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Autumn: The Chestnut Gatherers

By Elizabeth Gracen:

Autumn: The Chestnut Gatherers, 1894 Georges Lacombe, French, 1868-1916, Oil on canvas, 60-1/8 x 93-1/8 in. (152.7 x 236.5 cm), Norton Simon Art Foundation

It comes around just when you can’t take the summer heat anymore, and it flies by all too soon, but when the autumnal equinox briefly brings the day and night to equal lengths and one senses a change in the wind, I’m a happy person. In recent polls, autumn sits atop the list of favorite seasons, well ahead of the others, so I know that I’m not alone in my fondness for the fall.

I also like a little intention-setting ritual here and there, especially during a season change—you can imagine what I come up with during celestial events like a solar eclipse, but that's a story for another time. This particular autumnal ritual that I’ve created for myself is far less complicated and just as rewarding.

I’ve been going to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena for over twenty years. Like most museums in the LA area, there is a free admission day—which is obviously the most crowded time to visit and not my favorite time to stroll the galleries—but it couldn’t be helped this year.

It’s my own little pilgrimage to stand in front of Autumn: The Chestnut Gatherers to contemplate the color, the pattern, and the peaceful, grounded feeling it gives me when I look at it.

The artist, Georges Lacombe, was a member of the French Les Nabis brotherhood of artists inspired by Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne in the late 1800s. These Synthetist painters, or post-Impressionists (along with Paul Sérusier, Édouard Vuillard, Émile Bernard, Louis Anquetin, and others), experimented with the use of color and emphasized two-dimensional flat patterns inspired by Japanese art, intentionally breaking away from Impressionism and paving the way toward what would eventually become Modernism.

Autumn: The Chestnut Gathers was painted by Lacombe for his mother-in-law in 1894, intended to be one of four friezes depicting all the seasons, but the suite of paintings was never completed.

The painting is not meant to be realistic. Its decorative pull to the pattern is more symbolic in feeling, the carpet of deep red and ochre leaves spiked with yellow. It is a romantic, visceral depiction of the season, making it easy to conjure the emotional memory of what an autumn wind can do as you kick through the fallen leaves. The actual gatherers, with their tranquil expressions and dance-like poses, provide a peaceful assurance that the harvest will be gathered, that all will be put in its place.

I usually leave the painting and make my way round to some of my favorites—the Picassos, Sam Francis, Modigliani, and Rembrandt. If I have time, I’ll venture further into the museum's collection and maybe even stroll the sculpture garden, but I'll always swing round once more to bid adieu to the ladies as they continue to gather their chestnuts, and I'll try to hold onto the warm feeling it gives me for the ride home.

As I strive to stay hopeful in an increasingly chaotic world, I search for the little things to keep me grounded. Art is always my go-to. It never fails me. I feel lucky that I have access to its beauty. It is as reliable as the seasons turning round yet again.


Elizabeth Gracen is the owner of Flapper Press & Flapper Films.

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