Sydney Stutterheim, PhD, is an art historian and writer whose research focuses on postwar and contemporary art. She joined Gagosian in September 2018.
Long considered the season of rebirth, springtime marks the transition from the austere months of winter into the lush abundance of summer, serving as a reminder of nascent growth, life, and possibility. From ancient times to the present, artists have been inspired by the fleeting splendor of the four seasons, often relating nature’s physical transformations to cycles of human experience. The annual spring equinox marks the precise balance between lightness and darkness—when day and night gain equal shares in the earth’s daily rotation, breaking out from the shadow cast by winter’s gloom without yet fully escaping its grasp.
Spring has been a recurring theme across the arts, inspiring works as diverse as William Wordsworth’s poetry and Claude Debussy’s 1887 symphonic suite Printemps. In the visual arts, it has appeared in a variety of forms, reflecting the complex symbolism of the season. Among the most famous examples in the Western art historical canon are Sandro Botticelli’s Renaissance masterpiece Primavera (c. 1480) and Pieter Bruegel the Younger’s Spring (c. 1620–30), elaborate compositions populated with visual clues regarding the time of year. In the enigmatic Primavera, an allegorical narrative of springtime abundance, a group of mythological figures is positioned within a lush pastoral scene. This setting contains more than one hundred distinctly identifiable plant types—a detailed emphasis on varied botanical species that immediately conveys a sense of flourishing life. In the painting Spring, based on an earlier drawing by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the depiction of the annual ritual of planting seeds in a garden intended for a later harvest focuses attention on the importance of laying groundwork for future reward.
Certain iconography, like the profuse depiction of flowers or harvests, continues to evoke the spring season through the present day. The theme of abundance has been embraced by artists including Jeff Koons, whose Bluebird Planter (2010–16) exuberantly captures the lushness of spring’s verdant growth with a large-format stainless-steel sculpture of a bluebird, a noted symbol of happiness, which is decorated with an array of live flowering plants in a perpetual state of bloom. Helen Frankenthaler’s painting Celebration Bouquet (1962) proffers a festive, joyous composition, depicting a vibrant bouquet of uniquely colored flowers. Other contemporary works evoke the idea of the season as a harbinger of the upcoming late spring and summer bounty, when countless crops come to fruition in a gloriously plentiful cornucopia. Notably Urs Fischer explores the concept of harvest in Springtime in the Midwest (2019), with ears of corn, ripe cherries, and potatoes plentifully scattered across the work’s surface, like a springtime rain shower.
Other artists have taken different approaches to this theme. Tintoretto’s Allegorical Figure of Spring (c. 1546–48) presents the image of a young woman at a transitional point between childhood and adulthood as an allegory of the budding season. This connection to human life cycles is key to Tom Wesselmann’s Tulips and Shoe (1979), in which a small bouquet of red tulips—a flower type celebrated for its springtime bloom—is set in juxtaposition with a woman’s cerulean-blue sandal. These objects seen together signal a specific time of year, while also alluding to a specific period in a young woman’s life. The correspondence between young adulthood and spring’s nascent spryness is likewise evoked in Glenn Brown’s American Sublime (2017), in which an Adonis-like young man appears to conjure a visual explosion of color, the young creator manifesting and shaping a profusion reminiscent of the springtime abundance of hues after winter’s monochromatic palette.
The striking contrasts of springtime—during which delicately budding flora emerge from the weather-worn earth following the severities of winter—arouse associations with concepts of metamorphosis and hidden resolve. Sterling Ruby’s exquisite ceramic flowers similarly capture the duality of fragility and strength, with their alternations of craggy and smooth textures and depictions of delicate petals that cling to a central pistil.
Artists have also focused closely on illustrating specific seasonal details, celebrating the color and textures unique to the blooming florae and new life forms that emerge at this time of year. While living in Arles, in the South of France, during the spring of 1888, Vincent van Gogh painted multiple compositions of trees, orchards, and parks in blossom. In Pink Peach Trees (“Souvenir de Mauve”) (1888), he deployed an icy palette of cool-toned browns, blues, and grays, punctuated by delicate bursts of pinkish-mauve and rose depicting the emergent flower buds on the peach tree. Here, the dichotomies of spring—as a transitional season between winter and summer—are readily apparent, the crisp winter light illuminating the first signs of the transformations to come. Similarly, in Setsuko’s painting Stephanotis avec citron coupé (1989) the sparse still-life scene—comprising a bowl of lemons and a potted Madagascar jasmine plant, rendered in a cool-toned palette of greens, yellow, blue-red, and white—captures the unhurried thaw of winter with suggestions of an airy lightness to come.
In late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Japan, artists often featured representations of springtime within larger compositions depicting all four seasons in a single woodcut or work on paper. In these examples, artists commonly used visual contrasts to communicate the distinctive elements for each season, frequently presenting a single subject—like a small group of trees—transitioning in accordance with shifting weather patterns over the course of a year. While in this example, Japanese artists represented the four seasons as a way to convey the passage of time, there are examples of contemporary art that might be interpreted in a similar manner. For instance, in Clock (Swamped Up Sagg) (2020), Davide Balula uses three stark, bare tree branches as the hour, minute, and second hands of a functioning clock. When seen in motion, this work conveys the anticipatory feeling of late winter as the days slowly begin to grow longer with the promise of life to come. Rachel Whiteread’s luminous work on paper Green, Green and Khaki (March–Sept) (2020) also evokes a sense of temporal passage, particularly through the countless layers of drawn ink that recede into the background, thereby opening up the surface to convey a sense of expanded time. Here, the intricate, lattice-like patterns of varying shades of green recall the veining of leaves, the angular shapes loosely suggesting botanical forms.
Many contemporary artists have found inspiration in unconventional materials that convey the tensions and complexities of the vernal season. In Get to Work on Time (2014), Dan Colen covered the linen support with an accumulation of jewel-toned flowers—a traditional symbol of spring—that materially transform over time through the natural process of decay. The result is a painting that resembles the way in which individual plant species blend together when seen at a distance, creating an immersive experience that makes subtle allusion to darker themes of death and degeneration. In his butterfly paintings, such as Righteous Path (2019), Damien Hirst also turns to organic objects as artistic material, carefully placing actual butterflies into a rhythmic arrangement of concentric rings. Here too, the use of organic materials highlights the proximity between life and death. Giuseppe Penone has based a large portion of his practice on naturally sourced materials and the depiction of organic forms; his acacia-thorn works in particular capture the complex frictions of spring, in which the stark brutality of winter is still harbored for some time longer.
In parts of the Northern Hemisphere that see seasonal distinctions, summer is marked by unending balmy days, autumn by the warm color palette of changing leaves, and winter by the chilly stillness that permeates the land and air. Yet spring is less readily defined. It evokes a buoyant lightness, made possible by shaking off the winter frost. It reveals all the hidden life that had lain dormant below the icy surface. It carries forth the weight of the immediate past while presenting glimpses of a vibrant, abundant, and prolific time to come. Over the last year, the splendor and tenacity of the natural world—even when faced with the unimaginable circumstances that have defined this period, and the precarity of environmental futures—gained a considerable urgency. At once hopefully optimistic and marred by scars that act as reminders of the brutality of the immediate past, the joys of spring take on a new imperative as the new season approaches on both literal and metaphorical levels.