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An artwork consisting of four panels, each representing a season through still-life images and other vignettes.

Ellen Lanyon

The Art

Chromos: Winter I, Autumn II, Spring III, Summer IV

In Ellen Lanyon’s 1982─83 painting Chromos: Winter I, Autumn II, Spring III, Summer IV, four separate canvases function together as a single work of art that depicts the four seasons. Though Lanyon uses distinct colors and symbols to represent the individual seasons, she links the four separate paintings into a coherent whole by repeating the same motifs. Via precisely rendered combinations of flora, fauna, and curious objects in complicated spatial arrangements, Lanyon’s Chromos: Winter I, Autumn II, Spring III, Summer IV explores one of the oldest themes in Western art.

Although images of the natural world predominate, particularly birds and flowers, the painting also includes references to humanity and its activities, both mundane and mysterious. The panels are not arranged in chronological order, indicating Lanyon’s complex approach to time. From the left, the seasons begin with winter and progress to autumn, spring, and then summer. Spatially, the images are layered in ways that trick the eye by distorting and obscuring the differences between foreground, middle ground, and background. In the two center canvases, naturalistically rendered scrolled paper is the dominant motif, augmented by a surreal combination of recognizable symbols and faded dream-like images.

Winter I is characterized by its gray background color, which lends a cool, wintry effect. A wolf runs in a snowy landscape near snow-covered farm buildings. In the foreground, a red-headed woodpecker and five American goldfinches peck seed at a finch feeder. The cord on which the feeder hangs seems to extend beyond the top of the canvas, suggesting that this birdfeeder and the birds on it exist not only in the painting but also in the viewer’s space. In the middle ground, there are three separate objects. A paper heart, possibly a Valentine or an ornament, is illustrated with palm trees receding into the distance—a scene that many individuals dream of in the middle of a snowy winter! In contrast, a small cluster of pine leaves and branches allude to winter wreaths and holiday decorations. A third object is harder to decipher: a paper scroll with a human hand holding something that might be a smokestack or lamp, with smoke wafting and infiltrating the nature scenes around it, suggesting human need for light and heat in the wintertime and pointing towards human intervention in the natural world.

Autumn II, the second panel from the left,has a soft beige background and is organized like its mirror opposite, Spring III:a sheet of wallpaper decorated with Fall leaves and acorns seems to roll up from the canvas, its lower corner curling to reveal a ghostly jack-o-lantern on its reverse. In the lower right corner, a “real” pumpkin and other fall produce share space with a ceramic tea pot whose pumpkin shape is also the body of a traditional little Chinese figure who is climbing inside. In the foreground, on the paper or perhaps in the viewer’s space, an owl has just landed on a tree branch. Further complicating the layered space, one of the two cards in the upper right hand corner casts a shadow on the paper behind it.

The panel, Spring III, also is filled with an image of curling wallpaper covered with colors of new leaves, rolling up to reveal a rabbit, a hummingbird, tulips, and a brightly colored paper egg—symbolizing birth and new beginnings—as well as a ceramic teacup in the shape of a spring vegetable. Pinned to the paper arepainted cards and photos, including a stack of note cards and a photo of a classic station wagon at the beach. A rainbow trout seems to be both part of the curling paper and swimming past it, about to be caught by a fly fishing lure—perhaps a humorous reference to the fact that time catches us all.

The final panel, Summer IV, returns to the spatial organization of Winter I. By repeating this arrangement Lanyon creates a rhythmic, circular progression from left to right. In Summer IV the background color is the brightest, its yellow tone likely meant to suggest warmer, sunnier weather. Like the other panels, Summer IV includes flora, fauna, and man-made objects painted in a surreal, spatially surprising style. In the background a structure that might be a conservatory (but resists certain identification) is painted in white and gray tones. At the bottom ghostly roses in silhouette contrast with bright yellow roses in the middle of the canvas. Vibrantly colored hummingbirds feed at flowers in front of another scrolled paper on which fingers sort through something like racquets. At the top, a fan-shaped object is decorated with a mountainous landscape. The repetition of elements like the hand, curling paper, and fan-like object with landscape scene closes the cycle between Winter and Summer, suggesting the repetitive nature of the calendar year.

The work’s title, Chromos: Winter I, Autumn II, Spring III, Summer IV, includes reference to the four seasons as well as to chromolithographs—inexpensive color prints marketed to nineteenth-century audiences for their broad popular appeal. Currier & Ives, the celebrated American printmaking firm, made chromolithographs of many subjects, including seasonal views of the rural countryside.

Although Lanyon’s paintings are quite modern, their arrangement is rooted in earlier practices in western art. Four paintings that are grouped together in this way to create a thematic whole are called a “quadriptych” or “polyptych.” Both of these words are based on the Ancient Greek word meaning folds—quadriptych means four folds, polyptych means many. In art history the terms are used to describe paintings that are divided into separate panels, which in some cases are joined together by hinges. Polyptychs allow artists to create complex, detailed images that combine into an elaborate whole to tell a larger story. Lanyon’s paintings are also part of a long tradition of representing the four seasons. In Western art, depictions of the seasons go back at least as far as Ancient Rome. By participating in this historical tradition, Lanyon is reaffirming the centrality of the four seasons and their continued significance to the modern world.

The Artist

Ellen Lanyon

Ellen Lanyon, a painter and printmaker, was born in 1926 in Chicago. Her artistic career started at age 15, when she began working for a company drawing designs of mechanical parts. She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa. Much of her artwork, which is typically characterized as surrealist or magical realism, centers on ideas of transformation. Fascinated by magic tricks, she said that she combined animals and objects “to create an illusion for the audience.” After 1976 and a commission for work about the Everglades wetlands in south Florida, her work became increasingly focused on depicting flora and fauna in the environment. Her paintings and prints can be found in such major collections as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Museum of American Art, and the Milwaukee Museum of Art. Lanyon died in October 2013.

Key Ideas

  • Representation of the cyclical and seasonal nature of life in a four-part painting
  • Realistically rendered but surprisingly arranged objects intended to suggest mystery and illusion
  • Repetition and pattern that unite parts into a whole

Discussion Questions

  1. What colors or details do you notice first? Why?
  2. If you did not know the title of these paintings would you guess that they were about the seasons? Are you able to identify the season depicted in each canvas? How or why?
  3. What might some of the hard-to-identify elements of these paintings be? For example, what does the smoking object on the scroll in Winter I look like to you? What does it make you think of? Why do you think these mysterious objects are linked to their particular seasons?
  4. What other flora or fauna do you think the artist could have used to represent the seasons? Is there an animal or flower that is particularly representative of a season to you?