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The Four Seasons by Nicolas Poussin

The Four Seasons by Nicolas Poussin

“The Spies with the Grapes of the Promised Land” by Nicolas Poussin

“Autumn” by Nicolas Poussin is also known as “The Spies with the Grapes of the Promised Land” depicts a scene in which long shadows are cast by the evening sun, whose fading light catches a town nestling under a mountain in the distance and buildings perched on a rocky ledge to the right. The central figures of the composition are from the story in the Old Testament, Book of Numbers in which two Israelite spies return to their camp with the Grapes of the Promised Land. In Poussin’s interpretation, they need a pole to carry the enormous grapes, whose size is symbolic of the Promised Land. One of the spies also holds a branch of huge oranges.

This painting is one of four oil paintings by Nicolas Poussin, which together are called The Four Seasons. They are the last set of paintings to be completed by Poussin. The collection was painted in Rome between 1660 and 1664 for the nephew of Cardinal Richelieu. Each picture is a symbolic landscape with Old Testament figures conveying the different seasons and times of the day. Executed when the artist was in failing health suffering from a tremor in his hands, the Seasons are a philosophical reflection on the natural order of the world. Poussin chose to symbolise each season by a specific episode from the Old Testament. The iconography evokes not only the Christian themes of death and resurrection but also the pagan imagery of classical antiquity.

In this Autumn cycle, Poussin has painted a woman gathering fruit on a ladder leaning against the tree, with the ladder appearing to rise out of the grapes. This iconography can be interpreted as the Tree of Life, and the heavenly rewards promised in paradise after salvation.

The Spies with the Grapes of the Promised Land

  • Title:                Autumn or The Spies with the Grapes of the Promised Land
  • Artist:              Nicolas Poussin
  • Year:                1660 and 1664
  • Medium:         Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:   Height: 118 cm (46.4 ″); Width: 160 cm (62.9 ″)
  • Museum:        Louvre

The Four Seasons by Nicolas Poussin

Winter or The Flood by Nicolas Poussin

Winter or The Flood by Nicolas Poussin depicts the final stages of the horrific cataclysm of The Flood with the rising waters covering the plain with the last few rocky outcrops disappearing under the waters.  The moonlit scene is coloured in different shades of bluey-grey, interrupted by flashes of lightning. The outlines of Noah’s Ark is floating in the far distance. Surrounded by jagged rocks and a few remaining trees, the stranded survivors in the foreground are facing impending doom.

Poussin ominously places a snake slithering across the rock on the left of the picture, a symbol of horror. The snake is also symbolic in the cycle because it serves as a reminder of the absence of a serpent in the Garden of Eden of his Spring painting below.

Winter or The Flood

  • Title:                Winter or The Flood
  • Artist:              Nicolas Poussin
  • Year:                1660 and 1664
  • Medium:         Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:   Height: 118 cm (46.4 ″); Width: 160 cm (62.9 ″)
  • Museum:        Louvre

The Four Seasons by Nicolas Poussin

Spring or The Earthly Paradise by Nicolas Poussin

Spring or The Earthly Paradise by Nicolas Poussin depicts Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden next to the Tree of Knowledge. This scene is before the original sin and the expulsion from Eden. No snake is visible as Eve points out the forbidden fruit. The composition is dominated by vegetated wood with varying gradations of greenery. Adam and Eve are but a small part of the woodland, dwarfed by nature. The foreground is dimly lit as if it is the morning before the distance morning sun reveals the swans on a lake with meadows and mountain.

The early morning light can also be seen glimmering through a gap in the rocks and shrubs in the middle ground, echoing the Birth of Bacchus symbolically. The robed figure of the Creator can be seen high up on a cloud surrounded by a halo of light. He is facing away from the viewer, departing and aware of what is to come.

Spring or The Earthly Paradise

  • Title:                Spring or The Earthly Paradise
  • Artist:              Nicolas Poussin
  • Year:                1660 and 1664
  • Medium:         Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:   Height: 118 cm (46.4 ″); Width: 160 cm (62.9 ″)
  • Museum:        Louvre

The Four Seasons by Nicolas Poussin

Summer or Ruth and Boaz by Nicolas Poussin

Summer or Ruth and Boaz by Nicolas Poussin depicts Ruth the Moabite kneels before Boaz. The cornfield forms the centre of the painting with layers of corn which are detailed with individual stems. In the middle ground, the reapers and a group of horses are all engaged their pastoral work as a peasant plays on bagpipes to the right. On the left, a reaper quenching his thirst while two women prepare bread in the shade of the large tree.

The screen is full of the symbols of plenty and the rewards of work.

Summer or Ruth and Boaz

  • Title:                 Summer or Ruth and Boaz
  • Artist:              Nicolas Poussin
  • Year:                1660 and 1664
  • Medium:         Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:   Height: 118 cm (46.4 ″); Width: 160 cm (62.9 ″)
  • Museum:        Louvre

The Four Seasons by Nicolas Poussin

As Nicolas Poussin approached seventy years of age and the end of his life, he undertook these last set of paintings. Work on the paintings was slow, because of general ill health and a continuing tremor in his hands, which had affected Poussin for the last twenty-five years of his life and had turned him into a recluse.

The Seasons were a continuation of Poussin’s mythological landscapes, depicting the power and grandeur of nature. The series also represents successive times of the day: early morning for Spring, midday for Summer, an evening for Autumn and a moonlit night for Winter. For both stoic philosophers and early Christians, the seasons represented the harmony of nature. For Christians, the succession of night and day also symbolised the death and resurrection of Christ and the salvation of man.

As well as this Christian iconography, the paintings also contain mythological allusions to the deities and symbols of the classical antiquity. An example of the echos of classical antiquity, this the group of five horses in the Summer painting which are depicted in the classical style of horses driving a Roman Chariot from the triumphal arches of Ancient Rome.

Nicolas Poussin

Nicolas Poussin (1594 – 1665) was the leading painter of the classical French Baroque style, although he spent most of his working life in Rome. Most of his works were on religious and mythological subjects painted for a small group of Italian and French collectors. He returned to Paris for a brief period to serve as First Painter to the King under Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu, but soon returned to Rome and resumed his more traditional themes. He was a major inspiration for such classically oriented artists as Jacques-Louis David, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Paul Cézanne.

Nicolas Poussin

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Reflections

  • “Every time I leave a Poussin, I know better who I am.” – Cézanne
  • “Poussin was one of the greatest innovators found in the history of painting.” – Ingres

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“Every time I leave a Poussin, I know better who I am.”
– Cézanne

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Photo Credit: 1) Nicolas Poussin [Public domain]

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