This painting forms part of a series made up of several canvases, which entered the Borghese Collection at an unknown date. It is mentioned for the first time in 1650 as a work by Francesco Bassano. Yet not all critics concur with the attribution of this work and that of the other Seasons to only Francesco or to his father Jacopo, head of the well-known family of painters, even though the paintings certainly belong to that group of Biblical-pastoral scenes that were executed within their prolific workshop.
The canvas represents Winter, which like the other Seasons presents a series of figures and animals in connection with typical farming chores of that season, such as gathering wood and butchering pigs. In addition to the landscape completely covered in snow, the frigid, wintry atmosphere is emphasised by a man wearing a heavy mantle and some peasants huddled around a fire to protect themselves from the severe cold.
As in the version held in Vienna, executed by Francesco Bassano in 1577, we find here the representation of an isolated Biblical scene in the background, in this case Christ Carrying the Cross; exactly the same image appears in a second version of Winter in the Borghese Collection (inv. no. 29), which was mistakenly described as a ‘rustic vista’ in the 1790 inventory and the 1833 Inventario Fidecommissario.
Salvator Rosa (155 x 208 x 8 cm)
Rome, Borghese Collection, 1650 (Manilli 1650); Rome, Borghese Collection, 1790 (Inv. 1790, room III, nos 10, 11, 36, 37); Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, pp. 19-20, 33, 40; purchased by Italian state, 1902.
Together with the two versions of Autumn (inv. nos 5, 11) and Spring (inv. no. 3), this work is documented as forming part of the Borghese Collection from 1650, the year in which Iacomo Manilli wrote of a painting by the ‘young Bassano’, alias Francesco Dal Ponte, at the Casino di Porta Pinciana. This attribution was rejected by Adolfo Venturi (1893), who rather deemed it a work by Francesco’s son Jacopo Bassano. Roberto Longhi (1928), however, took up Manilli’s proposal, suggesting that the entire cycle present in the Borghese Collection derived from a similar one executed in Francesco’s style. Venturi probably found support for his opinion in the words of Carlo Ridolfi (1648), who in his biographical sketch of Jacopo Bassano cited works belonging to The Four Seasons cycle which were executed for the Venetian Nicolò Renieri: ‘many of which [...] were painted by [Jacopo] Bassano, who sent them to Venice to be sold; for quite a long time they were on display at the church of San Moisè’.
In 1931 Edoardo Arslan partially revived Venturi’s hypothesis, attributing Spring, Autumn (inv. no. 5) and Winter to Jacopo’s workshop, while ascribing the second version of Autumn (inv. no. 11) – which had been mistakenly believed to be Summer – to a follower of Francesco. Three decades later, though, Arslan amended his original idea, crediting the entire series to Jacopo’s atelier (Arslan 1960). Presumably it was Paola della Pergola (1955) who caused him to change his mind: this scholar in fact criticised Arslan’s original proposal, maintaining that it was difficult to distinguish the different hands involved in projects executed by a workshop. At the same time, she believed that the cycle was the work of the same painter, opting for an attribution to a follower of Jacopo.
Following his study of Spring, Autumn (inv. 11) and Winter, in 1988 Alessandro Ballarin proposed that the entire series in the Borghese Collection was for the most part of work of Jacopo, a hypothesis which received the support of Livia Alberton Vinco da Sesso (1988). In making this assessment, Ballarin noted similarities with the illustrated plates (162-165) of the Theatrum Pictorium. In this critic’s view, Jacopo painted the cycle in 1576-77, the period which saw the culmination of stylistic experimentation begun in 1573 with the Journey of Tobias (Dresden, Gemäldegalerie) and which continued over the next few years with the Seasons (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum) and The Sacrifice of Noah (Potsdam). As the critic noted, the Borghese cycle seems to be permeated by a new conception of space in which ‘[...] the figures are immersed in the landscape by exclusively pictorial means, without the artifice of perspective or changes in scale, while the spatial depth is suggested by the density of tone’ (Ballarin 1992, p. CXCV). This approach in fact differs from that employed in his previous works, in which the figures are arranged in the foreground, while compositional depth is achieved through plays of diagonals and proportions. This phase of Jacopo’s career from the mid-1570s is characterised by genre scenes that indicate a renewed way of observing landscapes, executed in a style that reflects acquaintance with the modes and traditions of Venetian painting.
Francesco Bassano painted a variation of the Borghese cycle around 1577, which some critics consider the original series (see Rearick 1992; for the ‘hierarchy’ of the different versions, see Irina Smirnova 1971). This cycle is held today at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (Summer, inv. no. 4289; Autumn, inv. no. 4287; fragment of Winter, inv. no. 4288).