Text by Geoffrey Smith


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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Gloomy Day – 1563

Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

The five extant panels featuring the Seasons of the Year are among Bruegel's finest works. Originally commissioned by the Antwerp banker Nicolaes Jongelinck, three hang in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. One, The Harvesters, is held by the Metropolitan Museum, New York and the other is in Prague. Art historians did not identify the five panels as part of a series until the 1920’s. This precipitated a lengthy debate as regards the original number of panels that formed the cycle – were there twelve months? – in which case there were seven missing – or were the paintings a depiction of the four seasons? – in which case one panel was superfluous to requirements. Recent research has shown that there were originally six paintings, linked to the labours of the year, and probably divided bi-monthly. Arguments persist but a reasonable case can be made for the three panels in Vienna to be considered as:

The Gloomy Day: Early Spring – February / March

The Return of the Herd: Autumn – October / November

Hunters in the Snow: Winter – December / January

The Gloomy Day (Early Spring)

The Gloomy Day has been the title of ‘Early Spring’ for a century. Cleaning has revealed a stormy but somewhat less gloomy scene. The viewer, from a high standpoint, can see the maritime casualties of a storm; one vessel has broken its back on the promontory and another is in trouble. March is producing its usual crop of inclement interludes. In the distance we can see that the mountains retain a covering of snow (he would have crossed such terrain on his journey to Italy in 1551). At the head of the bay a village huddles, sheltered from the open sea by the mountains and the spit of land in the middle distance. Thatched cottages cluster at the foot of a hill which dominates the foreground. Peasants have climbed this prominence to engage in one of the tasks associated with that time of the year just before Spring fully materialises - they are diligently pollarding and lopping trees. Nearby a family group are engaged in eating waffles - the young boy wears a paper crown - signalling the traditional revels associated with Carnival held just before Lent – which fell in February or Early March, depending on the liturgical calendar.

Contemporary Works

1562 Tintoretto: Moses Receiving the Tablets of the Law, Venice, Madonna dell'Orto

1565 Jacopo Bassano: Adoration of the Magi, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Further Paintings of Interest

St Eligius in his Workshop

Petrus Christus

Ghent Altarpiece

Jan van Eyck

The Donne Triptych

Hans Memling

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