Although it’s still slightly chilly in the Nation’s Capital, Spring has (finally) sprung here at last: our famous cheery trees are blooming, daffodils are taking over hillsides and traffic medians, and tulip leaves are inching toward the point beyond which their flowers will appear. In the Spring, with apologies to Lord Tennyson, both a young man and a somewhat older man’s fancy may lightly turn to thoughts of love, but if he loves art, he turns to thoughts of paintings which try to capture some of the fleeting pleasures of the season. So today, I thought I’d share three works which, for me, have always evoked this time of year – and if you have your own favorite Spring-related art, gentle reader, I’d love to read about it in the comments section.
“Almond Trees in Blossom” (1911) – Santiago Rusiñol i Prats
Like the cavea of an ancient Roman theatre, the terraced hillsides of this almond orchard in full bloom on the island of Mallorca step down into a kind of orchestra pit covered with bright, spring green grass, and blue-green leaves sprouting from bulbs. At the turn of the previous century, Santiago Rusiñol i Prats (1861-1931) began moving away from depictions of bohemian life in Paris and social injustice in Barcelona, becoming more and more devoted to landscape painting throughout Spain. Always on the lookout for new sources of inspiration, in 1899 he paid his first visit to Mallorca with the wonderfully innovative landscape painter Joaquim Mir i Trinxet (1873-1940), and both became hooked on the huge contrasts in the landscape and strong Mediterranean light that illuminated the island. This picture was painted on one of his later return visits, and like many of Rusiñol’s landscapes it practically begs you to enter into it and smell all of the different fragrances in the air, while the cool winds and warm sun ripple across your face.
“Almond Blossom” (1890) – Vincent Van Gogh
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Turning to a different representation of almond flowers, I’ve always been captivated by this work, which looks simultaneously traditional and contemporary. Like many other artists of his day, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) was strongly influenced by traditional Japanese prints, and that influence is clearly evident in this wonderful evocation of tree branches full of delicate blooms. At the same time, the separation of the subject from any visual point of reference – is this a cropped image of a tree set before a glowing sky, or do we see cut brunches in a vase displayed against a blue wall? – distills the question of time down to a single, inescapable conclusion, devoid of any other considerations: it’s Spring.
“A Cup of Water and a Rose” (c. 1630) – Francisco de Zurbarán
National Gallery, London
This small picture, which is only about the size of a standard sheet of letter-sized paper, doesn’t have the grandeur of the religious paintings that helped make Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1694) a popular artist not only in his native Spain, but also in the Spanish colonies in the New World. Nor is it as large or complex as some of his other works in the bodegón genre, that style of starkly minimalist painting using household objects, flowers, and food against a dark background and a plain foreground which is one of the greatest legacies of Spanish painting. Yet in its simplicity, this delicate observation of a pale, early rose lying on a plain silver tray alongside a two-handled cup filled with water is, like Van Gogh’s painting, a wonderful evocation of Spring, even though the only specific reference to time and place is in the presence of the flower itself.