Only recognised as by Sebastian Vrancx after its last appearance at auction in 1971, this finely preserved set of the Four Seasons constitutes the artist’s most monumental treatment of the subject and perhaps the most significant intact allegorical series in his painted oeuvre.
The iconography of the Four Seasons derives from medieval manuscript tradition, in particular from Books of Hours which were introduced by a calendar, listing the relevant liturgical feasts for each month, and were illustrated by images depicting the various activities or labours associated with that time of year. The iconography of the months and the seasons continued into the sixteenth century, when its greatest exponent in Flanders, Pieter Bruegel the Elder established the genre as an independent category of painting with his seminal cycle of the Months painted for the home of his patron Nicolaes Jongelinck (now Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum; New York, Metropolitan Museum; and Prague, Lobkowicz collection).
In this cycle, Vrancx incorporates a number of stock motifs and charming details into the landscapes in order to signal the various times of year, following in the tradition of the Labours of the Months. Bathed in crystalline light, Spring features an elegant boating party engaging in courtly love, while on the ground to the left, peasants are tending gardens, herding sheep and bleaching cloth. Summer offers a panoramic view of the harvest taking place with labourers at work, picnicking and bathing in a nearby pond. Under a fading rainbow symbolising the transition of time, Autumn is set in a farm courtyard where workers are busy picking apples and delivering bags full of harvested grapes to be pressed. Finally, in a snow-blanketed hamlet on the outskirts of a walled city, Winter features carnival revellers and ice skaters on a frozen moat.
Vrancx’s skill as a narrative painter, often, as in this case, revealing a predilection for light-hearted and often comical detail, is thought to be connected to his activity as a member of the Antwerp rhetoricians chamber ‘de Violeren’, for whom he wrote a large number of farces, comedies and tragedies. His fine courtly style may also have been inspired by his Roman sojourn around 1597, and his subsequent membership of the exclusive and erudite Society of Romanists, based in Antwerp, to which both Jan Brueghel and Hendrick van Balen also belonged.
This set dates to circa 1625-30, by which stage Vrancx was in considerable demand. The success he enjoyed, particularly with such allegories, and the high demand for his works spurned a large number of copies and imitations, produced for the increasingly buoyant Antwerp market. Whether or not Vrancx oversaw a large studio practice is debated, in spite of a frequently cited letter of 1634, written by Jan Brueghel the Younger to his business partner in Seville, assuring him that: ‘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, Harmondsworth, 1960, p. 63, note 33). While there are a relatively large number of extant ‘workshop’ quality variants of the Four Seasons connected with Vrancx’s output, there are very few that can be firmly attributed to the Antwerp master’s hand. A related set to this one, though considerably smaller (73 x 117 cm.) and also unsigned, was sold at Sotheby’s, Amsterdam, 7 May 2008, lot 19 (Ç1,208,250).