Finding Spring at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Today is the Spring Equinox! Out of the gloom and darkness of those cold winter days, the first signs of spring are just about blooming. Despite the Beast from the East, on some days there’s a little warmth in the air, snowdrops and daffodils are out in the park.

The changing of the seasons is something that has fascinated artists worldwide and throughout time and the coming of Spring is especially important to the visual arts. Spring signals movement, progression, new life. Flowers bloom, eggs hatch, lambs bleat. We celebrate the new year in January, but really it is Spring which most effectively encapsulates the joy we feel as we move from the old and into the new and the renewed.

Artists have always responded to this joy with energy and enthusiasm. As the visual environment around them changes, their art reacts and responds. We can find pictures of spring throughout art history. Think of Botticelli’s La Primavera (Italian for Spring) where the pregnant goddess Flora is wreathed in flowers and the fruit trees are laden with new fruit. And perhaps most recently we might turn to Beyonce’s famous pregnancy portrait by Awol Erizku, which made multiple references to paintings depicting Spring, including that by Botticelli.

In celebration of this incredibly influential season, Smartify headed to The Metropolitan Museum of Art to find some of the best depictions of the season among their collection. If you’re struggling through the last few days of winter, take comfort from these ‘blooming’ marvellous depictions of the new season!

‘Dogwood’, Designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933), ca. 1902–1915

Today we mostly associate Tiffany’s with beautiful and expensive jewellery in perfect little blue boxes, but the New York company has a long history and expertise in other areas of the decorative arts. Look at this wonderful glass window depicting the beautiful blossom of a japanese dogwood plant.

Louis Comfort Tiffany, was the son of Tiffany’s original founder Charles Lewis Tiffany and he took over the company in 1902, around the time this window was painted. But more than anything, Tiffany junior was a genius glass painter. This enormous structure measuring over 2 metres in height, is no ordinary stained-glass window. It incorporates a number of different techniques to give the colours such a depth and concentration, that, when you see it in person, it’s as vivid as a painting. If you look closely at the petals of the blossom, you can see that Tiffany has even used rippled glass to simulate the very texture of the flowers.

‘Embroidered Picture’, Mary Wright (1740–1829), ca. 1754

The Met is filled with some of the most enormous and important art works in the whole world. But it also includes in its collection some artworks, which have received less attention in the great sweep of art history but are fantastic examples of the everyday artistic practices of ordinary people throughout history. And as you might guess, Spring was just as important to these artists!

This lovingly embroidered picture is by 14 year old Mary Wright, the daughter of a prosperous farmer from Middletown, Connecticut. In the mid-eighteenth century few schools in Connecticut taught more than the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Well to-do girls like Mary, whose parents were able to afford a greater level of education, were often sent to schools in the towns of Boston or Newport, where the curriculum included embroidery and needlework. Mary attended a Sarah Osborn’s school in Newport, where she produced these needlework pictures based on engravings depicting the four seasons. Pictures like these can give us an excellent sense of the type of artwork people throughout history actually lived with.

‘Spring Morning in the Heart of the City’, Childe Hassam, (1859–1935), 1890, reworked 1895–99

Many of us will associate Impressionism with France and French artists but Childe Hassam was an American Impressionist painter. Hassam was vitally important for the spread of the Impressionist movementacross the Atlantic to North America. His work sparked the interest of collectors, dealers, and museums, who then also bought and displayed the work of his European counterparts. In a great part, its thanks to him that these amazing artworks hang in museums across the United States.

Spring, of course, was immensely influential on the impressionists who are best known for painting en plein aire (outside). They were gripped by changing states of nature. This depiction of New York is a quintessential scene by Hassam. We see the forceful interaction between the city and nature. We see the glowing new leaves and the fresh grass but also the vibrancy of the inhabitants of the city. The coaches and their horses, the strolling crowds, the little child running ahead of his parents.

‘Easter Monday’, Willem de Kooning (1904–1997), 1955–56

The last painting on our list moves into the abstract expressionism of the mid-twentieth century, with this monumental painting of Willem de Kooning. Abstract Expressionism was a movement that tried to make art that while abstract was also expressive or emotional in its effect. De Kooning was one of its key members.

In this picture which was named Easter Monday for the day it was finished, we see a grittier version of the spring than in earlier paintings. Here the colours of the new season, the flesh-like pinks and vivid blues and yellow, are juxtaposed with the detritus of newspaper print and the thick and highly textured brush strokes. Art critic Thomas Hess called de Kooning’s works “abstract urban landscapes”. Above, we saw how Childe Hassam celebrates and idealises the urban environment in the Spring, de Kooning on the other hand doesn’t compromise. The environment of the painting is both beautiful and tough — much like the modern city today.