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DRAWING & PAINTING TREES
By Adrian Hill
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2008 Dover Publications, Inc
All rights reserved.
IT is impossible to assign any date to the introduction of tree forms in the pictorial records of the ancients. The inquiry may be delegated to the archaeologist and the antiquarian. We know that the primitive artists were primarily concerned with making representations of human beings and animals; that houses, temples, and the work of man's hands had prior claims to the beauties of Nature; that the Greeks were absorbed in the reproduction of gods, warriors, and hunters; and that, in a later age, the advent of Christianity caused the activities of all professional painters to be mobilized for the service of the Church.
The earliest examples of the Italian school of painting show it to have been a nursery of religious art, its output consisting mainly of pictures of Christ, of the Holy Family, the Virgin, and the Saints. The compositions were commissioned or acquired by the Church. The work of the artist was restricted to altar-pieces, panels, and Church decorations, and was dictated as to subject and treatment by his only patron.
But, although the conditions under which the pictures were produced were so rigid as to preclude practically all initiative or innovation on the part of the craftsman, it is evident in the earliest examples of the Florentine, the Sienese, and the Umbrian Schools from the National Gallery that the painters realized the value of landscape as backgrounds for their compositions and delighted in introducing a touch of Nature to give variety to their designs.
The first experiments were tentative, but the forms borrowed from Nature gained steadily in decorative significance, and the modest saplings and formalized shrubs to be seen in the paintings of the fourteenth century developed in the course of the following two centuries into beautiful, realistically painted, fully-grown trees.
Ruskin must be regarded as a little hypercritical in his comments upon the efforts of the early Italians in the realm of landscape. He admits the care with which they laboured to portray the simple aspects of Nature, but he describes them as painters of tree-portraits rather than landscape painters. He insists upon one very important principle that Nature observes in her foliage—"She always secures an exceeding harmony and repose"—but, instead of commending the ancients for the fidelity with which they copied Nature in this respect, he complains that they content themselves in their religious pictures with impressing on the landscape "perfect symmetry and order such as may seem consistent with, or induced by, the spiritual nature they would represent."
It is true, as Ruskin observes, that in their representations of tree forms they excluded all signs of decay, disturbance, and imperfections, and that in so doing they conveyed an impression of "unnaturalness and singularity," but their purpose was to invest all their accessories, including Nature, with something of the spiritual exaltation they were striving to express. The trees, in many instances, are strictly upright and equally branched on each side, and their slight and feathery frames frequently suggest that they have never encountered blight or frost or tempest; and when roses and pomegranates appear in their pictures the leaves "which twine themselves in fair and perfect order about delicate trellises" are "drawn to the last rib and vein." But may it not be argued that these peculiarities only prove that the ancients were appreciative of Nature's success in achieving "harmony and repose"?
The following very brief survey of the progress of landscape painting through the ages is compiled from the examples exhibited in the National Gallery and, to a lesser extent, the Tate and the Victoria and Albert Galleries and the British Museum in London. I have deliberately confined myself to these sources as being readily accessible to English students, and as offering a really splendid collection of pictures which are entirely adequate for the purpose. (Unless otherwise stated, the numbers given apply to the National Gallery.)
A very interesting example of early tree forms among the pictures of the Florentine School in the National Gallery is No. 2508, in which five different trees are placed by the unknown artist behind the figures of the Virgin and Child and Angels. Each tree has a characteristic silhouette and a distinguishing leaf formation. The artist was clearly concerned to obtain variety of form. The cypresses and palms are painted with great confidence, and the intense care by which the result is obtained is to be noticed.
In "Noli me Tangere" (No. 3894), Jacopo di Cione (1308—1394.) has with partial success filled in his background with three little trees, outlined against the sky and densely covered with leaves, painted in detail and to a well-defined pattern. It is interesting to observe that the same type of tree is used in the middle distance and the foreground, and that, by some whim of inverted perspective, the tree nearest to the spectator is the smallest of the five.
Orcagna (1308—1368) has made use of trees in five of the six parts of his altarpiece (Nos. 573—578). Tight in their leaf formation, decoratively rounded in outline, destitute of branches and relying on the main stem to support the mop-like head of foliage, these grim and effective symbols are placed with an eye to the design and are painted with primitive conviction.
Pisano (1399—1455), in his "Saints Anthony and George" (No. 776) has placed a pine wood in the background, strongly silhouetted against a light sky. Piero Della Francesca (1416—1492) displays an intimate knowledge of tree form and construction. In his beautiful composition "Baptism of Christ" (No. 665), two handsome trees, which are plainly identifiable as pomegranates, occupy a prominent position in the picture. The colour of the bark, the grouping of the foliage which forms a floral canopy over the figure of Christ, and the outspreading upper branches of the companion tree are faithfully observed and lovingly notated (see page 5).
In the same artist's "The Nativity" (No. 908), our vision is directed to the miniature landscape behind the sunlit cattle-shed, and we are puzzled by the unique tree-forms which are dotted over the distant hills. It would be difficult to label them. Curious in their cultivated form and ornamental patterns, they would appear to be incorporated with an idea of presenting growths which were typical of the painter's locality.
It would prove too long a task to follow in chronological detail the evolution of tree painting in these works of the early Italian painters, but it is hoped that these brief references to some of the more striking examples will stimulate the student to follow up the line of investigation for himself.
While evidence is not lacking of a desire to introduce variety of tree forms into some of these early paintings, the artists were usually content to repeat the accepted symbols, and the same formula for tree decoration is employed in many works. A popular device is the representation of a slim sapling, resembling a young ash, which figures in "A Young Man" (No. 1035), by Franciabigio, in "Bartolommeo Bianchini" (No. 2487), by Francia, and again in his picture "Pieta" (No. 2671). This tree appears again in Fiorenzo di Lorenzo's "Virgin and Child" (No. 2483), and in Costa's "Virgin and Child with Saints" (No. 629). "The Virgin and Child" (No. 2906)—School of Botticelli—presents a somewhat more substantial growth. This is also introduced on the right of the picture of "Virgin and Child with St. John" (No. 1412), and use is here made of the dense silhouette of dark green, larch-like trees such as are seen in Pisano's paintings.
Bertucci is satisfied with the symbol of a tender sapling in his "Incredulity of St. Thomas" (No. 1051). An even slighter specimen is employed by Beccafumi, and little difference can be noted between this tree and those which decorate the pictures of Fra Bartolomi, Mainardi, and Moretto. The last, however, paints the tree with more assurance and brings it nearer to the spectator. The same conventional method of dealing with trees is repeated in the religious compositions of Perugino and Pintoricchio, although a cypress is sometimes introduced into the latter's work.
Pontormo handles trees rather less conventionally in "Joseph in Egypt" (No. 1131), and Previtali senses the importance of bending and twisting the main stems. Raphael, however, remains faithful to the erect sapling, but Andrea da Solario in his portrait of Giovanni Christoforo Longono (No. 734) seizes the opportunity to include an ancient, stricken trunk among the more usual immature tree forms.
Lo Spagna, in his "Agony in the Garden" (No. 1032), uses the fern-like construction, stark, rootless, and curiously inadequate to the rest of the composition, which is over-heavy by contrast.
At a later date a departure was made by the introduction of more substantial and matured trees, of classifiable varieties. This is first met with in the semi-landscape canvas of "The Death of S. Peter Martyr" (No. 812), by the great Giovanni Bellini (see page 6). The rendering of the wood of pomegranates in this picture is masterly in conception and execution. Considering the area of canvas occupied by these trees, the extraordinary fidelity to individual leaf formation, and the realism in presentation, it is astonishing that the background should be made to maintain its subordinate position as a decorative setting for the tragedy which forms the subject of the picture. In spite of the care that has been expended in the painting of every leaf and twig, the sense of mass formation of the foliage has not been sacrificed; the density of growth and the recession of the planes are perfect in arrangement and in balance. Highly stylized as are these trees, they mark an almost revolutionary advance in the manifestation of the search after truth in depicting Nature and the loving skill with which the painter has employed his knowledge.
Bellini has introduced leafless trees in his "Madonna of the Meadow" (No. 599); and again in his "The Virgin and Child" (No. 3078) the use of the bare outline of the trees in the middle distance is an unusual innovation.
A striking formula for the effective use of floral decoration as a background for figure subjects is seen in three pictures painted between the years 1450 and 1550. In "Apollo and Daphne" (No. 928) (see page 7) Antonio Pollaiuolo has filled the upper part of his canvas with two exquisite laurel bushes, attached to the central figure of Daphne in the form of uplifted arms and silhouetted against the glow of the setting sun. Bonifazio, in his "Virgin and Child" (No. 2495), has set a laurel bush as a frame to the head of the Madonna, and the infant is placed in a cluster of beautifully painted roses. The group of "The Virgin, Child and St. Anne" (No. 748) in Girolamo dai Libris' picture is surmounted by a reredos in the form of a lemon tree in full fruit. In each of these works the foliage is painted with realistic integrity and complete knowledge, and the designs are strikingly effective.
Domenichino (1581—1641), in his treescape "St. George and the Dragon" (No. 75), exhibits rare dignity in tree painting (see page 8). His trunks are well-rounded, and, while classic in design, are rich in detailed construction and serve to heighten the poignancy of the drama which is enacted beneath their shade.
Filippino (1457—1504), the son of Filippo Lippi, breaks new ground in his magnificent picture of "The Virgin and Child with Saints Jerome and Dominic" (No. 293). The principal tree, which closely resembles a holly, is restricted in dimensions to the exigency of his design, and, although idealized, is particularly well constructed. Both in this tree and in those seen in the background, the artist employs such variety in branch and leaf formation as to support the assumption that they were painted from preliminary separate studies (see page 9).
In "Mercury and the Woodman" (No. 84) Salvator Rosa, who settled in Rome in 1638, has left us an almost pure treescape. The shattered trunks in the foreground on the right of the picture are admirably observed; and although in the background trees the greens are heavy, the swelling movement of the foliage is rendered with singular understanding.
Rosselli, who was obviously influenced by Bennozzo Gozzoli in his treatment of Nature, has a work ascribed to him with the title "Amor et Castitas" (No. 1196), in which the trees and grass are bathed in a golden tone which is as brilliant as it is rare (see page 10). Although formalized in silhouette, the distant clumps of trees appear to be modern in the realism with which they are portrayed, and the nearer tree has both depth and solidity.
Although none of the works of Titian—one of the acknowledged fathers of landscape painting—in the National Gallery can be described as a treescape, there is evidence in his "Noli me Tangere" (No. 270) of his supreme knowledge of tree forms (see page 11). The single tree, placed behind the figures of Christ and the Magdalene, is used to splendid effect. Titian's knowledge and assurance can be admired in his pure landscape drawings, in which the lithe stems of his elegant trees soar upwards, strong and supple; in these also he employs his masterly device of reducing multiple leaf formation to a single expressive mass. Unfortunately the bulk of Titian's drawings are abroad or in private collections, but we may be thankful for the fact that his impeccable tree studies can be seen at the British Museum.
The trees in Palma Vecchio's "St. George and the Princess" (No. 3079) should be noted; for although they are seen only in a dark background, they mark a confident approach to green, as contrasted with the contemporary custom of regarding brown as the prevailing colour in Nature.CHAPTER 2
This review of the progress and development of tree painting by the masters of the Italian School has necessarily been of the briefest, as must be my consideration of some of the most notable examples of other European painters in the years that synchronized with and followed them. To attempt more than a passing glance would demand a book in itself. In this further survey, which is intended as no more than an invitation to the student to pursue this fascinating study for his own personal education and delight, I have been satisfied to proceed according to the plan of confining my observations to some of the best known of the works in our national collections. The only reason for starting the next stage in our progress in a new chapter is that we are now passing into the realm of landscape proper.
We have seen in the previous chapter how the first tentative introduction of trees in pictures was gradually developed from the experimental single tree, isolated and shy, to the importance of tree compositions. This advance was due to the desire of the Italian painters to exploit the decorative possibilities of Nature in their religious compositions, an ambition which later led them to the presentation of groups of trees completely realized and as fastidiously fashioned as were the sacred personages to whom they lent a pictorial support.
Although we may have to guess at the identity of many of the trees portrayed in the Italian pictures, and in spite of the fact that, once a particular tree formula had been accepted as satisfactory, it was adopted and faithfully repeated by contemporary and succeeding painters, there is evidence of a resolve to translate, as far as their knowledge allowed, the shape and size and foliage of trees, and a craftsmanlike urge to explore their pictorial possibilities.
The attempt to depict the colour, growth, and behaviour of trees under climatic conditions is not, however, manifest in their work, and they continued for a while to render them as rigidly formal as pieces of stage properties; they seem to us to-day as unemotional and remote as the period in which they were created.
But the approach to a closer resemblance to Nature grows more obvious in the later work of the early painters; and the advent of the secular subject, which gradually superseded the sacred theme, offered the artist his first real chance of developing the trees of his former backgrounds into prominent features in his compositions, and of retiring the figures into a secondary place. Such figures, which up till then had dominated the design, became more subservient, until they seemed frequently to be introduced for no other purpose than to supply a title for the picture. It is well to remember that landscape at that time was merely used as a setting for the classical or poetical incident that the painter was depicting.
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