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In the fields beside a broad winding river labourers scythe grass to make hay, while a shepherd takes advantage of the shade of a large tree to shear a sheep. A woman with a large tray of fruit on her head is perhaps on her way to the town opposite to sell her produce at market. Meanwhile, aristocrats on horseback enjoy a day’s hunting; two have falcons, trained to catch prey, resting on their arms.
The scene represents summer and may have formed part of a frieze in a domestic interior depicting all four seasons. Hans Wertinger painted several cycles of landscapes showing both the months and the seasons, but we can't be sure which set this panel belonged to.
Wertinger played a leading role in the development of landscape painting as a subject in its own right, along with other artists from the region of the Danube river who put landscape at the forefront of their compositions.
Beside a broad river dotted with wildfowl, a walled town with tall towers forms the sturdy anchor around which this landscape full of lively details revolves. Labourers tend the land while landowners enjoy its pleasures. The river winds from the right edge of the picture into the distance, where the hazy outlines of distant mountains enclose the view.
The scene is framed on the left by a tree, which provides shade for shepherds and their flock. Behind this two men vigorously scythe a field of grass in order to make hay. Figures come in and out of the picture: to the right, hunters on horseback ride into the scene, some with falcons, trained to catch prey, resting on their gloved hands. A labourer couple appear to walk out of the picture, the woman with a large tray of fruit on her head. They may be on their way to the town to sell their produce at market.
The activities depicted belong to the summer months and represent the entire season. The tradition of painting series of images showing the seasons had a long history, beginning with illustrations of the ‘labours of the month’ that accompanied the monthly calendars in medieval illuminated manuscripts. Private devotional books called Books of Hours, made for wealthy courtly patrons, contained the most lavish and detailed illustrations. Such images were not confined to books, however, and many decorated walls in houses and palaces across Europe.
By the sixteenth century, cycles of paintings depicting the months and the seasons were popular, and Hans Wertinger painted both. Most of his versions are now in the German National Museum in Nuremberg. The National Gallery painting was probably made to adorn a domestic interior and, along with paintings of the remaining seasons, may have been set into panelling to form a frieze running around a room. We know of examples of two chimney pieces in the Low Countries that were, in the sixteenth century, decorated with friezes depicting the seasons. Winter, a picture now in Nuremberg, is one of several with almost identical dimensions and proportions to our panel, though it has a slightly different style of decorative gilded border at the top, imitating a wooden framing element – a common feature of Wertinger’s work. The artist appears to have made several cycles of the seasons and it is not yet clear to which of these Summer may belong.
The figures and features in the painting are drawn with confident energetic strokes, giving the scene a sense of vibrancy. This is particularly clear in the elegant and numerous curves of the trunk and branches of the tall tree. This emphasis on line can be found in the nature studies of Wertinger’s fellow painters from the region around the Danube river, including Albrecht Altdorfer. The dominance of nature in their images paved the way for the development of landscape as a subject in its own right, rather than just as a background.
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