I t is early autumn, and the time to gather in the grape harvest has come.
In Western art, a tradition of depicting the course of the year via the four seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter in painting, sculpture and print developed over hundreds of years. Since at least the Middle Ages the grape harvest and its associated human activity has been seen and repeatedly used as a symbol of autumn. One could therefore assume that the present large composition by David Teniers the Younger of Autumn belongs to a set of paintings depicting the Four Seasons, spring, summer, autumn and winter.
However, this does not appear to be the case, as, for one, there are no other known works of similar size representing the other seasons; and secondly, a detailed analysis of the many different motives in this work amply demonstrate how Teniers - through this depiction of an autumnal landscape at the time of the grape harvest – orchestrates an unexpected and splendid interpretation of a wine merchant and his family by creating a vivid tableau that shows lovers of paintings a landscape with the subject of wine – from the growing of the wine stocks up to the effects of the fermented grape juice on humans.
David Teniers the Younger, born in 1610 as son of the history painter David Teniers the Elder (1582 – 1649) in the art metropolis Antwerp, was taught by his father and was registered as a master of the Saint Lukas Guild in 1632-33. As a young painter, in the 1630s, Teniers thoroughly studied the works of his contemporaries, which focused on depictions of rural life and human behaviour. His preference was to draw works inspired by the Brueghel family, Brouwer, and later also after Rubens. But his main teacher in the 1640s is predominantly the beauty of nature, his own reality and life in the countryside. Teniers constantly draws scenic impressions on his excursions in the vicinity of Antwerp. In many individual studies he tries to capture the special effects of light and movement on the hills, on the water, on the morning clouds in the sky and in the vibrating foliage of the bushes and trees in quickly executed sketches. It was through such drawings, based on a close observation of nature in its constant change and a strong sensory experience, that the painter’s deep understanding of nature grew.
In this way he arrived at a new understanding of the representation of landscape as an atmospheric effect, dependant on the respective time of year or day and thus dependant on light. While the plein air sketches represent pure impressions of nature in its great variety, the painted landscapes are almost always associated with the representations of country life events, be it village fairs with many people, or small groups of farmers in conversation, at work in the field, fishing, or simply sitting by the wayside.
It is likely that Teniers received the commission for the present work from a Flemish Antwerp wine merchant around 1645-46, at a time when he had reached the pinnacle of his creative output and had been bestowed with the most important and prestigious role a painter of the city could hold: that of dean of the Guild of St Luke. It is probable that the slightly elongated format of the painting was meant for a specific place in the house or country residence of the wealthy merchant. At eye level it was possible to be vis a vis this formidable depiction to experience the imposing reality of the figures and landscape.
In this painting Teniers lets the viewer gaze into the depth of the Flemish landscape under a high, blue sky with strong cloud formations, the water of the river shimmering silver and guiding the gaze into the distance, where a village is visibly set between the rich greens of bushes and trees. The light sunset colours of the sinking sun are colouring the sky above the green of the verdant hills by the river, where vines grow on its banks.
The sun sends once more its brightest light to the groups of figures in the foreground. The grape gathering has begun. Workers are carrying the grapes to an open wooden hut, where they are squashed in huge vats by the feet of boys to obtain the juice. Barrels are standing and lying around adorned by a large vine, and a boy empties a big basket of grapes in front of them. Two men are checking and readying the barrels. Nearby, right in the middle of the composition, two people are facing each other and are particularly highlighted by the setting sun. On the side of the workers, an old, bent over man in simple clothing with a bright white shirt, and opposite him a man of strong build in bourgeois clothing with a tilted hat and spurs on his riding boots.
In his hand he holds the silver tasting cup for the wine, the tasting was convincing, and he has already made a purchase offer. His right hand now rests on the held out hand of the old man, in anticipation of receiving the handshake that will seal the deal. Very pensive, almost gently the old wine grower lifts his right hand to complete the contract. One senses the responsibility he carries for his workers in the vineyard and for the success of the wine, the sale of which will guarantee their livelihoods for the coming year. The wellbeing of the wine merchant does not need to be considered here. It is evident through the depiction of his young wife who is seated near him with their three young children. Her hands hold grapes, the basis for good incomes, and the amply filled purse on the ground is suggestive of the wealth of the wine merchants’ family.
In this painting Teniers succeeds in capturing a special form of family portrait for the wine merchant, who is depicted with his family in the centre of a composition rich in narrative motives that encompass the cultivation of the wine through to its effects at the point of purchase.
In order to depict both the positives and negative effects of wine Teniers chooses a surprising motif to complete his picture. A joyous, noisy procession of farmers quite inebriated by the noble juice approach via a steep hill, to honour Bacchus who is seated atop a barrel in a tempietto, to worship him and to thank him for the extraordinary pleasure that the wine provides. Bacchus is the youngest of the Greek gods, and, as the god of wine, also the most popular.
Dependant on the state of their drunkenness the farmers either move quickly within the group or stagger about. One is losing the capacity to walk altogether, another has a rest against a wooden pole, whilst a third appears to be sick. Joy and pleasure, however, are the main characteristics of this colourful, crowded procession. A young man, grinning from ear to ear and facing the viewer appears to invite us to join the proceedings by holding aloft a wine glass, and in the other hand a pitcher.
Through the clarity of the composition, the beauty of the landscape, the handling of the colours in detailed colour nuancing, the figure-rich narrative of the harvesting of the grapes and the enjoyment of the wine, in the middle of which the wine merchant and his family stand, The Wine Harvest is a masterpiece in the oeuvre of David Teniers the Younger from his Antwerp years. It is unique in the specific interpretation of the commission, and, it appears to me, also unique in the context of Flemish painting.