The changing seasons were an aspect of nature that Vincent van Gogh found particularly captivating. They represented the ever-continuing cycle of nature – birth, bloom, maturity, death – which, naturally, is also the life cycle of humanity. The cycle of the seasons demonstrated for him the greatness of nature and the existence of a higher force. Van Gogh was a very religious person as a young man, but he developed a certain pantheist view of life during his years as an artist.
Van Gogh experienced a feeling of eternity in the passing of the seasons, a sentiment that would become essential to his work. In June 1885 he wrote: ‘It is something to be deep in the snow in winter, to be deep in the yellow leaves in the autumn, to be deep in the ripe wheat in the summer, to be deep in the grass in the spring. It is something to always be with the mowers and the peasant girls, in summer with the big sky above, in the winter by the black fireplace. And to feel – this has always been so and always will be’.
His oeuvre contains depictions of the seasons not only in the form of landscapes representing spring, summer, autumn or winter but also portrayals of people engaged in seasonal work, such as reaping the wheat (summer), sowing a crop and harvesting the grapes (autumn) and gathering wood in the snow (winter). Still lifes by Van Gogh are also often clearly connected with particular seasons, not only his flower still lifes of spring or summer bouquets but also compositions featuring the bounty of the autumn harvest, including potatoes, apples and pumpkins – works that can justifiably be described as rural still lifes. He constantly found inspiration for these subjects in visual art and literature as well as in nature itself.
Van Gogh deeply loved nature and had a lifelong fascination for the four seasons and their associations with human life. Van Gogh chose the theme of the four seasons for a series of watercolours while living and working as an artist in The Hague (1881–83), and other works from that time also reveal an early interest in the seasons. Van Gogh knowingly placed himself within a long and rich tradition with this subject. Representations of the seasons, symbolised by human activities, have been an important theme in art since the Middle Ages and continued to be a great source of inspiration for the French School of Barbizon painters, whom Van Gogh admired.
Van Gogh made paintings and drawings depicting the different seasons throughout his later career, although not necessarily as a series, and continued to link them to the life of the peasants, as in his many drawings of peasants harvesting dating to the summer of 1885. The subject remained important in the highly avant-garde work he made after moving to France in 1886 and is clearly evident in many of the themes he painted in Arles and Saint-Rémy: fruit orchards in bloom (spring); the wheat harvest, the reaping of the wheat (summer); sowers, the grape harvest, the olive harvest (autumn); and a plough and harrow on bleak fields (after Millet, winter).
Curated by Sjraar van Heugten, Van Gogh and the Seasons is the first exhibition to be devoted to this central aspect of Vincent van Gogh’s extraordinary creativity and artistic vision. This exhibition has been organised in partnership with the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, as well as numerous other public and private lenders.