This remarkable and very rare landscape by Van de Venne is one of a series of four pictures by the artist depicting The Seasons of which two are in the J. Paul Getty Museum, California, and the fourth in the Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts. Their inclusion as a recently rediscovered group in the 1993-4 Dawn of the Golden Age exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, was almost certainly the first time that they had been seen together in public since their sale from the Huygens collection in 1725.
Van de Venne is unusual as an artist in having produced what are in effect two quite different, but parallel, painted oeuvres. Most frequently seen on the art market are his (normally) monochrome illustrations of peasant mores; he is, however, most famous for a small number of remarkable paintings representing symbolical statements on behalf of the Protestant religion and/or its great support, the House of Orange-Nassau. The most famous are The Fishing for Souls, The Princes Maurits and Frederik Hendrik at the Horse Market in Valkenburg, The Harbour of Middelburg, The Trêves and The Cavalcade of the Princes of Nassau. The importance of those pictures might be understood in the fact that of those five pictures, the first three are in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, whilst the other two are in the Louvre, Paris, and the Hessiches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt. It is not hyperbole to describe them as being a part of the visual fabric of the history of the Dutch nation.
The earliest of those masterpieces, The Fishing for Souls, dates from 1614, the year before the present painting, and shows that even by that year Van de Venne's political and religious convictions were firmly set and incorporated into his art; that this should have been so is perhaps not surprising. He had as a youth been sent to Leiden University, possibly in 1605, and whilst it was there that he first found his interest in painting (leaving the university and entering the studio of the goldsmith and painter Simon de Valck), it is quite understandable that he would have become familiar with the ongoing struggle for Dutch independence. When one considers that Van de Venne's parents were Calvinist refugees who had fled the siege of Antwerp in 1585, it was almost inevitable that, in the leading intellectual environment in the northern Netherlands, their son would have become emotionally involved in that cause. Given that background, the inclusion in the present painting of the leader of the independence movement, the Stadtholder Maurits of Nassau, Prince of Orange, cannot be seen as a purely decorative effect. Assuming that the inclusion was in some way emblematic also implies that this is the epicentral painting of the series of four.
That this painting dates from shortly after Van de Venne's return to Middelburg is entirely consistent with its place in his stylistic development. As mentioned above, his first artistic training was, according to Cornelis de Bie's Het gulden cabinet vande edele vry schilder const, with the otherwise unknown Simon de Valck; de Bie records that he then studied with a painter of grisailles, the equally obscure Hieronymus van Diest (not to be confused with the eponymous marine artist). The latter's influence is presumably evident in Van de Venne's own grisailles and brunailles, but the dominant influences on the artist's earliest identifiable works are the painters active in Middelburg at the time.
The artistic community that arose in Middelburg and flourished there in the last decade of the sixteenth century and first two decades of the seventeenth had at its core a number of artists who had fled the Catholic Netherlands settling in Zeeland across the border in the United Provinces. They brought with them an Antwerp tradition of painting that was subsequently influenced by the parallel tradition in the Protestant north. Most prominent amongst them were the Bosschaert dynasty of still-life artists. The development of landscape painting in Middelburg is more obscure; the only major name of the original generation of immigrants was Gillis van Coninxloo III, but he only stayed in Zeeland for two years before leaving for Frankenthal and then Amsterdam. The most prominent Middelburg landscapists, Mattheus Molanus, Jacob van Geel and Christoffel van den Berghe, were contemporaries of Van de Venne; of the intervening decade or so until the early 1600s little is known.
Van de Venne and his generation all display the enduring influence of the Flemish Bruegel-Valckenborch tradition, and, over the intervening twenty years, the style in Middelburg was undoubtedly influenced by the work of Jan Brueghel I. At the same time, however, they share a common debt to their northern (albeit also often immigrant) predecessors and contemporaries, including Coninxloo, Vinckboons and the Frankenthal school. The resultant mix of influences is really quite unique to the Middelburg school; the series of Seasons of which the present painting is part clearly shows that distinctive stylistic melange. The present picture and Summer particularly recall the Flemish tradition, with the brown/green/blue atmospheric perspective. However, the influence of Jan Brueghel I is most noticeable in the present picture, notably with the staffage in the right foreground, but also the delicate, feathery depiction of the landscape. The left hand side, along with that of Spring, recalls rather more the landscapes with courtiers of Lucas van Valckenborch. The Winter, by contrast, is much closer to Vinckboons: particularly, as noted by Ariane van Suchtelen in the catalogue of the Dawn of the Golden Age, a composition of his engraved by Hessel Gerritsz.
An intriguing and convincing theory as to the early provenance of the series was offered by Van Suchtelen in the catalogue of the Dawn of the Golden Age catalogue. Sold in 1725 from the estate of Susanna Doublet-Huygens, it is most likely that she had inherited the series from her father, the great diplomat and man of letters Constantijn Huygens. This is even more probable given the fact that the latter is known to have been acquainted with Van de Venne, who had provided the illustrations for Huygens' first collection of poetry, Batava Tempe, dat is 't Voorhout van 's-Gravenhage, published by Adriaen's brother, Jan van de Venne, through the introduction of Jacob Cats, the poet and politician. In a letter of 13 November 1623, Cats mentioned to Huygens that the brothers Van de Venne had given payment for his works 'in copies of his books or in paintings, books or other fine things'. Van Suchtelen suggested that the paintings of The Seasons may have come into Huygens' collection as part of a similar deal for 't Voorhout. It is particularly interesting in that context to note the similarity of the Prince Maurits' coach in the present picture with that in Van de Venne's engraving for the title-page of Huygens' book.
The collection of the baron de Beurnonville was one of the most distinguished formed in France in the second half of the nineteenth century. It (dispersed in sales between 1872 and 1906) comprised more than 1,000 paintings, besides drawings and works of art. The majority were of the northern schools of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including pictures by Jan van Eyck, Hugo van der Goes, Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling, Jan Gossaert, Hendrick Goltzius, Rubens and Ruisdael, as well as Rembrandt's Landscape with an Obelisk of 1638 (Boston, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum). French painting was represented by such works Drouais' Portrait of Madame de Pompadour (London, National Gallery) as well as examples of Chardin, Fragonard, Ingres and Delacroix, whilst works by Italian artists included Tiepolo's Apotheosis of Aeneas (Boston, Museum of Fine Arts) and Triumph of Flora (San Francisco, Fine Arts Museums, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum).