Autumn is a timeless subject in art, returned to again and again for its rich colours and symbolic meanings by artists such as the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. The pre-Raphaelite artists advocated intense study of nature, and had a fascination with medieval culture, creating paintings full of detail and intense colour.
Millais’ ‘Autumn Leaves’ shows four girls raking fallen leaves by twilight, for a bonfire. The orange tones of the large pile of leaves in the foreground harmonise with the warm evening sky. It hints at the beginnings of the aesthetic movement, with an emphasis on beauty over meaning. The sharp focus of the leaves is created using many thin glazes over a white ground, retaining a jewel like clarity of colour as the light travels through the layers and is reflected back.
Despite the emphasis on the beauty of nature and of the girls, autumn has a symbolic meaning for Millais. It represents the transience of this youthful beauty– the leaves eventually fall from the trees and are turned into smoke. He may have been inspired by the romantic poetry of his friend Tennyson, and the experience of sweeping up leaves together in his garden.
Many British artists in the 1890s were influenced by French naturalism. The influence spread through artist’s colonies such as Grez Sur Loing in France, where British artists mixed with French and American artists like a painter’s holiday camp. William Stott of Oldham was one of these artists, as well as being a close follower of Whistler, the father of Aestheticism. In his painting ‘Autumn’ a woman in a red dress with deep auburn hair sits on an abundance of golden grasses and rosy apples. Whilst the colours are immediately evocative of Autumn, the harvest also conjures up autumnal vibes. The word harvest came from the Old English word hærfest, meaning “autumn”. The scene combines Stott’s early interest in landscape painting with his later development toward allegorical themes. The romantic undertones of the elegantly draped woman in nature shows the influence of pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne Jones.
Alphonse Mucha takes the associations of autumn and the female figure one step further and represents a female figure as an allegory of autumn itself. The personification of the seasons in art dates back to the old masters, but Mucha injects new life into the classic theme using an Art Nouveau style. Art Nouveau was a reaction to academic art, inspired by natural forms and the curved lines of plants and flowers, and often designed to be mass produced. Mucha’s ‘Autumn’ is part of a series of the four seasons, each depicting a woman with the attributes of her season. Autumn is a playful figure, wearing a wreath of chrysanthemums in her red hair. She sits amongst a rich tapestry of autumnal fruits and leaves, capturing the mood of fruitful autumn. Like Millais, Mucha touches upon the association of women with death and rebirth, as the symbolic meaning of Autumn.