BY JENNIFER FAUCI
For those of us residing in the Northern reaches of the globe, the transition to Spring can feel like reaching the light at the end of the tunnel. March is fraught with gleaming anticipation of the sunny months ahead. But before we put Winter in the rear view mirror once again, it’s worth noting that while smiling at it in good riddance may be the prevailing view amongst many, it certainly isn’t the only one.
Take Jacques de la Joue’s Allegory of Winter, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here’s a painting that does not so much favor one season over another, so much as envelop them in ambiguous legend. Whatever its message, it’s suffice to say that curators at the Met have taken with the masses during this time of year in moving the painting to an obscure locale. Tucked away in the Patrons Gallery on the fourth floor Metropolitan’s European Wing, a search for La Joue’s work can take up to an hour. Did the Met move it out of view in the hopes that Spring would arrive faster?
When finally discovering Allegory of Winter, one is struck by a more subtle look at the colder months. Winter is the shell that humans can hide in, a safe haven of before Spring’s rebirth.
Such a nuanced depiction is the result of La Joue’s trademark style. He is best known as one of the first French landscape artists to paint in the style of Rococo, which developed out of a reaction to the dramatic contrasts of dark and light that defined the preceding Baroque era. Instead, Rococo artists opted for delicate colors and the subtle use of lights and shades to create delicate natural effects, especially when used for outdoor scenes.
This variety of tone is a proper complement to Allegory of Winter’s multiple layers of meaning. Upon a first glance, it’s facile enough to see it as a depiction of the dead of Winter. La Joue’s use of browns and blacks in the foreground shows the cold ground and death of nature. An evocative Winter sky is conjured up through a spectacular blend of blue and gray, hovering above a barren, lifeless landscape in ruins.
Amidst such a murky atmosphere, however, the tone and feel of the elements also give off a sense of hope.La Joue shows Winter is reaching its end through various motifs. The glowing, peachy color of the sun not only signals the beginning of a new day, but a new season. Snow has begun to gently melt off the tree branches. The female figure symbolizing Winter in the center of the painting has a shuddering disposition about her, cringing in the face of oncoming warmth. Within the relief of a wood bridge below her, the bust of a minotaur looking figure yawns, as if awakening from deep hibernation. Sitting on top of this bench-like bridge is a small cherub holding a musical instrument, foreshadowing the rebirth that will soon blossom.
Looking closer, the wooded circle that encloses these figures is La Joue’s allusion to the cycle of the seasons. Moving counter-clockwise, the circular pattern in the painting starts from the end of the tree branch on the left side. Moving down the tree and under the wooden bridge, the circle continues through the other tree on the opposite side, extending to the end of the branches as well. This circular pattern reigns in the two figures and the sun, hugging them to warm them from Winter’s chill.
There’s a whimsical tone here, that celebrates Winter’s intimacy as much as its passing. It also opens the skies to the warmth of the spring sun and a time of renewal, a feeling that should be felt by all very soon.