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THE ARTISTIC ANATOMY OF TREES
THEIR STRUCTURE & TREATMENT IN PAINTING
By REX VICAT COLE
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
THE PAINTING OF TREES ILLUSTRATED BY A CHRONOLOGICAL SERIES OF PICTURES, WITH SOME DESCRIPTIVE NOTES
Théodore Rousseau was able, in the painting of a single tree, to impress us with the greatness of nature—with her very soul, if one may use the expression. In looking at his tree we are not disturbed by wondering whether it is an Oak or an Ash or botanically correct. We are content to look at it and come away, feeling that we have seen something grand and without a wish to analyse it. Sometimes out of doors we may see a tree which will excite the same feeling; but genius is given to few, and any attempt to depict on canvas the feeling we experience, unless it is backed up by a knowledge of construction, results in flabbiness—as is too often seen in the imitators of Corot. We cannot see with other men's eyes, but we can study what they look for. By some our tree will be shown to us as a mere outline, but even that alone can express the severity or rhythm of its lines—lines that would give us pleasure in anything, but here give us the grace, dignity, or strength, as it may be, of the particular tree. Others will wish us to appreciate the tree as a bulk, and will accentuate its statuesque quality in which all details are submerged. Others, again, will find out wonderful shapes, and through them will appeal to our love of pattern, successfully as they extract its complete structure and intricacy of detail.
Constable painted his leaves with the real light of the sky upon them, and they had a rugged homeliness about them free from all convention.
Turner, with a larger view, and strengthened with his absolute knowledge of their construction, used trees at will, weaving magnificent compositions with them as in his "Cephalus and Procris" and "Near Blair Athol" of the Liber Studiorum (Plate II). He utilised them for every device at the command of art; in one place as bits of light or dark, in another as links between single forms; here as a piece of delicate leaf tracery like lace work seen against the sky, there as massed spaces of heavy foliage leading into the gloom. Sometimes his tree was a portrait, at others a specimen of the type—often a type evolved from many species—simply a tree—but nevertheless a possible tree. Whether it was the subtle undulations of the foliage or the severity of the lines of the trunks, he had a use for them. To him nothing came amiss; his sunlight shimmered on the leaves or poured through the in broad shafts of light; his branches stretched out from the trunk mixing in the blue of the sky: no detail was too trivial to make note of, not even the seams or the roughness of the bark or the single leaves and twigs that he drew so well.
From Titian and Patinier, the Fathers of landscape painting, to Cecil Lawson, we recall the names of those who have treated trees each in his own individual way. Titian, Giorgionc, Rubens, Claude, Rembrandt, Poussin, Salvator Rosa, Hobbema, Wilson, Gainsborough, Crome, Girtin, Turner, Constable, Cotman, Cox, Corot, Creswick, Diaz, Troyon, Müller, Rousseau, Daubigny, Monticelli, Cecil Lawson. To discuss adequately their points of view and their methods would require another book by another pen, but just to name them seems to brighten our minds and stir us to effort.
But our list should start with the Primitive Italians with their precise and delightful little trees painted in such an ingenuous way with an infinite loving care. Their desire for an art, as something separate and different from ordinary life, seems to have guided them in the selection of just those trees that would satisfy it completely. Their trees were not, as some suppose, thought out formally, but were truthful copies of such as we find in our own copses to-day in the young trees that have been spared after the cropping of the underwood.
Here are three of them sketched the other day—just such as might have been taken as models in the fifteenth century, when they would have been beautifully painted; leaf after leaf standing out dark against a sweet clear sky. Their appreciation of delicacy, and the nice disposition of the little blocks of foliage up the stem might well be followed, instead of the formality in untruthful ugliness that is conjured up by some of our illustrators to-day. Another form is a compact and dense little tree covered with separate leaves as in the background of "The Virgin adoring the Infant Christ" by Lorenzo di Credi (Illus. 3). They are delightful, though in truth they resemble shrubs. These are the chief forms of trees that are associated with the paintings of that period, but that other aspects were also used then is evident from Giovanni Bellini's painting of a wood in the picture, "The Death of St. Peter, Martyr." The same exactness in copying the leaves is there, but the wood has depth, and the trunks give out branches on all sides, some towards us, others receding into the wood. The same veneration of nature even in her details is shown in the realistic painting of a lemon tree in the picture, "The Madonna, Infant Christ, and St. Anne," by Girolamo dai Libri, in the National Gallery.
The work of some painters becomes more interesting if we remember when it was that they lived. Here is a list of those we mention:
With Titian and Giorgione (1477) (Plate III), began the modern view of landscape—massed trees rounded and lit by the sky, the formation of land shown by shadows, sprays, and trunks introduced into the foreground, and detail lost and found, just as we think of it now.
Was not Rubens (a hundred years later) one of the first of the figure painters to paint pure landscape (Plate IV) as well as to use it as a background? His study of the "Boar Hunt" in the British Museum is marvellously expressive; it should be noticed how he uses the fulness of the contours on the fallen trunk to explain its foreshortening; how dexterous is his use of shadows on the upright stem, and how extreme his accuracy in the branch formations, and in the emphasis and loss of line on the stem. The drawing is full of facts and is minutely copied, yet it expresses the greatest energy and life.
Twenty years later Nicolas Poussin, the great Frenchman, was painting his romantic scenes. We must take his trees as belonging to his subject if we are to enjoy them; they do not bear peering into as literal statements; nor can I think that his selection of the smaller forms shows the judgment and instinct for the beautiful displayed by Claude a few years later (Illus. 4).
There is no need to look for something to displease one (how Ruskin hurts us at times by doing so), and there is nothing to criticise in Claude and but little in Poussin, but everything to admire, if we enter into the bigness of the view as they did and as they intended us to do.
Claude was the first painter to show the grandeur of trees; in his pictures, by their height and dignity, they commanded the landscape; by their fulness and exquisite design, they created a setting of richness and romance that not even the artificiality of his ruins and palaces could destroy (Plate VI, Illus. 4, 5). Claude and Turner are set apart from all other landscape painters by their genius endowing them with an understanding of nature in her deepest and most varied moods. Claude, in his pictures such as "The Flight into Egypt," "Egeria and her Nymphs," and "Landscape with Figures" (Illus. 5) (Dresden Gallery), has designed trees of simple and noble proportions that essentially belong to the tranquility of the scenes. In the "Village Dance" (Louvre) he makes use of another type full of busy forms that would be disquieting were it not for the dancers underneath them, while in his etching, "Dance under the Trees," there is a lightness and movement in the stems and foliage that we are unaccustomed to in his paintings His drawings (in the British Museum) reveal his great and varied sense of composition and an intense love of nature; they and his pictures record his mastery in drawing trees.
How grandly—but with what an individual view—landscape was treated at this same time, by the Frenchman Nicholas Poussin and "Le Guaspre" (Plate VII), by Bourdon, and Claude (1600-1682); by the Italians Salvator Rosa (Plate IX) and Guercino (Plate V); by the Dutch Van der Neer, Rembrandt, and Jan Both; and a few years later by Wynants, Pynacker, and Hobbema (1638-1709). We place their names together as an aid in remembering when they lived, the giants to whom we pay homage-Claude, the Poussins, Rembrandt, and Hobbema, with the lesser men whom we should nevertheless study and respect.
Gaspard Poussin shares with his brother-in-law and master Nicholas that great view of nature that sees romance and not merely botanical facts in trees.
Rembrandt's trees are chiefly known in England by his grand etchings in the British Museum. The picture "Tobit and the Angel" (Plate VIII) was, I think, formerly attributed to him, though now catalogued under "school of Rembrandt." It is instructive to compare it side by side with Salvator's version of the same subject. In the former there is an unaffected simplicity and peace secured by the quiet massive shapes of the trees, the ground, and the pose of the guiding angel. Salvator's picture is the very essence of hustle caused by the tortuous shapes of trees, sky, and rocks. Each line conveys the greatest sense of energy and disturbance, and all add in the making of a fantasy as far remote from quiet everyday scenes as the other picture is in complete agreement with them.
Bourdon's imaginative picture, "The Return of the Ark" (Plate X), is composed of as many upright and level lines as Salvator's picture has twisted ones; the vertical tree trunks contribute largely to the austere effect. Sir Joshua, in his lectures, cited this picture as an example of poetry in landscape.
Van der Neer studied his trees with discerning observation and sympathy. In his poetic river scene (Plate XII) (No. 152, National Gallery) the trees are conspicuous for the varied treatment of their outlines and definition; the boughs are full of incidence. Compared with his trees those of Jan Wynants seem lifeless and somewhat mechanical, though not tainted with the excessively laboured detail shown by Ruisdael. Jan Both (Plate XI) made his trees elegant, and they belong to a pleasing Arcadia quite his own. If their foliage is somewhat flimsy from a want of construction, they are always free from being matter-of-fact. In Both's etchings his fancy seems to tell with greater force, and his tree tops are less given to straying.
Poussin, Claude, and Rembrandt took a large view of trees; Hobbema saw them in detail, but his elaboration was subservient to the motif and quaintness of the scene, and was uplifted from mechanical device by his fidelity and veneration (Plate XIII).
Ruisdael—judging from the number of examples in the National Gallery—is considered also great, but to me his elaboration is unredeemed by the genius of Hobbema : however, I am not a connoisseur.
The picture by Adam Pynacker, of which we give an illustration (Plate XIV), is in the Wallace Collection. It is interesting for his close view of the trunks and for the strong effect of sunlight that was characteristic of his work. There is another example in the same collection, but he is not represented in the National Gallery.
Figure students would be well advised to study the relation trees bear as backgrounds to figures; and such a study might begin with Watteau and his pupil and imitator, Jean Baptiste Pater. The examples of their work reproduced here side by side show clearly how the elegance of the figures is echoed in the trees, and the important part the latter play in the distribution of the light and shade. You will notice that the dark and light groups of figures are repeated by the corresponding darks of the trees and light patches of the sky. By this arrangement the principal figures, though they occupy only one-third of the height of the canvas, are not dwarfed by the foliage above them. Fragonard, in "The Swing," allots less than half the height of the canvas to the figures of the swinging girl and the man at her feet. He gives to the bough above them the suggestion of movement. Watteau invariably made his trees as dainty as his figures, and there was no break in the continuity of the scheme (Plate XV). We see a corresponding relationship between figures and their surroundings in the decorations by Boucher. Millais made a similar use of the severe lines of the Lombardy Poplars in his "Vale of Rest."
In 1714 was born Richard Wilson, a "chiel amang chiels," and the first of the great English landscape painters—well worthy to take his place after Claude, with the same large view of nature and a lovely quality of paint (Plate XVI).
A few years after his death came Gainsborough, in some of whose pictures the fronded trees seem as a new creation—not literal enough to be labelled, yet compelling us to feel and enter into the homely romance or solemnity of his scene. But not always so, for his oaks in the "Village of Cornard" (Plate XVII), painted when he was but twenty-six years old, are as literally accurate as his later trees were romantic. I doubt if trees have ever been made more impressive than in his picture, "The Watering Place."
Crome, the founder of the Norwich School, was about twenty years old when Gainsborough died. He and Cotman often painted pictures for the sake of the trees alone, and their work is distinguished by a simplicity and a big decorative conception of nature; theirs was the decoration existing in nature generally, not the flat pattern of the modern decorator (Plate XIX).
Champions of landscape came in quick succession. From 1714 (Wilson) to 1792 we have Gainsborough, Crome, Girtin, Turner, Constable, Cotman, De Wint, Cox, Nasmyth, and Linnell. Among these we have spoken of Turner; Girtin, even with his few years of life, may almost be classed with him.
With Constable began the open-air pictures and the faithful study of nature by men who painted the things around them without affectation. He had no fear in presenting nature in her own colours; and his adoration of the homely English scenery is seen in everything he did. "I love every stile, and stump, and lane in the village; as long as I am able to hold a brush I shall never cease to paint them." His trees were not painted to convey an outside meaning, but because he loved each one of them. He had no use for a set type of tree; he wanted each one, from the humble Elder bush that holds a conspicuous place in his "Hay Wain," to the towering trees in the "Valley Farm" (Plate XXI). His was the inspiration that guided the judgment of the French Romanticists.
David Cox saw the freshness of the land and liked trees best when swaying to the wind; in depicting their movement he has never been surpassed. Nasmyth, the first of the Scotch landscapists, followed Hobbema in his love for detail. Linnell could choose a picture from the heart of the forest, and his oaks, felled trees, and woodmen make up a typical English wood and scene.
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