we may even get the odd flurry of snow, a harbinger of what’s to come when winter sets in.
In John Everett Millais’ Autumn Leaves (1856) these children have been gathering the leaf fall to build a bonfire. The dazzling reds and oranges of those leaves in early autumn have now faded to dull earth browns.
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 this 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.
Leaf fall is also well advanced in Camille Pissarro’s Avenue in the Parc de Marly, which 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.
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.
Émile Friant’s chilly All Saints’ Day (1888) shows a young girl about to give a blind beggar a coin, as her family passes on their way to pay their respects at the Nancy municipal cemetery, the traditional activity on All Saints’ Day. In the vaguer distance, there is a dense procession of similar families clad in black, making their way through the cemetery.
Jakub Schikaneder’s All Souls’ Day (1888) is set in Prague rather than Nancy in France. An elderly woman stands alone holding her walking stick, her back against a low wall. The brown leaves of late autumn are 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.
In 1910-14, Evelyn De Morgan depicted the north wind in her Boreas and the Fallen Leaves. This wind blows sufficient to tear the last leaves of autumn from the trees, and cover a total of eight women who loop round from dancing to crouching on the ground. Here comes that first cold blast of approaching winter.
Egon Schiele’s Four Trees is an Expressionist work based on views in Austria, showing four stark chestnut trees in the setting sun of the late autumn.
George Bellows painted The White Horse (1922) on a farm near Woodstock. Seen in the late fall colours of November, the scene is heightened by the light cast through broken shower clouds, making the white horse look almost supernatural.
Finally, from the end of the Second World War in Europe, is Paul Nash’s surrealist Landscape of the Moon’s Last Phase (1944), one of a series exploring the phases of the moon. Prominent in his composition are the trees of an Iron Age hill fort, one of the Wittenham Clumps, on the border of Berkshire and Oxfordshire, England.
When Nash had first seen these, he described them as “a beautiful legendary country haunted by old gods long forgotten”. In the classical pantheon, the autumn/fall lacked a significant deity, but I think that Nash and others have come close to depicting its earthly form.