The Twelve Months and the Four Seasons were a highly popular subject in sixteenth- and early seventeenth century Dutch and Flemish art. Although the iconography was rooted in the medieval cosmological worldview, the allegorical character of the images was soon supplanted by a realistic depiction of landscape, beginning in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s paradigmatic interpretations. In prints and painting series were produced of six or twelve scenes representing the months and sets of the four seasons. Vrancx himself produced sets of both themes. Large numbers are attributed to Vrancx’s studio, even though there is a letter by Jan Brueghel the Younger to his business partner in Seville in which he maintains that the artist refused to employ studio assistants and that he would not permit to have copies put in circulation. Whatever the case, very few of these works can be firmly attributed to the master himself. The present painting, of which several versions exist, is a typical, fine and signed example. A complete but unsigned set of the Four Seasons on canvas was sold this year in these rooms, 9 July, in London for £1,650,500 (fig. 1).
Vrancx has set the snowy scene just outside the city walls of Antwerp against the backdrop of a blue, late afternoon sky, employing the Roode Toren as an imposing topographical accent in the right background. The bare branches of the trees form a play of calligraphic forms sharply delineated against the sky. The scene is filled with anecdotal detail and many figures in one way or another relate to the concept of winter. A couple in a gilded sledge drawn by a black horse extravagantly attired as Pegasus dominates the foreground. The old beardy man nearby leaning on his walking stick refers to the time-honoured personification of Winter, invariably represented as an aged man, and the small child with him carries a ‘duivekater’ under her arm, a bread traditionally baked between 6 December (Sinterklaas) and 6 January (Epiphany). On the extreme right a train of carnival revellers enters the scene, while skaters enjoy themselves on the frozen moat in the background. Vrancx brilliantly captured the feel of Winter.