This wonderfully-observed evocation of the passage of time is one of the last complete sets of The Four Seasons by Pieter Brueghel the Younger in existence and is believed to have been in the same prestigious collection for nearly a century.
Writing in the 2000 edition of his Catalogue Raisonné on the artist, Dr. Klaus Ertz identified the set in the National Museum of Art of Romania, Bucharest, as the only remaining complete set of The Four Seasons by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (‘Von Pieter II gibt es nur noch eine komplette Vierer-Serie in Bukarester Museumsbesitz’, op. cit., p. 537). Dr. Ertz suggested that the scarcity of such complete sets could be explained by two reasons: first, that Pieter the Younger was willing to execute versions of individual seasons to meet the demand as and when it occurred; and, second, that any complete sets which had passed down in private hands had been broken up and sold individually.
The present set was known to Dr. Ertz only from black and white photographs dating from the 1927 sale; as late as 2000 he wrote that ‘no trace has been found’ (‘hat sich weder eine Spur gefunden’) of what he called the ‘Fischer-Zyklus’ (ibid., p. 543). Nevertheless, Dr. Ertz was convinced of their high quality, describing them as ‘eigenhändige, sehr gute Arbeiten’ (‘autograph, very good works’), in some respects better than the set in Bucharest. Dr. Ertz gives the present set a central place in his discussion of the development of the type, noting the importance of the date (while many of Pieter the Younger’s works are signed, relatively few are dated), which allows us to place the works very precisely within the chronology of the artist’s career. On the basis of the material available to him, Dr. Ertz was only aware that Winter was dated, and argued that the other three panels must belong to the same year, as he believes this to be a true set, conceived and executed as such. The presence of the same date on Autumn strengthens this argument. This is the first occasion in which this set has been illustrated in colour in any publication, and the first time that it has been publically exhibited since 1927.
The idea of creating four separate, stand-alone images to represent the Four Seasons was conceived by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569), one of the greatest innovators in the history of art. His enterprising and successful publisher, Hieronymous Cock (1518-1570), whose publishing house ‘At the Four Winds’ was the most important and renowned in Northern Europe, commissioned designs for prints of the Four Seasons from Bruegel in circa 1564. Bruegel’s drawing for Spring, signed and dated 1565, is in the Albertina, Vienna; Summer, signed and dated 1568, is in the Kunsthalle, Hamburg (figs. 1 and 2). Bruegel’s untimely death in 1569 prevented his completion of the series, and the project was taken over by Hans Bol (1534-1593), another leading landscape artist of that time. Cock’s prints were finally published in 1570, and swiftly became widely known. Pieter the Younger, who was only a child when his father died, but who would champion his style and iconography in the next generation, was not the first artist to make paintings derived from Cock’s Four Seasons, but his delicate treatment of the designs is the closest in spirit to his father’s original vision.
The iconography of The Four Seasons can be traced back to the calendar illustrations for medieval Books of Hours, such as the Limbourg Brothers’ celebrated Très Riches Heures illuminated for the Duc de Berry, circa 1411-1416. In these, Saints’ Days and other religious feasts are listed by month, and on the facing page an artist would paint a specific activity connected with that time of year. Depictions of the Twelve Months and the Seasons continued into the 16th and 17th centuries, their greatest exponents at this time became Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who established this genre as an independent category of painting, and his son, Pieter Breughel the Younger, whose paintings are conceived very much in the tradition of his father, but also represent an important transition between 16th and 17th-century Northern art.
Spring is depicted as a formal flower garden, presumably part of a noble estate. Marlier notes the expression of Italianate figural types of the High Renaissance in Pieter the Elder’s design, doubtless influenced by his trip to Italy – Charles de Tolnay had pointed out a debt to Michelangelo in the figure of the gardener at the right foreground, which echoes the pose of Noah in one of the panels of the Sistine Chapel ceiling (Marlier, op. cit., p. 219). Suggesting that the activities in the foreground belong to the month of March, Marlier argues that the formal layout of the garden is French in origin, ‘un jardin à la française, d’une ordonnance strictement géométrique ... parterres qu’on arrose, ratisse, égalise et où l’on plante des fleurs et des graines’, while those of the middle ground belong to April, and those in the background, to May. Spring is one of the seasons which seems to have been more frequently requested from Pieter the Younger as an individual painting, and a number have appeared on the market, most recently at Sotheby’s, New York, 6 June 2013, lot 29 ($2,285,000).
Summer is one of the most famous of all of Pieter the Elder’s compositions. In developing the drawing of 1568, Pieter the Elder modified the composition of his celebrated painting of 1565, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Like Spring, Summer is full of hidden references to the most rarefied Classical and Italian precedents, which belie its seemingly colloquial, bucolic subject matter. The splayed body of the resting figure in the foreground, steadying himself against the ground as he heaves a heavy jug of water up to drink, has been seen as a quotation of the contorted pose of the Laocoön, while the figure cutting wheat with a scythe recalls another figure by Michelangelo, this time from The Conversion of Saint Paul in the Pauline Chapel, Rome (ibid., p. 226). Despite the existence of a number of individual versions of this composition by Pieter the Younger, Summer only rarely appears on the market; the last version, on a larger scale (73 x 104 cm.) was sold in these Rooms, 3 July 2012, lot 41 (£2,393,250).
Autumn is one of the compositions invented by Hans Bol rather than Pieter the Elder, but the vernacular subject matter and everyday themes resonate eloquently with the earlier seasons, particularly Summer (fig. 3.). Pieter the Younger clarified the composition by reducing the number of figures, bringing the slaughtered pig into full view and allowing himself and his viewers to relish the details of the preparation of this staple part of the diet of 16th- and 17thcentury Northern Europeans. The group at the left foreground, which Bol presents from a different angle, is reprised by Pieter the Younger from one of the most celebrated compositions of Pieter the Elder, The Numbering at Bethlehem (Brussels, The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium). In both works, the pig slaughter is cast as an essential element in the struggle for survival, which is inherent to the human condition, as peasants work to carve and store the meat in time for the winter to come.
Possibly one of Hans Bol’s most original compositions, the design for Winter nevertheless could not fail to transmit the influence of Pieter the Elder, for whom the winter landscape was perhaps his favourite domain (fig. 4). Celebrated works such as The Hunters in the Snow (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum), The Adoration of the Magi (believed to be the first ever depiction of snowfall in a painting – Winterthur, Reinhart Collection) or the Numbering at Bethlehem quickly became closely associated with Bruegel’s fame and reputation, and have remained some of the most iconic and recognisable images of Western art. The theme of ice skating, which Bol highlights in his Winter, had already been explored by Pieter the Elder in his Winter landscape with a bird trap (Brussels, Royal Museums), a subject that was taken up by his son, Pieter the Younger. The Bol/Brueghel Winter occupies a key place in the development of the subject, which would eventually entrain a whole school of artists, including Abel Grimmer, Hendrick Avercamp, Jan van Goyen, Jan Beerstraten and many others. Individual versions by Pieter the Younger are rare, and can command high prices when they appear on the market, most recently Sotheby’s, London, 8 July 2015, lot 6 (£1,085,000).
A complete set of The Four Seasons by Pieter Brueghel the Younger may be recorded as early as the 18th century, in inventories of the paintings in the Schatzkammer, Vienna compiled by Johann Martin Rausch and other keepers of the collection, described as four small panels, ‘Les quatre Saisons’, by ‘alten Brügl’ or as copies (cited in Marlier and Folie, op. cit, p. 218). The present whereabouts of this possible complete set is unknown. At least two other complete sets are recorded in the 20th century: one set, formerly in the Mallet de Choisi collection, appeared on the market in 1935; and a second set appeared on the market in 1972. Ertz assumed that both sets may have been broken up since their respective sales (op. cit., pp. 542-543), and no complete set has been offered at auction since 1972.
The paintings offered at auction by Galerie Fischer, Lucerne, on 19 July 1927, which included the present set of The Four Seasons, were described as coming primarily from the collection of the ‘Herrn de La Borderie’. The Sieurs (or Lords) de La Borderie, one of the most ancient noble families in France, including the important 16th-century poet, Jean Boiceau, Sieur de La Borderie (1513-1591), who is celebrated for writing in poitevinsaintongeais, a regional dialect of French; he is believed to have sheltered John Calvin and may have been one of the first French converts to Calvinism. His descendant, Arthur Le Moyne de La Borderie (1827-1901), was one of the outstanding French historians of the 19th century.
Monochrome photographs in the files of the Netherlands Institute for Art History, the RKD, The Hague, depicting works from the present set, are inscribed on the reverse ‘Mersch / 1927’ in the hand of the renowned expert Max J. Friedländer (image nos. 107094-5), who provided expertise for the 1927 Fischer sale. This inscription indicates that the works were shown to Friedländer by the Paris-based dealer and collector Dr. Paul Mersch in 1927, but given the proximity of this date to the Fischer sale, it is likely that he was acting as agent for the consignors to the Fischer auction, possibly the de La Borderie family. Both Marlier and Ertz accept the La Borderie provenance.