The Labours of the Months: May

The Labours of the Months: May, about 1580, oil on canvas, 13.6 x 10.6 cm, National Gallery, London

Pink, small, and punctual, / Aromatic, low, / Covert in April, / Candid in May,     /     Dear to the moss, / Known by the knoll, / Next to the robin / In every human soul.     /     Bold little beauty, / Bedecked with thee, / Nature forswears / Antiquity. Writes Emily Dickinson, but for The Labours of the Months: May small painting in the National Gallery in London, the feeling is different.

Starting the 1st of January 2021 and for every month so far, I “travel” to the National Gallery in London and present one, out of twelve, small picture, “painted on canvas and then… glued to a wooden panel. It is possible that (these twelve pictures) were made to decorate the recessed panels of a pair of doors. The paintings seem to have been planned in pairs with the figures facing each other and are currently displayed in two frames in groups of six. They show the ‘labours of the months’ – the rural activities that take place each month throughout the year.” This set of painted Doors combine simplicity in execution and extravagance in visual effect! The paintings, very small in size, about 13.6 x 10.6 cm, were achieved in vivid, bright, luxurious colours, like “ultramarine blue for the sky, strong vermilion and red lake for the clothing, with rich greens and yellows in the landscape. The restricted and repeated use of colour gives the group of little pictures a charming, decorative simplicity. All but one of the scenes show a man working outdoors on what appears to be the estate of a large villa, seen in several of the paintings, at the foot of the distant blue mountains.”

The Labours of the Months: May (detail), about 1580, oil on canvas, 13.6 x 10.6 cm, National Gallery, London

The panel that represents the month of May, according to the National Gallery experts, “is the most puzzling picture of the series.” Observing the picture’s composition the viewer will see a seated young man, he seems alert and ready to stand up, holding “two rods, with one crossing the other at the top.” He is simply dressed, barefoot but wearing a broad-rimed straw hat, looking, as if he is expecting a nod, coming from someone straight in front of him, to continue the task he is planning to finish. “ It looks as though (the young man) might be making a supporting frame for vegetables or fruit,” the experts suggest, as there seems to be “a tradition in Italy for one of the spring months to be represented by a youth holding crossed branches, often in bud…” ttps://

Whatever our Venetian young man is about to do… Whether or not this is the correct attribution… Enjoy an unpretentious Renaissance painting and Best Wishes for the Month of May!!!

For a PowerPoint on The Labours of the Months: May at the National Gallery in London, please… Check HERE!

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