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Abraham Janssens

The Four Seasons

Panel: 64,3 x 49,3 cm

introduction

This exceptional collection of paintings is the best complete series on panels of the theme of the Four Seasons painted by Abraham Janssens. The innovative nature of the this set’s iconography immediately makes it stand out. Moving away from the Flemish tradition, where animated landscapes punctuated by human activities were used to identify the seasons, Janssens, as a connoisseur of classical mythology and Italian painting, saw the seasons as four allegories. Twelve figures divided into three groups compose four separate panels. The signs of the zodiac corresponding to the three months of each season feature above the heads of the figures animating the paintings.

Spring, which begins the cycle of the seasons, is represented by three young girls covered in flowers, gathered around a milk barrel; they are preparing to make butter. Milk, a source of life, is an allegory for the births that usually take place in spring in the animal world. The crowns of colourful flowers echo the bright tones of the clothes. The artichoke and asparagus create a link between the renewal of nature and the interest of Antwerp’s well-to-do in vegetables that were still considered exotic in northern Europe.

Summer is portrayed by women in the prime of life. Their hair is strewn with ears of corn. One is holding a scorching flame while another presents seasonal fruit such as cherries or Italian melons.

Autumn is portrayed by middle-aged women. The first one, disguised as Dionysus, with her head covered in vine leaves, lays down a horn of plenty out of which a large quantity of apples, pears and grapes seem to tumble. The harvested grapes, and birds symbolising hunting, fill the painting.

Finally, winter is presented under the guise of three old women. The table laid before them reveals the remains of a meal composed of smoked and salted meat, typical end-of-year dishes. The woman in the middle is wearing the Twelfth Night crown while presenting waffles to the two others in celebration of Candlemas. The third one is pointing to the tall flames in the hearth. Far from providing warmth, the fire here seems to remind us of the winter cold. The light emanating from the painting provides the artist with a pretext to play with light and shade effects, thus creating an atmosphere close to the Caraveggesque paintings he must have studied in Rome. Two of the three women are sharing a glass of wine, the precious fruit of the past year’s work and, perhaps, the final symbol of life.

As we have just seen, the accompanying attributes in these four allegories follow the Flemish tradition. At the same time, the rendering of the bodies reveals a filiation with Italian art. From a stylistic point of view, we can clearly see Abraham Janssens’ profound taste for antiquity in this series. When he returned to the peninsula in 1602, the painter asserted the influence of his Venetian, Florentine and Roman contemporaries. A master of chiaroscuro, he was the first Fleming to show a liking for painting with strong lighting contrasts in order to reveal the power of the models. Rubens, his young rival, would also draw inspiration from this Italian technique to refine his own highly successful style. Beyond a simple harmonious presentation of the twelve months, the painter makes the most of the symbolic aspect of the theme to portray the different stages of life. The seasons govern the farming activities and, from year to year, they are the best proof of the passing of time. Through this metaphor of human life, Janssens introduces a touch of nostalgia full of humanity into his painting.

Today, the paintings of Abraham Janssens are still part of the greatest collections of Flemish paintings. A similar, yet less accomplished series, once belonged to the collections of Count Golenitscheff-Koutousoff in Saint Petersburg. Auctioned at Hôtel Drouot in Paris on 30th April 1900, this series reappeared in 1968 in the Morris I. Kaplan collection, in Chicago in 1968. The Four Seasons we are presenting here are undoubtedly one of the artist’s most accomplished works. His fascination with the human body, his mastery of new techniques from Italy, as well as his skill at depicting the feelings that animate his characters’ faces, make Abraham Janssens the great forerunner of an innovative genre that would mark the history of art alongside Peter Paul Rubens.

Provenance :
De Blomaert collection;
Private collection.

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