We in the northern climates have just been witness to the second most noticeable event involving the passage of time - the changing of the seasons. We're all conscious on the change from night to day. It happens daily. It's gradual, but far from subtle. The passage of the seasons, on the other hand, is both. We have our warm sunny days in October, even in November and December, but we also have blustery, cold, wintry days (snow flurries yesterday) in all three months. Tonight, it's still October, and it's the latter here in Ohio. Tonight also, we celebrate the seasonal joys to be had in the recapturing of the lost hour of daylight savings time by doing what we all do best - sleeping in late tomorrow morning.
As artists, we have, most of us, also celebrated the changing of the seasons by painting them. Sometimes, we even do so without consciously thinking about it. Perhaps the earliest paintings to do this were those of the Duc du Berry's lavishly illustrated Book of Hours (basically, a prayer calendar). The Limbourg Brothers, around 1410-16, devoted the upper third of each brightly painted page to a surprisingly advanced astrological table while the lower portion depicted the seasonal labours for that month. In June we see mowing and raking and staking. October is a time of plowing and sowing (except for grapes, a grain-based agriculture dominated France in the Middle Ages).
More subtle and sophisticated, Dutch artists such as Jan van Goyen have long been fascinated by the four seasons. His round, pendant pairs, Summer and Winter (1625), while not showing the same geographic scene as some of his fellow artists often did at the time, nonetheless depicts the Dutch predilection for enjoying the seasons to their fullest, whether bathed in the warm, gentle light of summer or the harsh, cold blue-greys of the winter months. In fact, colours themselves are very much seasonal. And no artists explored this seasonal element more than the French Impressionists such as Pissarro in his Woman in an Enclosure, Spring Sun, Eragny Field painted in 1887. Pale yellows dominate the entire painting, even the blues in the sky. Delicate, spring-like textures are everywhere and the overall feeling is one of freshness and brilliant light.
Before that, during the Rococo era, François Boucher painted for Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of French King Louis XV, the four seasons. Spring and Autumn are pastoral scenes while Summer depicts three women nudely cooling themselves near the waters of a fountain. Winter finds one of them bundled in furs, seated in a sleigh. Pieter Brueghel the Elder's 1565 Hunters in the Snow contrasts the harshness of the winter scene with the serene beauty of the snow-covered landscape, both natural and manmade, as well as efforts to survive and enjoy the season. Moreover, aside from human labours, pleasures, colours, and contrasts, the seasons also have symbolic implications. Spring has long been associated with birth, flowers, and love; summer, with bathing, ripeness, maturity, and pleasure. Autumn is seen as a time of harvest, plenty, and at the same time physical decline. Winter is associated with rest, survival, and often death. And of course, in modern times, we associate its arrival with Christmas. Then, a few days later, we celebrate surviving another year (from that point on we just try to survive). You folks in the Deep South just don't know what sublime joys you're missing not having the seasons to contemplate and celebrate. Brrrrr....