The Four Seasons, Final Series of Paintings by Nicolas Poussin

Several paintings at Louvre were damaged as heavy storm hit Paris last week. Those paintings include Spring and Autumn, two masterpieces from the Four Seasons series by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). This prestigious collection by Poussin was being shown in a room of its own in Louvre.

Nicolas Poussin on the left; Cardinal Richelieu on the right

Nicolas Poussin was a leading artist of Baroque style, as well as a prominent artist in France. His last series of paintings, the Four Seasons, was painted for Cardinal Richelieu. Poussin suffered from deteriorating health and a tremor in his hands when he was working on this series, which took him four years (1660-1664) to finish.

Most of his works are paintings of mythological, historical or religious subjects with rich symbolic meanings. The Four Seasons is a set of mythological landscape paintings with theme of Old Testament, reflecting on order of the nature and stages of human life. Figures in the paintings are solemn and elegant, setting in a background of natural scenery. Poussin’s paintings are often infused with philosophical meditation.

The series starts with Spring, taking a story from Genesis. It depicts an early morning in the Garden of Eden. Eve is pointing out the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge to Adam; the Creator is on a cloud at the upper right. It is a scene before the original sin and no snake is visible in the painting.

Summer, presented in a scene of Ruth kneeling before Boaz and the setting of time is in the afternoon. With reference to the book of Ruth, there was a famine in Israel when Ruth returned with her mother-in-law. As a widow, Ruth would go to the fields to glean food, where she met a landowner Boaz. Ruth was a virtuous woman and was later married to him. One of their famous descendants is King David.

The painting Autumn was set in an evening and its story related to the book of Numbers. It depicts some spies brining grapes, pomegranate and figs from the Promised Land, since they were sent out by Moses to show how fruitful the Promised Land was.

In the last painting Winter, the moon is dimly lit and partial hidden by grey clouds. It is a scene of the Great Flood sent by the Creator. Noah’s Ark is floating on the calmer waters in the far distance, in contrast to those stranded survivors in the foreground.

Even though the theme of the paintings is related to Old Testament, some art critics believe that the paintings also allude polytheism in Classical Antiquity - Sunrise in Spring symbolizes Apollo, god of the sun; Wheat in Summer symbolizes Ceres, goddess of fertility; Grapes in Autumn symbolizes Dionysus, god of wine and the snake in Winter symbolizes Pluto, god of the underworld.