James Thomson’s poetry cycle The Seasons is part of a long tradition of pastoral poetry from Ovid to Torquato Tasso to Ariosto. Praised by leading figures of the European Enlightenment, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Ephraim Lessing, the opus, written between 1726 and 1730, was considered a key work of the period. The painterly-expressive depiction of the terrible and sublime in nature had an enormous impact on visual artists. Angelika Kauffmann, among them, was attracted by the wealth of imagery in the blank verse poem, which comprises five thousand lines, and she painted a further six scenes from Thomson’s Seasons in addition to these two copperplate paintings.
As early as 1757, the first part of the poem was translated into German and published in Switzerland with a title vignette by Salomon Gessner. The second part followed in 1764 and a new edition in 1774. The Swiss born Kauffmann, who was in contact with Gessner, could have become acquainted with Thomson’s Seasons in German translation early on. Linguistically gifted as she was, she would probably have read the Seasons in the original, if only to be able to grasp the musicality of the English verse. German translators, however, struggled to convey a sense of the original in their own language. In 1778, Ludewig Schubert made a second attempt with Proben einer neuen Uebersetzung von James Thomson’s ‘Jahreszeiten’ (Samples of a new translation of James Thomson’s ‘Seasons’) but had to admit that the ‘picturesque poetry’ of this ‘greatest of the picturesque poets’ quickly brought him to his linguistic limits (Neue Litteratur und Völkerkunde, No. 1, Vol. 1, January 1788, pp. 44–53).
Thus, it was the visual artists, including Angelika Kauffmann and Joshua Reynolds, who took on the mediating role of transforming Thomson’s ‘marvel of word music’ into painting, appropriately since the Scottish poet in the line from Summer, ‘But who can paint the lover, as he stood’, openly calls for a contest between poetry and painting. Kauffmann, too, found herself challenged by Thomson’s rhetorical question to a paragone of the arts.
The artist selects those scenes that would particularly stir the viewer’s feelings. The moment of Amelia’s tragic misfortune depicted here was ideally suited to move the 18th-century viewer; an innocent human being is unexpectedly snatched from the midst of life by the force of Nature. The loving Celadon is left inconsolable and in despair, ‘for ever silent; and for ever sad’. Kauffmann’s preoccupation with the fate of the lovers is depicted in another painting inspired by the same poem, in which she depicts the moment just before Amelia sinks to the ground, struck by lightning. In that work we see the profound fear of the tragic heroine, who clings to her lover in terror.
Thomson describes the climactic moment as follows:
… From his void embrace,
(Mysterious heaven!) that moment, in a heap
Of pallid ashes fell the beauteous maid.
But who can paint the lover, as he stood,
Struck by severe amazement, hating life,
Speechless, and fix’d in all the death of woe!
So, faint resemblance, on the marbletomb,
The well-dissembl’d mourner stooping stands,
For ever silent, and for ever sad.
The pastoral scene with Palemon and Lavinia in the second picture must be read as a counterpoint to this. In English art, rural life, and also the poverty of the rural population, had for some time been elevated to a pictorial theme. Pastoral scenes with shepherdesses and peasant women were generally popular, especially the encounter of Palemon with the beautiful Lavinia which often served as a model for arts and crafts such as porcelain painting, furniture manufacture and textile designs.
Lavinia, although of noble birth, has chosen to live simply and work in the fields. Palemon, the wealthy landowner of the corn field, becomes aware of the beautiful young woman who gracefully gathers ears of corn and he is immediately taken with her charms and eventually proposes to her. Palemon, is dressed in so-called Van Dyck costume with slashed sleeves, lace collar and cuffs and feather barrette. To ennoble and historicize her literary characters, Kauffmann uses this cavalier fashion, reminiscent of the ‘Golden Age’ of King Charles I and his famous court painter.
Describing the first meeting of the couple, Thomson writes:
… To walk, when poor Lavinia drew his eye;
Unconscious of her power, and turning quick
With unaffected blushes from his gaze.
He saw her charming, but he saw not half
The charms her downcast modesty conceal’d.
That very moment love and chaste desire
Sprung in his bosom, to himself unknown.
The encounter between the simple harvester and the rich landowner is reminiscent of traditional fairy tales and contains the hopeful message that the barriers between rich and poor can be overcome. Many English artists besides Angelika Kauffmann, including William Hamilton, Richard Westall, Thomas Stothard and George Cruikshank were attracted to the depiction of this emotional story with its happy ending.
Angelika Kauffmann had a preference for coupled pictures in an oval or circular format. Here she conceives a pair of paintings that explain and complement each other and belong together both thematically and compositionally. Palemon and Lavinia, as an example of a happy loving couple, are juxtaposed with the tragic loving couple Celadon and Amelia. While in the first couple the tender beginning of a love in the making is depicted, the fate of the tragic couple reminds us of how suddenly and unexpectedly such a love can come to an end—thoughts of vanitas are suggested here.
At the same time, both scenes represent two of the four seasons. The lightning struck Amelia with Celadon stands for summer, the harvesting Lavinia with Palemon for autumn. It is obvious that two different ‘Modi’ of painting between major and minor are addressed here, which had already been established in the 17th century with Nicolas Poussin, following musical theory: Palemon and Lavinia represent the mode of the arcadian, Celadon and Amelia the mode of the horrifyingly sublime. The two oval copper paintings were long considered lost. Only recently did they reappear from a private Kenyan collection. Since The Hon. Robert Morgan-Grenville acquired these paintings, presumably at the beginning of the 20th century, they have been passed down within the family without interruption.
There is much to suggest that the engraver and publisher Charles Taylor was the original patron. He was always on the lookout for saleable merchandise to offer in his print shop at 8, Dyers Buildings, Holborn. Paintings by Kauffmann in combination with the accompanying reproductive prints were highly commercial at that time. In addition, Taylor was apparently planning a cabinet of pictures on great poets, as his newspaper advertisement suggests: ‘Taylor Cabinet of Genius…With the Stories at large. Price Half a Guinea’. His first proofs after Kauffmann’s paintings bear the date 1781, the finished plates the date 27 June 1782 (British Museum, 1871,0812.5656 and 1873,0809.322; figs. 1-2). The date of both paintings is therefore before or at the latest at the beginning of 1781 and thus at the height of Kauffmann’s creative period in London.