One of my most favorite quotes was made by Jean-Francois Millet. He said, ‘If you could see how beautiful the forest is! I sometimes slip away there at day’s end….I don’t know what the trees say amongst themselves, but they say something.’ It seems he wasn’t the only artist to think so. Painters, illustrators, and printmakers have all been drawn to the austerity and elegance of these natural skyscrapers. Plum Tree (17th Century) by Kanō Sanraku (Ink painting) [image source: upload.wikimedia.org]
The Three Trees (1643) by Rembrandt Van Rijn (etching, drypoint and engraving, ink on paper) [image source: metmuseum.org]
Van Rijn and Sanraku lived and practiced during the same century, but in very different worlds. In spite of all this, both artists were drawn the same subject matter. What is similar about these two works is the atmospheric presence of the trees. Rembrandt’s etching is a textured scene of varying contrast, leaving a halo of light around the three trees on a hill. They stand in unity; a strong statement in the open landscape. Sanraku’s trees, however, are the landscape. Stretched across four separate panels, the leaning timbers look as if they are willing themselves up and away from the ground, straining at the roots. I would have never known that the subject was a plum tree, if not for the title.
Lake with Dead Trees (Catskill) (1825) by Thomas Cole (oil on canvas) [image source: hamiltonauctiongalleries.com]
Samuel Palmer and Thomas Cole both created these works the very same year, 1825. While Cole’s painting style is reminiscent of that of his fellow artists in France; each artist’s approach to the subject is somewhat unique. Cole, well known for his lush, breathtaking paintings of the American wild, chose to depict a less beautiful, somewhat awkward phenomena he encountered in his travels. Dead trees desecrate the beauty of a lake, making it a cemetery. The picture is eerie and perhaps a little symbolic. Palmer’s scene is picturesque in nature, leading the viewer on a pathway bordered by thin, young saplings. A massive tree of age and stature stands far off in the valley. However, looking at the picture above, it may not look as delightful as I described. This is Palmer’s style shining through. He takes a traditional scene and transforms is with bold lines and dark shadows. In a way, he was the Tim Burton of his time. He makes you look at a familiar subject with less surety.
The Forest in Winter at Sunset (ca 1846-67) by Theodore Rousseau (oil on canvas, 64 X 102 3/8 in) [image source: metmuseum.org]
Apple Tree (Apfelbaum) (1912) by Gustav Klimt [image source: wikimedia.org]
Rousseau and Klimt, both from different time periods and countries, transform the body of a tree into dynamic and abstracted beings. They are no longer in nature. Rather they are narrating emotions and ideas in the mind. Rousseau’s ‘Forest’ is like a scene out of Hansel and Gretel. Darkness approaches, and the once familiar forest becomes threatening. The cavern of trees looks foreboding, as if the viewer is lost among them. Klimt’s apple tree has broken out of the constraints of limbs, trunk, leaves, and flowers. It has become part of the sky, the grass, and the air around it. If it were music, it would be hitting a crescendo.
If art is about capturing the what’s important, then tree’s are incredibly vital to the life of an artist.