10 Artists Who Unpacked the Symbolism of the Four Seasons

Benjamin Sutton
Sep 21, 2018 3:09PM

They say the only constant is change, and there may be no more reliable change than the advance of the seasons. A universal reminder of the passage of time and life’s cyclical nature, the four seasons have long been a favorite allegorical vessel for artists. Ancient Greek sculptures personify them, medieval European illustrations moralize virtuous and vicious behavior, and Edo-period Japanese prints render seasonal shifts in fashion and ritual. As with many formally and thematically conventional art historical subjects, artists have been tweaking, revising, and upending the theme for centuries.

From artists who imbue the subject’s broad allegorical meanings with deeply personal or pointedly political messages to others who update the tried-and-true formula through contemporary mediums like photography and video, the following 10 examples attest to the polyvalent power of the seasons in art history: ebullient as spring, irresistible as summer, colorful as fall, and cool as winter.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s cornucopic portraits

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Winter, 1573. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Autumn, 1573. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The Milanese master Giuseppe Arcimboldo cemented his place in art history when, in the mid-16th century, he managed to fuse two of the most popular painting genres: portraiture and still life. His elaborate paintings of archetypes and allegorical figures made up of thematically appropriate objects—from a librarian made of books to a chef composed of food and cookware—remain as popular today as they were in his lifetime.

In 1563, as a court painter to soon-to-be Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II, Arcimboldo offered his patron a series of figural paintings personifying the four seasons that he had created earlier in the decade. Of the originals, one has never been found, and only Winter and Summer have survived (they belong to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna), but Maximilian II liked them so much that he ordered a second set from Arcimboldo in 1573 as a gift for Augustus, the Elector of Saxony.


The second set remains intact and belongs to the Louvre. It includes a bearded figure for autumn made up of root vegetables, grapes, and apples; a grimacing winter formed chiefly from a knotty tree trunk with branches for hair; a blossoming spring figure with a leafy torso and flowery coif; and a grinning summer with ripe vegetables and fruit making up its face and hair, along with a shimmering wheat collar. (As a testament to the series’s enduring popularity, American artist Philip Haas made four monumental sculptures based on the paintings in 2009.)

Arcimboldo returned to the subject of the seasons later in life, when he’d moved back to Milan. About three years before his death, he created Four Seasons in One Head (ca. 1590), a fantastical and dark three-quarter portrait of an aged tree figure with a pockmarked and somber face. That painting, which invites ruminations on the passage of the seasons and the effects of time on the body and mind, was not publicly exhibited until 2007, and was subsequently acquired by the National Gallery of Art.

Nicolas Poussin’s biblical seasons

Nicolas Poussin, Autumn (The Spies with the Grapes of the Promised Land), 1660-64. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Another artist who found poignancy in the cycle of seasons late in life was Nicolas Poussin, whose last set of works stages four Old Testament stories in four different seasons and times of day. The French artist painted them for the Duc de Richelieu, great-nephew of the famous Cardinal Richelieu, between 1660 and 1664. The following year, the Duc promptly lost them (along with nine other Poussin paintings) to King Louis XIV in a tennis match.

“The Four Seasons” (1660–64) now hang together at the Louvre. The dramatic narrative sequence begins with Spring (The Earthly Paradise), a pre-dawn, prelapsarian scene of Adam and Eve in a verdant wilderness, and concludes with the stormy and apocalyptic nighttime depiction of Noah’s Ark, Winter (The Flood). In between are much brighter daytime tableaux. An image showing a summertime grain harvest recounts the parable of Boaz and Ruth, and an autumnal, apple-filled landscape serves as the stage for a scene in the Book of Numbers in which two Israelite spies carry giant grapes from the Promised Land on a pole. The series powerfully contrasts the cyclical nature of the seasons with the finality of the biblical narrative.

Rosalba Carriera’s sensual allegories

Rosalba Carriera, Spring, mid-1720s. Courtesy of The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

Rosalba Carriera, Winter, mid-1720s. Courtesy of The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

Venetian artist Rosalba Carriera began honing her craft by painting portrait miniatures on snuffbox lids, even incorporating ivory into her tiny compositions. Subsequently, she pioneered the use of pastels for serious portraiture (pastels were previously used primarily for preparatory sketches), which earned her a good deal of fame and enabled her to study in Rome and then travel to Paris, where she painted the young King Louis XV.

Among the many portraits and allegorical figures she depicted in the flagrantly frilly and overtly sexual style that would come to be known as Rococo was a suite of four risqué portraits of women. Each represents a different season, but is dressed as if it were the hottest summer day: A springtime figure wears flowers in her hair, while a scantily-clad sitter representing winter dons a fur shawl.

Utagawa Kunisada’s ukiyo-e narratives

Utagawa Kunisada I (Toyokuni III), Snow in the Palace Garden, from the series “The Four Seasons,” 1847-52. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Today, Katsushika Hokusai might be the best-known printmaker from Japan’s Edo period, but at the time, no artist was more famous or prolific than Utagawa Kunisada. Among his many ukiyo-e woodblock prints, which were bestsellers in Japan in the first half of the 19th century, is the series “Shiki no uchi” (“Four Seasons”)—40 of which are in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Ornate scenes rich with narrative detail include portrayals of figures enjoying a casual, lived relationship with the environment, as well as allegorical depictions of the seasons. In one print, courtship rituals play out between couples dressed in exquisitely patterned robes as they stroll through the snowy imperial palace. In another, barefoot figures playfully seek shelter during a warm spring shower.

Marc Chagall’s sweeping vision of Chicago

Detail of Marc Chagall, The Four Seasons, at the Exelon Plaza, Chicago, 1974. Photo by UGArdener, via Flickr.

Amid the streamlined geometry of Chicago’s Chase Tower Plaza stands a startling and fanciful sight: Marc Chagall’s freestanding mosaic mural, The Four Seasons (1974). Made up of inlaid chips in 250 different hues, the sprawling mosaic depicts six visions of Chicago, including references to its iconic modernist architecture. Indeed, Chicago’s skyline had changed so much between the artist’s previous visit to the city and the mosaic’s installation 30 years later that he made several last-minute changes, modifying buildings and incorporating fragments of Chicago brick into the mosaic.

The enormous work features a mix of everyday and supernatural scenes, with hybrid flying creatures soaring above children, musicians, dancers, lovers, and more. Though the mosaic doesn’t make specific reference to Chicago’s punishing winters, they left it worse for wear, and in 1994, it underwent an extensive restoration, with a protective canopy built over it.

Jennifer Bartlett’s skeletons for every season

Jennifer Bartlett, Summer, 1990. Courtesy of the artist and Locks Gallery.

Jennifer Bartlett, Fall, 1990. Courtesy of the artist and Locks Gallery.

Though she is best known for grid-based paintings that marry elements of figuration and abstraction, Jennifer Bartlett’s print series “The Four Seasons” (1990–93) is bursting with figurative imagery. Each of the four screenprints finds a human skeleton set in a grassy landscape and surrounded by animals, dishes, handprints, dominoes, playing cards, and swaths of decorative patterns.

Whereas the cycle of nature—life ends in death, which, in turn, gives way to new life—is a staple theme in historical depictions of the four seasons, Bartlett subverts the formula by making death the focus throughout. Her inclusion of dominoes and cards also adds an element of chance amid the predictable sequencing, adding to the enigmatic nature of the series.

Liu Dahong’s cyclical political critique

Liu Dahong
Aura Gallery
Liu Dahong
Aura Gallery

While some artists have rather subtly layered political or philosophical messages into their riffs on the four seasons motif, there’s nothing subtle about Liu Dahong’s print series “Four Seasons” (2006), which takes up his favorite subject: the Cultural Revolution. The outrageous images feature Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and other Communist Party leaders in dramatic scenes that borrow from the history of Chinese painting, with nods to propaganda posters, social realism, comics, textbooks, and other sources. The satirical images posit these Communist authorities as deities surrounded by faithful followers—including some who seem to be freezing to death in the wintry scene.

“The past is a resource you use to arm yourself,” Liu said in a 2016 interview. “The West is very good at that, but not China, where there isn’t enough discussion about the past in general and nobody ever touches the Cultural Revolution.” His take on the four seasons suggests that history, like nature, can be cyclical—especially when we don’t learn from the mistakes of the past.

Wendy Red Star decolonizes nature

Wendy Red Star
Spring (The Four Seasons series), 2006
Haw Contemporary

In most instances, artistic renderings of the seasons play on parallels between the natural world and human behavior, but artist Wendy Red Star took up the motif specifically to subvert this trope. Her 2006 photo series “The Four Seasons” lampoons the essentializing Western characterization of Native Americans as being inherently more connected to nature. In the images, she sits in traditional Crow dress in front of studio backdrops of dramatic landscapes, surrounded by plastic and cardboard props.

Though she considers the series her “gate opener,” the images were not well-received when she first showed them as a student in UCLA’s MFA program. “I was told, ‘These works will never show, they’re not professional enough,’” she recounted to Cowboys and Indians. “I realize now that [my instructors] were adept with the privileged language of theory and abstraction. But when it came to identity-based art, they didn’t know how to talk about things like race and cultural history.” Nine years later, the series was included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s landmark 2015 exhibition “The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky.”

David Hockney’s travels through time

The seasons have been a palpable force in David Hockney’s work for decades—or, in the case of his portraits of Southern California collectors in their sun-splashed homes, the lack of seasons. His best-known landscape paintings capture views of the English countryside teaming with lush plant life in the spring and summer, sprinkled with rain or strewn with dead leaves in the fall, and blanketed with snow in the winter.

In addition to a deluge of iPad drawings, Hockney’s recent embrace of technology has resulted in a far more elaborate and ambitious take on the passing seasons: the 36-screen digital video piece The four seasons, Woldgate Woods (Spring 2011, Summer 2010, Autumn 2010, Winter 2010), currently on view at Richard Gray Gallery. Playing across four nine-screen grids, the piece is a video collage of sorts that leads the viewer down country roads in the titular Yorkshire woods as the seasons pass, transforming the landscape.

Sibyl Kempson performs the solstice

Performance of Sibyl Kempson, 12 Shouts to the Ten Forgotten Heavens, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Spring Equinox, 2016. Photo © Paula Court. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

For some, equinox and solstice parties are part of a hippie phase or an occasional burst of exuberance with a granola crunch. For the artist Sibyl Kempson, they’re a generative wellspring. For nearly three years, the director, playwright, and performer has marked every equinox and solstice with a performance at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Kempson developed the specially commissioned series, entitled “12 Shouts to the Ten Forgotten Heavens,” in collaboration with Thomas Riccio, a scholar of ritual, shamanism, and indigenous performance. Past iterations, performed with her theater company 7 Daughters of Eve Thtr. & Perf. Co. in and around the Whitney, have included everything from a broom-sweeping ceremony and a male beauty contest to a ladies-only rosé tasting, the ritual burning of plants and herbs, and what she described as a “bad translation” of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie.

Kempson sees the project—which continues this Saturday and concludes in December—as an opportunity to “observe [seasonal] patterns that we wouldn’t notice otherwise,” she told Art in America. “A lot of the beauty of a city partly has to do with nature.”

Benjamin Sutton