The iconography of Sebastian Vrancx's Four Seasons can be traced back to the calendar illustrations for Medieval Books of Hours, such as the Limbourg brothers' Très Riches Heures illustrated for the Duc de Berry, circa 1411-1416. In these, saints days and other religious feasts were listed by month, and on the facing page an artist would paint a specific activity connected with that month.
Depictions of the twelve months and the seasons continued into the 16th and 17th centuries, when their greatest exponent became Pieter Brueghel the Elder, who established this genre as an independent category of painting. Vrancx's paintings are conceived very much in the tradition of Pieter Brueghel, and represent an important transition between 16th and 17th century northern art. Such was Vrancx's reputation during his own lifetime that Rubens made copies of his battle scenes, and Jan Brueghel the Younger wrote to a business partner in Seville in 1634, 'Vrancx has plenty to do but refuses to employ studio assistants, which means that work takes a long time. He does not allow copies to be put into circulation' (see H. Gerson and E.H. ter Kuile, Art and Architecture in Belgium, 1600-1800, 1960, p. 63, note 33).
The popularity of Vrancx's Four Seasons is attested to by the many versions that are known: for example, a series on panel was sold at Galerie Fievez, Brussels, March 10, 1927, lot 111; another set of the seasons (with different compositions) was sold at Hôtel Drouot, Paris, May 26, 1972, lot 66; and a third set, also on panel, was sold at Christie's, New York, May 18, 1994, lot 44 ($630,000). The series in the present lot are unusually large, and the Italianized form of the signature would suggest that they may have been executed just after Vrancx had been in Italy, circa 1605-1608.